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Midweek Review

Pandemic Policies and Politics in South Asia:

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A Book Review

By Kalinga Tudor Silva

Jayathilake, N., De Silva, S. and Amarajeewa, A. eds. Implications of COVID-19 Pandemic for South Asia: Civil Society Perspectives. Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies in collaboration with Global Partnership for Prevention of Armed Conflict, 2021.

This edited volume published by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies reflects on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on various countries in the South Asian region. This volume differs from much of the emerging body of literature on politics and governance of the pandemic in that it seeks to capture civil society perspectives relating to this public health crisis and humanitarian emergency, with South Asia emerging as a major hotspot of the global pandemic. This is timely and particularly relevant as the pandemic is still unfolding in many parts of South Asia and the related horror stories triggered by the humanitarian crisis in India are presently making global media headlines. As of now, we in Sri Lanka have our own struggle against the virus, with the so-called ‘new year cluster’ attributed to related cultural festivities and the emergence of a more virulent new strain of the virus, triggering a possible third wave of the pandemic. Given all these considerations, this new book deserves our close attention and critical reflection.

The book consists of nine chapters. The first three chapters deal with broader regional and multilateral issues relating to containing the pandemic in South Asia. The remaining chapters review specific country experiences in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, India, and Afghanistan, respectively. The book sets the tone for the volume as follows:

“COVID 19 pandemic is perhaps the most daunting challenge that South Asia has confronted so far in the new millennium. With the outbreak of the pandemic, many unprecedented developments are in motion in South Asia, affecting almost all aspects of social, economic and political life in the region…… South Asia will never be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic.” (p. ix).

Opening chapter by Uyangoda, traces the retreat of democracy and rise of what he calls “executive authoritarianism” particularly in India and Sri Lanka along with the onset of the pandemic. It highlights the systematic way the new regimes in the two countries have consolidated their power deploying exigencies relating to the containment of the pandemic as an excuse to advance authoritarian tendencies, suppress democratic opposition and curtail minority rights in these two of the oldest democracies in Asia. Citizenship Act in India passed immediately before the onset of the pandemic and 20th amendment in Sri Lanka introduced during the pandemic are clear examples of the authoritarian turn in the two countries. Subsequent developments, however, show that playing politics with pandemics, is a rather dangerous game as failures, mismanagement and the resulting public anger can turn against the same rulers who emerged through the pandemic as clearly demonstrated in the outcome of recent elections in India. Also, it must be noted here that the social and political history of epidemic outbreaks indicate that they do not necessarily promote the advancement of autocratic tendencies. They can also result in mass mobilization accompanied by increased democratic participation. For instance, the famous malaria epidemic of 1934-35 did contribute to the politicization of rural masses in Sri Lanka through the mediation of both nationalist and leftist political leaders and the development of the Sri Lankan welfare state as pointed out by several researchers (Jones 2015, Silva 2014, Jayasuriya 2000).

In the second chapter, Joseph and Pandey examine how far the pandemic has contributed towards development of regional cooperation for addressing a formidable common challenge. In their view even though some efforts at multilateral cooperation were made by the South Asian leaders through zoom meetings held at the onset of the pandemic, in the end “each country continued to battle the virus on its own” (P. 31) due to structural problems in SAARC and a variety of unresolved bilateral issues. Even though the chapter says that “there is a realization that COVID-19 is a collective crisis and combating this required coordinated action”, it has not been translated into a concrete program of action at the regional level. The subsequent chapter by Suba Chandran and others argue that the pandemic has served to reinforce conflict dynamics in the region, whether we are talking about bilateral issues between the countries or internal conflict dynamics within each country such as ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka.

Country-specific analysis in chapters four to nine provide empirical support to many of the arguments provided in the previous chapters. Chapter Four on Sri Lanka by Senanayake and others, for instance, points to the militarization of the pandemic response in Sri Lanka and its implications for engagement with minorities and civil society. While the military did play a useful role in terms of expanding health infrastructure and managing quarantine facilities at a time when the state encountered serious resource constraints, the use of military intelligence in contact tracing, the privacy issues encountered by suspected patients and their contacts and any resulting stigmatization processes particularly where socially marginalized vulnerable people on the other side of the law such as substance users are exposed to the pandemic, pose serious problems from the angles of human rights, trust building and compliance. The chapter notes that the pandemic response in Sri Lanka involved the formation of three different task forces set up under section 33 of the constitution. The members of these task forces were handpicked by the president through his inner network of allies and were directly reporting to him with no clear guidelines about the tasks assigned to them and with no accountability to the public at large. What the chapter does not point out is that these politically constituted task forces totally exclude experts in several relevant fields such as social sciences, social work, law and gender relations or any credible representatives of civil society. As a result, when it came to sensitive issues such as addressing the legitimate demand for burial rights by Muslims, task forces did not have any knowledgeable persons who could express their professional opinions on the subject and address the problem sympathetically and following appropriate public health guidelines, also countering unfounded claims by the so-called ‘patriotic scientists’ (Rambukwella 2020).

