By A. PATABENDIGE
The ceremonial opening of the 9th Parliament, held on August 21, 2020 saw the President, a war veteran, nothing less, do away with the mainly military ceremonies that held sway before. However, what was unsettling were the actions of the Sergeant-at-Arms trio at the main entrance. They bushwhacked the President’s theme even if it was unintentional. It went largely unnoticed but needs to be corrected, fast.
The trio was armed with swords drawn. In fact, they looked somewhat dangerous and also totally incongruous. Where was the 24-pound gilded mace made of teak permitted by the Sergeant-at-arms but inside Parliament? It is the real symbol of authority even if it is blindly copied from the British. Similarly, as in Britain, he may carry a sword-which is safely sheathed and never drawn for obvious reasons.
The trio was spread out in line across the steps like a rugby front row at the kick off. They wore a peculiar black uniform with a shirt, tie and short jacket.
What was unsettling here was that they had swords drawn. While the Sergeant-at-Arms, according to British tradition, is permitted to wear a sword on the floor of Parliament and it is never unsheathed. In fact, a man in the UK (happens to be Nigerian) wears formal dress. His predecessor was a Moroccan Muslim when a Jew was Speaker. That is the beauty of British liberalism. There was once a female too, Jill Pay. Food for thought in SL.
According to the Parliament website the sergeants-at-arm are permitted to wear the gorget patches of a Major General and the epaulettes of an Admiral on what is meant to be the same as an Army officer’s No 1 dress! What an ill-begotten travesty equating this lot with the illustrious military, even if two of them have been senior military officers? Had their sword drills and dress passed muster with the Defence Ministry?
The Prime Minister in his normal white national dress and prominent ‘kurakkan satakaya’ arrived unescorted. As the Prime Minister walked up the steps, one of the trio, mulishly, thoughtlessly and acting dumb, stood directly in the path of the Prime Minister. He did not budge. The Prime Minister went around him nonchalantly despite having some difficulty in climbing. This has to be corrected and fast.
The President then drew up unescorted. He was dressed in a suit as a nod to this special occasion in Parliament. This would appear to be a calculated choice.
The national dance troupe that never fails to be anything but spectacular, sophisticated and captivating greeted him on the side of the entrance steps. At the top of the steps, a bevy of stunningly pretty schoolgirls, dressed in pleasant hues of pink and blue lama saris, stole the show as they sang jayamangala gathas beautifully and joyously. The President invited and spoke to them at tea after his address, making it a day they will never forget.
When the President mounted the stairs, the three swordsmen with drawn swords climbed the steps behind the President, the Speaker and the Secretary General. Does anyone in the close protection team of the President or even the Secretary General of Parliament, know how this potentially dangerous activity by men whose job is almost totally ceremonial and limited actually to the floor of parliament, was adopted, allowed, permitted or even considered at this ceremonial function?
A cordial chat with a genial Secretary General revealed that he was very proud of the inherited traditions of the UK Parliament as seen that day. He said the sergeant-at-arms tradition came from the time they were bodyguards to the British Sovereign. He said the Sergeant-at-Arms was the only one who was allowed to carry a sword (inside the floor of parliament). He did not say what that man was meant to do with it, except to imitate the UK model.
He was not much aware of the uniform with a tie, etc. that his Sergeants wore on August 21, 2020. He thought they had worn the military type dress uniform with gorget patches of a Major General and epaulettes of a ‘flag rank officer of the Navy’ approved as their ceremonial dress. He believed two of the trio were senior officers from the military. He was relieved to know the swords being ceremonial could not cut, but was told that a jab would be just as painful. He however did not show he relished even vicariously having Majors General and Admirals, at least as far as the uniforms went, obeying his orders.
