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Fireside Chat gets candidates talking on economic policies and role of private sector


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 From left: Moderator ICCSL Chairman Dinesh Weerakkody, Dr. Rohan Pallewatte, Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Dr. Gamini Nanda Gunawardana, Dr. Ajantha Perera and Moderator Management Development Consultant Deepal Sooriyaarachchi

  • Popular Fireside Chat series hosted by ICC-SL, Daily FT and CIMA brings leading candidates on one stage
  • Candidates speak of problems that ail country’s economy and their policies to put things on track
  • Discuss their vision for private sector’s role in a future administration
  • Main candidates agree on need to simply tax structure and give tax relief to private sector

By Chandani Kirinde

The third in the popular Fireside Chat series hosted by the International Chamber of Commerce Sri Lanka (ICC Sri Lanka) together with Daily FT brought together six of the leading presidential candidates, where their vision for the role of the private sector in a future administration was discussed. 

The consensus among all candidates was the need for a more simplified tax structure for the country as well as a more active role by the government to enable the private sector to contribute meaningfully to development so there could be equitable distribution of wealth and those at grass-root level could enjoy the fruits of development.

The presidential candidates who participated in the Fireside Chat were Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Dr. Rohan Pallewatte, and Dr. Ajantha Perera along with Dr. Gamini Nanda Gunawardena who represented Mahesh Senanayake. The discussion held under the title ‘What Lies Ahead: With the Leading Presidential Candidates’ was held at Galle Face Hotel last Thursday. Presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa sent a voice message to be played at the event. The session was moderated by Dinesh Weerakkody and Deepal Sooriyaarachchi.

Moderator Sooriyaarachchi chose an apt phrase he had spotted on the back of a three-wheeler to kick off the event: “Have a million dreams, but not a rupee in the pocket,” which illustrates the general mood of the people and questioned the National People’s Power (NPP) candidate JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake on the polices of the NPP that can help lift the sense of despondency among the people and turn the country in a prosperous state.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake outlines NPP policy focus 

“Our policy focus is on five areas that need urgent attention. These are debt, the widening import export gap, drop in revenue, collapse of local production sector and the inequitable distribution of wealth.

If we don’t overcome these five issues by bringing drastic changes, the economy of the country will collapse. Why do have a debt crisis? It is because the loans taken were not invented in a manner to generate an income. Some projects undertaken using loans were unproductive and have added to the debt. Taking loans is not a crime. We need it for capital expenditure and for development of technology. We have a national policy to overcome the debt crisis in five years.

“Bridging the import-export gap cannot be done by superficial means such as opening Volkswagen plants here. Those were unrealistic. One area we will concentrate on is the software market. Part of the software network at the Pentagon was manufactured by a Sri Lankan company. It is the same with the London Stock Exchange and a part of the Government network in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where a Lankan company set up the network. But the software network in the Inland Revenue Department here was manufactured by a Singaporean company. A large portion of the world market in this area can be obtained by us and a plan in this connection is also in our policies. Within five years we hope to obtain a Rs. 15 billion share in the world software market.

 

"The nation is at a pivotal movement and this election determines our fate. The economy in dire straits with key indicators crashing to an all-time low. Having been held to ransom by 30 years of terrorism, what is alarming is that once again we have had to face the threat of terrorism. National security has been seriously compromised and I am of the firm belief that the restoration of safety and security will translate into the stability of the economy.  Sri Lanka now needs a leadership that is different to traditional politicians. What they expect is a technocrat who can think innovatively and work closely with multiple stakeholders to ensure our nation does not get left behind "

– Gotabaya Rajapaksa



“We also need to change the direction of the tourist industry in this country. We are a highly-diverse country and we need to send the message out so that people can make their money anywhere in the world but come to this country if they want clean water, fresh air to breathe and a life of tranquillity. We also have a plan to increase local production. We don’t believe that everything the country can be manufactured here but we have to exploit our resources so we can increase local production.

