Friday, 6 February 2015 00:00
We just celebrated Independence Day. Independence from an external power or authority, presents us with considerable challenge, generates multiple expectations, but most importantly provides us with abundant opportunity to shape our future. We had that opportunity for six-and-a-half decades. Yes, of course for almost a half of that time we had an internal war. But a half-decade ago, we overcame that war. The question before us is whether over the last five years, we rebuilt a new Sri Lanka, which fosters reconciliation, social cohesion, interracial and interreligious harmony and stability. The answer is a âNo.â Much more than that, the nation witnessed a polarisation or division even between and among segments of society within the majority Sinhalese. There was also a hitherto-unprecedented nexus between the business community, the chambers, trade associations and the then Government. Today, a new realisation has led to a new kind of freedom, which has enveloped the nation. A new dawn is thus upon us. A new re-awakening must therefore propel us into a more respectable, stable and sustainable future. Against this background I like to share this article I contributed to the âOld Boyâ magazine of the Old Boysâ Association of S. Thomasâ College Mount Lavinia in December 2009Today, a new realisation has led to a new kind of freedom, which has enveloped the nation. A new dawn is thus upon us. Three youth picked for reading the Special Statement of Peace by the Government of Sri Lanka at the 67th Independence Day ceremony on Wednesday
While overseas in mid-2009, and engaging in intellectually stimulating sessions on current topics of global economic interest during the day and immersing in the warm social interaction that always follows these events in the evenings â I often envisioned the future of a potentially new Sri Lanka.
In the course of meeting and talking with upbeat and happy people of diverse age groups and disciplines from a wide range of countries, my mind went to our very own next generation â a generation which had been robbed of its rightful future for decades â a generation which had left the country, to build careers, families and adopted homes offshore-many from among them â fellow Thomians.
Regaining lost opportunities
It was in end April, towards the latter stages of the three-decade long conflict, that I contributed articles on this topic. My writings were titled: Beyond Bullets, Bayonets and Bailouts; Regaining Lost Opportunities; Beyond the IMF Bailout-Getting real about the future; Leveraging the New Window of Opportunity, etc.
Following up on a suggestion I made to a local FM radio station I developed a few personal sayings titled âThought Leadership,â which were aired several times each day throughout a week in early June. All this was time and thinking contributed to the print and electronic media, entirely on a gratis basis.
My purpose was to make even a small contribution to a thought process, which will lead to a longer-term solution. A sustainable solution, for a nation, which had not only won a battle against terror, but more importantly, âAn Opportunity to Rebuild Itselfâ.
Having been away for a decade myself, it is now two decades since returning to Sri Lanka, that I had begun to write and also conduct television interviews, on topics of compelling national interest, rather than simply being a passive passenger on this nationâs journey â a journey which could well have been different for us all.
Preventing and pre-empting conflict
Writing in many daily and Sunday papers, (and I am thankful to these papers for the space they readily provided) under a sub caption titled âLeveraging the New Window of Opportunityâ under the theme âBeyond IMF Bailoutsâ, I said: âThe military component of the âday-to-dayâ battle (I repeat the âday-to-dayâ battle) of an almost three-decade-old conflict is reaching an imminent end. This would be singularly encouraging to any right thinking citizen of this country or anywhere else. It has of course been at a terrible cost of âlives lost.â Yes, we might say the âconflictâ is not yet over, but it could also be said, that it is entirely in our hands to shape the manner in which we incrementally progress to a stage where the reasons or the catalysts for conflict do not exist. In essence we must set in motion an unprecedented initiative to pre-empt or prevent the recurrence of the conflict. If not, the almost three decades of the colossal money spent and the many lives lost, with the resulting deep cuts and bruises to inter-racial harmony and social cohesion, whether between and among people on shore or off shore, would have been in vain.â That I said was the spirit in which I put pen to paper.
A pivotal point in history
Writing further, I said: âWe do not need anyone to remind us that we are now at a pivotal point in history, âŚwe now have a new window of opportunity. A window, that valiant forces have selflessly made happen; that the people of the land, particularly those who have returned or remained, have also patiently and supportively, or even by default, provided. Whether they live in the North or East, South or West, they will all have expectations and hope. We cannot dash their hopes. âŚ.we cannot indulge in the extravagance of perpetuating mediocrity in the manner in which we forge ahead as a nation.â
California and Governor Schwarzenegger
While In San Diego in mid, 2009, I wondered why those who have opportunities such as in the USA for example, take it for granted only to be driven by greed and self-interest, to self-inflict damage to such enabling environments. Then from this âland of the free and home of the braveâ they export these toxic assets to the rest of the worldâs banking and financial markets! Yes San Diego was a distinct joy to visit but the State of California is now bankrupt.
