We must live the answers

Tuesday, 24 May 2022 01:44 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Will the current “revolution” vis a vis protests be able to impact systemic changes?


Over the spate of my consulting and writing, I am often lobbed questions about Sri Lanka’s current plight and predicament. 

And so, I thought it would be fascinating to harvest some of the most intriguing questions and see what answers might be explored. 

Of course, no “answer” is definitive. These are hypotheses, grounded in experience of other crisis situations and extended experience with the dynamics of human and organisational behaviour, and benchmarking other countries.

Q: What are the immediate solutions we could seek to overcome the current situation?

Bridge financing and targeted donations to deal with the “quadrinity” of fuel, food, electricity and medicine. Right now life and business decisions are being compromised on the fuel front. Food is becoming an extravagance for too many. Power cuts cut into business and life and undermine tourism. Essential medicines being missing are far more a life and death concern than our over-hyped pathogen ever was. 

The next is Constitutional and ensuring the 21st captures the essence of the 19th Amendment, defangs the Executive Presidency in large part, re-empowers Parliament and paves a way forward legislatively in terms of viable governance.

And then the third is to get as many growth drivers going as we can, primarily export based industries, getting fertiliser supplies back allowing for the fastest restoration of the fortunes of the tea and rubber industries, and catalysing the potential of tourism on the foreign exchange front. 

Q: Will the current “revolution” vis a vis protests be able to impact systemic changes?

“Revolutionary fervour” or impassioned exasperation, sheer outrage even at the wanton incompetence of the Government bungling as society and economy literally fall apart amidst ongoing lies that just can’t be sustained anymore, can be potent. Particularly when the “protests” are as ecumenical, peaceful and progressive as we have seen here. 

But that jolting us awake not just into a brief spasm of accountability but drilling down into the less glamorous business of re-imagining governance and re-engineering the processes by which we are led and governed, requires staying power, and discipline, and follow through. 

The conversion of a powerful electrical charge – awakening us from an extended stupor – to the brass tacks of change, to sustaining “evolution” and not just “revolution,” will require honing skills that have been in short supply. And it will mean anchoring our aspirations in hard metrics that relate to social and economic health. And we have to debate and agree what the most relevant of these metrics are.

Q: It seems we are uncertain where we are with the new PM? Is this a betrayal of the protests, or a next step flowing from them?

What we have to realise is that a party in power, with the majority they have, is not going to easily or quickly relinquish power. And if they just moved the primary personality out, then what? 

With Mahinda gone after the calamitous, disgraceful events of 9 May, and political stability hanging by a thread, and we desperately needing the donor community and international goodwill, literally for survival, segueing to Ranil, with his vast institutional experience seemed the height of prudence. Whatever other alleged “taints” he may have, whatever deals people fear he may have struck with the Rajapaksas, can be addressed as we’re ready to have a truly purging set of fresh elections. But we need to get there, and we need to be solvent, and viable, and hopefully candidates can campaign on vision and the future, and not just fears and downward spiral calamitous portents. 

So we have to keep our eye on milestones: stabilising the economy, passing the Constitutional reforms, having the right talent mobilising national reform against some agreed upon metrics and positive indicators. We have to “compartmentalise” our aspirations and expectations, so that we emerge into sunlight first and use whatever initial, imperfect illumination we get, as the long overdue disinfectant we’ve needed.

When elections come, Gota and Ranil are not going to be the flag bearers of the future. So let’s let Gota be increasingly transcended and let Ranil hopefully use his decades of institutional experience to help build the international bridges we so desperately need. 

Q: What should be the role of the private sector and how do we effectively compete globally?

The private sector has been inauspiciously “mum” as the economic train wreck gathered momentum. On the verge of the last election, the corporates were literally drooling with anticipatory delight at impending deregulation, and then the crazy tax cuts.

Then cameth COVID, and with it, comeuppance. And this silly dichotomy of “lives or business” had everyone in a bunker dismissing reality and indirectly watering the seeds of bankruptcy as they were being planted by an extended pervasive suspension of life and business activity over a middling virus with a global 99% recovery rate for anyone under 65 without multiple comorbidities. 

Medical hobgoblins went unchallenged and uncontested. When I was working with doctors who understood the COVID reality was more nuanced than our policies suggested, they said at “Task Force” meetings the corporate and business voices were far too muted and deferential. It was driving the saner doctors crazy. 

