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Opinion

Idiocy of new visa arrangements

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by Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is very sound advice to be followed at this time of distress in Sri Lanka, as there are many things that are broken and need fixing urgently. Some may say our ruling politicians are not smart enough to grasp the validity of such truths but delving into the chaos created by the new visa arrangements, one is left with the inevitable conclusion that the truth is just the opposite. Our politicians are far from being daft, rather arrogant enough to fix things that are not broken as long as there is something in it for them! In spite of all the problems facing Sri Lanka, international travel organisations have been very supportive and Sri Lanka has recently been designated as the best country for single female travellers. It looks as if the resultant accelerating tourism, which may help us to solve our foreign exchange problems, has incentivised politicians to make a killing. They seem to be interested in “making hay while the sun shines” even if it means “killing the goose that lays golden eggs”!

The excellent editorial “Chaos at BIA” (The Island, 4 May) states the problems in BIA very eloquently but there is another side to the story; perhaps, even more important. That is the further mess created with on-line visa applications. Up to mid-April both on-line visa applications as well as visa-on-arrival at BIA were ably handled by the Department of Immigration utilising a system set up by SLT-Mobitel. I have neither heard of anyone complaining nor seen any adverse correspondence in any newspapers. Having travelled very widely, I can vouch for the fact that Sri Lanka Immigration services is among the best, without a shade of doubt. One of the worst is in the US, where I missed a couple of flights due to totally unacceptable queues in US airports. Perhaps, the US based company now handling visas in BIA did not consider the long queues anything unusual!

When the government announced a new visa system everyone expected an improvement although improvements were hardly necessary as the system was functioning very well. On the few occasions I helped others to get a visa-on-arrival, it was done within minutes, with no fuss. On-line visas were applied through the platform run by the Immigration Department “eta.gov.lk”, with no need for uploading any documents, and applications were processed within 24 hours. A 30-day visa, which allowed two entries, cost $50 and there were no additional fees. It was very simple. With the new system, there is no 30-day visa but there is a 60-day visa, which needs uploading of documents making it very cumbersome. Travel experts opine that most of this is unnecessary as all data can be obtained from the airline booking systems. It costs $75 and there is a processing fee of $18.50. This must be one of the highest processing fees for any service, anywhere in the world!

According to a front-page news item in The Sunday Island of 5th May, the new service provider “GBS Technology Services and IVS Global – FZCO and VFS VF Worldwide Holdings Ltd.” stands to gain $42.5 million within a 12-month period, in addition to another $17.25 million by way of “convenience fees” (charged for using credit cards), based on the government’s projection of 2.3 million foreign visitors entering the island this year! How wonderful! If there are no back-handers involved, wonder who the genius who devised this scheme to enrich a foreign firm!

The lame excuse given is that this company operates worldwide and thus will make travel to Sri Lanka more attractive. A cynic may say that it is only attractive to corrupt politicians’ pockets! In this age of Internet booking of everything, does it matter whether a company is global? What is wrong with local providers with excellent service? It has been reported that SLT-Mobitel requested a service charge of $1, to upgrade the platform which could have been done even without an increase of visa fees. Instead, Mahadenamuttas in our government has decided to hand over the entire operation to a foreign firm and allow valuable foreign exchange to be siphoned out!

The video that went viral, of a frustrated Sri Lankan condemning the inefficiency of the new system will not help our tourist industry. Worse still, is the financial impact of the new fees, a family of four from a Western country having to pay nearly $500 as visa fees, for a holiday. Some argue that as Western countries charge high visa fees, this is justifiable which is taking things out of context. Most Western countries do not depend on tourism whereas we are dependent. Further, we are in competition with other countries who vie for tourists. Therefore, if we are to use increasing tourism as a means to overcome our foreign exchange problems, we ought to make things simpler, not cumbersome as had been done with these idiotic changes.

The government has created yet another chaos by this hare-brained scheme and has appointed yet another committee to sort it out! When will they learn? Perhaps, never and they do not care as long as their pockets bulge. The two ministers involved are not renowned for their honesty and integrity. After all, President Ranil Wickremesinghe handed over Sri Lanka Cricket to the Minister of Tourism and since, all the exposes made by the Auditor General about malpractices seem to have been forgotten! The same minister had the audacity to say that Sri Lanka was a part of India and his excuse was that he was encouraging Indians to visit Sri Lanka. The Minister of Internal Security had the audacity to state that a tender process was not necessary as the company concerned was the only global visa provider! Why are services provided by local tech companies of no importance to him and his inability to grasp the concept of openness is bewildering!

