Our regular contributor, Sanjeewa Jayaweera who’s written another article on economizing on our overseas missions in this issue of our newspaper has picked exactly the right word, “tokenism,” to describe what the government has done a few days ago to reduce Sri Lanka’s 67-strong overseas missions by three by closing the high commission in Nairobi and two consulates in Frankfurt and Cyprus. He had previously made the point that about half our embassies, high commissions and consulates must be closed, making a logical case for doing so in the context of the foreign exchange crunch and the consequent hardship Lankans are facing today. Diplomatic representation overseas is an expensive business and Jayaweera has dug out a number, an estimated USD 58 million, the country spends annually in maintaining this expensive luxury. How correct this is we do not know but it would be interesting to find out what this token saving after much huffing and puffing actually is.
It has frequently and correctly been said that we are a developing third world country with champagne tastes and a toddy income. There is no doubt that in the modern world all countries must have diplomatic representation where their interests so demand. That does not mean that missions must be established any and everywhere; wherever set up, they must meet realistic cost-benefit criteria. Given our economic circumstances particularly at present, the number of resident overseas missions we support is much more than sheer profligacy or extravagance. It is no less than an abomination. Singapore, for example, maintains 36 resident overseas missions against our 67, Jayaweera has said. This admirably led small city state is geographically much smaller than us, with a smaller population and with hardly any natural resources. But thanks to late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and, to a lesser extent, his successors, it has achieved its current prosperity wielding influence disproportionate to its size. None of our foreign ministers, with the exception of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, has demonstrated the intellectual brilliance and effectiveness of the various foreign ministers of Singapore. The name of S. Rajaratnam, a Singaporean of Lanka descent, who was his country’s foreign minister from 1965 and 1980 comes readily to mind.
But we stray from the point we wish to make here – that we can’t afford the number of overseas missions our taxpayers are made to fund despite limited resources in Treasury coffers and a foreign exchange strapped economy unable to pay even for essential imports like food, medicine and fuel. Apart from the wasteful expenditure incurred funding several unnecessary overseas missions, particularly during the more recent post-Independence years, our rulers have made a pork barrel of positions in such missions making patronage appointments from top down at all levels. Successive governments are guilty of this sin. It will be a useful exercise to add up the number of progeny and spouses as well as relatives of various ministers, politicians and holders of influential positions in the government who have benefited from such postings. Some of them have behaved disgracefully and at least one is facing the music abroad at present.
Family members of powerful politicians and others able to influence them have been found sinecures in our overseas missions for different reasons – all of them bad and at taxpayer expense. In some instances it was for purposes of educating children abroad and sometimes to even look after political brats studying in foreign universities. As Jayaweera has said today, even the professional foreign service is doing little to make effective cuts on expenditure on overseas missions by limiting their presence to only places where they are absolutely essential. He has admitted that this may well be for reasons of self-interest. Professional diplomats too would not want to reduce the number of countries where they may be posted. It is already very late to effect the necessary economies and it is high time that a government, blaming everything on Covid, makes a serious effort to make essential economies not only in the number of our overseas missions but also in other areas of public expenditure. Cutting a few litres of fuel from what is allowed to ministers and adding five years to the period an MP must serve to qualify for a pension is laughable.
While cutting down on our overseas diplomatic presence, we have to maximize the potential of those we retain by staffing and funding them adequately to enable them to cover a broader compass. It is essential that we get the maximum mileage from what we have. A single mission in a region can adequately represent us in many countries if their resources are effectively deployed. Better use can also be made of honorary consuls but the right appointments must be made. We’re told that various economies are being made within our overseas missions including limiting funds permitted for representation. It is no secret that some diplomats spend allowances paid to them to entertain their own friends and relatives rather than those in the countries to which they are accredited who can be of assistance to us.
Given the necessary will, much can be done to limit public expenditure. How serious our rulers are in effecting economies can be seen in the various year-end bashes hosted at public expense, greeting cards flying like confetti from political office holders and complementaries not paid out of their own pockets that are as widely distributed now as in better years. The private sector has made many visible economies in these areas. But not the government. The band will continue to play while the ship sinks – nava gilunath band chune as the local idiom has it.
A fake fracas
Thursday 20th January, 2022
Pickpockets and Sri Lankan politicians have many things in common, besides being nimble-fingered. Their modi operandi are similar in most respects. They steal from the people in such a way that the latter do not realise their losses until it is too late. Pickpockets have their accomplices kick up fake shindies in public, and prey on curious onlookers who jostle and shove to get a better view of such incidents. Those who watch such pulse-racing ‘brawls’ return home minus their wallets. This is apparently what the incumbent government is doing to the public.
Minister of Power Gamini Lokuge and Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila have engaged in a war of words over fuel supplies to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and their verbal battles that television stations liberally beam into many a parlour almost daily have assumed the form of public entertainment.