Chapters on other countries in the region clearly illustrate that civil society is engaged in the struggle against COVID-19 side by side with the state agencies and the private sector in a variety of challenging circumstances and under different political regimes. It is increasingly evident that the struggle against the pandemic is multi-pronged, carried out at economic, social, political, and epidemiological fronts at the same time, long-term and needs to be regularly updated and adapted to changing circumstances. The role of civil society organizations ranges from fund raising, relief services targeting underserved communities in particular, rights-based interventions, advocacy work on behalf of affected people such as women, people with disabilities, migrant workers, urban poor and people in different stages of exposure to the disease, treatment, quarantine and recovery processes. While law enforcement and policing do have a role to play in disease prevention and control, a community-based approach informed by evidence and supported by community leaders at various levels is necessary to promote community mobilization and preparedness, healthy behaviours, compliance, and satisfactory adjustment to the new normal. A purely statist approach to contain the pandemic carried out with a cohort of loyalists, political henchmen and yes men and not guided by a critical reflection on evidence and community responses is bound to fail at this crucial moment when decisions made can make or break the future of humanity.

References

Jayasuriya, L. (2000). Welfarism and Politics in Sri Lanka: Experiences of a Third World Welfare State. Perth: University of Western Australia.

Jones, M. (2015). Sri Lankan Path to Health for All from the Colonial Period to Alma Ata. In A. Medcalf et al. eds. Health for All: The Journey of Universal Health Coverage. Hyderabad: Blackswan.

Rambukwella, Harshana. (2020). Patriotic Science: The Coronavirus Pandemic, Nationalism, and Indigeneity. University of Zurich Political Geography blog, June 3, 2020.

Silva, K.T. (2014). Decolonisation, Development and Disease: A Social History of Malaria in Sri Lanka. Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

 

 



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Midweek Review

State of national economy, scandalous SUV order and fuel price hikes

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A smiling PM Mahinda Rajapaksa takes SLPP membership from SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris in late 2018 at the former’s Wijerama Mawatha residence while Sagara Kariyawasam, General Secretary of the Party, now embroiled in simmering controversy, looks on.

 

Trade Minister says Prez does not bring money from Mirihana or PM from Medamulana

 

By Shamindra Ferdinando

What is the current state of the economy? How can the public determine the state of the economy? Let me briefly refer to recent statements made, both in and outside Parliament, by members of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) on the state of the economy. The issue, at hand, is whether the incumbent government is competent to cope up with the situation.

Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardane (SLPP/Colombo District), Energy Minister Attorney-at-Law Udaya Gammanpila (PHU/Colombo), Urban Development and State Minister of Coast Conservation, Waste Disposal and Community Cleanliness Dr. Nalaka Godahewa (SLPP/Gampaha District) lucidly explained ground realities. They painted an extremely bleak picture. Perhaps, they haven’t done so intentionally, to place the government in a difficult situation. However, their assessment certainly underscores the responsibility on the part of the government to review its strategies, without further delay.

Twelve years after the conclusion of the war against terrorism, the national economy is in tatters. The deterioration of the economy cannot be entirely blamed on the rampaging global pandemic, Covid-19.

Political parties may seek to take cover behind the pandemic, conveniently forgetting how waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence withered the economy. Obviously, the pandemic has accelerated the decay and the government is in an unprecedented crisis. Vast majority of people are struggling to make ends meet against the rapidly worsening situation.

Those responsible (both UNP and SLFP members of Parliament in the 2015-2019 yahapalana administration cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility) for Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016, are now advising the SLPP on how to manage the economy. Interestingly, the SLFP is a constituent of the ruling SLPP, whereas those who stood with the Treasury bond thieves, now represent the Samagi Jana Balavegaya. There is never a dull day in utterly corrupt Sri Lankan politics.