SL’s Parliament may have copied all things British from the start. However, it is clear that SL has only inherited the form but not the substance of the British traditions. The conduct, behaviour and speech of MPs have been scandalous. While these experiments with dress were being introduced, it is good to recall that like in the UK a bomb was exploded by Guy Fawkes, while at Diyawanna it was by the JVP, which is not repentant but still tolerated. The danger exists.
It is time SL retained only the best of inherited ‘traditions’ and brought in the best and most appropriate traditions of yore to Parliament, to prevent dilutions and experiments, especially to allow Sergeants-at-Arms to run riot, befuddling the Secretary General and endangering both VIPs and all others.
Instead of there being various imitations of military dress, the trio could be dressed in the more majestic and imposing ceremonial dress of the Kandyans, provided the hill men do not object. Even the dress of the MPs could do with a stylised national dress the Kandyan way. This may have a salutary effect on their behaviour, too. Swords if they are to be retained by the Sergeant-at-Arms should never be drawn. And never again should a swordsman by any other name stand in the way of the Prime Minister.
Road accident killer:
One every three hours
There is a spike of serious traffic accidents and the number of fatalities reported from all parts of the country during the last few weeks. They have snatched many precious and valuable human lives. Media reports, quoting Traffic Police sources indicate, despite the country being in lockdown for three months due to COVID–19, that this year from January to the end of August, 1,418 persons have been killed in traffic accidents
A person is killed every three hours on our roads due to road accidents, and annually 3000 persons die in road accidents. Nearly 8000 serious accidents take place annually, and in many instances the victims end up never to lead a normal life again. In the last four years – in 2016 there were 3017 fatal accidents, while in 2017 it was 3147. In 2018 according to World Health Organization (WHO) data, Road Traffic Accident Deaths in Sri Lanka was 3590, and has been identified as the 10thcause of death in Sri Lanka’s top 50 causes of death, beating other serious diseases causing death in the country. In 2019 there were 2851 fatal accidents.
On September 2nd, a serious accident occurred in the Colombo city at Mattakkuliya. As reported in the media, in that accident three people died instantly when two three-wheelers were hit by a speeding lorry. Apparently, speeding, and driving the lorry without a valid license to drive, is sheer negligence and lack of responsibility of the lorry driver. Lack of care and responsibility for the life of others who share the road is a serious problem. Instilling road discipline in our drivers is paramount for the safety of all road users.
Drivers of motor vehicles need to be responsible and realise, the moment he/she sits at the driver’s seat and holds the steering wheel you are in control of a piece of heavy equipment, at high speed is mere seconds from a potential innocent victim. Furthermore, speed, while greatly increasing the risk of serious crash, increases the odds of an accident and increases its severity.
A driver under the influence of alcohol is as deadly, and similarly at risk of serious accidents. The harmful influence alcohol has on the crucial decision to drive is great. Drinker’s self assessment about whether he/she can drive safely is critical. The deadly influence alcohol has on the driver is great. Alcohol impairs the drinker’s ability of self-assessment. Reduces the driver’s ability to react to things that happen suddenly. The alcohol also blurs vision, impairs attention and reflexes are slowed.
The road accidents having reached such a horrendous proportion, random measures to instil road discipline in errant drivers are not effective. Speeding, reckless driving, and driving under the influence of alcohol are the major causes of serious traffic accidents. The Police launching limited enforcement and special operations during festive seasons, and operations targeting certain Police areas or specific Traffic Rule violations, are not enough to address this tragedy. Police must implement comprehensive long term programmes, employing technology and modern devices to detect traffic rule violations and make roads safe for all road users.
According to Colombo Traffic Police, there are 106 CCTV cameras operating in Colombo and use 3 Mobile CCTV Surveillance Vans to monitor traffic. Surveillance of Colombo using the Road Safety Camera system alone is not sufficient. Road Safety Cameras; Red Light violation detecting cameras, and combined Red Light and Speed cameras can detect a host of Traffic Rule violations. Sri Lanka Police should seriously consider expanding this method of surveillance using the Road Safety Camera system countrywide.
