Demand for a strongman to establish discipline among citizens
I posed the following question to a group of university students recently: ‘Do you desire to have a strongman to rule Sri Lanka today?’ The students, made up of both genders in the age group of 25 to 35, chorused the answer in the affirmative. When probed further, they revealed that Sri Lanka very badly needed discipline in every aspect of life today and only a strongman could deliver it.
But, they qualified the strongman to be a disciplined visionary in the calibre of Singapore’s strongman – Lee Kuan Yew – the model for many Sri Lankans. In other words, he should be a person without any personal or family agendas. The strongman should be brought to power not through a military coup. He should be voted to power, they opined, through the normal electoral process. That model had already been tested in Germany in 1933 when Adolph Hitler was voted to power through popular ballot. True to the expectations of Germans, he was a strongman – and in that sense, too strong a man.
Indiscipline is everywhere
These students are not alone in entertaining this view. They are angry at indiscipline which has stained the fabric of Sri Lanka’s society like a cancer. Indiscipline here can be defined as behaviour that goes against the set order of society. Since a society is made up of diverse people, it is a must that everyone obliges to that set order to assure interpersonal interaction among society’s members. But in Sri Lanka’s case, indiscipline is found everywhere in the country to the annoyance of civic minded citizens.
In Parliament, lawmakers very often hurl abusive slogans at each other, prompting the Speaker to expunge them from the Hansard. As if it is not sufficient, they also resort to physical violence when they cannot prove a point to their opponents. At universities, students who believe that ragging of new students is a right, resort to boycotting classes when authorities try to be tough on raggers. They block the roads with unannounced demonstrations putting the public to innumerable inconveniences. Government doctors go on strike even for issues that are not related to them. Roads are blocked by protesting men, women and children wishing, because, for them, the way to resolve conflicts is only through violence.
The indiscipline among the road users is the most annoying. A bad motorist may knock at your vehicle and keep on driving as if he had a right to do so. When the Government increases penalty for errant drivers, private bus operators choose to take their buses off the road when buses are most needed by commuting public. But, this is not mere indiscipline in society. It is an instance of using violence to win demands or resolve disputes. Since it has become endemic, the angered public has demanded the restoration of discipline in society. For that, the suggested solution has been the bringing of a strongman to power.
Even some Buddhist monks have demanded authoritarian rulers
In Sri Lanka, there have been many instances where such authoritarian rulers have been proposed even by the Buddhist clergy. In late 1960s, an influential Buddhist monk, Rajakeeya Panditha Henpitagedera Gnasaseeha Thero in a book in Sinhala titled dictatorship called for the election of an authoritarian ruler to govern the country.
The crux of the argument was that people in Sri Lanka had been a lazy lot compared to those who lived here in ancient times. Hence, to force them to work, a strict ruler was necessary. Under democracy, that could not be done, because people can vote such disciplinarians out of power. More recently, the Deputy Chief Prelate of the Asgiriya Chapter of Theravada Buddhism was reported to have advised the former Secretary of Defence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to be a Hitler if that helped the country to solve its present problems.
The sentiments expressed for such authoritarian rulers have been voiced by many who have been disillusioned by the failure of democratic ideals to solve the country’s problems.
Direct rule of a country by people
Democracy was simultaneously born in ancient Greece and ancient India in the 5th century BCE. In both instances, it was people who directly participated in ruling them. In the city states in Athens and in the republics of Lichchavis in India, adults sat together in assemblies to decide on their destiny. However, it was not an inclusive democracy since only the elites and aristocracy that had the right to participate in the assembly meetings. Women, slaves and low caste people had been excluded from this democratic process. Besides, those direct democracies did not last for more than 200 years in both Europe and India.
People in power lack time or knowledge to make rational decisions
Thus, democracy came under criticism of both Socrates and Aristotle. Socrates had two objections to democratic rule. One was that those who formed the majority rule in democratic form of government did not have the time or intellectual capacity to make judgments. Hence, they were all substandard judgments.
This was similar to what Nobel laureate Herbert Simon found in 1957 when he conceptualised what he called ‘bounded rationality’. He said that the rational thinking of Homo sapiens have been limited or bounded by the lack of information, time and brain power to process that information.