 

‘Government unable to bear continuing losses’

Lawmaker Gammanpila made two damning statements as regards the state of the economy – at the Energy Ministry, on June 3, and at another briefing, at the same venue, on June 11. Unfortunately, the former Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) heavyweight’s critical comments didn’t receive sufficient media attention.

Addressing the media, on June 3, at his Ministry, Minister Gammanpila admitted that heavily debt ridden and cash-strapped government and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) weren’t in a position to procure USD 3 bn loan (USD 3,000 mn) required for a new oil refinery at Sapugaskanda. Therefore the funding required for what Minister Gammanpila described as the country’s largest single project to be carried out following competitive bidding had to be external investment (read outside the government).

Declaring that the proposed refinery project will be the biggest ever industrial venture undertaken, Minister Gammanpila declared that all major previous undertakings had been carried out, sans competitive biddings. The declaration was made after he admitted that altogether the Hambantota port (USD 1,350), Norochcholai coal-fired plant (USD 900mn), the Mattala airport, and the Colombo-Katunayake highway, cost USD 2,916, whereas the proposed Sapugaskanda refinery project is estimated to cost a staggering USD 3,000mn. PHU leader Gammanpila’s admission there hadn’t been competitive bidding, in respect of previous major projects, is nothing but an indictment of the previous Rajapaksa administration, or the system in place.

Minister Gammanpila’s declaration that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation Act (No. 28 of 1961) would have to be amended to pave the way for USD 3 bn investment, triggered accusations the government was planning to privatize the state venture. The lawmaker described the proposed Sapugaskanda project as a BOT (Build, Operate and Transfer) basis enterprise with it reverting to Sri Lankan ownership once the investor recoups his investment.

The ministerial claim that the government refrained from increasing fuel prices for 21 months is a grim reminder the public cannot expect the truth from politicians. Or did they keep quiet expecting a miracle rescue like their earlier faith in Dhammika Peniya (syrup) and the hocus-pocus of pouring contents of some earthenware containers into a river to tackle the pandemic?

At the June 11 briefing, Minister Gammanpila commented on the imminent fuel price increase, in addition to the proposed Sapugaskanda project. Gammanpila explained that the government’s inability to bear further losses against the backdrop of the pandemic driven collapse of the tourism sector, halt in foreign investment, sharp drop in foreign remittances, hence the hiking of the fuel prices with the world market price of crude topping USD 70 per barrel. The Minister declared that it would be quite a challenge to procure the required fuel, amidst the foreign exchange crisis.

Responding to strong JVP criticism of the Sapugaskanda project, Minister Gammanpila pointed out that the USD 3 bn estimate was based on a pre-feasibility report, prepared before him being appointed the Energy Minister. The forthright politician declared that once they finalized feasibility study a better understanding of the project could be had.

The bottom line is that the country lacked wherewithal to undertake a major infrastructure project.

 

Total collapse of revenue sources professed

State Minister Dr. Godahewa, during an inspection tour, on June 09, of Sarakkuwa and Dungalpitiya areas badly affected by the sinking of the fire-ravaged X-Press Pearl container carrier, didn’t mince his words when he explained the state of the national economy. Dr. Godahewa, who had served the private sector quite efficiently, before turning to party politics, explained the pathetic state of the national economy. What he said was simply frightening. Assuring the SLPP’s commitment to provide relief to those who had been affected, Dr. Godahewa declared that one fourth of state revenue had been spent on ongoing efforts to bring the Covid-19 epidemic under control. Dr. Godahewa asserted that the government faced the prospect of total collapse of state revenue. The State Minister’s assertion cannot be taken lightly.

Making reference to Rs. 5,000 relief allowance paid to selected groups of people, on four occasions, the former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission estimated that so far the government spent over Rs 250 billion for Covid-19 control/relief work.

Trade Minister Gunawardane, too, bitterly complained about the state of the economy in Parliament. His June 8 speech, in the relatively empty Parliament, underscored the pathetic situation. The government seemed quite helpless and in a deepening dilemma over the absence of wherewithal to meet daunting challenges. In his own way, Minister Gunawardane admitted that public finance was in quite a distressing position. The COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPA (Committee of Public Accounts) and COPF (Committee on Public Finance) should take tangible remedial measures to redirect Sri Lanka’s from its disastrous path.