We have had many scams including the bond-scam, which was done twice. Now comes this visa scam. In an era where scammers are constantly trying to dupe, the Sri Lanka government too has joined the lot. Our politicians are only interested in feathering their own nests and may I repeat that they are “making hay while the sun shines” and are prepared to even “kill the goose that lays golden eggs”!



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Opinion

Need we saddle religion with morality?

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The first thoughts that come to our mind at the mention of religion is morality: good and bad, right and wrong. However, while ‘religion’ is rolling on the wheels of glitzy festivals, formalised rituals, vibrant sounds, flashy bulbs, repetitive processions of singing and dancing, those who are adept at using religion to their own advantage continue to wax eloquent on the wonderful benefits of drumming religion in to the heads of children from their early years. Meanwhile, morals, which should ideally refine and unite people, unwittingly divide them, as they are brand-named and spoon-fed to babes; hence the lasting misunderstandings and alienation.

Goolbai Gunasekara’s (GG) article on “Religion”, which appeared in The Island of May 10, is stimulating and also upfront in its claim that “religion has been the cause of the most appalling bloodshed and strife”. She goes on to assert, “so let us agree that religion DIVIDES and most certainly does not UNITE”. One might have dissimilar opinions of teaching religion so as to make it serve the purpose of uniting people. However, GG’s statement resonates with all those who are disheartened by the way societies are split along religious differences.

In a world in which religion is, for an overpowering majority, an inescapable legacy that prevents a conscious choice in adulthood, which would have resonated with the values of a more civilized society – a legacy with all its divisive seeds sown inexorably in unformed minds- GG’s bold statement would be annoying for many at the very least. It’s an irony that such claims appear unpalatable to those who are steeped in their own religions, each one of which is expected to make them more refined, open-minded and balanced. Instead, we who are supposed to be enlightened by a religion tend to be intolerant of criticism, which is a pity. It’s little wonder that religion is seen to have left us untouched by its intended pacifying mechanism.

History keeps providing enough proof of religion’s insignificant contribution to the refinement of society. Of course, persecutions rationalised by religious zeal, compounded by acquired ethnic identities and the unending power struggles continue to upset us from time to time. However, in most instances, reactions to them do not go beyond expressions of horror, sympathy for the victims and censure of the perpetrators. Hardly ever anyone asks whether religions have truly cultured us and to what extent. In such a context, it is encouraging to hear lone voices questioning the role being played by religion with no inhibitions.

It is universally accepted that religion is our essential moral guide. But during which phase of our life would this moral hectoring come to us through religion? It’s enough to think how custom has made us lose commonsense when we teach some ‘morals’ to toddlers when they can hardly appreciate the difference between six and sex. Can anyone who has read Madol Duwa forget how Martin Wickramasinghe relishes the discomfort of Mr. Dharmasinghe, the headmaster, when the latter tries to explain the third precept of pansil Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkha (refraining from unlawful sexual conduct / similar to “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, 7 th of the Ten Commandments), to little children including Upali and Jinna, with downcast eyes, avoiding the gaze of his own children, saying “Young as you are, you must make up your minds not to fall into it”. The readers can only sympathise with the predicament of the disciplinarian, when Wickramasinghe squeezes out the last drop of humour from the scene when he writes with a chuckle how Upali notices the way Mrs. Dharmasinghe discreetly left them if she happened to be there at that point. Mr. and Mrs. Dharmasinghe are not alone in this predicament.

Obviously, drilling morals into babies has its own complications. It’s time you let moral teaching be done more sensibly and elegantly under the continuous supervision of the experts. Such a non-religious and rational approach to teaching ethics would help rid the world of the forced marriage between religion and moral education. And, this leads to the more disturbing question of branding our kids with our own faith, even before they could properly articulate a couple of words, let alone know the basics of any religion. However, the unwitting separation of children based on religion continues and all are devoutly happy.