The other reason adduced by Socrates was that in the absence of knowledge, those who came forward to rule others sought to create impressions among those being ruled by delivering favours to them. Thus, democracy is twisted and corrupted. It is not the free thinking of people that will rule them. It is the opinion of a vast majority of people whose support is essential for the rulers to remain in power. These two criticisms are valid and relevant even today.
Aristotle criticised democracy on the ground of kings turning themselves into tyrants, given the state of power struggles among different groups in a democracy. Accordingly, democracy was a rule by tyranny.
Government of which people?
Yet, from the 19th century onward, democracy was hailed as the ideal form of government. One time US President, Abraham Lincoln, had described it as a ‘government of the people, for the people and by the people’. Thus, people were involved inclusively in the whole process of making democracy to work.
But, critics began to point out that the people involved in the democratic process were just a minority who had assumed power through the ballot. To those with a left leaning, that elite group was those who owned capital; to those with liberal thinking, they were power groups in society; and to those with religious affiliations, it was religious leaders belonging to other religions. Thus, democracy is simply an eternal battle among different power seeking groups in society. In this way, there were many who had been disgruntled with the way democracy worked on the ground. As a solution, they sought alternatives. The present day demand for a strongman or an authoritarian ruler is one such alternative.
Sacrifice today’s comforts for a better future
According to the proponents, the rule by a strongman here is simply a temporary strategy in which today’s comforts are sacrificed for a better future. To move forward, a nation has to work hard. But hard work cannot be established as the accepted norm of society. This is because the democratic system of government is too weak to enforce its will. It is hard on silent law-abiding citizens, but lax on law breakers with loud voices. Since law breakers live on the fruits of the labours of others, there is natural dissent among citizenry about the way society is ruled. If a strongman appears to take charge and delivers order and discipline to society, it is wholeheartedly welcome by many.
Post-independence Sri Lanka was full of authoritarian rulers
But, in the post-independent Sri Lanka, all democratically-elected governments had more or less functioned as authoritarian rulers. It was not the authoritarian rule proper that had been established in its own right. It was the authoritarian action that had been taken by using the majority power in the name of democracy.
On each occasion, such action had been justified on social, economic, cultural, ethnic, spiritual or political grounds. Accordingly, the right of the citizens, freedom of thought and expression, right to assembly, right to hold property, right to elect their own representatives and the right to be treated equally under the Constitution had been suppressed. Yet, over the past seven decades, Sri Lankan authoritarian rule could not deliver prosperity to its people.
For instance, Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP, according to World Bank metadata series, amounted to $ 160 in 1969, the earliest year for which these GDP data are available. After five decades in 2017, it had grown a little more than $ 4,000 which is a third of the level required for a country to become a rich country. Sri Lanka had graduated to the status of lower middle income country in 1997. Because of the low economic growth thereafter, it had remained in that category for the last 22-year period. Meanwhile, Thailand whose per capita GDP stood at $ 186 in 1969 had witnessed a faster growth than Sri Lanka reaching a level of $ 6,500 in 2017. Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s authoritarian rulers had failed to deliver the promised prosperity to Sri Lankans.
What Sri Lanka needs today is not an unchecked strongman. It needs a firm leader who would take the country forward by observing rule of law, protecting property rights and leaving the positions in the very first instance he would find that his remaining in power is not welcome by people. When questioned by a journalist from TIME magazine in 1995 why he chose to quit, Nelson Mandela quipped: ‘Quitting at the appropriate time is also leading’. This should be an example to Sri Lanka’s prospective leaders
A docile man today may be a monster tomorrow
The problem with strongmen is that they may be docile at the time of election to power. But their behaviour is unpredictable and there is a chance that they may turn out to be monsters later. This is because after enjoying the comforts associated with power, it is difficult for any human being to resist the temptation to taste it for personal benefit.
