Saturday, 29 June 2013 00:00
I am deeply privileged to be elected Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the premier business chamber of our country. I thank the members of the Chamber for the trust and confidence placed in me. You have my assurance that I will do my best to further the interests of this institution and its stakeholders during the time I hold office.
I’ve had four rewarding years in Standing Committee A under the chairmanship of first Anura and then Susantha. As Vice Chairman over the past two years, I experienced at first hand Susantha’s leadership qualities during some difficult times for the chamber. He had many contentious issues to deal with but like the galaxy of distinguished chairmen before him, Susantha upheld the principles for which the chamber was set up and continues to uphold to this day.
For over 174 years, the chamber has been at the forefront of the private sector in Sri Lanka. We have based our work on the belief that sustainable growth in our country’s economy must be private sector-led. This belief must continue to guide us, as we focus on what we must do, in the future. However, before I reflect on what I believe the chamber must do, let me try to put things into context.
Promise and challenges
Sri Lanka is a country of tremendous promise. To our north lies what is potentially one of the world’s most powerful economies. India could be to Sri Lanka what China was to Hong Kong, what ASEAN was to Singapore.
A few miles to our south is the world’s busiest sea route; that between Europe and Asia. That must make us a potentially great maritime hub. Or even a logistics hub to the world. We are surrounded by an ocean many times the size of our landmass, its riches yet to be fully understood or discovered.
We are a tourist haven; few countries can boast of the combination of attractions we offer within such a small area. And we have a rich fertile soil. No Sri Lankan should ever perish of starvation. With the world likely to face food shortages in the years ahead, Sri Lanka could use its fertile soil to generate significant export revenues.
Yet our potential has remained just that. Potential. For 26 years we had a reason, some may even say an excuse. Call it what you may, four years ago it was put to rest. We, however, remain distant from the country that we should be. Indeed, some challenges confront us. Let me deal with the four that I believe to be the most important.
First, the economy. We are a small nation both in terms of population and size of economy. Too small in fact, to achieve sustainable growth by doing business amongst ourselves. We are also an import dependent country. Both of these suggest that prosperity will come to us only if we become an export centric nation.
Second is national integration. Sri Lanka is home to four of the world’s great religions. And each one of these teaches us that the path to well-being rests on attaining harmony and co-existence between human beings. Yet Sri Lanka is not at peace with herself. Our society is marked by tensions driven by a fear of the ‘other,’ of those we perceive to be different from our own selves. To truly move forward as a nation, we must celebrate our diversity, not fear it. The third is governance. Over the years, each succeeding government has brought new pressures on our systems of governance. Increasingly, our society is called upon to rely on the goodness of our leadership rather than on the strengths of our institutions. Yet, we know from experience that successful societies are underpinned by strong institutions. Sri Lanka must not aim to be an exception.
Fourthly, education. Education in the sciences yes, because we need to compete and succeed in overseas markets but also education that leads us towards becoming a mature society. A society that cherishes democratic ideals, meritocracy, hard work and responsibility amongst others.
None of this mean that the chamber will rush out tomorrow and attempt to resolve all that lies ahead of our country, be it potential or challenge. Not at all. Indeed, we have neither the skills nor the capacity to address many of the issues that confront us. But where we have the skills and the capacity, we must – to use a cricketing term – bat in the top order. Where we do not, we must follow.
There are three messages here; the first is that we must always remember – irrespective of where we bat – that we bat for team Sri Lanka. And we must believe that everyone else does the same. We may – at times – speak of different paths but hopefully, they all lead to the same objective; a prosperous and peaceful Sri Lanka.
Secondly, our role is that of a partner. It is not our role to criticise or point fingers; to suggest alternatives, yes and to also point out dangers, since the best partners are those that lay the facts on the table. But we must always work alongside, towards the common objective of a prosperous Sri Lanka.
The third message is that we need to be engaged and involved. I know it is comforting to insist, that we will involve ourselves, only on matters connected with the business environment. But to assume that the goings on in the community have no link to the business environment is counter-productive. The Sri Lankan private sector – more than most – should know this to be true. After all, in 1956 when Sri Lanka experimented with a single language policy, the then captains of industry are likely to have said “that’s politics, not economics”. But 57 years later the economy continues to pay for that political decision.
Are we ready?
But are we ready to engage? Do we engage sufficiently amongst ourselves? Do we communicate well with our many stakeholders? Is our Steering Committee structure appropriate? Do we have the right partnerships? Are we seen by society as an institution that adds value? These challenges confront us as well. Unless the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, our message will not be heard and the work we do will be in vain.
As you can see, there is much work to be done. And all that we do must be anchored to two overriding principles. The first principle is that the nation comes first, the private sector second and our individual firms, third. To reverse the order, as we are sometimes tempted to do, is to compromise the sustainability of the success we may achieve in the short term. The second principle is that market-driven, private sector-led, export-focused growth is the path to sustainable economic prosperity.
To succeed in what we must do, we must work together, towards common objectives. And together with my colleagues in Standing Committee A, I look forward to your support and guidance in the year ahead.