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SYSTEM CHANGE, NOT IN MY LIFETIME!

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

For a short time, the word “system change” was on the lips of many, spoken, shouted, and written with a great deal of passion and hope. The resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cabinet was expected to be the beginning of the much sought-after and looked forward to system change.

System change may have meant different things to many. Still, there was universal agreement that the way politicians ruled this island nation needed to change. Notably, a new set of people not tainted with allegations of criminal activity, corruption, nepotism, and incompetence should take charge of governing the nation.

It was generally acknowledged that for decades our country had been systematically destroyed and plundered by those we had elected without even a whimper from most of us. A few who understood the precipitous level to which the economy had descended raised the red flag when Gotabaya Rajapaksa(GR) was elected President and implemented shocking changes to the country’s tax regime that significantly reduced government revenue. A debilitating pandemic made the journey to bankruptcy faster than predicted. But, as was the case, too many in the know kept their mouths shut which emboldened those reposed with managing the country’s economy to experiment with reckless policies that defied logic.

Recently in the United Kingdom, Liz Truss, the newly appointed PM, had to eat humble pie and quickly reverse several contentious tax cuts. However, our President, his government, and the Gang of Four steadfastly, stubbornly, and stupidly carried on to destroy our country’s economy.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the long power cuts and queuing up for days to buy a packet of powdered milk, a cylinder of cooking gas and fuel. The acknowledgment that the country was officially bankrupt, the collapse of the rupee and the steep increase in prices of essential goods impacted every segment of the population, even if the severity was not the same. Finally, it dawned on a few that a stand must be made, and our contempt and displeasure should be expressed outside the confines of our homes, offices, and cocktail parties.

Arising from the discontent, a few English-speaking middle-class professionals organized silent protests in Colombo’s suburbs, holding placards and a candle to express their frustration and anger towards the government. The number of protest locations increased, and the placards were more explicit in condemning GR and his government.Not many, including myself, took these protests seriously and expected them to die naturally. All that changed when the demonstration organized in Mirihana near GR’s home became a battle between the protesters and the police. There was no doubt that “muscle power” had been added to the previously largely middle-class group.

After that, it quickly progressed to setting up a protest site in Galle Face that attracted a sizable segment of youth. The slogan “Gota Go Home” became a rallying cry for the people to express their anger toward the President and his government. The word “Aragalaya” became the catchphrase for the protest movement.

The momentum remained with the protesters, despite the President making certain cosmetic changes by replacing a few individuals in the cabinet, the central bank, and the treasury. The violence that erupted on May 9 changed the country’s mood and political landscape, with Ranil Wickeamesinghe (RW) appointed the PM. The destruction of several SLPP MP’s private residences and the murder of a member of parliament (MP) resulted in many going into hiding and fearing for their lives.

The events of July 9, when thousands of young and not-so-young protesters marched on and forcibly entered the Presidential palace, resulted in GR fleeing the country and subsequently RW being voted by a majority of MPs as the new President. So, if the objective of the “Aragalaya” was only the replacement of the President, PM and the Cabinet, then it has been somewhat achieved. I say somewhat because the incumbent PM and many in the cabinet are still from the previously failed government of GR.

As someone who worked in the private sector for more than a quarter century and was involved in industries such as hotels, manufacturing, and retail, I support the need for an IMF program and its recommended reforms. We need reforms to rectify decades of bad governance and corruption, and to enable these, a stable government and peace in the country is a prerequisite. Many entrepreneurs have articulated that the initial goal of “Gota Go Home” has been achieved, and now his successor should be given time to rebuild the economy and reset the country.

An often cited justification is that the aragalaya was a spontaneous civil society movement without any visible and structured leadership that could be considered an alternative to the current crop of incompetent and crooked politicians. The violence that erupted on May 9 and July 9 is also a factor that concerned many, although many would privately agree that it was the muscle power of the youth that delivered.

On the other side of the coin, I am confident that RW will not facilitate the desired system change. He is a product and an entrenched representative of the political system that is so corrupt and needs to be changed. He is no less responsible for what the country today is and the suffering being endured. The people rejected RW and his party decisively at the last General Election. As a result, he lost his seat in the heartland of Colombo which previously was the bastion of support for his party.

That RW felt he should accept the appointment of PM and, after that, as President despite less than 300,00 people voting for him and his party is an affirmation of how rotten the system is. His accession to power through a manipulated system will define his Presidency.

Once again, the choice before us seems to be between the devil and the deep blue sea. No doubt the economy needs a stable government, but the majority also wants to see an end to the culture of political entitlement. We need common decency and values and compliance with the rule of law to replace the culture of impunity, rampant corruption and wheeler-dealing that pervades politics in our island nation.In terms of the system change that I want for my country, the important ones are as follows:

Politicians who are not corrupt

We had lived for several decades with rampant corruption that has become a way of life for politicians and has unfortunately permeated down the ranks. That there are no checks and balances and that corruption could be practiced with impunity has been accepted by society with a shrug and a muttering of “monawa karanada, loku ung paga gahanawane.”

Many believe corruption’s economic and social impact on our country is the most significant cause of our current predicament. I remember my father, a retired public servant and civil activist, being interviewed along with a politician on TV about 20 years ago. My father, known for his outspoken and fearless views, said, “In my opinion, all politicians are crooks.” The politician quickly interjected by saying, “Aiyo, Mr. Jayaweera, that is not a fair comment. Some of us are honest.”

