I can trace the seed for this write up to my return journey to Sri Lanka in 1992. Having returned from a place of serious research and high repute and thirsty for action, I had to fulfil a role for our university research symposium.
Having to organise the front desk and the basic requirements of the delegates to the symposium, I decided that the visitors should wear nice nametags and not something that is written on paper and fixed to the shirt or blouse with some pin or the other.
The option I took was to seek out a good quality supplier and place an order for the quantity required. A place with a solid reputation near Thunmulla junction, Bambalapitiya, gave me the assurance that they would supply proper pouches and tags.
I was given a month to come and collect as they said that these items needed to come from abroad. On the said date, I appeared and inquired, to be told that they had the pouches but the metallic clip could not be given as the particular ship carrying that part of the consignment (a load of stationary products) had to dock in Singapore due to a fire on board.
The ship had been delayed docking into Colombo and as a result, the shop was empty! I left with the pouches and used them with paper clips – A rude awakening in my mind of the penalty that we pay for not being able to make even simple things by ourselves.
Today, of course, the supply chain is more agile and may be not one ship but many would be bringing these supplies to Sri Lanka, hence a single fire on board may not cause such a calamity. The event management companies in place today would hang a nice name board on you even for a one-hour event.
As all are appropriately charged – you have a nice mark-up on these make-up items – and these services have developed into a profitable business, it means that what came to my mind in 1993 is not a problem today from the point of view of the objective. The fact is that if we depend for many of our needs from outside, maintaining trade balances is not an easy task.
One must realise that most of what we use today are made elsewhere! We used to say that if the ships fail to appear we are in big trouble – a sentence which is used a lot less today. However, today we say more judiciously that we have reserves for two to three months of national consumption and that the trend is positive. I am not sure which one is better understood – i.e. when the economists mixed reality with jargon or the pragmatists stated things as they are!
Style over substance
I know that in 1993, I was looking at style rather than substance, but to my mind presentation was important. Presentation is still important but we do have to be careful about not going overboard with it. Recently the Daily FT had a comment from Hilmy Cader, who had succinctly expressed that one should be a thought master rather than a toastmaster.
Going excessively overboard on style when substance is what really matters will not take you over much of a distance in life. Lack of thought at times makes one think that style alone can win for you. Today that is not true even in a beauty contest! It is time that we spent more time on adding to our substance than to deceptive style.
A nation’s substance does indeed depend on its capabilities. Two politicians standing behind a podium at two different times are likely to find different audiences if the attendees have a choice. They would be judged or listened to, based on capabilities of the nation that each of them represent. Collective capabilities effectively mean the national substance.
In an increasingly globalised world, what you can do matters more to others than perhaps even to you at times and internal capabilities is a strong currency. The particular currency may change with times. Yet I believe today it is the ‘ability to translate words into action’ and the ‘demonstrated capability over a period’ that gives any nation its stature. The leader behind the podium would radiate that capability. One can have rhetoric but the absence of substance will be seen through and the result is not quite pleasant.
How can we go about adding to substance? A simple yardstick is that all that matters should not be ‘Made in Elsewhere’. We should not believe in oversimplified statements of Ricardo’s theories of comparative advantages and should accept those to our disadvantage.
Akio Morita initially kept ‘Made in Japan’ in small letters in those items he produced. Today we may place counterfeit items in packages printed with the words ‘Made in Japan’ to leverage on the strength that those words together carry. We know that ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ is not a strong contender with the result that the rising income levels still contribute to more demand for items ‘Made In Elsewhere’. It is important that we create the basis for growth in some selected areas to generate such abilities.
Essentially, this calls for boosting manufacturing – the factory segment of the economy. That manufacturing can create more jobs is not to be questioned. Advanced manufacturing will give that edge. It is not an easy task to find that niche and to grow after being away from the scene for so long.
Yet when the Government took the decision to launch the National Nanotechnology Initiative, an opportunity was created. It was perhaps a decision unique in Sri Lanka for quite some time in the area of science and technology, if not for the very first time.
Sri Lanka’s manufacturing history is not illustrious and not much space is required to state the story. It was either to overcome economic problems during war and post war period that industries started. Shift in political alliances brought in some big industries such as steel, paper, tires, plywood, etc. Shift in focus to services showed the demise of this sector.
The recent strength is in garments and apparel and one is quite aware that sticking to normal stitching will not take us far over a period. The failure perhaps was not building knowledge and a skill base in the industry segment and not entwining such concepts into the society.
It is known that prior to 2000, with the millennium bug issue some US employers were even searching in US elders’ homes for ex-IT professionals who were conversant with systems in use to address changes that were deemed required.
We do not network and the experience gained is lost with time. We have challenged ourselves a lot less by way of developing an industrial leadership. Once, the Canadian PM said that he looked forward to purchasing superior machinery from US when his currency had better parity with the US Dollar.
Another lesson to us is what China usually purchases from Germany are its superior technology and machinery. Consider a reaction at times within the local business community: “Please devalue the rupee as we are directly affected!” While there may be some truth and a need in the short run, hiding comfortably behind a weak currency should not be your life’s business goal.
The objective of the nanotechnology initiative was to add competitiveness to the local industry. Its application calls for a sea change in terms of attitude and approach. While innovation in science is the desired goal, innovation in management of facilities are also required in order to realise fruits of this labour. Research findings require factory level implementation or new process schemes would be required.
‘Made in Sri Lanka’ mindset
It is not the service-oriented mindset that is important, but that ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ stands proud by the manufacturing excellence mindset. It is interesting that in all our introductory presentations in addressing the role that nanotechnology is to play in Sri Lanka, we continue to reinforce in the mind of the listener that our aim is making ‘Made in Sri Lanka’ a proud label.
If Akio Morita was a distant person, why not understand the story of Ambanis from India. Let us move forward more by learning from lessons ‘Made in Elsewhere’.
(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on email@example.com.)