The doctors and researchers had to report possibilities and probabilities as best they understood them. However, any real decisions require a cost/benefit trade off, the application of what is called “the precautionary principle.” So you have to see the likely impact, and the costs, and the trade-offs of what you are proposing to do. 

How are “businesses” not also lives? I asked vocally and often, how anyone thought that economic bankruptcy could be a medical prescription. 

We beseeched eminent business bodies to speak up, and speak for at least targeted, zonal shutdowns, and “gates” (in terms of positive tests and deaths) that would trigger a differentiated set of responses. Eventually some of this was adopted, though some of the “gates” made little sense and SMEs and hospitality were especially targeted for destructive limitations. Again, nary a whisper. 

Finally, when we brought in eminent doctors in June 2021, leading clinicians from the front lines of COVID treatment, to explain that COVID was “highly infectious, mildly lethal, and highly treatable” (well before any “vaccines”) and had leading policy makers, and representatives of MoH and key corporate influencers tuning in, we had to fight an uphill battle against complacency, rationalisation and sheer reality avoidance. 

The corporate sector has to be the front line of rationality. They have to help us balance livelihoods along with lives. They have to safeguard our competitiveness. They have to present themselves to leaders with more than a wish list, but with constructive challenges, and innovative ideas.

And Asia has been particularly poor at creating brands that represent value propositions that can “travel” (other than Japan and South Korea primarily). And since the search for foreign exchange will invite many companies to regionalise or globalise, the corporate sector must take seriously the challenge of “culture” and value, created from proprietary or distinctive ways of working and collaborating with others with complementary competencies.

Q: How do we change the mindset of the politicians and bureaucrats and businesspeople to get out of this mess?

You start with a vision, always there. I’ve said this before, when Kennedy announced putting a man on the moon safely in a decade, it was catalytic and transformative, and everything in US society geared up to enable it, support it and make it happen. After a dark decade of unrest and assassinations, this was a spotlight of sheer possibility. 

And then you have to take a stand for that vision, as Bobby Kennedy did by going into the very neighbourhoods where he could have been physically rent asunder after Martin Luther King’s assassination. And he asked the people there to keep what King lived and died for, alive. He renewed that vision. He quoted the ancient Greeks, to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.”

Lee Kuan Yew was going to make Singapore a first world nation, outrageous! Except Japan had already paved the way. And he took a stand for it. He demanded ruthless discipline to advance the dream and an unflinching meritocracy. 

Singapore just chose its fourth PM, after four years of rigorous, some might say, tedious, performance reviews, among a slew of outstanding candidates. 

Prime Minister Wong is a PhD from Harvard in Economics and achieved the highest scores in Character, Performance, Integrity, Quality and job KPIs. This is the stuff of dreams, and how you make them real. He scored zero on public complaints, hate speech, tax irregularities, abuse of power and items like that.

Singapore’s Gold Reserves are in excess of $ 3 trillion. They have had three PMs since breaking away from Malaysia. Malaysia has had nine over this period, a fraction of the GDP despite far greater national resources, and political jockeying is well underway as they jostle for the 10th. 

Recently Singapore has forgotten some of the traditions of independence and rational autonomy in its strange deference to COVID mania, but it is hopefully coming back. 

Minister Lee was fascinated by the motley crew that has led Lanka, taken by some of their ideas, crestfallen by much of the execution and the exacerbating of the racial, ethnic divide. 

The current protests have brought people back together, again uplifted by a dream. That dream now has to be more than the removal of some predatory political personalities. It has to be a vision to be a first world country, say in a decade.

And this then needs to be truly undertaken. It has to be incarnated by a leader and his team as their credo, given true metrics and a scorecard that governs governance. This then in terms of rewards and opportunities can galvanise the best talent to return home and create the future – only that composite will change the mindset, the heartset and cultivate true national leaders rather than a roguish confederacy of corrupt, toxic bureaucrats.

Q: How can we attract people and capital?