My father smiled; many who knew him closely understood what he thought of the response and left it at that. However, about 15 years later, the same politician who was then a cabinet minister, when questioned at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry as to who paid the rent for his luxury penthouse apartment, said, “I do not know.”

I am sure what my father said on TV that day is believed by many to be the gospel truth. It is necessary that an independent commission of inquiry consisting of experienced forensic auditors and retired justices be appointed to go through the assets of all MP’s, current and retired, who are still alive. Any unexplained wealth should result in a prison sentence, debarment from contesting any future elections and forfeiture of all such assets of the MP concerned.

Elimination of Nepotism and Cronyism

Our country has thrived on this practice, with politicians using their power to appoint family members, relatives, and friends to positions of authority, with many not having the requisite knowledge or experience. A recent post in social media listed the names of various politicians who have used their influence to get relatives appointed to several overseas missions. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg. In the future, even those with qualifications related to politicians should not be appointed so that the public is satisfied that there was no favouritism.

All Races, Religions and Languages should be Equal

Politicians have shamelessly and opportunistically used race and religion as political weapons to divide the people. It is time that we all subscribe to the view that all people are equal, should be treated equally, and that Sinhala, Tamil and English be given parity status. Overhaul our Education System, and University education should not be free

As someone who worked in a senior management position in the private sector, I know our education system does not produce people capable of efficiently discharging their work responsibilities. We need to move away from the belief that passing examinations by memorizing will not produce people who are job ready and capable of thinking outside the box. I also believe that a University education needs to be paid for. Government loan schemes and scholarships should be available for those from the poorest families.

An Efficient, Independent, and Fearless Public Sector

Over the years, the public sector has been politicized and made to be servile to its political masters. This has resulted in the country being burdened with a bloated and inefficient public sector costing taxpayers a significant amount of money. The public sector needs to be pruned down, those employed should be made to contribute to their pension, and those above the single-person income tax threshold should be taxed.

To expect the best in the country to seek employment in the public sector, as was done over 80 years ago, would be futile, and as such, I don’t recommend a salary structure in line with the private sector. However, that should be a medium to long-term goal.In addition, no person employed in the public sector should be allowed to go on strike.

Privatise all State-Owned Enterprises

For many decades, it has been acknowledged and proven that the state should not be involved in managing and operating businesses. That this philosophy has not been adhered to has resulted in the taxpayers funding many inefficient and unprofitable enterprises. All such enterprises must be privatized, with the GOSL holding a minority stake. However, there needs to be an independent regulator to ensure that utilities are priced within specific parameters and that there is competition among the players. There should be no monopolies.

Most should pay Income Tax

It is a fact that very few individuals pay income tax. This should not be the case. Many are not paying income tax despite earning more than the single person tax-free threshold. The recent announcement that all above 18 years should have a tax file is a welcome proposal. As to how GOSL intends to enforce this will be interesting. More than 300,000 grocery shops account for nearly 75% of the resale revenue of the Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) industry. How many are registered for Income Tax will be revealing.

The GOSL would need to assess whether the monthly single-person tax-free allowance of Rs. 150,000 is too generous when the average monthly income is far less than the threshold. Otherwise, the objective of most paying income tax would not be achieved.The tax rates for higher income earners should be increased, and I believe even a maximum marginal rate of 50% for a few years is not undesirable. Additional taxes in the form of Capital Gains Tax and Wealth Tax are necessary. As to why the Withholding Tax of 5% on interest income should be the final tax defies logic.In addition, the Inland Revenue Tax Administration should be made effective. This should not mean that they should be allowed to bully those who are paying but to go after those evading the payment of taxes.However, a credible and compliant tax system is only possible if taxpayers feel confident their money is not wasted.

Adherence to the Law and Expeditious Prosecution of the Guilty

Those entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the country’s laws are adhered to by the public, like the Police, Attorney General’s Department and the Bribery Commission, should enforce the laws stringently, fearlessly, and expeditiously. Remember, “Justice delayed is Justice denied.”My list doe does not end here, but I believe I have listed the most significant changes that I would like to see implemented.

No System Change in My Lifetime

I doubt that much of what I have articulated here will be implemented, at least within my lifetime. To put that in context, let me say I am 63-years old. Despite the tumultuous events in the last few months that gave hope that some form of change would be undertaken, the actions of RW and the SLPP have confirmed that nothing has changed, and the people’s views count for nothing. This is borne out by the recent appointment of 38 state ministers with proven track records of failure and questionable integrity at a significant cost to the taxpayers.The SLPP deemed it fit to launch a “Political Leadership Academy” for political excellence. I read a social media post that quite appropriately stated that it should be an academy specializing in teaching how to bankrupt a country in two years!

The number of cabinet ministers present at the airport to greet former President GR on his return from exile affirms that those present have neither understood the reasons for the previous government’s failure nor the feeling of great antipathy towards GR and his government.Recently, Anura Kumara Dissanayake rattled off a long list of names and positions held in the media unit of RW. That such a large contingent is not needed is obvious.

Despite the financial constraints, the country is presently undergoing RW felt the need to travel along with his spouse (though she paid her airfare) and some others to London to attend the funeral of the Queen. Why our High Commissioner in the UK could not adequately represent our impoverished nation is a question he needs to answer.

Despite my criticism of RW, I believe he is one of the very few in the parliament who can grasp the economic challenges impacting our country and the economic and political reforms that need to be undertaken. However, I doubt that he has the political will to go ahead with such reforms and be the change agent to deliver the system changes that we, the citizens, desire.

(Views and Opinions expressed in this article are of the author and not of any institution or organization that he may be associated with.)

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Features

Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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