Sri Lanka’s political discourse and ageism

Saturday, 16 March 2024 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Anunayake of the Ramanya Nikaya Most Venerable Kappitiyagoda Sirivimala Thera was quoted as stating recently that if the current trend persists, the Parliament will soon resemble an elders’ home.

“Government employees are retiring after reaching the age of 60 because they are no longer able to work hard. However, there are many people who have passed the retirement age in the Sri Lankan Parliament,” the Thera had said. The comments had been made at a meeting held with the former Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe.

The sentiments expressed by the Thera are often what is heard from people including many who fall into the ‘senior citizens’ category.

Ageism is thriving in Sri Lanka, ironically that too in a country where there is a growing ageing population. The life expectancy for both male and females in Sri Lanka is close to 77 years and like in most countries in the world, people are living longer and remain productive well past their seventies and into their eighties.

The oft repeated criticism of politicians is that they don’t retire and make way for the younger segments of the population to take their place. No where in the world is there a retirement age for politicians. In a democracy, they are elected by the people for a fixed term in office and have to leave when they are voted out. The US President Joe Biden is 81 years old and is seeking a fresh four-year term in office in the November poll. His challenger is likely to be Donald Trump who is 77 years old. Closer to home Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is also seeking a fresh term in office this year is 77 years and if re-elected will be in his 80s when his third term ends. Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is 76 and was re-elected as Prime Minister for a five-year term earlier this year. There are many countries where senior politicians are at the helm.

In the Sri Lanka Parliament, the highest age group numbering 67 MPs are in the age group 41-50, while 54 MPs are between the age group 51-60. There are 35 MPs within the 61-70 age group while there are 9 MPs in the 71-80 age group. The three most senior MPs in the Sri Lanka Parliament are Vasudeva Nanayakkara (85), C.V. Vigneswaran (84) and R. Sampanthan (91). 

The rest of the MPs are in the age category of 25-40, according to statistics compiled by the Communications Department when the current Parliament first convened in August 2020.

Going by these numbers, it is clear that the comparisons being drawn between parliament and an elder’s homes are hearsay and not based on fact, unless those making such statements think everyone over 40 should be in an elder’s home.

Prejudice against seniors is common in many societies and is more pronounced in Sri Lanka with a senior member of the Buddhist clergy having no qualms about making such statements without verifying facts. It is these prejudices that are lapped up by the public, many of whom take things at face value and do little to verify how true such statements are.

Retirement ages for public officials in many European countries are over 67 while in many UN organisations, the retirement age is 65. In Sri Lanka, the age of retirement for public officials was increased to 65 but the decision was revoked later due to the ongoing economic crisis. The private sector age of retirement has increased from 55 to 60.

In a country that has a growing ageing population, it is natural that some of those elected by the people to parliament and other elected bodies belong to the senior age groups. Calling out politicians for corruption, nepotism, abuse of power, etc. is essential but shaming a whole segment of the population by promoting ageism will do no good.