“Our decisions always focus on benefitting future generations, not merely the immediate”: President

Thursday, 31 July 2014 00:03 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“When taking political decisions we always took a very long-term view of issues, and did not focus merely the immediate and short-term time horizon,” President Mahinda Rajapaksa said. “When we developed the infrastructure of our country we were not thinking of the next five years or the next election, but about the next 100 years and beyond,” President Rajapaksa said, addressing the 175th anniversary ceremony of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday. Following is the full text of the speech: Chief Justice, honourable Ministers, Leader of the Opposition, Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, members of the Chamber, honoured guests, my dear friends, I am pleased to be present at this historic ceremony where the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce is celebrating its 175th anniversary. 175 years is a very long period which spans many generations and changes. Naturally, therefore, any organisation that has been in existence for so long, would also undergo significant changes, over such a period. I am aware that your organisation had its beginnings by representing the plantation industry, which was the main driver of our economy, at that time in 1839. Today, however, your Chamber represents a large number of vital sectors, which reflects the diversity and depth of our economy in 2014. A systematic comparison between ‘then and now’ would probably show us what an eventful and remarkable journey the economy of our country has experienced over the past 175 years. I am also sure that those of you who do that would be able to understand and appreciate the evolution of our economy and the enormous progress we have made in the face of many challenges.  

A gloomy picture

My dear friends, after 443 years of painful foreign rule, our country gained independence 66 years ago in 1948. It is unlikely that anyone of us here would remember what our economy actually looked like in 1948. However, closer to our present times, I am sure all of us can remember what our country and its economy looked like in 2005, and prior to that, when we even had negative growth. In 2005, after 56 years of independence, our GDP was only $ 24 billion. Our per capita income was a mere $ 1,241. Twenty years ago, only 46% of our people had electricity, and those who had, suffered regular power cuts for hours and hours and sometimes days. You might not even remember those dark times. Our infrastructure was of a very low level. Inflation was an average of nearly 12% per year, and climbing. Foreign reserves were only sufficient for about six weeks of imports. Unemployment was about 7% and poverty was over 15%. Our debt level was nearly 91% of our GDP. All in all, it was a gloomy picture. At that time, whenever representatives of your Chamber met with Government leaders, your intention was not to discuss the future of the economy. Your agenda was to request the Government to attend to, and put right, urgent and fundamental requirements. You desperately wanted terrorism to be eradicated and peace established. You requested that the country’s port and airport services be improved. You asked for assurances that the electricity demand be fulfilled, without interruptions. You urged that steps be taken to bring inflation to modest levels. You wanted the roads and the infrastructure to be improved quickly. You wanted food security to be assured and shortages of all items to be eliminated. Your list of ‘wants’ was quite formidable.  

Delivering on key fundamentals

Though formidable, all those were reasonable requests. However, what was striking at that time in 2005, was that even after 56 years of independence, we were yet sadly behind, when it came to even the basic fundamentals to do business. Therefore, my Government, when it took office in late 2005, had its work cut out, to quickly and effectively deliver those key fundamentals to our country and economy, so that all of you, as business leaders, could look to the future and grow our economy with confidence. My dear friends, when we commenced our work, there were many who did not believe that we could succeed in delivering any of those fundamentals, let alone all of them. Almost everyone thought that Sri Lanka would never eradicate terrorism and usher in the country. But we did. When we finished terrorism there were many who said we could never finish demining, resettlement and reconstruction in the conflict areas. But we did. Today, some are saying we would never bring about a permanent reconciliation. To them, I say, we have already done an enormous amount of work towards that goal and achieved many successes, and soon, we will complete that mission as well. From an economic point of view too, there were many who did not believe that Sri Lanka would be able to develop on a sustained basis with nearly 7.5% average growth, for more than five years, in a world that is rocked with turmoil crisis and uncertainty. There were many who did not believe that we would have highways of an international standard, carpeted roads linking the whole of Sri Lanka, and thousands of kilometres of concrete roads in the rural areas in our lifetime. There were many who predicted that, with the massive development we were carrying out, we would provoke a high level of inflation, get into a debt trap, and have a fiscal deficit that was out of control. Some even shouted every few weeks that the economy would crash! But, on the other hand, we have now established the longest-ever period, of stable and low inflation in our post-liberalisation history; a stable exchange rate; decreasing debt ratios; shrinking fiscal deficits; and a large number of new and exciting business opportunities through our five hubs strategy. If you carefully look at your annual reports of about 10 years back and compare the balance sheets then and now, you yourselves will realise the enormous positive change that has come about.  

