Dr. Palitha Abeykoon, former Director, Health Systems Development, WHO South-East Asia Regional Office and Senior Advisor to the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, was recently named the WHO Director General’s Special Envoy to facilitate the COVID-19 response in Southeast Asia.
Counting many years at the WHO, Abeykoon served as the advisor in human resources for health in Nepal where he helped to set up the Institute of Medicine, the country’s first medical school, and later in Indonesia to establish the Consortium of Health Sciences and five new schools of public health. He also worked as the WHO South-East Asia Regional Advisor on Human Resources for Health and later was appointed the Director of Health Systems Development. He also served as the WHO Representative to India and led India’s polio eradication effort. He has published widely in many international health journals.
In an interview with Randima Attygalle, the respected senior professional who has long been a building bridges of goodwill in the regional health sector, discusses the road-map for the fight the pandemic in which health security and sustaining livelihoods cannot be undermined.
Q : What advantages do you think your appointment gives the Sri Lankan health sector and the region?
A: For the past one year, I have been working closely with the WHO, with the Ministry of Health and different groups in the country. I believe my present appointment will help me give further thrust to this engagement and extend it to the highest level, to the WHO Direct General’s and Regional Director’s offices, and also to bring messages down to the local level. This way I hope I could be even more relevant and useful.
As a Sri Lankan who has worked extensively in the region coupled with my experience in the local public health sector, I believe I’ll be able to add value not only to our own setting but to the other countries in the region in a number of ways.
Q: What is your mandate?
A: Our Region has a 2.4 billion people and I will try to do justice to their priorities. The Director-General has appointed six Special Envoys on COVID-19, to provide strategic advice and high-level political advocacy and engagement in different parts of the world. The Special Envoys work in close collaboration with WHO Regional Directors and WHO country offices to coordinate the global response to COVID-19.
In coordinating this response, one of the key responsibilities is to promote health security and to take the WHO DG’s messages to stakeholders in the government, the private sector and most importantly to the communities and individuals. The envoys also have to help ensure that the WHO guidelines are implemented correctly. We have weekly meetings with the WHO Chief and his technical staff on COVID-19 where we discuss pandemic-related common regional issues.
The DG strongly believes that we could be strong ‘supplementary voices’ for our respective regions, to be able to communicate fast with him and take his voice downstream as quickly as possible because of the contacts we have already made over the years and are expected to make in the short term.
Q: As a health professional who had held many international positions and steered several health projects in the region, do you think your latest appointment is more challenging than those of the past?
A: Every situation where you have to work with large groups of people has its own challenges; but the main difference between what I did then and this position is I suppose the fact that those days I was working within the WHO, in an established system and a structure. Therefore the responsibilities were according to a plan with agreed outcomes which we made with the different countries.
But what we are going through now is a pandemic with a spectrum of issues and a high level of unpredictability. This is a complete novel situation we have to grapple with. It has affected the entire world, and ever since the pandemic broke a year ago, we have been learning something new every day. We continue to learn about the virus, how it circulates, its changing nature, new management strategies both in terms of the preventive and clinical aspects of management. Yet, we do not know enough.
Now we have the new dimension of the vaccine. Nowhere in our history did we have a situation where a new vaccine was developed with the strictest of controls to the stage of administration in just one year. It is an amazing scientific achievement! There is considerable hope with the advent of the vaccine although it is not going to solve all the problems immediately. Thus, there are many challenges and my role would be to facilitate the overall system development.
Q: What are the immediate concerns of the Special Envoys in terms of COVID-response?
A: Right now we have three main concerns. We are looking at how best to make COVID vaccines equitably distributed because we have a serious problem where all rich countries seem to be purchasing all the vaccines produced, leaving very little for the poor countries. This is a sad story. In fact two days ago the Director General referred to this as a “catastrophic moral failure”.
Up to now, 50 countries in the world including India have started immunization and 70 – 80 million doses have been administered to their people. One of the things we are supposed to do is to work with regional bodies and the manufacturing countries to advocate that all countries get at least part of the vaccines produced in an equitable manner. Otherwise there will be health problems and also political issues when one section of the world is deprived of a vaccine with the other part grabbing it all.
Many countries have entered into bilateral agreements with manufacturing countries. Sri Lanka as well as some other countries in the region such as the Maldives, Bhutan and Bangladesh have also entered into such agreements with India. Some other countries have bilateral agreements with manufacturers to buy vaccine stocks. For example, Myanmar has an agreement with the Serum Institute of India which is licensed to manufacture the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine (named Covishield) in India. The Institute by itself cannot sell outside India, and hence we have entered into an agreement at an official protocol level.
Q: Sri Lankans are anxiously awaiting the arrival of a vaccine. Where do we stand right now in terms of our preparedness to import an effective vaccine and when can such a vaccine be expected to arrive here?
A: The GAVI Alliance (The Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunization) which is a global health partnership of public and private sector organizations dedicated to ‘immunization for all’, has developed a facility called COVAX. It is co-led by the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and aims to accelerate the development and manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines, and to guarantee fair and equitable access for every country in the world.