Thus, the 4th century BCE Indian Guru Kautilya advised the king in his treatise on economics, The Arthashastra, not to place honey at the tip of the tongue of king’s servants. That is because they could not resist the temptation to taste it secretly. The king has a double predicament here since he is unable to see whether king’s servants abuse power ‘just like one cannot say whether a fish swimming in water is drinking it or not’.
What this means is that strongmen who are brought to power with good intentions may betray the trust of people and emerge as the worst enemies of society.
Tendency for strongmen to accumulate wealth
The normal tendency for any strongman is to remain in power as long as possible. After his time is gone, he may want to hand over the mantle of power to his children or relatives. To do so, he will have to consolidate more power around him. That takes the form of wealth accumulation, building an unchallengeable power base in society and loyal armies – military or para military – nurtured through extraordinary privileges.
Strongmen are gullible to corruption
Wealth is accumulated via shady business deals in which fixed cuts are paid to the strongman himself or to his close family members. The gullible public is brainwashed to believe that those businesses would make the nation stronger one day. There is evidence in Sri Lanka as well as elsewhere how strongmen or their close family members have accumulated unearned wealth through such deals.
In Nepal, as revealed by Billionaire Binod Chaudhary in his autobiography, ‘Making It Big,’ no one can start a large-scale business unless he offers 51% of free shares to a member of the royal family. In Indonesia, Suharto and his family have been accused of embezzling state funds amounting to about $ 25 billion during his 32-year rule. Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Najib Razak has been charged in courts for looting $ 4.5 billion through his deals with 1MDB Corporation. There are many other examples of strongmen voted to power with good intentions accumulating unearned wealth belonging to the people of respective countries.
Suppression of people’s voices
To establish their power base firmly so that no one could challenge it, strongmen in power use all coercive laws to suppress public opinion. To reinforce it, they also arouse nationalistic or religious sentiments among people. The first makes them involuntary prisoners in their own country. The law enforcement agencies are brought under the control of the strongman or his associates so that the aggrieved public cannot seek redress through the judicial system.
On the other hand, the arousal of nationalistic or religious sentiments makes the public voluntary prisoners of the land. They suppress their rational thinking and blindly believe what they might be told by national leaders without questioning. As long as people are gullible, the strongmen could manipulate them according to their wishes as if they handle lumps of clay. The strongmen and their family members will remain in power unopposed, but the conscience of the nations concerned is killed making them laggards in a fast moving world.
Use of the military to remain in power
The objective of loyal military or para-military forces is to brutally suppress public uprisings. In this way, even the slightest opposition to the rule is severely dealt with. In many countries, there have been extra-judicial killings placing the entirety of population in a very vulnerable position. Any civil society organisation that questions such killings is immediately branded as those who shout with dollars paid to them by external conspirators. The nation is struck with fear and a fear stricken people could not be creative or innovative. The corollary is that such nations would limp in their development process when other nations move forward in leaps and bounds.
According to the proponents, the rule by a strongman here is simply a temporary strategy in which today’s comforts are sacrificed for a better future. To move forward, a nation has to work hard. But hard work cannot be established as the accepted norm of society. This is because the democratic system of government is too weak to enforce its will. It is hard on silent law-abiding citizens, but lax on law breakers with loud voices. Since law breakers live on the fruits of the labours of others, there is natural dissent among citizenry about the way society is ruled. If a strongman appears to take charge and delivers order and discipline to society, it is wholeheartedly welcome by many
Fault of strongmen
Thus, calling for a strongman to come and rescue Sri Lanka has its own costs and risks. Once the man is in power, there is no way to remove him without resorting to bloodshed and violence. Such violence in turn impedes the country’s growth momentum. Hence, without a counterchecking and counterbalancing institutional structure in place, it is a risk to call for a strongman to come and occupy the country’s power base.
The need is for a firm leader
What Sri Lanka needs today is not an unchecked strongman. It needs a firm leader who would take the country forward by observing rule of law, protecting property rights and leaving the positions in the very first instance he would find that his remaining in power is not welcome by people. When questioned by a journalist from TIME magazine in 1995 why he chose to quit, Nelson Mandela quipped: ‘Quitting at the appropriate time is also leading’. This should be an example to Sri Lanka’s prospective leaders.
(W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)