In spite of making quite horrendous revelations about waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence, the parliamentary watchdog committees haven’t been able to bring runaway corruption under control. Those who had been exposed at COPE proceedings continue in their nefarious activities with impunity. The national carrier, SriLankan Airlines is a case in point. In last week’s column, titled ‘How public sector corruption withers national economy: RJ’s insight,’ the writer dealt with the late Rajeewa Jayaweera’s damning reportage of the national carrier. RJ left SriLankan Airlines, in 2005, not in 1995, as inadvertently mentioned. RJ’s brother, Sanjeewa Jayaweera (SJ) brought the error to the writer’s notice. But, what really interested me was SJ’s observation that the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on SriLankan Airlines, Mihin Air et al prepared following 12 months of sittings during yahapalana rule hasn’t been released, nor any action initiated against the wrongdoers.

RJ’s 41 articles on the national carrier revealed how those who managed the SriLankan Airlines and political authority defied laws of the land and continue to do so. The accumulated losses suffered by the national airline now stand at a staggering Rs. 326 bn with the two-state banks – BOC and People’s Bank – continuing to bear the losses.

Minister Gunawardane explained the country’s economic woes, bluntly. Acknowledging that the national economy was in dire straits and if budget shortfall couldn’t be met, through domestic and foreign loans, there was no option but to sell-off assets. Having compared how a government and a family struggled to manage shortfall income, the former reputed economics tuition master recommended selling of national assets. The SLPP certainly owed an explanation whether Minister Gunawardane articulated its position.

Minister Gunawardane told the stark truth to the House that neither Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also the Finance Minister, nor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would bring money from Medamulana or Mirihana to solve the unprecedented financial woes facing the country. Emphasizing the responsibility of Parliament, in respect of public finance, Minister Gunawardena emphasized 225 members of Parliament (regardless of political parties they represented) were responsible for taxpayers’ money.

 

Sharp hike in fuel price amidst Covid time bonanza

Minister Gammanpila’s Friday announcement, on fuel price hike, came as quite a surprise. That move flabbergasted the public, as much as the shameless decision to procure 228 Toyota Land Cruisers did in late May. Of the 399 vehicles ordered, 225 were for members of Parliament, made up of SLPP 145, SJB 54, TNA 10, JJB 3 (JVP contested under the JJB banner), AITC 2, EPDP 2, UNP 1, SLFP 1 and OPPP, TMVP, MNA, TMTK, ACMC, NC and SLMC one each. Among the beneficiaries is the sole UNP National List member though yet to take oaths as an MP. Obviously super luxury Toyota Land Cruisers are ordered for 225 members of Parliament. If so, the government should reveal the lucky recipients of the three remaining SVUs. Such luxury vehicles for lawmakers, at a time the country is experiencing severe economic difficulties, cannot be justified under any circumstances. Now JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has questioned the rationale in ordering SUVs for 225 members, the JVP should ask the Secretary General of Parliament Dhammika Dasanayake whether the three JVPers, in Parliament, were included in the list of those destined to receive brand new vehicles. Did the Finance Ministry submit a Cabinet paper that dealt with 399 vehicles, including those intended for MPs without seeking their approval? The JJB parliamentary group comprised Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Vijitha Herath and Dr. Harini Amarasuriya.

The contentious issue at hand is whether the Finance Ministry placed an order for SVUs for MPs without asking the consent of all members of Parliament, representing 15 recognized political parties?

Media Minister and co-Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella is on record as having said that though the Prime Minister’s Office announced the cancellation of the 399 vehicle order, against the backdrop of financial difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the government may not be able to do so because Letters of Credit had already been opened. Amidst the growing public anger over the squandering of public funds to acquire luxury vehicles for MPs, Minister Rambukwella, on June 11, declared that the Finance Ministry, and other parties to the Rs 3.7 bn transaction, following successful negotiations, has cancelled the vehicles for lawmakers.

It would be pertinent to mention that the Prime Minister’s Office on May 20 indicated the impending fuel price hike. A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said that the government was seriously concerned about the rising price of crude oil in the world market from 2020 and an upward revision was imminent.

However, what really stunned the public was General Secretary of the SLPP Attorney-at-Law Sagara Kariyawasam questioning the fuel price hike. National List MP Kariyawasam asked whether the unexpected increase was meant to undermine the SLPP administration. The MP faulted Energy Minister Gammanpila for the situation.

Hiru presenter Chamuditha Samarawickrema last Sunday (13) ridiculed lawmaker Kariyawasam’s declaration. Samarawickrema, who had been recently embroiled in a controversy over make-up artist Chandimal Jayasinghe and Public Security Minister, retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, having functions at the Shangri-La hotel, on May 30 and May 28, respectively urged MP Kariyawasam not to stage dramas.