We can readily meditate on the many things that make Lanka magnetic. First of all, as I’ve written before, conduct a poll of the region and you will find people overwhelmingly prefer Colombo as an urban centre and as a place to live over say Mumbai, or Karachi or Dhaka for differing reasons. People landing from Dhaka swoon at the relative cosmopolitan stimulus. Those from Karachi find it free and flowing and flexible and without the radical fissures in their society. Mumbai is large, teeming, oppressively crowded. And here, there is a captivating charm by positive contrast. 

That said, we have such stifling bureaucracy if you seek to set up a business or import talent. You will find to your chagrin that months pass, and the process is byzantine, expensive, often inscrutable. For some reason, “old hands” here, shake their head and chuckle at this reality, rather than go to war on how outrageously stupid it is.

For a country that needs and wants foreign exchange, why not be the easiest place for a leading company to establish itself, register, and bring talented people with clearly distinctive talents to live, and spend and invest? Why not be an easy hub for companies seeking to establish themselves in the region? Why not be a less gaudy and glitzy version of Dubai even? 

Surely, the best thinking behind Port City was in setting up a foreign exchange enticing jurisdiction with tax concessions galore, an alternative ecosystem, insulated from the macroeconomic volatility around it. The problem was that other tax-free zones flourished in already attractive jurisdictions where people wanted to be, and which had matured to the point of being largely seamless facilitators of their interests. Here, we would be seeking to create an “alternate reality” that bypasses the confusion and red tape and incoherence of doing business in Sri Lanka and hope instead to be successful “despite” that. 

That though then begs the question, why come here? We have to incentivise intelligently and make it easier still. What is the disincentive of letting those not only with capital, but with track records and credentials and passions, easily establish bases here, make their homes here, spend their foreign exchange earnings here in terms of living, doing business, raising families, enjoying life and the many sybaritic appeals of Serendib?

Why not be the best and easiest place for the best companies and individuals to operate from? Even Dubai, has further evolved its visa process to now also issue visas that don’t require a local sponsor or partner, but are issued even for those wishing to “explore” setting up businesses. These quasi-residential arrangements provide incentives to explore the Emirate and region as a place from which to operate and leverage business ideas and capabilities from.

Each year, long-term residents in Lanka pay reams of money and go through a debilitating process by which to extend their right to contribute to this society and continue to invest their talents here. Why not make it delightfully easy to do so, and categorise those we most want here on that basis?

We can attract people here with attractive tax rates, simple visa processes, and more. I was at breakfast the other morning, and a long-term British investor here, said painfully that they had moved back to the UK reluctantly simply due to the lack of reliable education for their children. 

We keep closing schools at every excuse from pathogenic hysteria to any unrest, to union agitation. Again, it goes against our brand and it weighs upon people’s decision making. That family that was invested here, uprooting, represents a considerable financial loss, as well as a brain drain, as well as a loss to the quality of our international community here. 

We need to liberalise imports in a controlled manner, let people get the widest array of things they value, instead of stockpiling silly restrictions on everything. And incentivise local production of items that can truly compete in a marketplace. We have marvellous artisans here, and farmers, and talent of all stripes, and they deserve the quality of audience and market and purchasing power by which they can prosper as they express their capabilities.

Quality of life though has many components. If you go and get a parcel to be cleared from the post office, you will find yourself signing your name at least five times, going from pillar to post, and watching gloriously institutionalised confusion, when two people and a computer screen and simplified processes would do the job. But then what would all the others do? Get a real job perhaps?

Q: How do we improve the role and impact of our foreign embassies and consulates?

The same answers translate overall. My father was an Ambassador and Consul General for over 25 years. And he and my mother had a simple “trick” for maximising impact. 

Though I am American, my heritage is Pakistani. And my parents as career diplomats often landed representing some highly dubious regimes (a military dictator or two among them). However, they were there to serve the larger interests of their country, not the whims of the current office holder.

Soon after arrival, drawing on the Embassy’s database, they would convene a dinner. My mother’s culinary skills and their shared sense of staging such evenings were formidable. Everyone attending was asked a simple question, “The next time you dine here, who are the two or three people you would most like to have attending and why?” This inevitably sparked a rich dialogue, and notes were taken, and these people reached out to and invited.

And the same question was posed to those who gathered there next. And these enticing evenings, full of robust dialogue, and genuinely superb cuisine, and for those inclined, excellent wines, awash in hospitality and camaraderie forged friendships decoupled from the exigencies of diplomatic “representation.” And each dinner begat new invitations and so the latticework of contacts grew.