At the moment COVAX has been able to procure about two billion doses and by the end of this month they may be able to raise it to three billion doses. The COVAX facility will give vaccines to the poorer countries free of charge. We are likely to get enough to vaccinate about 20% of the population, prioritizing the front-line health workers and the other most vulnerable segments in society including the elderly and those with chronic illnesses.
But all of the four million doses will not come immediately or in bulk. It will come in batches and by end February we may receive the first supply of a COVAX vaccine. Through the rest of the year we may able to get the balance depending on the availability of the vaccine supply. The vaccines through the COVAX facility are likely to be the Pfizer vaccine and the Oxford- AstraZeneca vaccine, which may come through the Serum Institute of India or another facility.
Q: Do we have adequate cold chain facilities here at home to store the vaccines?
A: Yes we do. Only the Pfizer Vaccine requires storage facility of minus 70 C. Even for that we have identified sufficient storage space and necessary logistics.
Q: What does WHO feel about Sri Lanka’s preparedness and response efforts and what key areas should be strengthened to face the COVID threat in months to come?
A: There are several pillars on which the drive to fight a pandemic rest: the leadership, technical, behavioural, and management. Sri Lanka generally speaking, has handled all these pillars reasonably well.
Our sound public health system which is time tested and had faced epidemics has been applauded. It is a system which is primed to face emergencies and disasters. Secondly, we are also fortunate to have good leadership at multiple levels and tiers. We have used probably the best scientific evidence that a pandemic of this scale requires.
Thirdly, we have had a lockdown at the initial stages which some believed to be ‘too harsh’. But the idea of a lockdown at the onset of an epidemic is to suppress the virus. The suppression also meant time to strengthen the health system so that in the event of an upsurge, the system is well geared to cope. We did that reasonably well – detecting, isolating, quarantining and at the same time strengthening the health system by expanding the bed capacity, ICUs etc.
The success of a good public health system involves the input of multiple professionals and a scientific approach. On the whole, our response to the crisis has been driven by and large by science and evidence. Sri Lanka has one of the best track records with regard to immunization and I am sure we will be able to organize the vaccination programme very well.
Another attribute similar to Thailand, which also has done well, is that we also adopted ‘a whole of society’ approach. This means all groups came together- the government, professional bodies, the private sector, academics etc. in countering the crisis. It is largely the countries which did not have this ‘whole of society’ approach, among them developed countries such as the US, which suffered notably.
In general our people’s behaviour, with the exception of a small segment, had also been good during the pandemic. We also need to applaud our people for sacrificing some of the most important religious and cultural events of their calendar, irrespective of the faith, to protect one another.
Having said that, it is inevitable that sometimes complacency creeps in when the public is too confident. This contributed to the second wave but with the lessons learnt, we should be able to prevent a large third surge.
In terms of strengthening our system, we need to give more teeth to the proven interventions we already have in place and bridge the gaps. There could be better communication among multiple stakeholders. Now we generate a lot of data through various platforms and agencies. This includes clinical data, epidemiology data, laboratory data etc. We need to collate all this data better and redesign a data-driven campaign. This could help us further fine-tune our surveillance mechanism. In that case we need not block large areas of population. We also need to bring in more technology to move forward.
The other crucial need of the hour is to look after our frontline health workers. A good number of them are fatigued and they also face the threat of infection. We should not allow a ‘burn out syndrome’ to creep into our health sector. This has to be managed well. I think the forces cadres are handling their systems well. We need to take good care of those who take care of us in the best possible manner and make them feel that they are valued and respected as an integral part of our COVID management mechanism.
Q: What is the immediate forecast of the WHO and their advice in moving forward in this new normalcy?
A: Generally speaking the vaccine will be a game changer but certainly not short-term in the next three or six months. Countries will have to adopt the same measures they have been adopting stringently over the past year- the fundamentals such as wearing masks, regular washing of hands, social distancing etc.
The WHO also urges vigilance to prevent another cycle because what might happen then is that the capacity of the health system can get overwhelmed. Why countries like America and European countries got into trouble was because this surge came quite fast at a time when their health systems were not resilient enough. Once that happens the game changes very quickly.
We have to make sure that we do not create any situation which would lead to another wave. Preventing super-spread events where large numbers of people get together is crucial. This is going to be a difficult year; however if we manage this year well, we should be on the path to recovery.
When you tighten the controls by locking down and isolating areas, naturally there are spillover effects on the economy and education of children. Like most other governments we too need to be mindful of these two crucial factors. So now we have the issue of balancing: how do we save and protect lives as well as livelihoods? This is going to be the biggest challenge.
Good communication which will contribute to the desired behaviour of people is important because it is essentially the behaviour of people that is going to make or break the next six months of the epidemic. We have to make sure that people take ownership of the situation, empower the communities to take responsibility – this is the challenge from now on.
Q: There is a serious issue of COVID myths vs Scientific Facts. What is the role of the health sector in disseminating correct information to the public and also the role of media in this regard?
The pandemic response has to be driven by science. The role of the health sector in sharing correct information is crucial and the role of mass media in disseminating that knowledge in an acceptable and an ethical way becomes equally important. Media has to be conscious of conveying credible information without sensationalizing. Their reports must be interesting and factual. This approach may not be attractive to some media organizations, but that, and certainly not controversy, is the need of the hour.