The Hiru anchor questioned Kariyawasam’s accusation that Minister Gammanpila did so to cause trouble for the government.

The government obviously is in deep trouble. It should explain why such expensive SUVs were ordered for lawmakers, in May, against the backdrop of the rapid deterioration of the nation’s financial position. The country got to know of the despicable decision to place an order for SVUs only after the Prime Minister’s Office through a public announcement claimed to have cancelled in the fourth week of May.

 

CPC saves USD 300 mn

COPE, PAC and COPF proceedings, since the last general election, revealed waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence. Inquiries that had dealt with public sector enterprises over the past two decades, exposed public-private sector partnerships in utterly wasteful and corrupt practices. So much so that today’s financial crisis cannot be examined without taking into consideration extremely poor management of state enterprises, and public and private sector cooperation, at the high level, to rob the country. Two such glaring examples are the Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, by the Yahapalana administration, and the massive sugar tax scam, carried out by the SLPP. The JVP is on record as having alleged that the sugar tax scam is far worse than even the Treasury bond scams. The high profile sugar scam couldn’t have been executed without the issuance of gazette bearing No 2197/12 dated Oct 13, 2020 by the Finance Ministry. That resulted in the immediate replacement of Rs 50 duty on a kilo of imported sugar with a mere 25 cents. In spite of COPF Chairman lawmaker Anura Priyadarshana Yapa’s declaration, on January 05, 2021 that the consumers didn’t benefit at all from duty reduction the government has conveniently forgotten the matter. The SLPP should be ashamed of its role in such corrupt practices.

Perusal of proceedings of COPE, COPA and COPF underscored those in political authority as well as officials who ruined the national economy. As the writer mentioned before, the ruination of SriLankan Airlines is just one example. Both the SLFP and the UNP ruined the national carrier in style is certainly nothing to be surprised about. They dealt with all state sector enterprises in a similar way. The way procedures have been manipulated to rob the country is another story. Proceedings in respect of procurement of coal required by Norochcholai revealed unprecedented corruption. But, absolutely nothing has been done. No action whatsoever has been taken against corrupt elements, though shocking revelations have been made in Parliament.

Would you believe the statements issued by the Prime Minister’s Office and Energy Minister Gammanpila, as regards the status of crude oil prices, were contradictory? However, the Communication Department of Parliament recently revealed that the CPC saved USD 300 mn in 2020 due to the drop in crude oil prices in the world market as well as some other factors. This came to light during COPE proceedings, thanks to a query raised by SJB member S.M. Marikkar.

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Midweek Review

Shamelessness!

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By Sasanka Perera

Meng Ke (also known as Mencius), the Chinese philosopher, who lived between 372 BC and 289 BC, has been in my mind lately for what he said on ‘shame’ and ‘shamelessness’ all those years ago. According to him, “a man must not be without shame, for the shame of being without shame is shamelessness indeed.” Feeling shameful for doing something wrong is necessarily a core foundation for the emotional and ethical development of a person as well as the society in which he or she lives. Meng Ke’s thoughts came to my mind because of what has been happening in contemporary Lanka in all spheres of society for quite some time. We seem to be experiencing a virtual and concerted dismantling of all notions of shame as if it is a moment of national reckoning. And we seem to have largely succeeded too. This dismantling of shame is most clear in the multiple dramas that relentlessly unfold in the country’s public sphere. In these dramas, the stars, the supporting characters, script-writers, directors and producers are politicians, government officials, public figures, academics and so on. Simply look at a handful of examples.

It is truly mindboggling that a seasoned politician, supposedly representing what is left of Lanka’s Left, like Vasudeva Nanayakkara said in late May in response to the X-Press Pearl disaster that the country would receive a large package of compensation from the company that owned this stricken ship even as he acknowledged that the incident had impacted the country’s natural environment negatively for years to come. There was no mention of how a ship was allowed to come so close to the country’s shoreline when Lanka had no local capacities to deal with the kind of disaster that ultimately did happen. Besides, this is a country run by a regime whose war cry not so long ago was ‘national security.’ A few thousand dollars that may or may not come to the state coffers seems to make everything ok. Very clearly, Nanayakkara has lost both his commonsense and ethics while also shedding his ability to be ashamed.

Then, look at the case of the veritable ‘return of the mummy.’ That is, the decision taken by the United National Party after many moons of deliberation to send its discredited leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who led the party to an abject defeat in the last parliamentary election to Parliament again on the infamous National List. What is worse is Wickremesinghe’s complete lack of shame or guilt in accepting such a responsibility. Was there absolutely no one else in the party who could represent it in Parliament other than Wickremesinghe? But then, the National List itself has also become a list of shame through which incorrigible political nitwits from all parties creep into parliament, often after continuous years of nefarious lives and after lives in politics — barring a few.