“To address the issue of the shortfall in income generation, first we must minimise waste and corruption and make avenues for addition income. There are 270,000 tax files and they have been wrung dry to such an extent that trying to further do this is meaningless. I remember when Mr. Harry Jayawardena was selected as the Businessman of the Year by the Business Today Magazine. He made a statement saying that he is the owner of several companies, they make profits and then he pointed at the Finance Minister and told him, ‘But you are the owner of them.’ 

“When companies have to pay a large portion of their profits as taxes, the economy stagnates. We have to develop the medium and small enterprises and make them the engine of the growth. We need to go in the direction in which the world markets are developing. We need to create a SME euphoria in this country. If we can’t open at least another 100,000 new tax files in the next five years, the economy can’t move forward. “The most serious issue is the inequitable distribution of wealth. Poverty is not just the lack of money. It means your children don’t have access to a good education, quality of life is poor, the poor get shunned by society. Giving handouts cannot solve the problem of poverty. How do we lift the farmers, fishermen, small tea holder out of poverty? We need to bring about new growth in the spheres using technology. Our policy is not to sell poverty but to lift people out of that predicament.

“I believe the way forward for this country is in the coexistence of State and private sectors, instead of our depending entirely on one over the other. We will identify crucial industries and will set targets for them for the year 2030. We invite the private sector to meet those targets and contribute to our development trajectory. What has happened to the private sector today is that they have no clear idea which way the economy is headed and so have to worry about whether or not to invest their money at all. In place of this uncertainty, we will present to you a robust, long-term economic plan. 

“I would like to say to all business owners, you shouldn’t have to go behind a politician to secure investment or business opportunities. We will usher in an environment where your ability to do business won’t depend on political connections. We will put an end to that culture. We will guarantee equal opportunity for all businesses.

“Your taxes change every year. At least for five years, a government should follow a consistent fiscal policy. We assure you that this will be the case, to make doing business less complicated. You shouldn’t cower in fear whenever a budget reading rolls around. Such a consistent fiscal policy will allow you to plan, project and direct your investments better. Instead of an ad hoc private sector, a planned private sector will be created for the people’s benefit.” 

 

" I declared my candidacy three years ago. And I have been travelling the world and when I calculate the pledges it comes to a few billions. Of course, we have to fast-track these investments. You have to understand the psyche of the investor, what triggers their mind before they make an investment decision. So, an entrepreneurial leader who has a political will can certainty can convince the world to come and invest here. That is what I would do if and when I am elected president " – Dr. Rohan Pallewatta

 

 

Sajith Premadasa focuses on corruption and economic policies

National Democratic Front (NDF) candidate Sajith Premadasa spoke on the issue of corruption as well as the economic policies that he had proposed to encourage growth and put the country on a stable footing within the next five years.

“Corruption has a detrimental impact on the nation’s economy, draining it of scarce valuable resources, and I believe legal enactments have to be put in place to minimises if not eliminate corruption. We have independent commissions in place, but these have to be further strengthened. We also need to bring in strong campaign financing laws as there is a symbiotic relationship between various donors – individuals and institutions – and politicians and the electoral system and the structure in itself encourages large-scale spending on campaigns. This has led to inbuilt system corruption and malpractices.

“We have most of the basics in place for rapid economic growth. What is needed is innovative thinking and out-of-the-box policymaking to fast-track the development efforts of the country. To do so we have to persistently and continuously encourage free enterprise and avoid unnecessary obstacles and hindrances to the wealth creating mechanism in the country. Free enterprise and flourishing of businesses, big, medium and small, would produce the most prodigious environment for the country to obtain economic growth. 

“While achieving high rates of growth is commendable and laudable, it’s very important that the benefits and fruits of the growth are distributed equally in a just and free manner. What I would promote and encourage is inclusive growth. For decades we have seen a lot exclusive growth which has led to income and wealth disparities within Sri Lanka’s societies. So exclusive growth has to be negated and put aside and inclusive growth has to be promoted and encouraged. 