Education per se does not necessarily make people rational; we cannot stop everyone from subscribing to non-scientific measures. In any setting there will be pockets believing in myths. Sometimes, out of desperation, people are driven to such trappings. Hence the responsibility of media and the health system is not to spur the public to subordinate essentials with such behaviour. Media cannot afford to create a false sense of security by encouraging people to displace well known scientifically established facts with unproven phenomena.
Q: What are your proposals to the Health Ministry and other local stakeholders in strengthening access to correct information on the pandemic with necessary transparency?
A: It is ideal if we have one designated ‘face’ as a national spokesperson for COVID-19 as in the case of Thailand. This can avoid confusion and contradictions. We could have one designated person or a panel of people who speak the same language in this regard.
It is also important for the Health officials to give more time to the media. Both print and electronic media should also have designated journalists trained in this subject, so that there are specialists who can produce a balanced report.
Q: From the lessons learnt during the pandemic, how can our health sector be strengthened to face future catastrophes?
A: Most importantly, we have to make certain that our healthy security is strengthened with strong and resilient public health systems that can prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease threats, wherever they occur in the world. According to the ‘Swiss cheese model’, in a complex system, hazards are prevented from causing harm by a series of barriers. Each barrier has unintended weaknesses, or holes – hence the comparison to Swiss cheese and this term is frequently used by patient safety professionals.
The prime subjects of health security should be the most vulnerable groups such as those with chronic illnesses, the elderly and the disabled. Health security should also pay attention to nutrition, that the children are immunized even in times of epidemics or pandemics and that pregnant women have access to anti-natal care.
Moreover, international Health Regulations articulate certain obligations of a nation. One key regulation is the immediate notification to the WHO at the first sign of any infection, particularly, those diseases which can be transmitted to humans by animals. This is why there is a controversy surrounding Wuhan where the first case of COVID-19 was reported. WHO investigations are being carried out to determine if there was any lapse in this regard by the Chinese officials. Within the WHO system there are ‘incident managers’ for immediate referrals of this nature.
Q: What do you think are the inherent ‘Sri Lankan strengths’ as a nation in fighting this pandemic from a cultural and a social perspective?
A: We can take shocks and bounce out of shocks. This has become part of our nation’s DNA. Our people are generally helpful and in a crisis all pull together. This level of mutual help and support, we may not see in many countries. Also our health literacy is very good. We also have a strong history of volunteerism. We donate eyes, blood, kidneys etc. more than in many parts of the world. We are one of the very few countries in the world with a 100% voluntary blood donation service. We are still very much an altruistic nation, a major plus which we should sustain.
From Jungle To International Five-Star
CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Prime Minister’s Village Re-awakening
I first met Ranasinghe Premadasa, the ninth prime minister of Sri Lanka, in 1981. He was a unique man loved by many supporters and hated by many critics. At that time, I was at the John Keells head office as the Manager – Operations of their hotel management and marketing services company. We also managed Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister and his family. Managing Temple Trees was a demanding contract.
I visited Temple Trees occasionally to support Fazal Izzadeen, a manager whom I transferred from Hotel Swanee to be in charge of the Temple Trees operation. Given the personal friendship my boss, Bobby Adams had with the Prime Minister, the Director – Operation had to be personally involved in managing this prestigious property. A perfectionist, Mr. Premadasa did not tolerate any sub-standard quality in maintenance, upkeep and cleanliness. Fazal did a great job in keeping the second family of Sri Lanka content with the services we provided, and more importantly, off our backs.
Unlike any of his predecessors, Ranasinghe Premadasa came from a family of modest means. Politically a self-made man, he was the first ‘commoner’ to become Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, breaking a 30-year tradition of the top leadership of the country being controlled by the high caste aristocracy coming from affluent families. Educated in a Christian missionary college in Colombo, Mr. Premadasa initially opted for a career as a journalist. He was a prolific writer and an electrifying orator in Sinhala. He had been keenly interested in neighbourhood welfare affairs since his youth. He became increasingly involved in municipal politics, initially as a member of the leftist, Ceylon Labour Party which led to his election to the Colombo Municipal Council at a young age of 26.
One day in early 1986, Bobby Adams entrusted a special duty to me. He called to say, “the Honourable Prime Minister will be staying at the Village, Habarana for five days, while he is busy with the 1986 Gam Udawa (Village Re-awakening) project in nearby Hingurakgoda. As I cannot be there this time, please look after him and his team of 50, including the security detail.”
Between 1979 and until his gruesome assassination by a suicide bomber while organizing a May Day demonstration in 1993, when he was the President of Sri Lanka, Mr. Premadasa led 15 annual Gam Udawa projects in different districts in rural Sri Lanka. The festivals were part of a massive, public housing and development program envisioned by him. The festivals were implemented with great efficiency, for the benefit of poor villagers, and predominantly in Sinhala Buddhist areas. Gam Udawa helped consolidate state ideologies at a time when its political and moral authority was being challenged by insurrectionary and separatist groups.
As the General Manager of the Lodge and the Village, hosting the Prime Minister for five-days was an interesting assignment. It enabled me to see the different facets of a unique personality of our times. Our team did the outdoor catering whenever the Prime Minister went to Hingurakgoda to see the progress of the project. At times, he was ruthless in dealing with the government engineers, project managers and private contractors.