The country’s entire COVID-19 vaccination programme is a public performance in shamelessness. It unravelled from the beginning simply due to crude politics of favoritism engineered quite openly by all sorts of politicians aligned to the state. Sri Lanka had inherited a reasonably well-tuned apparatus of public health over the years, learning from its engagement with the anti-malaria and anti-polio campaigns, among many others. What has been learned from decades of well-run elections could also have been used to build a fair and equitable vaccination programme, which by all accounts was in place. But from the very beginning, this has been unraveled by politicians taking over the programmes in their local areas, giving priority to family members, neighbours and political supporters not to mention the LKR 5000 per jab that was illegally charged in a number of places for something that is supposed to be free. The most recent and notorious example was the public fiasco created by the Mayor of Moratuwa when government officials were trying to implement the programme according to an approved plan. But the man wanted it to be done according to ‘His List.’ And again, the List.

And while all this is happening in broad daylight, public officials trying to protect the environment are routinely and consistently vilified by elected representatives of the people as anti-development agents. The Forest Officer in Gampaha was confronted not too long ago by the regime’s politicians and their supporters for trying to do her job. She was asked, “What is the use of oxygen?” (ඔක්සිජන් කන්නද?) And anything in the environment that can be raped for profit seems to be up for grabs, from deforestation to illegal sand mining. While these activities are reliably reported from around the country, the government’s main approach has been to muscle the discontent over these matters rather than to address the issues.

In the midst of the continuing pandemic, where the virus now seems to have outsmarted the government, the regime has ordered hundreds of brand-new luxury vehicles at an exorbitant cost for members of Parliament while asking for public donations to fight the pandemic and restricting the importation of many goods – including ordinary vehicles of people. This was also the time that ordinary people were facing starvation, mounting unemployment and anxiety over their futures. To take a decision to import luxury cars in these conditions can only done by a group of people who cannot even be described by the word ‘vulgar.’ As shameless as our MPs are, the most outlandish reasons were given to justify this decision. But that is precisely what happens when shame has left our consciousness. It is a different matter that the vulgar performance in excessive consumption has been momentarily postponed due to the outpouring of loud public anger.

And where is the Opposition in all this? The main opposition led by Sajith Premadasa seems to have become a veritable branch office of the government. Its present role as Opposition gives us even more room to fear for our collective future. If this motley crew are to form the next government — again with a very short supply of shame and intelligence — what would become of us? And the JVP, with its stagnant voter-base admittedly utters everything right in Parliament and exposes acts of corruption and abuse of power like a good Opposition should. But no one seems to listen. In their single-minded lack of imagination, party members strut around in their little red caps and tiresome revolutionary rhetoric, which has steadfastly ensured their vote base will never increase beyond a point. Why? Because ordinary people fear that however honest they might sound, if in power, they might end up nationalizing their refrigerator, microwave oven while taking over their cars for a collective transport scheme and ban their kids from going to school in private transport. In this time and age, image matters, and an old revolutionary image does not help even though what needs to be done in the future cannot be achieved short of a radical revolution in ideas and attitudes at large. It is shameful when something this simple does not penetrate the gray matter of our comrades.

And as if this were not enough in the realm of national shamelessness, a well-known university academic with the aid of numerous national newspapers has found himself in the middle of a dubious campaign to claim that his Sinhala language movie has made it to the competitive rounds of the Cannes Film festival. The problem is neither the organizers at Festival or any other reasonable film portal seems to know anything about this seeming victory. Shamelessness is obviously not a simple matter of politics.

This is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to lack of shame in public life in our country. This is happening everywhere and at all levels. What exactly is going on? Things had not been this bad until the present dispensation came to power. The bottom line is that those with access to power do not seem to give a damn about the nefarious and clearly wrong or unethical activities they are openly engaging in. Why? Because more than any time before in our country, laws mean very little to the well-connected and trust in justice and fair play have significantly eroded. Clearly, there are no consequences for engaging in what is wrong in terms of the law and in terms of ethics. With this, what social utility would shame have as a deterrent? It seems to me that there are two related attributes that individuals lose when their overall sense of shame disappears. That is, their commonsense and their understanding and appreciation of ethics.

