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Eran calls on insurers to use their power and influence to change the country


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Tuesday, 23 July 2019 00:00


 State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne

  • Says we must think of each other as Sri Lankan and not let the actions of a few radicals divide us
  • Asserts we must work for the betterment of all Sri Lankans and build a system in which all are treated equally

 

Following is the address by State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne at the Sri Lanka Insurance Awards Ceremony

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this special event. Today I want to thank you for choosing to enter this important field and talk to you about the importance of national unity and the crucial role professionals, like yourselves, play in taking a country forward. 

As we well know, some disasters, both natural and manmade, hit us unexpectedly – from tsunamis to terrorist attacks, Sri Lanka has had to face, and recover from, numerous tragedies. The Easter Sunday attacks were the latest in a long list of unexpected disasters. 

I think we are all still coming to terms with what took place that Sunday morning – the Government’s failure to prevent the events, the ability of Sri Lankans to attack one another in such as manner, the backlash that the Muslim community faced after the attacks, and the implications it has for national unity. 

In the wake of the attacks, our Muslim brothers and sisters have felt increasingly isolated and have even been attacked by fellow Sri Lankans. The attacks separated us and made us keenly aware of our identities – Sinhala, Tamil, Moors, and Burghers and, Buddhist, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. They made us forget our foremost identity as Sri Lankans. 

We look at each other as different. We group people according to their ethnicity and religion, and forget that this country belongs to all of us equally, and that all of us want this country to thrive and grow. All of us want a better Sri Lanka, for ourselves, for our children, for our neighbours, and, I hope, for the millions of Sri Lankans that you may never meet. 

We must think of each other as Sri Lankan and not let the actions of a few radicals divide us. These divisions are not just based on ethnicity and religion. They are also based on class and caste. We, as professionals, have an in-group based on our profession. 

After independence, Singapore was in a similar situation to us. Lee Kuan Yew inherited a fractured country full of ethnic tensions and wanted to make Singapore like Ceylon. If you look at Singapore now, they are leagues ahead of us in many ways. They focused on many things to get there – anti-corruption campaigns, housing and other policies that made resources and opportunities accessible to all Singaporeans, and national unity.  

 

In the wake of the attacks, our Muslim brothers and sisters have felt increasingly isolated and have even been attacked by fellow Sri Lankans. The attacks separated us and made us keenly aware of our identities – Sinhala, Tamil, Moors, and Burghers and, Buddhist, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. They made us forget our foremost identity as Sri Lankans. We look at each other as different. We group people according to their ethnicity and religion, and forget that this country belongs to all of us equally, and that all of us want this country to thrive and grow

 

It’s even in the little things, for example signs in Singapore are in Malay, Mandarin, English and Tamil – all four national languages. Singaporeans have a strong sense of national unity, they identity first as Singaporean, not as Malay, Chinese, or Tamil. 

During his first visit to Sri Lanka in 1956, Lee Kuan Yew said, “I walked around the city of Colombo, impressed by the public buildings, many with stone undamaged by the war...Ceylon had more resources and better infrastructure than Singapore.” He went on to say, “Ceylon was Britain’s model Commonwealth country. It had been carefully prepared for independence.” 

According to Lee Kuan Yew, Sri Lanka had a “good start”. Yet, over the years Lee Kuan Yew said that he observed as Sri Lanka went down the wrong path. Some salient instances that he talks about in his memoirs include the following. 

‘Singapore’ was the anglicised name for ‘Singha Pura’ (Lion City). Yet, unlike the Sri Lankan leaders who were busy trying to change the name ‘Ceylon’ to ‘Sri Lanka’, Lee Kuan Yew left the anglicised name unchanged and focused on changing the country. He recognised that changing a name does not change a country. 

On a different occasion, Lee Kuan Yew was having dinner with Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, he heard the Prime Minister say that he was going to build a Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lanka. Upon hearing this, Lee Kuan Yew immediately wondered what the future would hold for the Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers who lived in the country. He goes on to say that when he heard about the Prime Minister’s assassination, he was sad, but not surprised.  