He had no patience for project delays and inefficiencies. Nor did he hesitate to take senior bureaucrats to task, in public, in the presence of their subordinates. Quoting one of his idols, Jawaharlal Nehru (the first Prime Minister of India, whose autobiography was translated into Sinhala by Premadasa), he emphasised that, “I am only interested in work done and not in excuses!”
During the evening at the Village, the Prime Minister was in a more relaxed mood, and I saw a different side of his personality. At times he played football with the resort staff. He was athletic and fit. He had his dinner around 6:00 pm and then walked with our management team on the bund of the Habarana tank. His loyal and influential valet, Mohideen walked behind him with a radio playing Buddhist pirith chanting.
One early evening, during our walk, the Prime Minister looked at my wife who was pregnant, and asked her, “Did you have your dinner?” When she replied that we eat around 9:00 pm, the Prime Minister was unhappy. “In your condition, you should ideally be eating five hours before bed time.” he lectured her.Mr. Premadasa was a hard-working man who commenced his day around 4:00 am. After his early breakfast (usually string hoppers made with healthy, kurakkan (millet) and red rice flour, he would call the cabinet ministers and senior officials. They all knew his early routine and had gotten used to getting up very early to respond to the boss’s calls.
Mr. Premadasa was a big fan of the Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his tough leadership style. He often spoke fondly about how effectively Lee Kuan Yew had developed Singapore to an unprecedented advanced level from a previously poor country which only obtained independence 14 years after Ceylon.On the last day of his visit, we were all waiting by the helipad of the Village Habarana to bid farewell to the Prime Minister. At 8:00 am sharp, he left his suite and said his goodbyes to managers and staff waiting in a long greeting line, before getting into an Air Force helicopter piloted by a squadron leader.
Mr. Premadasa was very observant. He paused for a moment and looking unhappy, picked a small, dry leaf from the floor of the helicopter. He then placed that leaf in the palm of the pilot without uttering a word. There was pin drop silence until the helicopter took off. “That’s something Lee Kuan Yew would have done too!” one of our managers told me.
My New Best Friend
From February 1, 1986, with the birth of our son, Marlon, my life changed. Our apartment in Habarana was Marlon’s first home. After my daily, lunch management meeting at the Village, I dropped in at our apartment to spend time with him. After playing a little, we both usually fell asleep for a short nap. When he started talking, Marlon commenced calling me his best friend.
In the later years, Marlon travelled to many countries with us and lived and studied in Iraq, United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, Guyana, Jamaica and Canada. He also lived in Vietnam for five years as a corporate executive of a large company. When he was in his mid-teens, I prompted him to pursue a career in hospitality, but he declined, saying that, “Thaththi, I never want to work as hard as you do in hotels!” Marlon was correct – hoteliering is certainly a demanding career, which often requires long hours of work, while sacrificing family life.
I was saddened to hear that the Chairman of the John Keells Group, Mark Bostock had decided to retire. He had led the company for over 17 years, since 1969. Under his remarkable leadership, the John Keells Group evolved from a traditional company focusing on commodity and share broking to become the largest and most diverse group of companies in Sri Lanka. Today, John Keells Holdings, PLC (JKH) is Sri Lanka’s largest, listed conglomerate on the Colombo Stock Exchange. It is also the undisputed leader of the tourism and hospitality industries in the country.
Having been associated with the group’s chairman since 1972, initially through rugby football and then as a hotel manager, I was an admirer of Mark Bostock. I was extremely grateful to him for fully sponsoring my first overseas trip and training in London in 1979. In 1980 when I got married, Mark Bostock was an attesting witness. My personal friendship with him continued in 1984 when my family was invited to visit his family in their home in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, for an overnight stay. Later in 1985, he supported re-hiring me to John Keells to manage their two largest hotels (The Lodge and The Village) as the General Manager.
An emotional farewell to a visionary leader
During his last visit to Habarana as the Chairman, he kindly accepted my invitation for Mrs. Bostock and him to plant a tree and address the employees. He shared his vision for the future, and said that, “My Deputy Chairman, David Blackler will certainly continue our good work, as the new Chairman. We have developed a strong team of Sri Lankan directors, who will take the company to a new level,” he assured.
Unfortunately, my first meeting with the new Chairman did not go well. David Blackler, who was also a Britisher like Mark Bostock, wanted some changes done immediately. He also told me that spending time as the President of two trade associations was a waste of time in my busy schedule. I was unhappy, but did not comment as I realized that with leadership change, emphasis may change. Managers need to go with the flow.
Being the General Manager of the Habarana Resort Complex was a rewarding job, but it was not overly challenging. I enjoyed the opportunity to do new things, develop an amazing team and the free rein that I had been given, up to that point. Yet, it was not fully aligned with my mid-term career plan, which was to gain five-star international management experience. I decided to keep my options as well as, my eyes open. The last memo/letter Mark Bostock sent me was motivating and I was very touched with his kind words.
Last memo/letter to me from Mark Bostock
Mr. Steffan Pfeiffer, the General Manager of the 500-room five-star hotel, Galadari Meridien called me with another offer. It was the third time he was offering me a job in this hotel managed by the hotel company owned by Air France. “Chandana, after working here for three years, Meridien is transferring me as the General Manager of their hotel in Hong Kong. All other senior managers will continue, except four managers from one division – Food and Beverage, are leaving. I have identified you as the new lead for this division.” Steffan was trying to motivate me to make a career move.
