Slave Island, upcountry or another country!

Thursday, 9 May 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Changes are at times quite slow to show immediate effects. Time will inexorably move forward taking people along with it. Babies will grow into adults and help in shaping the character and the future of the society in which they live and work with their way of living, thinking and work ethics.

There is no holding back this movement but one can influence the subjects as they develop from babies to adults. Young easily impressionable minds needs stimulants of the right sort as otherwise one could grow up with a set of ideals based on entirely wrong set of practices. Now this is not about mass nationalism or mass liberalism, but a discussion on long-term perceptions or ideals generating within. I do not think waving the national flag in a semi-drunken stupor at public events is nationally relevant or a true sign of patriotism.

I was pressed to write this column in this way after witnessing two simple encounters directly where the first one involved a young family and the latter a discussion between a relative and two siblings. Now it is unfair to extrapolate this to the wider community and to make a comment and a statement into a doom and gloom scenario. Yet knowing and feeling sometime the background especially as a teacher for over 25 years in our university system, these as I see are not isolated events without any impact on the wider community.

What I feel is that these are real issues – the perceptions and desires – which if not addressed in some meaningful way – definitely not with more bonding and regulatory means and other draconian measures – the situation few years down the time lane will be radically different. It is perhaps may be too late when we realise that the hole we have dug for ourselves is too deep for us to climb out of.  As we are in a month that gave Sri Lanka another opportunity to start towards prosperity with accord than discord, with unity than with dissent, together than with polarised groups, we indeed are not taking steps to learn from the past. We must be conscious that we have spent more than four years since the new opportunity space being offered on 19 May and the results are mixed.



The first event involving the young family was based on a comment by an astrologer. An astrologer has advised the parents that they should seriously plan to have their daughter relocated to another country in few more years time to avoid graha apala – issues brought in through not so favourable orbitals of respective planets. Johannes Kepler, who is an astronomer as well as an astrologer, may be bemused.

Even with astronomy advancing rapidly, astrology is still a big hit in our minds and the influence that they make cannot yet be understood nor explained in any scientific sense. This is not unique to Sri Lanka as we well know but as we try to nurture towards a wonder state in our country and that what matters to us as the desired goal is laudable.  Now the parents have started seriously planning to accommodate this advice and their next few years will be spent on ensuring to defeat the possible influence of planets. No stone will be left unturned in their quest to ensure a bright future to the child minus any ill effects in a different land.

A small family nucleus, from the date of the astrologer’s open advice, will have a fixed mind on their line of activities and the necessary contribution that they should deliver to this economy may find to be wanting. All little innovative steps that they will take will be to have the finances ready to take that step elsewhere. Another astrologer may be at the same time be writing about the nation’s prosperity while stating that one should not work during a certain prescribed period every day – Rahu period!


Looking overseas

The second event was a question fired at two siblings with about a decade’s difference in age between them. The question was simple and I may stand accused of reading too much from an answer to a simple question. The question posed was, ‘do you like to live in another country?’ and the answers from both were a direct ‘yes, of course’.  The direct no-nonsense, no hesitation whatsoever way of answering with that answer meant that the concept was on top of their minds. Extrapolate similar feelings to the two generations growing within this society and the feeling that one should get is goose pimples of sorts!

We are losing generations in mindset even if not physically. We are definitely losing growing numbers to outside without an iota of a link and a bonding to the system as they want leave and that means no contribution back to the society. The question that begs is why? Why does our growing populace believe in a future outside Sri Lanka? True, we cannot have a closed mentality and must understand the strong benefits of cross pollination, but the signals only indicate one-way traffic.

Sometimes in schools the pressure of a foreign visit as a conversational topic may become too uncomfortable as one who had not travelled outside with not many tales to tell may lose face and peer pressure may be intolerable. Hence the expression ‘better to say Slave Island or upcountry,’ even as these are audible equivalents to foreign places and you may just get by sounding convincing enough through a lighter vein.


Workplace examples

Just consider some of our current workplace examples. The textile trade and many places within the free trade zones have vacancies and in most cases the monthly wages with benefits offered are attractive. The offers are competitive with what is offered outside for similar positions. Yet many forgo the local choices available to seek positions elsewhere and willingly embrace severe difficulties.

Though we may find happiness via the dollar flows into our coffers, there is serious undermining of our manufacturing and service sectors due to lack of labour. While this is happening at unskilled and semi-skilled categories, the skilled and professional categories witness haemorrhage as well.  We are demonstrating that we are quite incapable of keeping people back. We certainly do not see a similar queue forming outside Sri Lankan embassies in trying to fly in with serious expectations. One may resist CEPA, but the reality is we must try to ensure that the organisational space of ours is attractive to our ilk in the first place.


Human resources

We cannot succeed by populating positions with zombies like human structures with the mind elsewhere with only the body being supported locally. As Singapore demonstrated, the value is in your human capital.

The human resources mainly need to be generated from our own economy. Unlike United States and few more economies, we have to make do with what we have. Doing all things possible to provide education – and education indeed is the greatest leveller – we proceed to lose them.

As an example those who are engaged in research, the phase where knowledge is generated through the utilisation of money, numbers around 4,000. Most of these are also not full time researchers and consider the input time may mean only around 2,000 full time researchers. However the application of UNESCO average numbers required for a healthy vibrant society may mean that we need to have around 18,000 full time research personnel. We have always lost personnel in this category to the outside due to number of reasons.

The tough task ahead is quite simple to understand and minus the numbers some of the dreams may stay just as dreams. For the numbers to be realised, the path must be made attractive and the societal expectations quite challenging yet attractive to young minds. The example only touches on researchers.  Simple skill category analysis may provide some surprising results in indicating how vulnerable some of our sectors are. It was commented in one gathering that rubber tappers are becoming an extinct species as the pipeline is running dry, with most engaged now in the age bracket of above 50. Now in time to come, who is going to tap here and really bell the cat on similar issues?


Greener grass

If we see the fault with the current generation who answered in this way, my answer is that the error does not lie with them as they act on signals and behavioural patterns received from their seniors and elders and primarily from parents.

Yes, it is in these layers that the admiration for anywhere else except here that had led to the current widespread perception in young minds that greener pastures abroad is what one must aspire to – grass indeed is greener elsewhere. Daily living and growing with that mindset unfortunately stifles growth within as any first available opportunity will whisk the spirits away! We must address the question why on one hand we beckon people with clarion calls to visit paradise, invest in Asia’s blue sapphire, etc., while those within dream of a life outside. Those who are still within are also quite proud of those who are living outside. It is indeed a strange unaccountable feeling that this conundrum presents oneself!

(The writer 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 also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on


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