Fighting corruption, a citizen game, say top governance experts

Monday, 3 October 2016 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

dhp_3826Bribery Commission Director General Dilrukshi Wickremasinghe (centre) speaks at the Forum. Others from left are good governance activist Chandra Jayaratne, Transparency International Board member J.C. Weliamuna, JVP MP and COPE Chairman Sunil Handunnetti, Daily FT Editor Nisthar Cassim, Governance consultant Harsha Fernando, Foreign Affairs Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva and Colombo University MBA Alumni Association President Sarma Mahalingam - Pic by Daminda Harsha Perera

  • Bribery head calls on public to step up and not be dictated to by a corrupt few
  • Govt. to implement Open Govt. Partnership to bring international standards says Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva
  • COPE chair believes de-politicisation of public service and stronger laws essential
  • Weliamuna and Harsha Fernando take professionals to task, key institutions should be strengthened  
  • Naming and shaming not enough: time to put professionals behind bars says Chandra Jayaratne

By Uditha Jayasinghe

Fighting corruption can only be successful with the involvement of all Sri Lankans, concurred an eminent panel of experts recently, calling on Sri Lankans to consolidate the change made last year and expand it to all segments of their lives.

The public needs to put aside bribing for convenience and step forward to eradicate the menace of corruption, believes Sri Lanka’s straight talking champion of good governance Bribery and Corruption Director Generation Dilrukshi Wickremasinghe, who also gave rare praise to parliamentarians, saying only 90 of them have complaints against them.

With customary gusto, she delivered the keynote address ahead of a panel of experts deliberating on where Sri Lanka is on the path to good governance. The seminar was jointly organised by the Colombo MBA Alumni Association and the Daily FT last week.

“Do you really believe that this can be eradicated? I do not wish to stand here alone and say this can be stopped. First you must believe corruption can be stopped. The reason I say it can be eradicated is because it has been done around the world. In countries where corruption was rampant there have been successful efforts to end it. Hong Kong was one country that had the most corrupt police force three decades ago. Ironically they looked for solutions in Sri Lanka.”

She stressed that the main reason for corruption and bribery to be rampant in Sri Lanka is because Sri Lankans do not act to stamp it out. “We are collectively responsible. Will you from tomorrow do something different? To stand for integrity? To stand for honesty? Most people don’t want to go through the harassment of public servants. We pay for convenience. To eradicate a problem we must first understand the truth. Now that is where we need a paradigm shift. A change in the way we conduct ourselves.”   

Prominent lawyer J.C. Weliamuna was insistent that the legal and accounting manipulation of the system made corruption worse in Sri Lanka and sought to direct the debate towards legal chances that can be implemented to empower public officials who could fearlessly come forward to identify wrongdoers and be State witnesses.  

“I hope the Government responds positively to reforms that we have suggested that would depoliticise the public system and allow civil servants the independence to move forward and joint us in the fight against corruption,” he said.

Strengthening institutions was focused on by Attorney-at-law Harsha Fernando, who recalled that Sri Lanka had survived nearly three decades of war because of five core institutions, such as the Central Bank, Finance Ministry, judiciary, key public servants and the media.

“Sadly just as the war ended the crumbling of these institutions began. Let us start with them. Let us make sure that they are put in order because then most of the major issues that stand in the way of development and governance would be removed too.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva, who has long been a anti-corruption activist, put the bar very high saying that Sri Lankans could only feel they have achieved good governance when they are empowered enough to put a sitting parliamentarian or minister behind bars for wrongdoing.

“The day you can get one of us, then that is the day you win,” he said noting that the Government was working on implementing the Open Government Partnership Agreement that would include an international monitoring component that would severely test internal systems against global best practices. “That would be the litmus test for Sri Lanka.”

Committee on Public Enterprises Chairman and MP Sunil Handunetti gave a hard headed analysis of the challenges to stamp out corruption terming the current time a “transitional phase” which would decide whether Sri Lanka would move forward towards prosperity or disintegrate into corruption compounded by minority issues.

“We must build the confidence of the people. We must show them that this system is capable of overhaul and positive change because if you tell the people that they can do nothing then they will do worse than nothing. They will lose hope.”

Unless politicians understand the weight of public expectations on them, they run the risk of having the situation escalate. He pointed out that public corporations are increasing subsidiary companies that are reducing Government oversight without increasing accountability. “We have to adapt fast to these changes or we will find that key institutions are obsolete.”

Good governance activist Chandra Jayaratne made the most serious condemnation of professionals, rolling out multiple examples and arguments as to how lawyers, bankers and accountants have let standards fall to allow corruption to flourish.

“Recently the bankers have said that when they give loans they know 60% of the audits reports and accounts are misrepresentations, falsifications and are incorrect. If the bankers believe in that and they give loans can we have a firm banking system? Best example you can have is the bank reports of the Central Bank itself where Rs.3.3 billion worth of investments were quoted where the report says “uncollateralised repos”. This is what the auditors themselves say of the Central Bank report. If a repo is uncollateralised then it cannot be a repo by the very definition of a repo. A repo is when it is repossessed by you and allocated to a designated account. Ladies and gentlemen the auditors who did this are in our midst.”

Calling on professionals to “wake up”, the good governance activist went on to emphasise the need to train younger professionals entering the profession even if it meant operating costs increasing. Jayaratne went onto detail how average people have to jump through multiple hoops and fill in endless documentation to open an account but how black money was collected and filed into accounts by bank managers. He alleged that drug money was often collected and filtered into the legitimate financial system in this manner and often banks deliberately target such clients to improve their revenue on paper.

 The change demanded by voters in 2015 remains strong, opined Jayaratne, warning that the message is yet to reach Sri Lanka’s professionals.

“What all this means is that professionals have failed,” he noted, recalling a similar address at the Inland Revenue Department where even senior commissioners were unaware of the latest Financial Intelligence Unit Gazette that binds key financial institutions including charity organisations but few people are aware of it.

“We are talking about Mossack Fonseca as a big issue. In this country today you can buy what is known as ‘investments in orbit’, which means it is in a cloud somewhere and registered in a tax haven. One can sign a document saying it is not owned by you. The amount you have to pay is $ 150 for that trust document. Do you know that to the best of my knowledge there are four international fund managers who have representatives in this country with offices and each of them costs well over Rs. 10 million every month to maintain. Surely if you are spending that kind of money you are making several times that by doing business in Sri Lanka.”

“Naming and shaming is not enough. I of course think the day has come when we need to put a few people behind bars. They have to be professional; the bankers, lawyers and accountants.”