Due to the popularity of nine food and beverage outlets and large banqueting facilities, the Food and Beverage Division of Galadari Meridian was generating over half the total revenue of the hotel. The offer was for me to be accountable for 230 employees including three expatriate managers, working in 13 departments, including kitchens.
The Food and Beverage Division of a large five-star hotel usually has four senior managers – Food & Beverage Manager, Executive Chef, Assistant Food & Beverage Manager, and the Banquet Manager. Two Frenchmen, who were the Food & Beverage Manager/Executive Assistant Manager and Executive Chef in the hotel opening team had left as well as the other two, who were senior Lankan hoteliers were about to leave Sri Lanka.
Steffan Pfeiffer offered me the opportunity to take over, and to re-organize the Food and Beverage Division. “I have recruited an excellent French Executive Chef to report to you. That is Chef Emile Castillo, who worked with me at Hotel Lanka Oberoi. You have a full control to fill the other two senior vacancies,” he explained. “I need you to meet the new Acting General Manager coming from the Meridien head office in Paris – Mr. Jean-Michel Varichon.”
“We will take you as the Acting Food & Beverage Manager and be confirmed in the position after six months, or once you have impressed the new General Manager, which I am sure that you will.” I agreed to join the Galadari Meridian on the day when Jean-Michel Varichon and Chef Emile Castillo were arriving – June 16, 1986. Steffan Pfeiffer said that he would work with me for two weeks prior to leaving for Hong Kong. I decided to leave John Keells to pursue a career with an international five-star hotel business.
On my last day at the Lodge and the Village, I decided to do something different. I had initiated many new things, but was not sure how the 18 managers in my teams viewed those. I developed a one-page questionnaire listing 12 general aspects of leadership and 18 other aspects we had initiated in 1985 and 1986. I requested the managers not to write their names on the questionnaires.
When I tabulated the results, I was happy to note that my team gave full marks for five elements – Planning, Delegation, Sales Promotion, Leadership Training and Statistical Analysis. The other side of the coin was that I was given poor marks for initiatives such as: Job Descriptions, Best Worker Awards, and surprisingly, the Management Trainee Program. Since 1986, every time I changed my job, I requested written feedback from the teams I managed.
Good Bye from the Lodge Team
David Blackler was surprised that I would leave the position of the General Manager of two of the best local hotels in the country to join a five-star hotel as an Acting Divisional Manager. Some of my friends were also surprised that I would leave the largest group of companies in the country, which was considered a great employer. At times, one has to follow the heart for career progress.
Over the next three years, until his retirement from John Keells in 1989, as a regular lunch customer of Colombo Club (one of the nine food and beverage outlets of Galadari Meridien), Mr David Blackler became very friendly with me. He often discussed my innovative initiatives at Galadari Meridien, especially when I mastered the art of show biz productions to increase hotel profits.
Progress with Le Meridien
Exciting new challenges awaiting me in Colombo…
Within six months of joining, I was confirmed as the Food & Beverage Manager of Galadari Meridien (from 1987, Le Meridien), and another six months later I was promoted Director of Food & Beverage, a job title unique at that time for any Lankan hotelier.
Le Meridien was very generous in developing my international hotel management career. During my two stints with them in 1980s and in 1990s, Le Meridien invested time and funds to send me as a Management Observer to their five-star hotels in Singapore, Changi Airport, Paris, Tours, London, Guadalupe, New Orleans, Toronto, and Dubai (the last two, on quality assurance mystery shopper assignments). They also sponsored my business management education with Institut International Meridien in France, where they developed promising divisional heads to become expatriate General Managers of five-star Le Meridien hotels.
In 1997, after gaining years of experience in managing seven hotels for different companies, I was chosen to convert the largest and the best hotel in the capital city of Jamaica, as Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. My team worked hard with the union to make this hotel become the first hotel in Americas to earn the ISO 9002 certification. In that rewarding assignment, on my request, the company sent two of Le Meridien experts to assist me with the opening – Jean-Michel Varichon from Paris and Chef Emile Castillo from New York. Small world!
In 1997, at the soft opening of Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. (L to R) Paddy Mitchell – MD of Le Meridien North America, John Issa – Chairman of Jamaica Pegasus Limited & SuperClubs, and P. J. Patterson – Prime Minister of Jamaica, listening to my welcome remarks.I will briefly narrate some related ‘fun’ stories in the future episodes of this column.
Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena
has been an Executive Chef, Food & Beverage Director, Hotel GM, MD, VP, President, Chairman, Professor, Dean, Leadership Coach and Consultant. He has published 22 text books. This weekly column narrates ‘fun’ stories from his 50-year career in South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and North America, and his travels to 98 countries and assignments in 44 countries.
Young Sri Lankans need to be up front; two such examples
“Templeton Freedom Award has been won by Advocata Institute Sri Lanka. The CEO is our Dhana. It is with great pride I send this message to you to celebrate our dear friend Dhananath’s leadership victory of Advocata. Horekale and St Sebastian’s College man has really shown class.”
