Tuesday 18th July, 2023
Much is being talked about the need to eliminate bribery and corruption in Sri Lanka, where these twin evils have become institutionalised. The government and the Opposition are vowing to get tough with the corrupt as if their own members were paragons of virtue! They are making some anti-corruption laws on the anvil out to be a cure-all, but nothing will help usher in good governance unless the rule of law is restored and the existing culture of impunity done away with.
The success of any anti-corruption campaign hinges on the ability of a country to ensure that everyone is equal before the law. The news of the arrest of Singapore’s Transport Minister S. Iswaran in connection with a top-level corruption probe could not have come at a better time where Sri Lanka is concerned.
It has been reported that Singapore’s national anti-graft body, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), obtained Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s permission to arrest Minister Iswaran and question him. PM Loong has reportedly asked Iswaran, who has been released on bail, to take leave of absence. He has emulated his late father Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), who would not have been able to achieve his dream of developing Singapore to the present level but for his successful war on bribery and corruption.
One is reminded of what LKY said about ministers and officials in this part of the world. In his widely read book, From Third World to First, LKY has said: “The higher they are, the bigger their homes and more numerous their wives, concubines, or mistresses, all bedecked in jewelry appropriate to the power and position of their men. Singaporeans who do business in these countries have to take care not to bring home such practices.” When one sees Sri Lankan politicians and bureaucrats enriching themselves and living the life of Riley, one remembers LKY’s memorable words.
All Singaporean politicians who did not heed LKY’s aforesaid warning were severely dealt with. The fate that befell Teh Cheang Wan, the Minister for National Development, is a case in point. When the CPIB launched a probe into an allegation of bribery against him in the mid-1980s, he sought to meet LKY, who refused to see him until the investigation was over.
Wan took his life, and his suicide note said, inter alia, “As an honourable oriental gentleman I feel it is only right that I should pay the highest penalty for my mistake.” If the Sri Lankan ministers had received from their leaders the same treatment as Wan, most of them would have been pushing up the daisies by now, and the vital sectors such as health, education, finance, agriculture and trade and commerce would have been free from corruption, and most of all, substandard drugs and equipment would not have snuffed out so many lives in the state-run hospitals.
The ongoing anti-graft probe against the Transport Minister of Singapore and the exemplary manner in which PM Loong has handled the situation remind us of how Sri Lankan leaders act when allegations of corruption are made against their Ministers. They promptly appoint committees, which invariably clear the ruling party politicians of all charges.
As a result, many men and women of humble origins who did not own even bicycles when they entered politics are living in clover; obviously, they have amassed huge amounts of ill-gotten wealth at the expense of the public, and their corrupt deals are one of the main causes of the country’s bankruptcy. Sri Lankans elect such political dregs and keep wondering why their country is still poor and Singapore has achieved progress! Not for nothing is it said that the people get the government they deserve.
Now that Singapore has set an example to other countries by allowing its anti-graft body to probe one of its ministers and even cause him to be arrested, will it facilitate the extradition of Arjuna Mahendran, one of its citizens, to Sri Lanka, and thereby ensure that he stands trial for his involvement in a mega Treasury bond scam, in 2015, when he was the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka?
Saturday 30th September, 2023
The government and the Opposition may be at daggers drawn, but they do see eye to eye on matters that are mutually beneficial to them, such as the MPs’ perks and privileges, which they jealously guard. Such concord and coadjuvancy, however, are conspicuous by their absence where issues that affect the national interest are concerned. Not even the country’s worst-ever crisis has prompted them to make peace and put their shoulders to the wheel jointly to drag the nation out of economic morass of their own making.
The Opposition has gleefully declared that the IMF bailout programme is dead in the water. It would have the public believe that the IMF delegation, which was here for a review of their programme, left unsatisfied with the government’s revenue shortfall, and the next tranche of the lender’s extended fund facility is not likely to be unlocked. Acting Finance Minister Shehan Semasinghe has denied the Opposition’s claim, insisting that the next installment of the IMF loan will be released soon, after some issues are hashed out with the IMF headquarters.