In this scheme of things, the public are expected to be mute viewers of the shameless dramas the powerful routinely engage in even though often, the public also become part of all this by living in blind faith right through these dramas. That is why many ordinary people, including close relatives and friends seem to have become card-carrying members of the shameless bandwagon. They hardly benefit finically by repeating the most mind bogglingly unintelligent excuses for the worst excesses. But they keep on repeating these lies. It seems, to acknowledge the reality is too much of a civilization burden to bear, and they somehow need to find a way to ensure that the flood of pubic shame sweeping us into inglorious eternity should somehow be made invisible and unnarrated — as if these things did not happen in the first place.

 

Not so long ago our country used to be what Tamler Sommers referred to in Why Honour Matters as an ‘honour culture,’ which relied on shame to keep its conscience intact. It is as part of inculcating ourselves into such an honuor culture that our collective sense of lejja (shame) and baya (fear) played a crucial role, particularly in Sinhala popular culture. That is, refraining from doing something wrong for the fear of being publicly shamed. But while the Sinhalas may have had a popular terminology for it, everyone else contributed to the ethics this sensibility entailed. But today, as Sommers note, in place of this idea of shame, what prevails “is an epidemic of shamelessness.” And our country, its leaders, its politics and its people with countless excuses to justify what is wrong and unenlightened, has become a textbook case of this epidemic. To survive and to be masters of this shameless and guiltless world devoid of ethics, one must master the art of not seeing what one does not want to see. I think Salman Rushdie explains this best in the Enchantress of Venice when he outlines the aftermath of Marco Vespucci’ death when he hung himself after being spurned by Alessandra Fiorentina: “His body dangled from the Bridge of the Graces, but Alessandra Fiorentina never saw it … because Alessandra had long ago perfected the art of seeing only what she wanted to see, which was an essential accomplishment if you wanted to be one of the world’s masters and not its victim.” It seems to me our leaders and their supporters have become highly accomplished local Alessandra Fiorentinas and opt to see only what they want. Those of us who are cursed to see what actually happens and are burdened with a conscience and a fear of shame might have no choice other than to embrace an end not too dissimilar to Marco Vespucci. And our end will be made further invisible by the erasing gaze of prevailing shamelessness.

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Midweek Review

On decolonising SL universities

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By Susantha Hewa

Whether we like it or not, the world is market driven, and business interests more or less impact all social institutions, education being one of the most important. This can be easily seen in most university qualified students’ primary concern about which degree programme will pave the way for getting a well-paid job as early as possible after university, as Kaushalya Herath (KH) correctly points out in her article titled “Decolonising SL universities” appearing in The Island of 8th June.

It is apparent that over the years the courses of study offered in our universities have increasingly been influenced by direct and indirect demands of the corporate sector which has resulted in the gradual sidelining of arts subjects. However, one has to agree that science has been put “in the service of humanity” just as much as arts or even more, as many would argue. Moreover, it is doubtful whether “critical learning, that produce[s] passionate thinkers, as well as contextually relevant knowledge” can be wholly credited to arts studies to the exclusion of science studies, as KH seems to suggest in the last sentence of the first paragraph of her article. One may find a whole host of critical and passionate thinkers among science scholars; Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell easily come to mind.

The problem lies, as KH herself correctly asserts, with the increasing tendency to use universities to produce “employable graduates” to cater to the global market economy. For example, it isn’t out of love for Shakespeare that university syllabuses have given the pride of place to “soft skills” (in English). The liaison between employability and English language skills is so firmly established that today hardly any undergraduate would be able to make a two-minute speech on “employable graduates” without using the term “soft skills.” Every conceivable professional is expected to be a glib salesperson who knows how to talk his way through.

In fact, the label “unemployable graduates” is being given ever more superfluous legitimacy in this context where undergraduates’ “soft skills” are becoming more marketable than their academic achievements. This becomes patently clear when, for example, today’s private sector employers show an unconcealed admiration of candidates who are glib talkers of English even if their academic records may leave much to be desired. As such, at job interviews for engineers, for example, students with relatively poor academic records stand a better chance of getting the job over those who have excelled in academic studies without sufficient English language skills to match. In short, be warned that if you want to succeed in becoming an “employable” engineer, your “soft skills” count more than your grades in engineering at the job interview! In other words, even science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects), which easily outcompete arts subjects in terms of “status” in tertiary education are eclipsed by “soft skills.”