 

" We have most of the basics in place for rapid economic growth. What is needed is innovative thinking and out-of-the-box policymaking to fast-track the development efforts of the country. To do so we have to persistently and continuously encourage free enterprise and avoid unnecessary obstacles and hindrances to the wealth creating mechanism in the country. Free enterprise and flourishing of businesses, big, medium and small, would produce the most prodigious environment for the country to obtain economic growth"

 – Sajith Premadasa



“When we talk of economic development, knowledge-based development should be given a chance to flourish. We have to encourage the development of programs in the educational and tertiary educational arena that encourages the youth in particular in our society to obtain requisite skills and knowledge. For example, the digital technological revolution that is taking place in emerging economies – why have we missed this opportunity? It’s primarily because policymakers have not given adequate priority to the digital revolution taking place in international arena. 

“We are trying to empower the private sector with adequate fiscal and monetary support. The balance of the fiscal and monetary policies is of the essence if one is to stabilise the economy and encourage growth. Where fiscal policies are concerned, it is to provide businesses and private entrepreneurs with a conducive environment with tax breaks, reduced tax burden and simplified tax structures. We have all accepted the famous dictum that higher taxes lead to retardation of entrepreneurship, which in turn leads to lesser economic growth. Hence it is vital to reduce the tax burden on wealth generating businesses, medium, big and small, and free them up to be innovative and smart. 

“The monetary policy has to be balanced and there has to be proper management of the interest rates. As interest rates go high, there is a disincentive to invest and to be innovative and to start up new business. There must be concerted efforts to give adequate interest rate relief so that access to credit benefits entrepreneurs, both the traditional ones and the emerging ones, and they are given the opportunity to obtain credit so that they become active participants and stake holder in wealth creating mechanism. I am very mindful of the thinking and beliefs in the business community and I will always promote favourable tax policies and interest rate policies in order to encourage thrift, in order to encourage entrepreneurship and to have the business sector motived and ready to propel the economic growth of our country.”

Dr. Rohan Pallewatta outlines vision for Sri Lanka

 Dr. Rohan Pallewatta who is contesting from the Jathika Sangwardhena Peramuna said that the uniqueness of Sri Lankans made him optimistic that the country had the necessary human resource to move ahead in the world and what was needed was the right leadership to harness the talents of the people.

“I manufacture the impact sensor for automobile airbags and all the big brand names in the world are using it. The uniqueness of what I do is its quality requirement which is called one PPM quality. That is one part per million is the defect rate and that is the highest level of quality in the whole world. There is no quality beyond that. So when I embarked on this I was told by many that it would be impossible to do this in Sri Lanka but looking at all the great monuments built by our ancestors more than 2,000 years ago and the precision work they had undertaken I was convinced to the contrary. 

“I thought this DNA must be somewhere in our people, this gene must be somewhere in our people. I thought by providing the right leadership I can rekindle this DNA and here I am. I have been right. This is the kind of confidence I am bringing after crossing over to politics. This is the kind of confidence I am trying to inculcate in minds of the people of this country, that we Sri Lankans can do it.

“As you know the airbag senor is something that can distinguish between life and death. If the sensor does not work, you could be in the land of living or not. So, if the world can entrust to a country like Sri Lanka the critical component like the airbag sensor, what cannot they entrust to Sri Lanka? If I am asked how we can come out of this economic deadlock or economic morass as it is now, I would suggest that we need at least $ 10 billion in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) within a short period like 12 months, not just to put it to the stock market and take it back. People might wonder if this is possible. We are not sending the right investment signals to the world but with the right leadership it is possible. 

“I declared my candidacy three years ago. And I have been travelling the world and when I calculate the pledges it comes to a few billions. Of course, we have to fast-track these investments. You have to understand the psyche of the investor, what triggers their mind before they make an investment decision. So, an entrepreneurial leader who has a political will can certainty can convince the world to come and invest here. That is what I would do if and when I am elected president.” 