Looking to the future

My dear friends, as a result of those developments, today, the members of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce do not have to worry about the issues that they had to worry about, in the past. They do not have to lament and grumble about the infrastructure or the financial system or the business environment, when they meet Government officials. That is probably why, in 2014 when the Chamber is celebrating its 175th anniversary, the mood of the Chamber is to look to the future. You can now make plans for the year 2020 and beyond, since you know that by 2015, the country would reach a per capita income of $ 4,000. On that basis, you can now make plans and develop strategies to suit a country that would surpass $ 7,000 per capita income by 2020. To my mind, this is one of the most amazing transformations that we are witnessing in our country today!  

Massive development effort

My dear friends, I believe the occasion of your Chamber’s anniversary is also an appropriate time for me to share with you, the rationale the massive development effort we launched over the past several years. When we developed the infrastructure of our country we were not thinking of the next five years or the next election, but about the next 100 years and beyond. When we built ports, airports, highways, roads, and power plants, we were not thinking only about you and your children, but also about the unborn generations of all Sri Lankans. When we made massive investments in education and health, we were not only thinking of our present generation of young persons, but also about the future work-force, that is needed to face the challenging 21st century. When we rescued our country from terrorism through the supreme sacrifices of thousands of our people and billions of rupees worth of resources, we were not only thinking of the need to protect our people at present but also about providing our future generations with the political and economic stability that is needed to lead safe and happy lives. When we took firm measures, to steer our economic macro-fundamentals to healthy levels, we were not only thinking of making it easier for you to do business now, but also about making our economic growth sustainable, inclusive and long lasting. In other words, we always took a very long-term view of issues, and did not focus merely the immediate and short-term time horizon.  

Long-term vision

My dear friends, our country has reached its present level of development and success as a result of that long-term vision, as well as the tremendous sacrifices and efforts of millions of our people, over the past several years. As a result, I think we have now reached the verge of another new and exciting era, where we could stimulate the rapid transformation necessary to become a true middle-income nation of the world. Increasingly, we see evidence of that transformation, with higher investment, better facilities and a more skilled work force. However, we must all remember that there is still a lot more work to be done. The massive investments that our country has made so far, must now be utilised more effectively to generate greater economic benefits to all our people. The wide opportunities that have been created must be distributed in a fair manner among all our stakeholders. The 6% of our people who are still in poverty, must be targeted for upliftment very quickly so that they would not be left behind, when our country moves to greater heights. The developments of the future must be made sufficiently inclusive to touch the lives of all our people in all our districts, in a uniform and fair manner.  

Collective efforts

My dear friends, the outstanding successes that our country has been able to achieve over the past several years is a result of the collective efforts of the Government and the private sector. The private sector that I am talking of ranges from the top chairman of your largest corporate to the simple farmer or fisherman in our most rural village. Let us realise that each one of them has played their role in realising today’s status of our economy. In the same way, each one will need to play an even a more enhanced role in creating the new future, we are designing for ourselves. Finally, I wish to commend the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce for the vital contribution it has made to our country’s economy, over the past 175 years. I also wish to thank all your members, past and present, who have been in the forefront in guiding the destinies of our private sector which has helped our country to reach its present level. On this happy occasion, let us firmly dedicate ourselves to contribute our diligent efforts to develop our beloved motherland to reach even greater heights, in the years to come. May all of you have the wisdom, strength and the ability to steer your companies to do better and deliver prosperity, to all the people of our country. May the Noble Triple Gem bless all of you!