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Good plans need good people

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 14 January 2016 00:00


Untitled-8It is really very simple. Good people are required to develop good plans. The link between good plans and good results is good managers. If this crucial link is missing, good ideas will remain good ideas and not convert to great results.

Role model

We should look at Singapore as a role model. They get good people, train them, and work hard at pursuing their goals. Lee Kuan Yew in his memoir directs a comment at the people of Singapore. He says: “I hope that they will know that honest and effective government, public order and personal security, economic and social progress did not come about as the natural course of events.”

“If there was one formula for our success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better” – LKY.

We on the other hand have sort of believed that if you keep on saying something like “Yahapalanaya” or “widespread shareholding” that somehow it will happen in the natural course of things. We believe what LKY says does not happen. Therefore, the importance of competent people is not valued. So, it does not matter if you appoint an aunt’s friend or sister’s son or the man who financed your election, regardless of their suitability. This contrasts with Singapore. “Because of our relentless and unceasing search for talent, Singapore has been able to keep up its performance” – LKY.

Good managers

Governments over the years have made it more difficult for them to find good people. It is a self-imposed disadvantage. Governments have been reluctant to retain those appointed by the previous regime, or to appoint people who they believe were supporters of the previous regime, or to retain those appointed by the previous president and sometimes those appointed by the previous minister. This means that the universe for selecting people gets reduced by more than half. Further the practice of removing good people appointed by a previous regime will make many people reluctant to accept appointments in the state sector. This is not a new malady. It has been going on for a long time.

A little bit of history

I have personal experience of this phenomena. It is worth relating the story to illustrate the ridiculous Sri Lanka scenario of appointing and removing people.

Sri Lanka Telecom

When President Kumaratunga persuaded me to come to Sri Lanka as Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom (I was the first Sri Lankan to be a Main Board, Director of a top 100 public company in the UK), SLT was in disarray! With the support of our Japanese partner, NTT of Japan, and the trade unions (no strikes, no go slow, no wage demands), in a couple of years it was doing really well. Then there was the election which the UNP won. I had a call from Bradman Weerakoon (ever the polite old school civil servant). He said: “It is good if you will kindly resign as the PM wants to appoint someone else.” So I did.

I was also the Chairman of the Board of Investment. Arjuna Mahendran (yes it’s the same Arjuna) walked into my office and said: “I am the new Chairman of the BOI.” As the BOI chairman has to be appointed by the President, I rang Karu (the President’s Secretary) and said, “Please tell Madam that my office has been taken over and so I am sending my resignation.”

In a few years’ time Parliament was dissolved and the SLFP won the election. I was then restored to the SLT Board and once again appointed Chairman of BOI.

So I walked into Arjuna Mahendran’s office and said: “I am the new Chairman of BOI!”


One of the innovative things CBK did was to create SEMA to manage State Enterprises. It had a Board composed of the cream of the private sector with everyone either the MD or Chairman of a top private sector company. It was chaired by Mano Tittawela who did an excellent job as the link to the political establishment and insulated the Board from political interference. An early achievement was the turnaround of People’s Bank.

Then came the presidential election won by President Rajapaksa. As a courtesy the SEMA Board offered to resign. This was accepted with alacrity. SEMA, a great initiative, then withered away!


There have been snippets in the media that when ministers change, some appointments are also changed. For example, Rohantha Athukorala, a man with a good marketing background and wide experience, was appointed Chairman of the Tourism Promotion Board by the relevant Minister in the new Government. He made a great start and infused a lot of energy and enterprise. When a new Minister of Tourism was appointed, Rohantha was removed!

The heart of the problem

Is the problem a cultural issue? Do we have a culture that that compels us to be very grateful to those who help us? Are we manacled to a belief that in some way the debt of gratitude has to be repaid, and that words of thanks and a shake of the hand is not enough? 

If politicians feel indebted to those who helped them or financed their elections, do they take the easy route to repay the debt by appointing them to some post which can provide a jingle in the pocket as well? This problem will be partly solved if the election laws severely restrict what can be spent on elections. Hopefully a start will be made with the local government elections.


We cannot undermine the future of our country by having incompetent people appointed as a part of the process of repaying political debts. Let us hope that our political leaders start a new culture with Singapore as a role model. So my prayer to our leaders is no more political appointments from 2016.

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