An assessment in light of the presidential election 2015
The presidential election was declared and there will be two opposing candidates, incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and common Opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena. It is likely to be that at the election platform of the incumbent President, the point of war victory would be brought in. He should get the full credit for that, but not at an election. The intention of this article is to examine this factor in light of the democratic values and Sri Lankan values.
Democracy has been established in Sri Lanka for a long time. However, it appears to be that true democratic values have not been established in Sri Lanka. Democracy was established in the West and democratic values were derived from individualistic Western values. These individualistic democratic values were not established in Sri Lanka since the Sri Lankan culture is by and large a collectivist one.
Western values and Sri Lankan society
The Preamble of US Constitution goes as follows: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Coming from this and from the Declaration of Independence of United States in 1776, the core democratic values are life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, the common good, justice, equality, diversity, truth, popular sovereignty and patriotism as identified by the Americans.
These values are by and large individualistic and at a glance one can understand that those are not prevalent in current Sri Lankan society. Individual’s right to life is in danger in the context of human rights record of the State. Liberty is an alien concept in Sri Lankan society where lot of aspects of life is determined by strong in-groups. Pursuit of happiness and common good are once again defined as rights of individual citizens. Justice is hardly available in Sri Lanka, not even in the Supreme Court. All citizens are equal under the written law but Sinhala Buddhists are more equal than the others in practical sense.
The President acts as a king and receives such treatment. Diversity is suppressed deliberately and uniformity is promoted. Even the Head of State is untruthful when dealing with foreign dignitaries let alone the dealings with his own citizens. Popular sovereignty which means that the people are independent of the State and hold ultimate authority is limited to the constitution. Patriotism is wrongly interpreted as alignment with the ruling elite.
Individualism and collectivism
Geert Hofstede, a Dutch sociologist, identified the aspects of individualism and collectivism as follows. “Individualism pertains to societies in which the ties between individuals are loose; everyone is expected to look after himself or herself and his or her immediate family. Collectivism as its opposite pertains to societies in which people from birth onwards are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, which throughout people’s lifetime continue to protect them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.”
Harry Triandis, a Greek American, in his book, ‘Individualism and Collectivism,’ identified an important aspect of the behaviour of collectivists against individualist in relationships. “Individualists need to learn that collectivists not only are willing to continue relationships that are more costly than profitable but also will do in more situations than is true for individuals. Exchange relationships tend to be different in the two kinds of cultures: Collectivists tend to exchange more in the area that Foa and Foa (1974) described as ‘particularistic’ – love, status, and services. Individualists are more likely to exchange in areas that Foa and Foa called ‘universalistic’. That is individualists tend to exchange money, goods and information, which are resources that can be given to anyone, whereas collectivists tend to exchange resources that can only be given to a particular person. Clearly people give status to a specific person. Also collectivist exchanges take considerable time. People do not give love as quickly and easily as they give money in a store or stock exchange.
“This is very important point because individualists tend to offer money for services for which collectivists expect the individualist to give another service. For example, a baby-sitter is usually paid in individual cultures, whereas in collectivist cultures the repayment is in the form of baby-sitting for the other person’s child at another time or giving a language lesson or a letter of recommendation.”
Reciprocal favours in collectivist cultures often confuse individualists where the same in individualist cultures is very straightforward and simple as stated by Triandis. This is more emphasised by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner in their book, ‘Riding the Waves of Culture’.
A scenario was given as follows: “You are riding a car driven by a close friend. He hits a pedestrian. You know he was going at least 35 miles per hour in an area of the city where the maximum allowed speed is 20 miles per hour. There are no witnesses. His lawyer says that if you testify under oath that he was only driving 20 miles per hour, it may save him from serious consequences.”