It was only a couple of months before my visit that I had heard that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had been passionately appealing to US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner for a Federal Bailout, from TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Programme) funds earmarked for failing banks! (Very much unlike the Arnold Schwarzenegger we see in the movies). I cite this example, since in the current context of Sri-Lanka, it prompts one to think of the independence of governance, states have on the one hand and their fall back on the centre or Federal Government at times of need, on the other.
Post-conflict Belfast, in Northern Ireland
While on the same trip, in the course of enjoying the abundant beauty and tranquillity of Inverness in the mountain highlands of Scotland, I envisioned what Nuwara Eliya could well have been today â if we were a conflict free nation attracting annual new investments for tourism. Then I travelled to Belfast in Northern Ireland and was encouraged by the significant new investment and new thinking that is readily apparent there. Yes of course, 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement, the conflict is yet not completely over there. But Northern Ireland has in relative terms become a peaceful and stable destination for tourism, investment and living. The deal is yet considered a volatile one, but the region seems well on its way to recovery.
While the agreement was signed in 1998, it took until 2005 for the IRA to finally disarm for good. And the DUP, by then the biggest Unionist party, could only be convinced of the legitimacy of the ceasefire when Sinn Fein took the vital step of recognising the authority of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2007.
Ian Paisley had then astonished many by agreeing to form a government with his old enemies, serving alongside Sinn Feinâs Deputy Leader Martin Mc Guinness. The most extreme sides from the two communities have successfully formed a power-sharing government. Although there are undoubtedly still ongoing tensions between the Protestants and Catholics, the fact that the agreement has held proves that there is little appetite in the province for returning to the bad old days of terrorism and violence which resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 people in the 30 years.
I went to many places where the scars of the conflict were yet visible-including the walls separating the two factions (along Falls Street for example), which still remain. I wondered why. Speaking to a cross section of people, I began to realise that this of course could be interpreted in many ways.
Moving from one city to another across continents, and retrieving my email along the way, I was encouraged by the words of Singaporeâs Prime Minister Lee in a National Day speech he had delivered in August 2009.
Singapore PMâs National Day Speech
He said and I quote, âWe didnât start out as one people. Our forefathers were different peoples from different lands, who had come to Singapore to seek better lives for themselves and their children. But our formative years fighting for independence, then striving as a new nation to survive against the odds, brought us all closer together. Each time we were challenged, we responded as one, everyone pulling together and working for the common good. And each success further cemented our cohesion, and helped us to meet the next challenge. We are doing this again in this crisis. Every one of us â government and people, employers and unions â is working together, keeping companies viable and competitive, preserving jobs and livelihoods, and enhancing social safety nets like Workfare and ComCare. This crisis may be a severe test, but our history and record give us confidence that we will once again turn it into an opportunity to strengthen our social compact, and upgrade our economy.â
Whether fighting the recession or the avian flu
Referring to the recent global meltdown he said âWhether fighting the recession or the flu, we made sure every Singaporean knows heâs not alone, but that the community and country are behind him. So long as you make the effort and do your best, the rest of us will help you to pull through. This unity is key to our success in many fields. We must work hard to strengthen it, and to bridge potential divides within our society, be it between Singaporeans and new arrivals, between rich and poor, or most fundamental of all, between the different races and religions.â
Enlarging the secular common space
Addressing issues of social cohesion he had this to say, âWe often see ethnic strife and religious conflict in other countries. In Singapore we have to respect each otherâs cultures, practices and beliefs, build trust and harmony between our communities, and gradually enlarge the secular common space which all groups share. In this way, we can become one people, one nation, one Singapore. We are well placed to deal with these challenges. We are not just pursuing economic growth, or strengthening our society, or remaking our city, but creating a new Singapore. In the half century since we attained self-government, weâve been tested many times, but weâve also created many possibilities for ourselves. Let us stand shoulder-to-shoulder, so that whether it rains or shines, we can work together and achieve the best results for Singapore. This is how we build a better and more vibrant nation, and make Singapore a special place that we are all proud to call our home.â
These words of wisdom of Singaporeâs Prime Minister Lee are a potent message to all â whether in government or in opposition, in business or in the professions or simply representatives of civil society, whether Tamil or Sinhala or Muslim, Malay or Burgher; whether it is the diaspora offshore or our people on shore.
Turning the searchlight inwards
A new realisation must awaken those who live in the luxury and in the comfort zones of their adopted homes offshore, while investing their minds and money or simply their time in influencing thinking, in order to perpetuate conflict. Whether they are Tamil or Sinhala, they should now in particular turn the search light inwards to see how they can invest their minds and money to be catalysts for change for the better, rather than be agents of terrorists or âtriumphalistsâ.
[The writer, FCA (Sri Lanka), MBA (USA), an old boy of S. Thomasâ College Mount Lavinia, is a Chartered Accountant and Management Consultant.]