If I had a dollar for every time somebody said “Sri Lanka should be like Singapore”, I’d be a rich man. The odd thing is most of those people have never visited Singapore. Somehow we are made to believe Singapore as the perfect development standard, a utopian state where everything is so organised, a chewing-gum-less world, and a heavenly place where its people live happily ever after. But that’s a different debate.
There is an urban myth that the father of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew saw the great city of Colombo in the 1950s and vowed to make Singapore modelled after it. I’m yet to see hard proof he ever said that. The closest statement is him saying that “the British left behind a sound social and economic infrastructure (in Ceylon)” which is debatable. The iron-fisted patriot who ruled Singapore for over 30 years has been rather critical about Sri Lanka’s choices time after time. He clearly learned from our mistakes, but it’s naïve to say that Singapore was modelled after Colombo.
It’s easy to be a genius in hindsight. Lee Kuan’s choices were as risky as Bandaranaikes’ or Jayewardene’s or Premadasa’s; his contemporaries. Different circumstances lead to different outcomes. All we can do is learn from the past. And the one lesson we can learn from the past is that no country can copy another country’s development. Perhaps we should stop trying to be like Singapore or the USA or China, instead start creating our own identity of development. Here are three places to start from:
1. Understanding who we are
Whether you like it or not, and unlike many other countries, Sri Lanka has a long history. Over 2,600 years of written history is no joke. It’s a fascinating and complex history corroborated by ancient engineering marvels and artistic masterpieces.
Despite the current lack of support by the Government, the known history and pre-history keeps revealing a sophisticated ancient civilisation which dates back to at least 6,000 years. If Rome had as much history as we do, we could’ve seen how brilliantly they would market it. When many young nations are desperate to make-up history, it’s too bad most of us are ashamed of ours.
A nation with such a long history is bound to be superrich with culture and traditions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we should dwell in the past glory. But without deep understanding and appreciation of everything that makes us, it is impossible to shape who we want to be. No matter how much we try to ignore, the fact is that over the millennia and through war and peace, the people of this country had evolved into a unique identity of coexistence. I don’t understand why Sinhala-Buddhists and Tamil-Hindus can’t live in one country, when the Hindu gods have been living peacefully inside Buddhist temples for centuries. All our cultural activities and traditions are a beautiful mix of different ethnic and religious systems. Which is why every Lankan must learn their history and cherish their traditions. Some people ask, if Singapore could become so developed starting later than us, why couldn’t we do the same? I remind them that we had a 30-year-long war. Some people talk as if we never had such a war. But that’s just fooling ourselves. The war really happened and it’s a part of our history. A learned Professor asked me recently, ‘why can’t Sri Lanka be like Japan?’ My answer was Japan’s war ended 70 years ago, and our war ended just seven years ago.
A nation is built by its people, by the people who love their country and want to see it prosper. The unmistakable quality of Lee Kuan is his deep love for his country. We have made a generation of Lankans who do not love their country. We habitually insult our country, constantly degrading it against other nations. Can we expect any genuine effort to build our country, if we don’t believe in it? If we are not proud of it? If we are not inspired by it?
Nation building must start by building its people.
2. Agriculture-first economy
If we study our history even superficially, it’s obvious that our core-strength is in agriculture. We have been perfecting it for at least 6,000 years. There was no reason for our ancestors to build such massive lakes and so many of them, an advanced irrigation system if we didn’t have a large agriculture sector. We can estimate how large the population would’ve been to have the need to cultivate such vast fields.
Even the colonists knew the best way to exploit this country is agriculture. But here we are trying to become a trade hub like Singapore. Desperately trying to build industrial cities and ports. The previous government went on a weird Western-Chinese hybrid development model building highways cutting across paddy fields. Every government so far failed to craft an authentic Sri Lankan development agenda. Sri Lanka is not China and never will be. China’s history, its resources, its people and their aspirations are different from ours. And it’s okay to be different.
I’m not saying all of us should wear a loincloth and get into mud. What we need to do is transform our agriculture sector. The gentlemen who wear ties, jackets and pure-white national costumes in the parliament should first of all understand that there is no shame in farming. We need people who understand the history, resources, geology, geography, climate, and the people of Sri Lanka. Instead of trying to build a “new” Sri Lanka, we need to build the “real” Sri Lanka. I have seen vast fields of farms in scorching deserts in the Middle East. There is no excuse to stop farming in droughts. I wonder what our Ministers and Government officials learn when they are sent on foreign trips on public money.
We need a bold-new vision to become not just self-sustainable in food but also to be South Asia’s most innovative centre of agriculture. The factories we need are not some Chinese plastic manufacturers next to Hambantota Port, but factories that make modern tools to increase agriculture productivity and the supply chain efficiency, and factories that make serious value-added agri-products. We need a group of entrepreneurs who can make innovative food and food-based products to compete with global brands.
This is where the Government needs to heavily invest in, not in building mega-cities or ports or highways. The one industry that will never go out of business is the food industry. That’s how we can create a million new jobs. Why is it so hard for our leaders to understand that?
3. Economy for the future
Highways and mega-cities are nothing new. We are chasing obsolete development symbols and standards. Highways maybe new to us, but it’s an old technology built for the dying fossil-fuel economy. The USA is struggling to maintain its highways. Mega-cities with concrete structures are so old and dysfunctional. We are already 30 years behind the game, and trying to replicate 100-year-old failed development models is useless.
We need to build a vision for Sri Lanka to meet the global challenges and opportunities of the next 100 years. Instead of trying to catch-up, we need to innovate for the future. The future cities are ‘Sustainable Cities’, not mega-cities. The future roads are made of solar panels and have wider bicycle lanes, not highways. Future consumer is an informed buyer who wants their food to be organic. We have the opportunity to build a global brand for Sri Lankan agri-products by making them organic, ethical and sustainable.
Perhaps we need to stop using the old development indicators, or at least not be blind-sighted by them. In pursuit of higher GDP, desperate to get ahead of others in the list, we tend to lose sight of what is more important to us and what is more suitable for us. I know this is an impossible feat for the pundits who have been moulded in the obsolete Smithsonian economics.
Let’s face it, all you people have so far failed to come up with a working solution. That’s why we need a new generation of modern leaders who are sensitive to the world’s and Sri Lanka’s biggest problems, those who understand the new and future realities, and are brave enough to disrupt age-old systems. The current political and corporate leaders are too old for the job.
Globalisation is dying. It has failed to deliver its promise of global prosperity. Instead it has created a vicious cycle of ever deepening inequality, injustice and environmental catastrophe. The unprecedented wins of Brexit and ‘Make America Great Again’ are the undeniable evidence of this new trend. Thanks to technology, the once thought globaliser, countries are now turning inwards.
In a virtually connected world there is no need for globalisation. The simplest example is language. It was once thought that English will be the global language. But we are now experiencing communication independent of language. We don’t need to know English to read a website anymore, and soon we will not have the need for a common language. A worldwide renaissance of national identities is in the making. We can start early, or wait for another twenty years before we realise it’s too late.
We don’t need to be like Singapore, or like the USA or like China. We need to be like us. We need to build our own version of Sri Lanka. Let’s stop the meaningless comparisons. Let’s get out of the global rate race. Let’s start loving our country, our history, our culture and our people. Let’s be brave enough to build our own version of a developed Sri Lanka.
(The writer is Chairman – Social Enterprise Lanka.)