Lokuge has been blaming the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) for the fuel shortage the CEB’s thermal power plants are experiencing, and Gammanpila has been maintaining that the CPC cannot issue any more fuel unless the CEB settles its outstanding bills and makes dollars available. Perhaps, it is for the first time the CPC has asked the CEB to make payments in dollars! Thankfully, the CPC has supplied a stock of fuel to the CEB, but power cuts continue.
Lokuge and Gammanpila could have sorted out their differences at Cabinet meetings, or in private. Both the CPC and the CEB are state-owned entities dependent on the Treasury for funds. It is up to the Treasury to make funds available for these two institutions in times of crisis, and the responsibility for this lies with the person who controls the public purse—Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa.
Lokuge and Gammanpila seem to have volunteered to be whipping boys for Finance Minister Rajapaksa, whom nobody is criticising for the power crisis. Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Althugamage is taking all the whipping for the sake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over the government’s botched organic fertiliser experiment. It is his effigies that irate farmers are burning although the organic fertiliser drive is the President’s brainchild. If Aluthgamage thinks he will be rewarded for doing so, he is mistaken. He will be used and discarded like karapincha (curry leaves).
Having witnessed the fate that befell Susil Premjayantha, who ruffled the feathers of the members of the ruling family, and lost his ministerial portfolio, other ministers seem to be trying to humour their bosses lest they should also be stripped of their positions. Minister Wimal Weerawansa is also defending the government as never before! No minister wants to lose his or her Cabinet post; it is a fate worse than death for any politician thirsting for power.
Time was when power and energy sectors were kept together under one ministry, and their bifurcation has been welcomed by experts, but the ongoing fake clashes between the two ministers in charge of them would not have been possible if they had remained merged. What would be the situation if the power and energy sectors were brought under either Lokuge or Gammanpila, or any other minister? There would be no ministerial ‘clashes’ over them for public consumption.
The current squabble between Lokuge and Gammanpila has effectively distracted public attention away from the real causes of the crises in the power and energy sectors—the government’s poor economic management, the crippling foreign currency crisis that has resulted mainly from the investment of huge amounts of borrowed dollars in useless mega projects, and widespread corruption that drives foreign investors away.
The government has succeeded in defraying criticism thanks to the verbal clashes between Lokuge and Gammanpila. If they become too embarrassing for it to defend, it will reshuffle the Cabinet, and give them some other portfolios; the problems in the power and energy sectors will remain, but the public will be so confused as to decide whom to direct their anger at. One wonders whether the government is setting the stage for another round of fuel price hikes or an increase in electricity tariff by having problems in the power and energy sectors highlighted.
Prez has spoken
Wednesday 19th January, 2022
Protests were expected at the inauguration of the current session of Parliament yesterday, but the Opposition behaved; it only boycotted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s tea party. The President also struck a conciliatory note in his speech, calling for everyone’s support.
President Rajapaksa never misses an opportunity to make a public display of his long suit—protecting national security. He declared that the key issue facing the people when he became President in 2019 had been threats to national security. People had no fear of terrorism today, he said. Valid as his claim may be, the fact remains that threats to national security posed by the National Thowheed Jamaath, which carried out the Easter Sunday carnage, had been effectively neutralised by Nov. 2019, when the last presidential election was held. It is too early to assess the government’s performance as regards ensuring national security.
Interestingly, the President waxed eloquent on the virtues of the rule of law and transparency, and the need to strengthen democracy. He made specific mention of the steps taken to amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The government is apparently giving in to pressure from the western bloc, which has called for the abolition of the PTA, protecting human rights and strengthening democracy.
The President took pride in having set up about 100 new police stations. The country, no doubt, needs more police stations, but the establishment of new police stations and courthouses alone will not help strengthen the rule of law; a prerequisite for accomplishing this difficult task is to abolish the existing culture of impunity and political interference.
Curiously, the section devoted to the government’s foreign policy, in yesterday’s presidential address, was unusually brief. One can only hope that the brevity of this section does not reflect the level of importance the government attaches to the country’s foreign relations!
The President said he would submit the recommendations of the Expert Committee he had appointed to help draft a new Constitution. It is hoped that the government will tread cautiously. Going by the widespread chaos its fertiliser policy has plunged the country into, how bad the situation will be if an attempt is made to force a new Constitution on the people is not difficult to imagine. Perhaps, if the 20th Amendment is abolished and the 19th Amendment reintroduced with some changes, we may be able to make do with the existing Constitution.
The President flaunted the recently unveiled 229-billion-rupee relief package as a progressive step to alleviate people’s economic woes. But the general public will not benefit from relief granted only to public officials, pensioners and Samurdhi beneficiaries. The government has not revealed how funds will be raised for the relief package, and therefore one tends to think that more money will be printed, and inflation will rise further, affecting everyone. The government’s wisdom of offering a 25-rupee increase in the guaranteed price for paddy to raise it to Rs. 75 per kilo by way of relief to protesting farmers stands questioned because private millers are already paying as much as Rs. 95 per kilo of paddy!