 

"The significant difference now in the NPM has selected a candidate who can bring a change to the current corrupt climate. Forty-two per cent of the population in this country make up the agricultural community and their daily income is less than two dollars. One the other hand we talk of increasing GDP to Rs. 10,000 but we have totally forgotten about the marginalised, underprivileged larger section of the society. Secondly, who brings in the dollars to this country? We call them the three ladies, namely those who work in the Middle East, those who work in the garment sector, and those who work in the plantation sector. Has anyone in past governments made a concerted effort to ensure that their income levels are increased? The answer is no" – Dr. Gamini Nanda Gunawardena

 

Dr. Ajantha Perera on policies and way forward

 Dr. Ajantha Perera who is connecting from the Socialist Party of Sri Lanka spoke on the basis of what the country had to get right before it moved on to addressing bigger issues.

“There are few underlying issues that have be addressed when you become president. One place where we have gone wrong in Sri Lanka is in terms of development is, when you become the president, you don’t give up your political party. One of the reasons that development has got so slowed down is because when a person becomes the president, they work so hard to enhance their political party than the development of the country.

“Second thing is, how do we really bring about policies? Normally, be it the fisheries policy or the housing policy or the agricultural policy of the country, the policies are produced by consultants and not by those who are involved in the sector. One of the reason development has got slowed down again is because the fisheries policy is developed by someone who is anyone else other than fisherman and the voice of the fishermen is not included in the policy. Rather it comes from outside or from someone who is an academic with fisheries as a subject area. 

“The same is the case with farming. Why are our farmers struggling today? It is because our policies are not based on the needs of the farming community. Farmers do not know how the agriculture sector is run and they do not agree with the way it is run. Their grievances are huge and we have to ensure that the voice of the farmers is included in the policy. It’s the same way with the labourers in the industrial sector. 

“Another thing that happens often is that whenever a new minister is appointed, there is change in policy. So we have a country called Sri Lanka where policies are being constantly changed. If we are going towards sustainable development, we have to ensure that the policies are related to those who actually work in the sectors and they should not be changed. No matter which government comes to power, they should remain the same.

 

" Our policy focus is on five areas that need urgent attention. These are debt, the widening import export gap, drop in revenue, collapse of local production sector and the inequitable distribution of wealth. If we don’t overcome these five issues by bringing drastic changes, the economy of the country will collapse. Taking loans is not a crime. We need it for capital expenditure and for development of technology. We have a national policy to overcome the debt crisis in five years" – Anura Kumara Dissanayake

 



“We also have to work very hard on the ethnic issues. We have a problem between the north, east and the south. Without laying down firm foundations, without listening to the voice of the people, we cannot bring about development. I have been traveling to Jaffna and the eastern sectors and people are not happy. The people in the north want to develop their sector according to their dreams and wishes. We have to make sure that development happens in a way with people’s participation, where their needs and their voices are heard.

“Let us look at the garment sector where women are working for eight hours and they work all right hours standing and the monthly pay is between Rs. 15,000 and Rs. 21,000.They have huge grievances, so how can we develop when the people working in the industries are not happy themselves? It’s the same with the tea plantations. We glamorise the sector, but do we realise that those who pluck the tea and bring a great name for Ceylon tea have been living there for 40 years and do not even have a toilet? This is the situation in Sri Lanka and then we talk about development. This next president has a huge task of ensuring that the voices of the people are heard.

“Our development projects are also haphazard. Just because someone comes into the country for a development project, we accept it and forget the environmental regulations. EIA are only done when the people in the area where the projects are being done start screaming. There is also no monitoring of development projects once they start.”

National People’s Movement’s vision

Dr. Gamini Nanda Gunawardena , General Secretary of the National People’s Movement (NPM) who attended the event representing the NPMS candidate Mahesh Senanayake said that both the main political parties had let the people down and what was needed was for more people participation in decision making in the country.