The question was asked: “What do you think you would do in view of the obligation of a sworn witness and the obligation to your friend?
a. Testify that he was going 20 miles an hour
b. Not testify that he was going 20 miles an hour”
Authors said that in the workshops people from individualist cultures selected the answer (b) and people from collectivist cultures selected the answer (a). Individualists considered the friendship and testifying under oath was two different things and they wanted to uphold the rule of law whereas the collectivists mixed up the two things and were willing to set off friendship and upholding the rule of law with each other and given more weightage to the friendship.
Winston Churchill vs. Clement Attlee
Let us take a real life example. Winston Churchill (1874-1965), widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders, was the British Prime Minister during World War II. He was the Prime Minister from 1940-1945 and 1951-1955 and was named the Greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 poll. Churchill is widely regarded as being among the most influential people in British history. In the all-party war time cabinet, the leader of the Labour Party Clement Attlee was the Deputy Prime Minister. The war was ended in Europe May 1945 while Japan was not yet defeated. A general election was held in July 1945 and the result was a shocking defeat of Conservative Party and its leader Churchill, the war time hero.
At the time of the election, the British general public was in need of social reforms. The much-discussed Beveridge Report was published in 1942 where creation of a welfare society was suggested with introduction of the National Health Service and nationalisation of public utilities and major industries supported by Keynesian economic theories. These policies after implementation by the Labour Government led by Attlee were termed as post war consensus and continued through conservative and labour governments till the time of Margaret Thatcher.
Churchill was not in favour of those reforms on the grounds that those were not affordable. He also made a comment that under a socialist government Attlee would have to introduce Gestapo type of secret service, to which Attlee responded: “How great was the difference between Winston Churchill the great leader in war of a united nation, and Mr. Churchill the party leader of the Conservatives.”
It was Attlee who initiated the independence of India, Burma and Ceylon. Labour win was landslide and unprecedented. By seats Labour got 61% whereas conservative got 31% and by votes Labour got 48% whereas Conservative got 36%.
Sri Lankan society in 2009
Sri Lankan society in 2009, similar to the British society in 1945, was in dire need of social reforms. Rule of Law was deteriorating gradually, democratic values were not respected, corruption was rampant and there was a need of political reforms, power sharing and a new constitution for the nation.
By the report tabled in Parliament in 2007 by Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa, MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Enterprises (COPE), the extent to which the entire public administration system was corrupt was evident, let alone the politicians. Although many may not believe it, there was corruption at unbelievably high levels of officers of the private sector as well, especially in the area of procurement.
But what happened in Sri Lanka after the civil war was quite in contrast to what happened in Britain after World War II, mainly because of the general public of Sri Lanka, unlike their counterparts in Britain in 1945, were not overly concerned about the need of social reforms. Their concern was only the defeat of the LTTE since the LTTE had put their lives in danger and suspense.
Their solution for corruption was to be corrupt themselves. Their answer to deterioration of law and order was to have a connection with law-enforcing officers or to bribe them. Their answer to power sharing with minorities was not to share power any more since minorities were defeated. As a result all of us have to live with those problems up to date. The situation of the country has been aggravated now compared to 2009.
After the defeat of the LTTE, the general public, especially the dominant Sinhalese population of the country, was overjoyed and at the next election re-elected the incumbent President mainly in gratitude for crushing the LTTE. This is the way of returning a favour in collectivist cultures.
In individualist cultures, it is the way the British voter adopted at the general election in 1945. This act by British voters was not showing disrespect or lack of gratitude towards the great war hero, but clearly distinguishing the two scenarios and acting decisively for the best interests of the country in the future. This was a clear demonstration of true democratic values.
In an election, people should be future-oriented. If an example is taken from the profession of the writer, the voters should not be concerned about sunk cost but future cash-flows, although the war victory was not exactly a sunk cost. Voters at the upcoming presidential election should evaluate the true potential of the two candidates in light of upholding true democratic values and vote accordingly rather than relying on past performance and trying to pay back with their votes.
(The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession and holds a Master of Business Administration degree awarded by the Postgraduate Institute of Management of University of Sri Jayewardenepura.)