How did we fail in the most essential task of nation building?

Saturday, 7 March 2020 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Both Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe were total failures. The duo did not succeed in producing a progressive democracy to achieve 

economic growth and establish rule of law with an improved public sector


  • Lay the past to rest and act futuristically to uplift the distressed country


At the time we got independence from British, Sri Lanka had enjoyed excellent opportunities to be one of the most promising new nations in Asia and in the Commonwealth. Being an island, with excellent strategic and geographical benefits, situated along one of the most crucial sea routes in the world, with one of the largest natural deep-water harbours in Trincomalee, the fifth in the world, we could also have been fortunate to achieve economic growth with certainty. We had also inherited a stable economy thanks to the British together with an established export based foreign exchange earner from tea, rubber and coconut. 

Our proud record of achievements in education, health, mortality rate, etc. were all due to our leaders who served the nation with dedication during the independence era. C.W.W. Kannangara, the first Education Minister of Ceylon, was one of them. Our human development too had been rightly based on the Walter Beveridge Report, which became the blueprint for the modern British welfare state. Expanding people’s educational rights, freedoms, etc. had been the prime aim of sustainable development in England as well as ours after the Second World War.

We had thereafter established a well-functioning democracy and a very well-managed efficient and effective public sector thanks to the British. Our public service then was widely regarded as one of the best compared to even those in the developed world. It had been exceedingly efficient and absolutely incorruptible. 

Our failure was according to the World Bank – “Sri Lanka could have done even better had better economic policies been pursued”. How did the two major parties in the country, namely the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), ruin this country during the reign of their 71 long years after gaining independence?

Let me add, with a view to take the country forward, a planning division had been established in early 1950s. A comprehensive investment program too had accordingly been drawn up as an effective plan for the purpose of integrating the entire economy. Sadly, the new regime that was elected for a fresh term had scrapped it. They had thereafter established a new apparatus called the National Planning Council. They too had formulated a new 10-year plan (1959) covering both public and private sectors. 

They had projected a growth rate of 6% and drawn up a road map on how to achieve growth and development. It had been anticipated that the gross domestic product would be raised eight times higher from 1959 to 1997. They had also given a warning that Sri Lanka would essentially fail below other east-Asian neighbours if the expected higher growth is not achieved in the ensuing years.

How did Korea, Thailand, Malaysia achieve development while Sri Lanka is still struggling and lagging behind? Our leaders failed to address how and why the dysfunctional institutional, organisational and sociological systems had impeded growth and development. They had instead come up with destructive policies that had destroyed the entire government machinery having led the country on the wrong path

In 1960, they had rejected the 10-year plan again stating that it was unsuitable and had introduced a short-term implementation program in 1962. In 1965 again, a new program of action – ‘recovery programme’ had been launched together with an aid consortium for mobilisation of foreign aid to support the recovery programme and also to bring about faster economic growth. In 1970 once again that too had been hysterically replaced. 

A fresh initiative thereafter through the constitutional manipulations had begun in 1972. The governance system they had established was far from ideal. Subsequent slow development, or system collapse was all due to weak, highly politicised, highhanded governance system. Since 70s, they had always desisted rule of law. They had selfishly wanted to serve themselves continually. They had therefore craftily created a governance system that suits them. They have no fear at all of being called to account for any reason in this system at present. 

As we all know, the Westminster model is a proven, time-tested effective representative democratic governance system. It had been evolved since many centuries, through traditions, conventions, past practices and precedents of the British Parliament. Soulbury Constitution, in my view, was the best Constitution we have had to-date. 

In 1960, our per capita income had been $ 141. In the same year South Korea $ 156, Thailand $ 96, Indonesia $ 51. By 1977, Sri Lanka had increased its per capita income by only $ 60 to reach a level of $ 200 compared to South Korea $ 820, Malaysia $ 930, Thailand $ 420 and Indonesia 

$ 300.

How did Korea, Thailand, Malaysia achieve development while Sri Lanka is still struggling and lagging behind? Our leaders failed to address how and why the dysfunctional institutional, organisational and sociological systems had impeded growth and development. They had instead come up with destructive policies that had destroyed the entire government machinery having led the country on the wrong path. 

The First Republican Constitution lasted six only years, which had introduced fundamental departures from the Soulbury Constitution. The National State Assembly became the ‘Supreme Institution of State power’. It had done away with the concept of separation of powers. In short, the structural systems that were destroyed had paved the way for a range of political, legal, social, economic ills.

This had been the initial step of converting the democratic governance system to a wholly undemocratic governance system. The third Constitution adopted in 1978, was the worst. It introduced the presidential system combined with Westminster model and proportional representation for elections. It has been amended 19 times already. 