“This movement started four years ago. A number of educated people, professionals and those who love those country felt that the two main political parties had failed to govern this country and failed to fulfil the aspirations of the people. As people who have benefited from the free education system in this country, we are accountable to ensure that this is changed. That’s how the NPM was born. 

“We started as a pressure group and wanted to work with any government and give them the right direction and guidance to put the country on right direction but then we realised that when you don’t have people’s power behind you, the governments go ahead and do as they want. One such is the Singapore Free Trade Agreement about which we as a group had concerns. 

“The significant difference now in the NPM has selected a candidate who can bring a change to the current corrupt climate. Forty-two per cent of the population in this country make up the agricultural community and their daily income is less than two dollars. One the other hand we talk of increasing GDP to Rs. 10,000 but we have totally forgotten about the marginalised, underprivileged larger section of the society. “Secondly, who brings in the dollars to this country? We call them the three ladies, namely those who work in the Middle East, those who work in the garment sector, and those who work in the plantation sector. Has anyone in past governments made a concerted effort to ensure that their income levels are increased? The answer is no. We talk of a middle-income trap. To overcome this, we suggest a four-pronged attack. We have to facilitate export led industrial growth based on our intellectual capital and mineral and other resources we have.

“We must make State Owned Enterprises efficient and some must be scrapped. We think government must not run businesses and government must facilitate and encourage businesses instead. How do we attract FDIs and how we can relook at the tax structure and simplify it because we don’t think the VAT based structure conducive to the middle-income workers?

Gotabaya Rajapaksa says Sri Lanka needs different leadership

 Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) candidate who addressed the event via a recorded message, said that the country no longer needed a traditional politician as leader but a technocrat. Calling himself an implementer, Rajapaksa pleaded to take the country to a new level of development.

“The nation is at a pivotal movement and this election determines our fate. The economy in dire straits with key indicators crashing to an all-time low. Having been held to ransom by 30 years of terrorism, what is alarming is that once again we have had to face the threat of terrorism. National security has been seriously compromised and I am of the firm belief that the restoration of safety and security will translate into the stability of the economy. 

 

"There are few underlying issues that have be addressed when you become president. One place where we have gone wrong in Sri Lanka is in terms of development is, when you become the president, you don’t give up your political party. Second thing is, how do we really bring about policies? Whenever a new minister is appointed, there is change in policy. If we are going towards sustainable development, we have to ensure that the policies are related to those who actually work in the sectors and they should not be changed. No matter which government comes to power, they should remain the same. We also have to work very hard on the ethnic issues" – Dr. Ajantha Perera

 



“During the last four years through Viyathmaga I have spent many hours building a constructive dialogue with top corporates and professionals of this country. These one-on-one interactions have enabled me and my team to develop a policy framework that directly addresses the real development needs and the drawbacks faced by those facilitating growth.  “The strongest message arising in these interactions is that Sri Lanka now needs a leadership that is different to traditional politicians. What they expect is a technocrat who can think innovatively and work closely with multiple stakeholders to ensure our nation does not get left behind. Ambitious plans and visions most often fail where there has been little attention paid to how these can be translated into action and followed through to implementation. I have delivered all the responsibilities vested with me in the past. My approach has been to identify the right people, fix the flaws and create systems that work for the country. That is how I have earned by reputation as an implementer. “My vision is to empower the private sector to take charge of economic growth and to create an enabling environment. Already the fiscal reforms I have proposed have received a resounding approval from many quarters. FDIs will be encouraged while safeguarding our sovereignty, especially the competitiveness of the local entrepreneurs. We must attract the right kind of entrepreneurs who can transfer technologies and knowledge to increase Sri Lanka’s productivity. I am of the view that the government must be the enabler for society to prosper and meet its aspirations. Government and the private sector must work hand in hand to transform lives.”

All proceeds collected at the Fireside Chat 2019 will be donated to the Apeksha Hospital.

Pix by Ruwan Walpola and Chamila Karunarathne

 


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