Socrates said that the “unexamined life is not worth living”, which seems to be applicable to morality and all value systems. The accustomed way in which religion comes to us, almost the same ideas of good and bad / right and wrong, come to us tightly sealed in different caskets that we happen to consider as consecrated due to pure chance. Whether we consider some edicts holy or not overwhelmingly depends on who our parents happened to be. As such, selecting which casket of morality is to be worthy of our devotion is not any cooler than, if you like, selecting our parents. Therefore, the long and the short of our proud religious inheritance is pathetically circumstantial, although some of us would be ready to die or kill for its sake. A religion wouldn’t be a religion any longer when every Tom, Dick and Harry began to be too nosy, although one may venture to say, “unexamined ethics would not be worth following” – if one were to take the liberty of fiddling with Socrates’ aphorism about the ‘unexamined life’, mentioned at the beginning of the paragraph.

It is meaningless that morality, the erosion of which is squarely blamed on religion or rather the lack of it, is always married to religion by history and tradition. This is superfluous because morality can be sensibly examined and discussed without religion – which can surely be studied by anyone for knowledge, without being a victim of an ‘unexamined custom’, which is revered.

Today, in our context, politicians would not be able to pose as saints to fool the credulous, if people could see that being publicly religious has nothing to do with avoiding sin, corruption, taking commissions, money laundering, bribery and living on a continuous diet of deceit and high protein.

Religions would remain as ‘religions’, as we have known them for donkey’s years, but the age- old religious disciplining would fail to produce intended results. Morality has to be disengaged from “religion” and taught as a discipline like any other branch of study. It will ensure the preservation of religion as a field of academic study and, also, a matter of common interest.

Let morality be an ongoing discussion devoid of religious claims. After all, morals are for the people who are living and constantly trying to move towards a better world. We had better be less bigoted and isolationist about them.

Susantha Hewa

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Opinion

A protest by only two against a vital issue

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A file picture of a protest in Colombo

Protests in Sri Lanka, Colombo especially, are daily occurrences, university students being the most frequent protestors, next the health sector, followed by teachers and others. And what are their protests against? Invariably personal demands; higher salaries, allowances, release of troublous students taken into custody and strong violent gatherings against private medical colleges. All these are personal and selfish, even against privatisation of higher education which exhibits the ‘dog in the manger’ syndrome.

One recent issue that has not called forth public protests by any lot of consistent protestors is the MPs’ demand for duty-free vehicle permits, which they sell at fabulous prices.

There was one single protest against this pernicious, totally unnecessary perk to MPs, a week ago. And how large was the protest which should have been in the thousands? Just two persons. A gentleman and lady, very decent in appearance and very reasoned in what they told the police.

To stymie them was a posse of policemen all geared up. The fairly elderly man and woman said that MPs should not be given this perk which would eat into foreign reserves, while more than half of the population was struggling to have one decent meal a day. They were harassed by the police, and, I think, taken to the nearest police station.

Where was Stalin somebody with his stentorian voice demanding this and that for teachers, most of whom have a comparatively easy life and some make money on private tuition?

Where was Wasantha Mudalige and his following firebrands of the IUSF? They seem not to care what happens to the country’s economy; the majority people’s battle to make ends meet; and extravagant demands of most of the MPs. Why can’t they come out unified and stop this handing out of further perks to these pestiferous career makers of representing people in the legislature?

This woman shivered and shook literally, with outrage she supposes, when she heard MPs are demanding insurance for themselves and families for life!

It’s bad enough that ex-Presidents and families are setted in luxury thanks to JRJs vote catching largesse-giving from people’s money. Even Presidents who nearly destroyed the country enjoy the high life on government money – taxes extracted from struggling you and me. Now, most MPs are united in their demand for insurance. In return for what? Except just a handful, the others hardly contributed to debates in

Parliament, voted not knowing what they were voting for, but got fat on food served in-house and commissions or whatever pocketed illegally. The public was waiting to boot most of them out. Now they want to go with luxury car licenses and insurance for life.

There should be mass protests against these demands of MPs. Once given they cannot be retracted.Honestly, there are no other people like Sri Lankans for insensibility and personal greed.

Concerned Woman

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Opinion

Killing systems the govt.’s way

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As of last month, a system which was working perfectly, namely the issue of tourist visas for foreign visitors, has been disrupted. The system of Visa issue was simple. You filled up a form from the immigration department website and paid a fee of about 30 US dollars, online.

The visa was normally issued very smoothly if you submitted the passport copy. Now, Mystery surrounds the issue of srilankan visa, but certainly it has become a racket and some crooks are making a killing. At a time when the country needs tourists!

It is government policy – if something is working well., interfere with it. Kill it. Other examples are the Ceylon German Hotel School and the Ceylon Shipping Corporation.

JAYMAN

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