Since then flood gates had been opened for unethical brigands and mosstroopers to enter politics, at national, provincial and local level. Strengthening good governance, public integrity and rule of law had taken a back-stage. Aberrations such as civil war, emergency regulations and autocratic rule have engendered a norm of bypassing due-process and accountability in favour of arbitrariness, impulsiveness, self-interest, lack of respect for the rule of law. 

Corruption became a way of life, and recruitment to the public sector has turned out to be a form of reward for political sympathisers from the Ministry Secretary downwards. Having enacted the 13th Amendment, with the devolution of power, the entire machinery at all levels became fundamentally over-bloated, weak, severely politicised, utterly corrupt, and extremely inefficient. 

The number of ministries had been increased to suit whims and fancies of politicians with scant regard for costs, etc. We had the largest cabinet of ministers in the whole world, just after ending a devastating war, which I was told a Guinness record. Such ministers were not aware of their responsibilities and hence they have not delivered any service at all to the country. 

This is because there is no satisfactory performance management system in place at all in the entire public sector. We do not therefore see any professionalism at all in the public service. They therefore are hell-bent to earn a quick buck and hence corruption is rampant at all levels. The 1978 Constitution gave the President the powers to appoint the Secretaries to the Ministries. Cabinet of Ministers were given powers to appoint other senior officers, grant their promotions, transfers, disciplinary control, etc. 

Our political and administrative culture was accordingly destroyed totally with the introduction of the two Constitutions in 1972 and 1978. Public service was shamelessly politicised. Until then, political neutrality was considered to be part of the public service philosophy. Neutrality was extremely important. Public servants had to be apolitical in carrying out their functions and impartial in implementing government policies. 

It was basically their neutrality that allowed public servants of the calibre of Bradman Weerakoon, M.D.D. Pieris, Shelton Wanasinghe, Lionel Fernando and many more to serve different governments. They had contributed immensely towards the nation in a multi-party democracy. How is that we don’t produce similar officers in the public sector at present?

Our political leaders were not long-term visionaries. They had failed to execute the manifestos drawn up by them, efficiently and effectively. They simply need to come to power. Having been elected, they have not identified development priorities, for self-centred political gains, unlike other nations such as China, India, Malaysia, and Korea. 

Legal scholars, democrats recommend that new institutions and policies be transplanted from developed societies to overcome such complications. In 2015, the Yahapalana regime was elected with a mandate to strengthen rule of law and good governance. Both Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe were total failures. The duo did not succeed in producing a progressive democracy to achieve economic growth and establish rule of law with an improved public sector.  The ability of the government to meet their obligations to pay instalments of debt, etc., has also become a serious issue. The sluggish performance of the economy and never-ending theft, waste, corruption, etc. goes unchecked. The government does not therefore have necessary funds to run day-to-day governance. They are now cutting down allocations for healthcare, education and even other welfare services. My humble request is please read the William Beveridge report on ‘Welfare State’.

Good governance requires separation of the political functions from the administrative/technical ones. Politicians usually set the policy agenda based on their political manifesto. The public officers such as ministry secretaries are required to ensure that necessary technical input and advice is provided and that policies are implemented effectively. 

We know that both these categories need each other and none can succeed without mutual cooperation. It is therefore extremely important both categories be fully committed in the pursuit of common good. 

The legislature in any country should be the foundation of democratic governance. Parliament for that purpose needs effective and visionary leaders to serve as a fully-functional vibrant democracy. Parliament should also bring in suitable amendments to the Constitution and other laws to establish a neutral public service to empower public servants to be apolitical in carrying out their duties and functions futuristically and implement all such policies, programs and projects for the public good. 

Sri Lankan Parliament however is simply the opposite. Why? We have a dearth of honest, hard-working patriotic good leaders, both at political and administrative positions at its helm. “Corruption chips away at democracy to produce a vicious cycle, where corruption undermines democratic institutions and, in turn, weak institutions are less able to control corruption,” is the view Patricia Moreira, Managing Director of Transparency International had expressed. “With many democratic institutions under threat across the globe – often by leaders with authoritarian or populist tendencies – we need to do more to strengthen checks and balances and protect citizens’ rights.” 

In Sri Lanka, a few months ago, the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in Parliament that more than 42% live below the poverty line. A large majority of our elected representatives, who had been lucky to be re-elected, again and again for decades, did not consider poverty to be a result of bad governance and endemic corruption. 

Democratically elected leaders and such governments in the past have destroyed rule of law causing country-wide chaos. Now that we are on the verge of electing a new parliament, my worry is not about who will be the next prime minister. My concern is about what kind of a country the new parliament is going to create for the generations to come. 

(To be continued)

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