That was Elmo Jayawardena’s email to me since I had written earlier in this column about Dhananath Fernando. Not one mention of him, Elmo, being a most effective mentor to the successful young man. In fact he phoned me later to insist Razeen Sally had been the most helpful. Elmo ended with his usual wish, or prophecy, of blue skies.
Capt Elmo J deserves acknowledgment and praise as he encouraged and enthused Dhananath, met when CandleAid started swimming lessons for the young including the blind, and Dhananath volunteered to help. It was Elmo who insisted on the importance of good English skills and introduced him to Prof Razeen Sally, Founder with Swedish Frederick Erixon the world economy think tank based in Brussels in 2006; and to Murtaza Jafferjee, co-founder of the Sri Lanka Institute. Dhananath took it on from there, followed a degree in Economics, in addition to his bioscience degree, diligently worked at his English and is now CEO of Advocata, Sri Lanka.
The Templeton Prize is an annual award granted to a living person, in the estimate of the judges, ‘whose exemplary achievements advance Sir John Templeton’s philanthropic vision: harnessing the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.’
Sir John inaugurated the prize in 1972, funded by his Foundation. Originally the prize went to persons within religion – Mother Teresa was first winner – but in the 1980s it broadened to include people working at the intersection of science and religion. The monetary value is adjusted so it exceeds that of a Nobel Prize, which prizes Tenpleton thought ignored spirituality. In 2019 it was pounds sterling 1.1 million and had been presented each year by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace.
This year Dhananath Fernando received it personally in New York at the Atlas Network Freedom Dinner and received one million dollars “to accelerate Advocata’s impactful efforts to guide the island nation out of a tragic economic crisis, which threatens the lives, livelihood and human dignity of millions of Sri Lankans.”
Dhananath was in New York concluding his visit on the Eisenhower Fellowship he won earlier. His acceptance speech was in flawless English and pronunciation, introducing just the correct proportion of simplicity, humour and gratitude along with the sincere promise and determination to fulfill the aims and objectives inherent in winning the prize.
Absolutely touching was Dhananath saying the tie he had on was the one he wore on his wedding day. He wore it on this red letter day as a tribute to his wife and helpmate who unfortunately was unable to be with him as she was not granted a visa to visit the USA. Here is evident a sharp contrast: the respect or rather disrespect the world justifiably has for Sri Lanka whose leaders have brought it down to bankruptcy by corruption and excessive spending of state funds as against determined and national minded achievers such as Dhananath.
The objective of this article
This article is about the youth of our country. Dhananath has been written about as he is a beacon among our youth and epitomizes great determination and effort, and national mindedness with humanness.
We have had our youth coming forwards, first in candle-lit protests, then at the Aragalaya. They succeeded to a considerable measure to wipe out anti-democratic policies of the government in thrusting out of power a couple of leaders of the Nation – two Rajapaksa brothers included. They sent shivers of apprehension down big wigs’ spines. Very unfortunately the effective peaceful protest at Gotagama was first invaded by marauders emerging from Temple Trees after being hosted by the then PM – Mahinda R. Then came infiltration by militant elements who crashed into vital state buildings. Thus my insistence, when I speak praiseworthily of the youth of this Nation I do NOT include Wasantha Mudalige and the monk with him, nor militant members of the IUSF and the JVP and its break away militant group led by a Gunaratnam.
I give you now an opinion expressed by a Sri Lankan living in New York who, with his wife, met Dhananath Fernando and were very impressed by him. He wrote an email to Dhananath, which I was privy to and quote a part below:
“The pleasure of meeting you was definitely more on our side. It was very encouraging to see people like yourself represent the future leaders of our beautiful motherland. I only hope you are allowed the chance to make the positive difference that you can, overcoming the self-interests and kleptocratic tendencies of those in power. It takes a special intellect to keep your feet on the ground while raising your head above the clouds to see things with clarity. You certainly have that. Develop upon it as all agents of positive change in the world need to have a core that is grounded in good.”
Fulsome, deserved praise; advice too. He wrote to another person living in Colombo from which I quote:
“Dhana embodies someone who had put in much effort into building himself be it improving his educational skills, and then being sufficiently humble and diligent to follow his mentors’ advice to make himself the polished individual he is, who can go toe-to-toe with anyone from the West.”
He mentioned another diligent young man: Sanmuganathan Prasanthan who has created a thriving web development business in SL. “When he started he was an O Level dropout who had to work in a ‘bothal kade’ to help support his family. He taught himself web coding and when I needed someone, he stepped up and delivered exceptional quality, trust and hard work that made him an instant millionaire by serving our business. However, this has not changed him one bit. He is now married, has two children, and a thriving business aside from what he does with us. He is, however, still the humble, dependable, trustworthy partner.”
Knowing I was writing this week about the youth of this country and needless to mention, our hope for the future, this person I quoted gave me some tips which I decided were well worth sharing.
“Today’s Sri Lankan young have grown up in a culture where they see wealth being created by taking ‘a piece from a stream of revenue’ be it a commission on a government deal, or a percentage of a private sale. The example of creating value, building something excellent and world class is missing.
“This is what the youth need to aim at gaining so they succeed: A hard skill, the humility to know what you need to develop, the diligence to always deliver value for whatever you are paid for, and never lose sight of the fact that unless you constantly strive to be the best, there will always be someone better than you.”