It was not an accident that my father was invited by former Secretary of State George Schultz to join him on the JP Morgan Advisory Board, nor that that he had a visiting professorship at Columbia University, nor that he received the highest civilian award given by the Japanese government for promoting Japan through his writing their story in his book “Nation Building: The Japanese Experience.” His partnership with my mother by the way enabled all of it.

My point is that diplomats must learn to engage, to dialogue, to entertain, to befriend, and to illuminate aspects of their countries and their country’s interests to key stakeholders where they are posted. And when this is done as people meet and break bread and not just at formal gatherings, informal networks develop and strategic influencing becomes possible, and the interests of your country reverberate in that capital city. 

Teaching our representatives those almost lost arts of discussion, dialogue, hosting, entertainment, strategic influencing and more, is needed now more than ever. Each Embassy is a slice of the country they represent. And each exchange and encounter has to broadcast the appeal and interests of that country.

Frankly, so few people even have registered that Sri Lanka is the vibrant, independent country it is. We can chalk some of this down to American ignorance, but I can’t tell you the number of times in New York and Washington people asked me, “Sri Lanka? Isn’t that part of India?” Let’s just say, our communication possibilities are far from being exhausted, much less fulfilled. 

This is a contact sport. It requires energy. Most Embassies are today, and not just Sri Lanka’s, enclaves of inward-looking osmosis. They are culturally narcissistic, rather than cultural conduits showcasing opportunities for exchange, travel, investment, collaboration and more. 

Create a scorecard once more for each Embassy and make enriching key relationships with key stakeholders and decision makers – truly the movers and shakers – a key accountability.

And let’s equip Embassies as we are going to seek to do, with the wherewithal to paint a captivating portrait of tourist treasures, and have this shared globally, in concert, so the whole world is “buzzing” with visiting Serendib.

Q: How do we further foster the bonding that Aragalaya helped spark in a multi-ethnic and multi-racial society?

The opposite of “cult” is “community.” A community is a group that can celebrate differences, honour them, and yet keep distinctiveness intact.

In New York we participated with the Interfaith Seminary and creating “Interfaith” modules in our educational curricula as well as perhaps workshops and outreach in communities would be healing, restorative, and it would imbue us with creativity and liberate compassion as a society.

Projects could be undertaken to advance community goals. Celebrations and milestones could cross barriers. But there are skills to disagreeing gracefully as at times we must. There are ways to “fight” constructively if our beliefs or our priorities are not always unanimous.

And that is done by accepting and honouring differences and not “competing” but rather seeking to bridge from where we differ to common purposes and aims. So we have to locate the trust and guts to go beyond “pseudo-community” where we pretend we are all alike and are all unified, without doing the work to actually harmonise and align. 

We must navigate dissatisfaction and “empty” ourselves of our need for tribal affiliation as opposed to shared citizenship. And as we empty ourselves of these prejudices and walled off certitudes, then we can learn from each other’s genius, and community comes calling as a true deliverance. 

For years with the Foundation for Community Encouragement, created by my mentor M. Scott Peck we conducted “community building” workshops based on the insights of the Tavistock Institute, the Quakers, Zen Buddhism and the learnings of psychotherapy. This may well be the time to revive these “technologies of peace” and get them proliferating through the grassroots.

Q: What can we learn from the past and what is our edge for the future?

What the past has taught us yet again is that repeated actions have consequences, and we must follow the trajectory of what we consistently do or don’t do in anticipating the future. We cannot navigate via sloganeering, or tribal chest thumping or the malignant practice of “magical thinking.” We must honour and cultivate devil’s advocacy, and we must prize expertise over self-serving “loyalty” everywhere. 

Our edge for the future has to be to create real value for others, to create real brands, to infuse Sri Lanka’s energy and enthusiasm into the service we offer and the welcome we provide. We have to go to war on mindless bureaucracy. We have to enshrine education that teaches us “how” to think and not “what” to think. 

And we must relentlessly cultivate a nation of leaders not followers. 

And the model of leadership has to be not hierarchical, tribal chauvinism, but true servant leadership. Leaders derive true power from the value they add to the assets they steward and from serving those they lead. Our edge has to be leaders who, working through community, are architects of possibility.


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