The Opposition seems to be deriving some perverse pleasure from the fact that the IMF has not announced the release of the second tranche of its loan immediately after the conclusion of the review meeting. It is bashing the government for the revenue shortfall, which the IMF has frowned on.
Taxes and tariffs have already been increased exponentially so much so that many professionals have left the country in a huff never to return; the Ceylon Electricity Board is reported to have asked the Public Utilities Commission’s nod for another price hike. How does the Opposition think the government could increase the state revenue further?
The Opposition insists that it will be able to resolve the economic crisis in next to no time when it forms a government. In other words, it will not reveal what it claims to be its secret formula for economic recovery until such time, regardless of the woes of the hapless public.
Elections are not likely to be held until the latter part of next year, and the Opposition cannot topple the government by parliamentary means anytime soon. Supposing its claim of being able to turn the economy around is true, then one can accuse it of cruelly perpetuating the suffering of the public to advance its political agenda.
The government ought to explain why it has failed to meet its revenue targets in spite of the unbearable economic burden it has heaped on the public by way of unprecedented tax and tariff hikes, which have brought about significant increase in the state revenue, compared to 2022.
This situation may be due to defects in the tax collection process, and the government’s failure to curtail its expenditure and prevent waste, losses caused by corruption and the mismanagement of public resources. If action is taken to sort them out, among other things, it may be possible to turn the economy around sooner than expected.
The Opposition, for its part, ought to keep a watchful eye on the economic recovery process while keeping pressure on the government to ensure frugal management of public resources and make a serious effort to curtail waste and corruption. Regrettably, instead of acting as an alternative government and facilitating economic recovery for the sake of the public, the Opposition has chosen to settle old political scores with some government leaders, bellow rhetoric and cry wolf ad nauseam. It claims that the government has failed, but the question is whether it has not.
The brainless and brain drain
Friday 29th September, 2023
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe government continues to be at loggerheads with irate professionals, who are demanding solutions to their problems. Many of them have already left the country never to return thanks to the government’s callous disregard for their grievances.
University teachers staged a protest in Colombo the other day in a bid to jolt the government into addressing the various issues that affect the education sector, but it is doubtful whether they succeeded in their endeavour. Instead of heeding the voice of the educated Sri Lankans on the warpath, the government has chosen to unleash its propaganda hounds on them.
One of the main issues that drive resentful professionals to street protests is the unbearable personal taxes. They have made it abundantly clear that they are not refusing to pay taxes; they are only demanding some relief, given the unexpected circumstances that have left them struggling to make ends meet. They are also demanding that the country’s tax revenue be properly utilised.
The government does not care to curtail the waste of state resources, as can be seen from the sheer number of politicians and officials junketing overseas at the expense of the public. Why should millions of dollars be spent on their pleasure trips which are made out to be official visits? The Health Ministry has become a metaphor for corruption, but the government continues to defend the Health Minister and corrupt officials. The same goes for all other ministries.
The government is sure to use the IMF’s recent statement that Sri Lanka’s tax revenue is very low to justify its refusal to grant any relief to the protesting professionals. But if it streamlines tax collection, it may be able to increase its tax revenue without squeezing the fixed-income earners dry.
Parliament has reportedly decided to take up the multi-faceted problem of brain drain for debate––at last. The fact that it has not already had an extensive discussion on brain drain, much less striven to find a solution thereto, is proof of the appallingly low priority it has assigned to this vital issue, which will have a bearing on the country’s future.
Regrettably, some government members do not seem to have realised the gravity of brain drain. If their unintelligent utterances in Parliament are anything to go by, they are labouring under the misconception that the exodus of Sri Lankan professionals is not something bad; they have said it will help boost the country’s inward remittances! They have mistakenly equated the mass emigration of the country’s best brains for good with the migration of unskilled workers. Figuring out the gravity of a problem is half the battle in finding a solution.
The worst that can happen to a country is for its educated youth to think they have no future at home, for their disillusionment manifests itself in brain drain, reduced innovation and socio-political unrest. True, brain drain is a global phenomenon that affects all countries to varying degrees, but it becomes a crisis when it assumes exodus proportions, as has been Sri Lanka’s experience. The ever-increasing human capital flight, which has adversely impacted all sectors here, is bound to make the task of resolving the country’s economic crisis even more uphill.