I add here that the young of our country must most definitely stop stretching begging hands out; stop protesting on each and every issue; give up the idea the government that gave them free education must also give them jobs. Most of them do not subscribe to the dignity of labour and ask for well paying desk jobs.
I needs must add that the President’s speech, threat really, in Parliament, as reported in TV news on Wednesday, November 23, was provocative and will be ill received by young persons who protest on genuine issues that are neglected or ignored by the present government. Threatening with army force of suppression is the worst move at this point. The youth of this country MUST be given their due place and permitted to criticize, even protest, and come in taking over responsibilities that they surely will fulfill without corruption, nepotism and all those evils of the previous two governments.
After me, no deluge! President sitting pretty after passing budget
by Rajan Philips
Ranil Wickremesinghe is the third President to sequester the finance portfolio instead of assigning it as an exclusive portfolio to a cabinet minister, but he is the first, perhaps after Ronnie de Mel, to prepare and author most or the entirety of the budget speech. He is also the first leader of a political party with only a single listed MP in parliament, to not only present a budget in parliament but also have it passed quite comfortably. In passing the Second Reading of the Budget with 121 MPs voting for and 37 against, parliament reverted to nearly the same division (134-82) it showed when it elected Ranil Wickremesinghe as President on July 20. The President now seems to be well positioned to assemble different majorities in parliament for different purposes.
The majorities for his election and now his budget are based mainly on the support of SLPP MPs acting in solidarity with the Rajapaksa family. The same pattern was seen for the vote on the Emergency Resolution (120-63) and the passage of the Petroleum Products Amendment Bill (77-17), two votes which were marked by disappointingly large absentees (41 and 134) – mostly from the Opposition.
On the other hand, there was rousing support for the passage of the 21st Amendment – 179 for, only one against, and the rest being overseas or no shows. The division on 21A involved the punishing isolation of the Rajapaksas, especially Basil Rajapaksa whose apparent efforts to call the shots from the US were spurned by his own MPs including some family members. Basil returned on Sunday (Nov. 20th) and may have had a hand in securing the majority on Monday.
So, the President with only one MP belonging to his Party (UNP) in parliament, would appear to have gotten into a groove in creating different majority vote blocks for different legislative initiatives. That is the way a legislature is supposed to work in a presidential system – through principled compromises, as well as trading in favours, between legislators. It has taken 45 years for this to come to pass, but more by circumstances and opportunism than by conviction or persuasion. How long can the President keep this going?
After me, no deluge
Put another way, the President would seem to have been able to stabilize himself politically far more than he and his government have been able to stabilize the country’s economy. He is keeping his detractors guessing on the timing of the local government elections, and more so about dissolving parliament and calling for a general election soon after March next year (2023). He also seems to be testing the waters through inspired rumours that a presidential election (which could not be before November 16, 2023) might be held before the next parliamentary election (which could be as early as April 2023, or as late as August or September 2025). He could even call for the two elections to be held concurrently any time after November 16, 2023.
That would throw the cat among the opposition pigeons, and Mr. Wickremesinghe will have more than a fair chance of becoming an elected President, finally fulfilling his 45 year old ambition. There will be the small rub about abolishing the presidency, but Mr. Wickremesinghe can stand tall and handsomely promise that as elected President he would preside over the amendment to the constitution to end the system of having an elected President. “After me, no deluge,” he could deadpan. The matter itself could be put to the people as a referendum question as they go to vote to elect simultaneously a new President and a new Parliament.
All of this seems too fanciful to be likely, but not at all impossible. As well, November 2023 is an eternity in politics and anything can happen between now and then. For now, the President seems to be sitting on a deck of opportunities, holding all the cards he needs to finesse MPs into voting in ways he wants them to vote. There is one political caveat to all this, and that is the President would be well advised not to use the goodwill circumstances he is enjoying now to try to resurrect the UNP as an electoral force. And worse would be to strike an electoral alliance with the Rajapaksas in a local government or parliamentary elections. A presidential election would be a different battlefield where all manner of alliances has become common.
The President’s ambidexterity is on full display. He is coming on both sides of the law and order fence and can have enough MPs to support any of his opposing positions. He has declared in parliament during the current Committee stage debate on the budget, that “he would not allow another Aragalaya and that he would use security forces to prevent such a move.” He has been quoted as saying – “I will declare even emergency and call in security forces to thwart any such move.” He seems to be confident that he can rely on Basil Rajapaksa to get a majority in parliament for cracking down on protesters.
At the same time, he is executively dissociating himself from the actions of the Defence Ministry officials under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The President is reported to have refused to sign on new Detention Orders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), even though he did not stop previous orders being signed by the Defence Secretary, a retired Army Major General. The PTA was adopted in 1979 as a “temporary” measure has survived through many government changes and promises to repeal it. As Prime Minister in 2015, now President Wickremesinghe was committed to repealing it but nothing happened.