 

Professionals must change this country and until people like yourselves take on that responsibility, we will not move far. It is also not solely the responsibility of politicians to change this country. You are as much a Sri Lankan as I am. You have as much an obligation to your people as I do. You and I both have benefited from this country. It has brought you to this point – to a good job in an important industry. You and I have different avenues to make these changes, but for Sri Lanka to move forward, politicians and professionals alike must do what we can in our sphere of influence

 

Finally, when Lee Kuan Yew was visiting Peradeniya University, the Vice Chancellor told him that the Sinhala students were taught in Sinhalese, the Tamil students in Tamil, and the Burgher students in English. In response to this, Lee Kuan Yew asked the Vice Chancellor how these three engineers would communicate with each other when building a bridge. The Vice Chancellor responded that his question could only be answered by a politician.

Singapore has Chinese, Malays, and Indians. It is full of people who follow different religions and speak different languages. Yet when Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 and Lee Kuan Yew began to build Singapore, he started with the conviction that every ethnicity should be treated equally.

To achieve national unity – where it is our Sri Lankan identity, not our profession or religion, that binds us – and to ensure that we are all equal before the law and have equal opportunities, we must remember that regardless of ethnicity or religion, income brackets or job titles, all Sri Lankans are our brothers and sisters and we must work for the betterment of all Sri Lankans. 

We, as a country, have got into the habit of blaming politicians whenever things go wrong. We expect politicians to have all the answers. We blame politicians for failing to pass some legislation, we blame the corruption of politicians, we blame the laziness of politicians. It’s almost as if, we as professionals, have no agency ourselves. 

But you do have agency. You can make life better for your countrymen. You can push for policy changes at the company or national level. For example, you can make Sri Lankan Insurance more accessible. You can ensure that there is no discrimination interwoven into policies, or within the company. Your day-to-day engagements with customers can make their lives easier during trying times. The insurance industry is important for the progress of our country. You hold the lives of other Sri Lankans in your hands. Your decisions and work will impact their lives hugely.

The corruption of politicians is always highlighted as the ruin of this country. That is true. But it is also true that corruption in businesses and by professionals is responsible for the situation we are in. Many of our problems are systematic and require structural change – both in the public and private sphere. They also require a cultural change – to a culture in which kickbacks are not an acceptable way of getting things done, to a culture where it is not okay to boycott Muslim businesses and punish them and their families for something that they were no more responsible for than you were.  

 

Today we celebrate your achievements. But as you work in the insurance industry, I put this challenge to you – use the power and influence you have to change this country. Do not wait on politicians or think that it is not your job. You are in one of the most influential industries in the country, use that to create unity in your private and public spheres, and to make this country and the lives of all Sri Lankans better

 

You can make these changes in your workplace, in the insurance industry, and in your social communities. You cannot rely on politicians to make the changes you want to see. The status quo is always to the advantage of politicians and so it is rare that they will try to change the system. Professionals must change this country and until people like yourselves take on that responsibility, we will not move far. 

It is also not solely the responsibility of politicians to change this country. You are as much a Sri Lankan as I am. You have as much an obligation to your people as I do. You and I both have benefited from this country. It has brought you to this point – to a good job in an important industry. You and I have different avenues to make these changes, but for Sri Lanka to move forward, politicians and professionals alike must do what we can in our sphere of influence. 

We must build a system which protects minority groups, the poor, and the vulnerable. A system in which all people are treated equally. The insurance industry plays a vital role in creating this system. Without the necessary checks and balances, the insurance industry can wreak havoc. And with the actions of conscientious people, the industry can change lives and help many people. 

Today we celebrate your achievements. But as you work in the insurance industry, I put this challenge to you – use the power and influence you have to change this country. Do not wait on politicians or think that it is not your job. You are in one of the most influential industries in the country, use that to create unity in your private and public spheres, and to make this country and the lives of all Sri Lankans better.


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