The task of having a comprehensive debate on so complex an issue as brain drain, with emphasis on its causes, consequences and a potential solution, requires brains.
What the so-called people’s representatives on both sides of the House, maintained with public funds, ought to do is to have a decent debate on the issue, confess collectively to having ruined the economy, show some remorse for their wrongful actions and dereliction of duty, resolve to avoid their past mistakes and make a concerted effort to sort out the economy.
If they are going to play the blame game once again, resort to slanging matches replete with invectives and raw filth, and drag one another’s names through the mud, as they often do, they might as well forget about the debate they are scheduled to have on brain drain.
Stats, confusion and contradictions
Thursday 28th September, 2023
Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera is reported to have said at a conference held by the Finance Ministry, on Tuesday (26), that there are more than 4,000 vacancies in the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). According to media reports quoting him, the vacancies at the CEB and the CPC number 1,192 and 3,000, respectively. He is said to have added, in the same breath, that both institutions can manage with the current workforce; his statement must have struck a responsive chord with the public, who must not be made to pay through the nose to maintain overstaffed, inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Minister Wijesekera has left us puzzled, though. In August 2022, he tweeted that there were basically eight reasons for losses incurred by the CPC, and one of them was that it was overstaffed and inefficient, and its workers were overpaid. He reportedly said in a separate tweet that 500 workers could manage the work done by 4,200 workers at the CPC and the Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminals Ltd. (CPSTL), and the CEB did not need more than 50% of the workers currently on its payroll to function efficiently. In April 2023, the media, quoting from an Auditor General’s report, said the CPC and the CPSTL had 4,200 workers whereas the need was for only 500.
How could an institution which is overstaffed have vacancies? Is it that the CEB and the CPC/CPSTL have recruited workers haphazardly for political reasons instead of hiring personnel for the posts that fell vacant? An explanation is called for.
Minister Wijesekera said at the aforesaid conference that he could take advantage of the situation and employ about one thousand people from his home district, Matara, in the CPC/CPSTL and the CEB, but he would not do so. Let him be told that the public is not so naïve as to buy into his claim; he and other government politicians, especially the members of the Rajapaksa family, would have provided employment to their henchmen in the debt-ridden institutions but for the IMF strictures, and the fear that such action would stand in the way the restructuring of the SOEs. Even the worst critics of the IMF must be happy that it has put the government in a straitjacket of sorts.
Surplus staffing in the public sector is a drain on the state coffers, as is obvious. The COPA (Committee on Public Accounts) has recently revealed that the Health Ministry has more than twice the number of doctors required for administrative work while many hospitals are experiencing a shortage of doctors. It is hoped that the government will have the cadre requirements of all state institutions properly assessed and take action to sort out the issue of overstaffing.
A request to Susil
Education Minister Susil Premajayantha has said early childhood education will be made compulsory for all children above the age of four. This, we believe, is a welcome move. According to UNESCO, early childhood education ‘provides learning and educational activities with a holistic approach to support children’s early cognitive, physical, social and emotional development and introduce young children to organised instruction outside the family to develop some of the skills needed for academic readiness and to prepare them for entry into primary education’.
The adverse impact of the neglect of early childhood education on Sri Lankan society is reflected in the behaviour of some adults, especially those in key positions, the deplorable conduct of the Members of Parliament being a case in point. If the behaviour of most MPs during the past few months is any indication, something has gone wrong with their cognitive, social and emotional development. Otherwise, they would have behaved well at least during the country’s worst economic crisis, which they themselves have contributed to, albeit to varying degrees. They cannot even have a decent debate on a national tragedy such as the Easter Sunday terror strikes, which claimed more than 270 lives and left over 500 people injured. They have turned parliamentary debates into slanging matches and punch-ups. There are some decent politicians, but sadly they are the exception that proves the rule.
Thus, we request Education Minister Premajayantha to take steps to ensure that our elected representatives, save a few, are provided with early childhood education, which they have missed. Better late than never. That may be considered what is known as ‘second chance education’ for them.
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