The official position now is that the government has placed a “de facto moratorium on arrests being made under the PTA.” With convenient exceptions for deeming protesters terrorists and arresting them under PTA. Aragalaya protesters have been so arrested and the President seems to be on both sides of the fence. He is running with the Human Rights hare and hunting with the National security hound. Under pressure from both local rights groups and international agencies, the government is reportedly drafting a new counter-terrorism law to replace the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). And the President might be able to assemble a different majority in parliament, similar to the one that passed the 21st Amendment. He could also get the Foreign Minister to drop the IMF scare in parliament as he did for 21A – that there would be no IMF help if PTA is either not repealed or drastically defanged.
More than dealing with PTA, the President is looking for a bigger fish to fry, one that was also left unaccomplished during the yahapalana government. That is the ever elusive project of national reconciliation. He seems to have all the Sri Lankan Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties on board for this initiative, of course with varying shades of interest, commitment and engagement. The President has proposed yet another All Party Conference and managed to prise out a public affirmation from Sajith Premadasa that he and the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) will not only participate in the All Party Conference (APC), but “will (also) lead from the front and finalise a solution to the ethnic problem by the time Sri Lanka celebrates its 75th Independence Day” through a system of power devolution based on the 13th Amendment.
If the President is able to maintain the current trend of voting permutations in parliament, he should have no difficulty in getting a parliamentary majority for a legislative approval if one is required for whatever reconciliation package that the President might be having in mind. It is too early to anticipate how the new reconciliation initiative will unfold, except to say that the dubious devise of an All Party Conference is always fraught with uncertainties, if not unwelcome developments. The first of them after July 1983 was convened in January 1984, but as it turned out it was not for the purpose of finding a solution but for avoiding one. Hopefully, the intentions behind the newest initiative now are not devious as they were then.
It’s the Economy
Any or all of the above political possibilities happening or not happening will of course depend on how the country’s economy turns and, along with it, how people’s economic circumstances change. The fundamentals of the economy are not going to improve any time soon. The government’s, really the President’s, challenge is to keep them from worsening and to keep the people’s living conditions from further deteriorating. All bets are off if essential supplies are not maintained, prices are not contained or subsidized, and scarcities and lineups return. Such deterioration will take away the President’s options and flexibility that I am speculating here.
Far from having the luxury of not holding parliamentary elections before November 2023, he could be forced to hold them as soon as possible after March 2023. If frustrated and angered, the people will find ways of forcing his hand to dissolve parliament without giving him the excuse to draw out the army or declare emergency. On the other hand, if the economy starts ticking as he seems convinced it would as a result of his new budget, he will have the luxury of playing his cards the way he wants. But it will likely succeed only if he aligns his game with advancing the public good and not for restoring the electoral fortunes of the UNP.
As a ‘crisis’ President, as he has been calling himself, the President could have taken a different route and facilitated a ‘consociational budget’ by nominating/appointing an outside technical expert as Finance Minister to build parliamentary consensus on details while providing overarching leadership as President. Such an exercise would have won broad political support at home and significant credibility abroad. But that has never been his wont. So, the President made his own budget and now has got his own majority in parliament.
That said, the President’s budget is a politically clever piece of work in the most trying circumstances. It straddles, rather than balance, the restructuring demands of the IMF and the livelihood requisites of Sri Lanka’s growing poor. It even placates the army by downsizing through retirement. The budget is also clever in totally avoiding any mention of the Rajapaksas and their contributions to Sri Lanka’s debt and economic distress. He could not have blamed them in the budget and expected them to vote for it at the same time.
Instead, the President picked on SWRD Bandaranaike using a quote from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew that has been a longstanding table talk topic among Colombo middle classes. He even adds a measure of self-deprecation by alluding to the shortcomings, if not failures, of the 1977 economic changes under JR Jayewardene and calling for a new direction defined by the so called Social Market Economy. The President made a point in repeatedly emphasizing that it was time for governments in Sri Lanka to move away from making ‘popular’ decisions to making ‘right’ decisions. To make a different point, it is time political leaders moved away from blaming the people for their so called popular decisions.
The President deftly sidestepped the issue to say whether the decision of the Gota-regime to do away with taxes was meant to be popular among the people who are now being called upon to pay the price for it with interest. Or was the decision on organic fertilizer meant to be politically unpopular and economically right? Welfare economists are familiar with the false dichotomy between equity and efficiency in economics. Equity with efficiency is amply possible, and efficiency without equity is socially unsustainable. Ranilonomics appears to be expressing the same falsehood using common vocabulary.
The budget is also strikingly optimistic both in regard to economic expectations and in its assumptions about Sri Lanka’s factor endowments – of land, labour and capital. And there are significant omissions of details on the pressing issues of the day: timelines for, and even the likelihood of, securing IMF assistance and debt restructuring; stock and price status of food supplies and backup plans to deal with current and future scarcities; the state of affairs in the petroleum sector which is becoming a costly circus under a runaway cabinet minister; and lastly, no mention of what he plans to do deal with corruption, let alone eliminate it.
A not so curious omission is the deafening silence on the utilization of Port City in the new economic order that the President is assiduously promoting. It is no longer curious because after nearly two decades of political gestation, environmental fudging and oceanic landfilling, the vaunted Port City is virtually dead on arrival. Then there is this singular gem in the budget to feed one’s curiosity – the President’s proposal “to establish an Institution to undertake and facilitate research on the history of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, I propose to allocate Rs. 50 million for this purpose.” Go, figure.
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