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Fireside Chat ignites a debate on true role of the private sector

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 7 September 2018 00:00


Sri Lanka’s top business leaders on Wednesday speaking at the packed Fireside Chat at Hilton Colombo attended over 900 plus private sector people organised by the International Chamber of Commerce Sri Lanka (ICCSL) in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) Sri Lanka Division and Daily FT pointed out the need for strong and credible leadership. 

Overwhelmingly, the business leaders in one voice wanted stronger policy consistency and implementation by the Government, acknowledging that the private sector was becoming increasingly frustrated by perceived policy stagnation, but wanted to however remain totally engaged with the Government. 

The Fireside Chat brought together Access Group Founder and Chairman Sumal Perera, Hirdaramani Group Director and former Chairman Janak Hirdaramani, Vallibel One Group Founder, Chairman and Managing Director Dhammika Perera, Stassen Group Chairman and Managing Director Harry Jayawardena, MJF Group Founder and Chairman Merrill J. Fernando, and Softlogic Holdings Plc Founder, Chairman and CEO Ashok Pathirage. 

Responding to several questions, the corporate heavyweights were largely in agreement on the need for policy consistency, improvement in the business environment and minimising corruption to foster private sector opportunities to drive growth. 

The tycoons clearly articulated the need for the President and the Prime Minister to take control of the country for a start before unveiling the big grandiose projects. “We don’t want approvals given in the morning by one, cancelled in the evening by the other,” they said.

Politics and Business

Politics and business certainly have to coexist, as pointed out by Softlogic Holdings Founder Ashok Pathirage for the betterment of the country. It was the late John F. Kennedy who described politics as a “noble adventure, an adventure in which one joins hands with the masses for the service of man”. That is undiluted, unadulterated politics. 

Not that the Kennedys didn’t play “politricks” in their heyday. But playing “politricks” with a nation’s wellbeing and her people’s vulnerable mindset is an unforgivable sin. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe clearly believes in that doctrine. He does not evoke enthusiasm or exceptional public praise and adulation.

In that sense he will never be a man of the people. He also does not relate easily to his fellow men. His reputation however is clean, his intellect and knowledge unmatched by any politician of the recent past, or of the present. It is often said that Ranil takes after his uncle J.R. who was known as the cunning fox. 

His reputation internationally and his relationship that he had built with countries/regions like India, USA, the EU and Britain was again unmatched, and his ability to parley at the highest forum on equal terms is something that has made him stand head and shoulders above his colleagues. But it remains to convince the private sector that the future of Sri Lanka lies with him, and with him alone; try as we might we could not find anybody in the country who could match his ability and his skills. He needs to demonstrate in action and execution like Lee Kuan as pointed by billionaire businessman Dhammika Perera.

Consistency in policymaking

The tycoons noted that from the politician to the bureaucrat, any person who handles policy must interact with the private sector to ensure that all are on the same page. They went on to say that right now we are in the middle of a lot of frustrations because we are not on the same page. 

“Because policies are changing all the time it is a very big problem and that is one reason why we are not getting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), because even when the Board of Investment (BOI) gives concessions, the new government that comes in reverses the concessions. So who would come and invest in this country?” Founder and Chairman of Softlogic Holdings Ashok Pathirage asked.

Many of them expressed a huge desire to provide technical assistance to any government to develop policy and for its implementation. Dhammika Perera went a step further and expressed a willingness to present a policy document with his recommendations and policy proposals to the government. However he noted that implementation was the biggest issue. 

Director and former Chairman of the manufacturing giant Hirdaramani Group Janak Hirdaramani highlighted the importance of liberalisation of the economy without any delay, emphasising that it would help Sri Lanka to attract top multinational companies to set up bases in Sri Lanka.

Way forward 

The Government in the remaining 1.5 years needs to ensure steady and balanced economic growth in a conducive environment that will help to create new job opportunities, develop agriculture, industry; and reposition our education and skills development effort. 

Housing for the homeless and empowerment of the socially marginalised and disabled including war victims should also be priority concerns. Creating a conducive climate to do business, to rebuild business confidence amongst investors, both locally and internationally, must be a top priority. By continuing to depoliticise the system a lot of the demotivated business leaders can be rejuvenated and re-energised. 

The Stock Exchange must be supported to ensure the exchange attracts genuine investors and also provide opportunities for a broader group of investors to benefit by investing in the Stock Exchange. To ensure this the Government should only act as a facilitator and that requires better regulation and governance. 

The message that is required is that business will only be done by the private sector and the Government will provide a level playing field and provide long-term investment friendly policies that will benefit all businesses, irrespective of their affiliations. Therefore many regulations and tax and fee structures that are perceived as a deterrent to investment and doing business must be removed via a consultative process between the public and private sectors. 

Special emphasis also needs to be given to the welfare of the weak, disabled, the elderly and the unemployed, as well as environmental conservation. However, to do this it is important that people with the right competence and credibility are appointed to key Government positions, the mistakes of the past should be avoided. 

In the final analysis, the Government is going to have to make decisions fast to set a new direction for the administration or will continue to be seen as a weak government and finally pay the ultimate price at the next election.

(The writer is a thought leader.)

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