The President very modestly made mention of his government’s successful vaccination drive, which he could justifiably be proud of. But the government would have been able to control the pandemic better and mitigate its economic fallout more effectively if it had taken timely action public health experts called for. The protracted lockdown in the latter part of 2021, which made the economy scream as never before, could have been averted if the government had taken under advisement health professionals’ call for travel restrictions in April in view of the traditional New Year, and acted accordingly.
The President has said he is determined to go ahead with his green agriculture programme. He, however, should not be in a hurry; he should cross the river feeling the stones if he is to avoid further trouble. It was a colossal mistake for the government to impose a blanket ban on agrochemicals overnight. It should have taken steps to reduce the use of chemical fertilisers, etc., over a period of time, with the participation of all stakeholders, and then assessed the situation before moving on to the next phase of the project. Unfortunately, it chose to act like a bull in an agrochemical shop.
It was widely thought that given the manner in which the government had bungled on many fronts and been left with egg on its face, the President would be left without anything to say in Parliament yesterday. But he managed to say something sensible in his policy statement, and it in itself could be considered an achievement!
Sports, science, and sense
Tuesday 18th January, 2022
Tennis star Novak Djokovic is in a league of his own with his fans spread across the globe. He has all what any sportsperson could dream of—talent, fame and wealth. But he seems to lack one thing—common sense. He found himself up the creek without a paddle in Australia, and faced deportation because he did not play the game there, so to speak. He failed to realise that he was taking a huge risk when he travelled to Australia to take part in the Australian Open because he was unvaccinated. He should have known that he would receive the same treatment as any other unvaccinated foreigner in Australia, and his ranking as World No. 1 would not be factored in where vaccine mandates were concerned in that country. The blame for this unfortunate situation should be apportioned to the organisers of the Australian Open as well.
Anyone who seeks to enter Australia or any other country, for that matter, has to comply with laws, rules and regulations there or be prepared for deportation. The Australian government has been fighting quite a battle to save lives and keep the economy ticking vis-a-a-vis the pandemic; there have also been protests against lockdowns, etc. It has had to keep anti-vaxxers at bay, and this task is perhaps even more difficult than controlling the runaway virus.
There was no way Australia could give Djokovic special treatment while its own citizens were facing severe anti-pandemic restrictions. It has drawn heavy criticism for its action. Its visa approval process has even been described as ‘convoluted and shambolic’ in some quarters, and some critics claim that the cancellation of Djokovic’s visa will be a blow to the Australian Open.
Some Australian officials dragged some issues unnecessary into the controversy; they claimed that if Djokovic was allowed entry, it would be considered a victory for anti-vaxxers, who are all out to undermine the ongoing jab drive. They had a point in that Djokovic is said to have been vocal in his opposition to vaccine mandates. But they should have simply said no unvaccinated person would be allowed to enter Australia and everybody was equal before the law. The Victorian state government has made it abundantly clear that all players, staff and fans attending the Australian Open must be fully vaccinated unless there is a genuine reason why an exemption should be granted. Djokovic and his lawyers failed to prove that there was genuine reason for him to refuse to be vaccinated.
Not that one loves Djokovic less, but one loves the pandemic-hit humans more. It is science, and not sports, that can save the world from the pandemic. Even those who have recovered from Covid-19 have to be vaccinated, according to medical experts. Had the Australian government chosen to bend the rules and let Djokovic in, simply because he has recovered from Covid-19, it would have set a very bad precedent at a time when vaccine hesitancy has stood in the way of the global fight against Covid-19.
Imagine what would have happened if an unvaccinated star like Djokovic had arrived at the Bandaranaike International Airport and been denied entry? One of our jobless government grandees would have tucked up his sarong and made a beeline for the BIA, given the legend a bear hug and taken selfies with him or her before escorting him or her out. (Our is a land where even convicted rapists, murderers, drug dealers and other such anti-social elements serving sentences have been given presidential pardons!) It is believed that the spread of Covid-19 got out of control here in 2020 because scores of workers were allowed to be brought in from a neighbouring country without being tested for Covid-19, and that led to the formation of the Minuwangoda garment factory cluster.
Australia has done what is good for its people in spite of international pressure and thereby shown the way where pandemic control is concerned. It is hoped that other countries will not hesitate to adopt such tough measures in fighting the virus. One feels sorry for Djokovic, whose career has suffered a heavy blow, at what is described as his most successful Grand Slam tournament, but the fact remains that nobody, however famous or powerful he or she may be, should be allowed to trifle with vaccine mandates.
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