Road Safety Cameras installed at intersections in all cities and major towns, at strategic locations and high risk roads along the country’s entire road network, would be a deterrent to speed maniacs, and other road rule violators who know they are being watched all day and night. These cameras can be used as both detective and preventive measures. It’s a 24/7 surveillance.
The camera captures a host of data including the vehicle number plate, date, time and location of the offence etc., sufficient to prove the offence committed by the driver. In addition, mobile cameras mounted on Police vehicles positioned at strategic locations, and hand held cameras, could be used to book speeding drivers and other road rule violations.
As for alcohol-impaired driving, the government can do more to reduce the number of drunk-driving instances. Couple of years ago the National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) proposed to reduce the maximum Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) level of drivers; at present it is 0.08 grams per 100 mm, to 0.03 grams per 100 mm. There is no indication thus far of any initiative of the government taken in this regard. Australia and most European countries have the BAC level of drivers at 0.05. Norway and Sweden in Europe, and China has this level at 0.02, while in Russia it is 0.03. Canada, USA and some countries have it at 0.08.
The government could look into lowering the legal BAC level to 0.03 as proposed by the NATA. This approach would better respond to discouraging drunk-drivers. The government could also consider making instances of driving while exceeding the legally permitted BAC limit, a criminal offence; initially applying it to drivers exceeding the legally permitted BAC level and meeting with accidents, and finally extending to exceeding the permitted BAC level under any circumstances, a criminal offence.
Clearly, the law can’t work on its own. The key factor in the reduction of Traffic Rule violations is enforcement and stiff penalties. Police should be provided with technology and modern devices used in other Police Forces around the world. Police should be given authority to stop and demand to undergo testing from any driver at the roadside more often, rather than testing after accidents occurred.
Cross-disciplinary learning to meet graduates’ skills shortages
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has emphasized the importance of matching the skills acquired by University students with the demands of employers. Over the years, criticism has been directed at Humanities and Social Sciences programmes in local Universities, questioning their relevance to the needs of a developing economy. Besides, some of these graduates had problems finding jobs in the private sector. They have historically relied on public sector jobs, an expectation almost all recent governments have had to grapple with.
The employability of Humanities and Social Sciences graduates is not a puzzle unique to Sri Lanka. In Singapore, I encountered several contemporary students who feared their degrees were not well sought after by the industry. I have seen such students putting a lot of effort into studying a minor in fields of study that could give them an edge over their peers. A minor comprises a set of courses which helps a student to develop secondary expertise in addition to the degree requirements of one’s major field of study. Completing a minor is not compulsory in most cases, but it sends a positive signal to employers on the quality of their potential hire. Some of the most popular minors among my batch mates were Business, Computing, Economics, and Entrepreneurship.
Promoting such cross-disciplinary learning could be an immediate solution to the expectation set by the President. Local Universities already possess resources to implement such programmes. It eliminates the need for a hurried overhaul of the curricula in universities. Most importantly, a rapid increase in the output of graduates with qualifications demanded by the industry, could just be the solution to the critical skills shortage faced by sectors such as Information Technology.
Depositors and Stock Exchange
State Minister Nivard Cabraal recently requested Sri Lankans who have deposited money in banks and finance companies to use that money in shares on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Our ministers and officials who control state finances do not know that most of those depositors maintain those deposits not as investments. They live on the interest they receive monthly from those deposits.
Before 2015 too, Cabraal as Governor of CBSL and many others, encouraged those depositors to invest in shares, and many learnt the lesson as they were caught in the game of “pumping & dumping” by groups of some big fish. Cabraals are in a way hitting those depositors by ad-hoc reducing of interest rates, and now they ask them to follow the more easier path to think of committing suicide.
Have the higher-ups in the government ever investigated why people maintain those deposits and how many use the interest they receive to meet their daily needs, before playing around with interest rates in order to please the borrowers and lessees?
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