There is no doubt that gaining a good command of any language is an asset to anyone and is the primary purpose of learning a second language. However, elevating it to such a stately position in a university curriculum simply to cater to the needs of the corporate world is a textbook example of commercial interests prevailing over academic concerns. That the private sector appreciates a candidate’s language fluency solely on its acquired utility value in the market world shows why such recognition is not given to fluency in Sinhala or Tamil in the present Sri Lankan context. If Mandarin happened to be the “international language” in our part of the world any time soon, “soft skills” would automatically mean fluency in Mandarin.

The extent to which the needs of the global market influences the mindset of students can be seen in the way science stream students choose their subjects from STEM- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How many AL mathematics stream students seeking university admission would select science and mathematics in preference to engineering and technology? Or, for that matter, how many AL biology stream students would select bio-science over medicine? The fact is even if universities were to offer only STEM subjects and eliminate arts and humanities altogether from their curricular, students wouldn’t be free from the all-pervasive influence of corporate interests. Obviously, engineering and technology would beat science and mathematics hands down in a contest designed to lure corporate giants. As such, it is little wonder that arts and humanities cut no ice with any profit-oriented system of economics.

The term “employability,” despite being the buzzword in producing graduates today, cannot help giving you the uneasy feeling that higher education is a way of ending up being hired by someone-a cog in a giant corporate machine. It would be a hopelessly inadequate ending if we were to consider education as a major contributor to civilization. Instead of originality, excitement and vitality that tend to accompany a more informed notion of education, “employability” seems to associate conformity, tedium and lethargy. Such negative feelings would be the complete antithesis of what education can and should bring about if it were to realize its full potential. Yet, such a gross incongruity is unavoidable when education is pared to be nothing more than an endless supplier of “hands” in an all-encompassing profit earning venture.

Commenting on the world’s fixation with boosting the speed of Internet connections and the efficacy of Big Data algorithms, historian Yuval Noah Harari says: “We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-cows hardly maximise the human potential.” Even those who would not necessarily agree with Harari’s views on the advancement of human civilisation would not have any difficulty in seeing the relevance of this contention in the context of today’s market oriented tertiary education.

If we were to agree that education could do more than spawning technically-skilled people to be employed as tools to sustain economy, it had better change gear to tap more of latent human potential. However, it would be nothing short of fantasizing if one expects an education essentially moulded to cater to the dynamics of a globalised market economy to change track in favour of initiating broader human interests that are not marketable.

It would be futile to think of separating university education from its glorified mission of providing “employable graduates” until all of life’s concerns remain subsumed by the cash nexus and consumerism. It is true that humans have been breaking away from myth-regulated small bands and forming ever expanding communities under more general “banners” throughout history. However, since money came to govern all man-made systems, we have not been able to break free from its spell. To what extent hunter gatherers depended on hunting skills for survival, to that extent do we depend today on what is now made available as education for our upkeep, however more sophisticated it may be than the life in the wild. The raw link between what you learned and how “securely” you lived in those days has proved to be resistant to date defying all historical and cultural changes. Surely, what you choose to learn today and your success in it guarantee much more than three square meals. However, “hunting” remains to be name of the game with money skulking around; a minority merrily hunts for “excess” while the majority still continues to hunt to keep the wolf from the door.

The notion that natural sciences are at war with arts is rather misleading. Both arts and sciences are equally important products of human potential and are helpful in making societies more and more refined. Some students are truly passionate about natural sciences while others are fond of arts and humanities. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either inclination. Furthermore, critical thinking and philosophising are not unique to either stream. The problem is that the corporate world favours STEM subjects as they are grist to its mill and, as a result, has produced an unwelcome hierarchy between the two equally human friendly streams.

KH seems to be optimistic that “develop[ing] mechanisms to understand and theorise local knowledge systems” and “indigenis[ing] knowledge production” will be helpful in minimising the commercialization of university curricular. Such changes alone do not seem to serve the purpose because our country cannot function in a “vacuum” and our political and economic systems are not any more favourable to a chaste academically oriented education than those of other countries.

Even if we entirely replaced the existing tertiary education with “indigenous systems” it would not be possible to prevent the new system from being absorbed by the global economy since separating our politics and economics from the rest of the world is unthinkable. Knowledge systems wouldn’t be either innately “good” or “harmful” depending on whether they are produced here or elsewhere. Hence, to slip into excessive “nationalism” by being trapped in a self/other binary in knowledge production might prove more harmful than productive. KH implies this when she says, “How the universities can decolonize and indigenize knowledge production without going into the other extreme of nationalism is a bit tricky and will require dialogue and reflection.”

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