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Is Sri Lanka capable of a course correction?


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The genesis of Sri Lanka’s current political and economic problems can very well be traced back to several structural issues of the country, both politically and culturally.

It is no secret that from the outset of the war in Sri Lanka, the country lost a significant number of well-educated and high calibre individuals to greener pastures; mainly to developed Western nations. It is equally true that these people acquired some high-end skills while working in those countries, which they otherwise would not have acquired in Sri Lanka given the nature of working environments and associated work settings. 

The political set up in Sri Lanka is generally conducive to returning people to Parliament based on rhetoric rather than sound policies and principles. Going by some of the activities around Parliament these days, it is apparent that there is a huge intellectual vacuum among the current cohort of Members of Parliament (MPs).

A question also arises as to whether the current electoral system in Sri Lanka provides the country’s parliament with more principle-based elected members. The debate is continuing whether the Parliament should be represented by better educated MPs selected through a better electoral system. Certainly, a system where people’s representatives are elected based on their proposed policies and principles rather than anything else would help this situation. More on this point later.

It is worthwhile examining and discussing these issues from a several key areas.



Number of Members of Parliament

For a small country like Sri Lanka, we have 225 MPs in Parliament. Is it not too big compared with other countries in proportion to their geographical size and population? Do we really need that many MPs in the Parliament, with their significant associated expenses funded by the public purse?



Ethnicity-based political parties

Sri Lanka is one of the very few countries in the world still providing relevance to ethnicity-based political parties. The merits of such a system are hard to understand and are not in congruence with a country’s future prosperity. When you have MPs elected purely for the purposes of representing their individual ethnic groups, rather than for national prosperity for all citizens, you are unlikely to find them working for any national interest. Whilst in some cases, national and ethnic interests may converge, in most instances this is unlikely to happen. 

There is no argument that minorities’ rights must be protected, within a framework of a merit-based equal opportunity principle. It is agreed that every citizen should have an equal opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of his or her life and this includes not only enjoying all privileges, but also discharging obligations coming along with the citizenship. The opportunities to get a decent education, access government services, participate fully in political life, freedom to live anywhere in the country and practice one’s religion are top among these. 

Based on such a framework, what is required is to examine whether any impediments or discriminatory practices exist preventing any citizen from accessing such opportunities. A merit-based system is also likely to produce capable people contributing to the country knowing fully that they are holding those positions due to their capabilities rather than their social groupings.



The Sri Lankan public service and skill gaps

The Sri Lankan Public Service needs people who have the skills to advance innovation with a long-term view. These officers would have a huge role to play in developing and driving key flagship policies. In this backdrop, there are questions over whether the public servants have the skills, independence and dedication to advance such policies in key policy focus areas including for:

 

  • An industry policy
  • An education policy
  • Infrastructure development policy
  • Business investment policy (business friendly policies)
  • Taxation policy

Sri Lanka’s senior public servants come through the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) set up and it is a closed shop. As such, people from outside can’t be appointed to these ranks. Is it not high time now for Sri Lanka to allow skilled and competent professionals from outside the SLAS to join these ranks to make a difference? 



The eradication of corruption

Research all over the world points to one thing; corruption does a huge damage to a country in numerous ways, including reducing innovation, allocating resources to less-efficient sectors, products and services, and holding back research and development from private sector, thus contributing to less or no economic growth at all. If inefficient resource allocation is encouraged and even subsidised/bailed out, efficient resource users will not be able to compete and hence not invest, having a negative trickledown effect on the economy.

Another negative effect of corruption is the huge damage it does to an economy by giving a handful of individuals higher purchasing power, not acquired through producing any goods or services, but through corrupt means. A demand driven by a purchasing power not linked to producing goods and services can also produce an inflationary impact. This widens the gap between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ further creating societal unrest and division.

Transparency International’s latest corruption index has placed Sri Lanka at 91 out of 180. Accepting it with a statement that there are more corrupt countries in the world would not help. Whilst certain measures taken by Sri Lanka in recent times are, of course, encouraging, more work should be done in this area. 



Sri Lanka is over-governed

In addition to the 225 MPs in Parliament, Sri Lanka also has provincial councils with many elected members, all of whom have attached perks funded by the tax payer. A thorough examination of the relevance of many of these councils, their roles and responsibilities must be done. Identification of any duplication of services between them and the central government must be part of that process, noting that the cost of running these councils (in additional to running cost of central government) comes from the public purse. 



Private sector investment and encourage innovation

In order to drive economic growth, Sri Lanka will need to have a better engagement and participation of the private sector. For that to happen, reducing government red tape for private sector investment should be apriority. In this context, a vital tool businesses need and demand is the policy and regulatory certainty from the government of the day, irrespective of the party’s political persuasion. The government’s role is to ensure that there is a proper corporate regulatory framework in place to protect investors and shareholders from fraudulent corporate practices and to ensure compliance with good governance. This can be done in consultation with the corporate sector.



Sri Lanka’s education system needing an overhaul

Sri Lanka’s education system is in need of an overhaul. Currently, the education system has a heavy focus on measuring success though passing exams through rote learning. Unfortunately, this does not develop students in problem solving, critical thinking and analytical abilities; the vital aspects of getting students work-ready. 

Right from training students for the grade five scholarship examination to graduating from a university, the system is not conducive to producing high calibre professionals with these skills that the country so desperately needs. This weakness is on display in many sectors of the country. Individuals with an exposure to working with others around the world, who have been trained in different education systems are able to comprehend this point rather well. 

Another disturbing factor in Sri Lanka is the society’s undervaluing of technical and vocational education as trades are considered less prestigious. Every parent seems to be pushing their children to go to a university to get a university degree at the expense of vitally important technical and vocational work streams resulting in the country missing out on important trade skills. 

The recent skilled labour shortages experienced by the construction industry in the country is a case in point. This coupled with universities’ producing significant number of graduates with little or no work-ready skills leading to high level of unemployment is indeed a worrying trend. 

Sri Lanka’s challenge is not just about changing the politicians or the government of the day, rather developing and implementing critical, no doubt very challenging, reforms to the country’s key structural settings. Unlike more mature and developed economies, there is little appetite for policy development and approval in Sri Lanka with true bi-partisan support. 

A true bipartisan support is vitally important to get critical reforms off the ground with a long-term horizon and focusing on national interest. It is this recognition that is now required in order to face this challenge and develop the foresightedness, courage and resilience to move the country forward. 

(The writer has post graduate qualifications in Finance and Management and is working for a State Treasury in Australia. He can be contacted via:nish.insl@yahoo.com.au.)


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