Sound and fury or reality?

Wednesday, 7 January 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“Out, out brief candle, life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” –Macbeth (Vv)     By now, most voters would have decided on how they would exercise their vote at the presidential elections to be held on 8 January. For more than a month they have been flooded with the propaganda of the candidates (while nature, not to be outdone in this run up to the elections, reminded us of our real and continual vulnerability by unleashing unusually bad weather causing wide spread flooding in many areas). The rains have now mercifully ceased, but there is no escape from the relentless propaganda bombardment on our senses. Going by some of the spokesmen for the Government, this election battle is of a global significance. Maithripala Sirisena is only an insignificant pawn in a much larger game, the moves and counter moves discernible only to these spokesmen, who claim a deeper understanding of matters of global import. Accordingly, their real rival is no less than the only super power in the world, the United States of America! That many of these spokesmen one time sought refuge there, and perhaps even today enjoy some residency rights in that country, does not in any way dim their insight. Their children may have chosen to make a life in America, but dad’s heart belongs to the motherland, presently ruled by a people-friendly and extremely patriotic Government. In fact, it is now the ‘Miracle of Asia’. No wonder then that an envious USA is working overtime to change the regime!   Miracle of Asia In the respected Economist magazine, you can find economic data of various countries. In the latest edition we find the per capita GDP of the Asian countries which may help us to understand the contours of the miracle. Here are the per capita of some Asian countries taken randomly, given in US$; China 8550, Hong Kong 41,990, Bangladesh 1090, India 1980, Japan 39,140, Kazakhstan 13,700, Malaysia 12,090, Pakistan 1,470, Singapore 58,910, Thailand 6,260 and Sri Lanka 3,790. It should be also noted that countries starting from a low base can sometime achieve a high economic growth rate. This year (2014) it is said we grew at about 7%, a rate a Developed country will envy. In 2012, the Afghanistan economy grew at a remarkable 14%. But in 2013 it slowed down to about 3.5%. While it is undeniable that Sri Lanka has done well since the internal war ended in 2009, to claim a miracle status, when so many Asian countries are way ahead, may be premature. Each country, in terms of geography, population, resources, history, and culture and so on are different. Given these natural variances, we cannot expect to find a uniform approach to economic management in every country. But there is an undeniable similarity in the broader policies followed by the more successful Asian countries given above such as Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. On the other hand, it may be noted that they have very little in common with countries like say the Hermit State of North Korea or even the militarised Pakistan, which are among the lagging economies in Asia.   State sector The Rajapaksa Government has openly declared that it intends maintaining or even expanding the State sector. It also favours the old cooperative systems which the Government intents reviving. Many of these institutions are not providers of essential services but are in pure and simple businesses like airlines, estates and hotels. In these State-Owned Enterprises, the emphasis is not on the return on capital. Even if they are making huge losses, the Government policy is to keep them going. A blatant example of this policy is SriLankan Airlines. The Government is determined to own and manage a hugely-expensive enterprise in a very complex and challenging sector. A more rational policy would have diverted the billions invested in the airline to areas like education or health, with immediate benefits to the people.   Regulatory bodies A common feature of the more successful economies are the independent and impartial regulatory bodies that guide and monitor economic activity. They attempt to create a level playing field both fair and transparent. It is a great pity that in our country in recent times the dividing line between the regulatory functions of the State and that of the regulated has being eroded dangerously. Not only specific regulators like the Securities and Exchange Commission, but most ministries, departments and even Government officials have policy and regulatory functions which need to be performed objectively and impartially. Even a minister cannot be in a conflict of interest situation. Today we see several big businessmen occupying senior public service positions, while many public servants are running business enterprises. No longer is the avoidance of a conflict of interest situation, whether real or potential, considered an important feature of good governance. Observing the various appointments made at a vital regulatory body like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the most generous conclusion we can come to is that the appointing authorities do not have the foggiest idea of the functions of such a body. It is suggested by some that the real reasons for these appointments are more sinister. To many senior Government positions, there have been appointments from outside, of political aides, relatives and businessmen. Along the line at some point, there will arise a situation where the personal and business interest of such persons will be at variance with the dictates of public service norms. From the various accounts of the happenings in high places today, public service ethics are only a distant consideration now. There are many public servants campaigning for President Rajapaksa openly, including addressing public meetings.     Checks and balances In a dismal scenario of a steam-roller Parliamentary majority, a humbled public service and a muted media, a favoured few can indulge in vast prestige projects without any accountability as to their viability, the costs incurred or the return on the investment. All conventional checks and balances of the system have been destroyed or undermined. The distinction between the leader and the State is so blurred in this country that we may now even endorse what the French monarch Louis the XIV (1638-1715) is said to have famously pronounced “I am the state”. Having reigned for 72 long years it is not surprising that Louis the XIV began to think of himself in that manner. It took only another 75 years for the French Revolution.   Patriotism One of the more comical sides of the current concentration of power and wealth is the manner in which the holders thereof now claim a monopoly on even the interpretation of language as well as concepts. They are “patriotic” and by implication others, less so. Among the qualities of patriotism are now included, corruption, violence, abuse of power, nepotism, misuse of State resources and the destruction of the concept of good governance. Similarly, the teachers of language must note that the word “miracle”, usually used to describe a remarkable occurrence, has a different meaning today.   Appointment of ministers A sure pointer to the mores of our politics is the incredibly large Cabinet that this President has appointed. It is argued that he can only keep the loyalty of the legislators by rewarding them with portfolios. As a minister, the so-called people’s representative is entitled to greater privileges. Inducements and benefits are accepted as the norm by our elected rulers now. The President has also created a category of ministers called ‘Monitoring Ministers’. A few months back the Monitoring Minister of the Foreign Ministry Sajin Vaas Gunawardena was in the news locally as well as internationally, bringing fame to the country. Another Monitoring Minister is Duminda Silva, overseeing the forces which include the Police. There is also the young MP of acting fame, Upeksha Swarnamali, the Monitoring Minister for Foreign Employment, Promotion and Welfare. We are not sure whether to list these appointments among the patriotic aspects or the miraculous aspects of this Government.   Reality Given the economic realities of Asia, a per capita income of $ 3,790 is nothing to crow about. (The obvious concentration of wealth among the wealthy 5% of this country, as evidenced by the expensive cars including Lamborghinis, night races, casinos, regular foreign holidays, annual trips for medical tourism to Singapore, etc., makes even this figure extremely debatable. The other 95% are expected to live on a diet of patriotic propaganda, obviously.) Our country’s main income is from remittances of those working overseas. The wages in this country will not give them a decent life. Even today Developed countries are reluctant to issue a tourist visa to a Sri Lankan passport holder, suspecting that he may not be patriotic enough to want to return to the miracle! We can only speculate what our country would have achieved under a different set of leaders, policies and methods. Given the head-start we had at the time of independence, broad-based education and the advantage of the early liberalisation in the late 1970s, a per capita income of $ 3,790 is no great achievement, even the set back of the war considered. Sri Lanka, blessed in many ways, has been singularly unfortunate in the types of persons pushed up by the political processes. Undoubtedly, it is a tale full of sound and fury, but in the final analysis, told by an idiot and signifying very little. (The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and a freelance writer.)

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