Lalith Weeratunga on his President

Tuesday, 30 December 2014 00:41 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Momentum Forum, the country’s first-ever synchronised event involving President Mahinda Rajapaksa and business and professional leaders, was held recently with over 2,000 participants. The event included a panel discussion where Secretary to President Lalith Weeratunga was one of the panellists along with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal and four business leaders – Ranjit Page, Hiran Cooray, Kishu Gomes and Dian Gomez. Following are excerpts of answers given by Weeratunga to some of the questions posed by the moderator of the panel discussion:   Q: The President in his speech mentioned his delivery on governance. But the very issue is being discussed widely by both sides of the society and the political spectrum. Can you explain how the President has delivered on the good governance aspect? A: It is a great privilege to be a part of this panel and to be able to respond to some of the issues or queries raised by an eminent audience as well as by you. Let me say firstly that people have different perceptions when you talk about governance. As President Rajapaksa very clearly said, we had a time, I think most of us are very familiar with this situation, when this country went through fear, anxiety and not knowing what would happen the next day. Obviously governance couldn’t have been better at that time, because the law and order situation certainly was breaking down. There have been instances where people were killed, people were abducted, judges’ residences were stoned; if you call that good governance, then I think then there is something wrong with the perception of the people who say now there is no governance at the moment.                           Let’s for the moment concentrate on this issue on the public service, because the public service is the centrepiece of good governance. If in a country there is no governance, I think the finger should be pointed to the public service more than the politicians, because public service should be able to withstand any pressure. Any politician would impose something. There is no government in the world, if you can tell me that there is one; of course I’m willing to listen. There is no government in the world which cannot run without politicians. You have the political hierarchy which is the representatives of the people. They bring the vision of the people into the governance structure and that is why from time to time you see policies changing in governments.   Very rarely on issues like education and health, few countries have been able to sit together, the opposition and the government, and they agree on one agenda. I’m sorry that we have not been able to do this all these years, 60 years after independence or maybe 64 years after independence. So the question that one has to ask, is what are these things that people say that there is no governance. I would like to even post that question so that I could be very clear as to what I would be responding to. But basically what I want to tell you is, when we talk about procurement, this is something that people talk about heavily and I have seen many debates stating that this is the way this has been done and that is the way this has been done. This is to tell you my distinguished friends that when there is procurement in the government, there is a very clear procedure laid down There is what is called a procurement committee which is empowered by cabinet depending on the level of the procurement; then you have what are called technical evaluation committees which I’m sure some of the professionals here would have been a part of.   I would like to take one aspect, the defence procurement committee. I’m privileged to chair it and one of the distinguished members of the committee is Gotabaya Rajapaksa. From 2005 to 2014 and particularly from 2005 to 2009, there had been heavy expenditure on defence and I would like to ask any of you whether there have been any complaint on the procurement handled by this large (you know it’s a large volume procurement), probably the better part of our budgets was spent on defence up to about 2009. It is not so now. More would be spent on education, health, urban development and infrastructure development. So basically, we have never had any complaints against us. The very simple reason is that there is a very clear procedure. If you take areas like highways, if you take areas like power, there are stories no doubt but none of these stories have been substantiated. I would like to tell even the entire country, if there are people who are able to prove that a particular procurement is wrongfully done, I think the Government will certainly take note of it and would have taken action.   But it’s just hearsay; people will say to build this road you spent so much when the standard of building a road like this is so much. But they don’t think about the terrain, they don’t think about the condition, they don’t think about the compensation that you have to pay; there is a very clear acquisition procedure in this country, there is a land ordinance which is over 100 years old, you have to pay compensation to people, today we pay compensation to people not at market rates, not just what the Government value says, the Government valuer will always take into consideration what the market rates are. So I think basically I would like to say as the Secretary of the President who actually is responsible for many activities of the Government in terms of administration and establishment quite apart from the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs, we have to the best of our ability done things the way they should be done. But rather than looking at only the years from 2005 to 2014, a comparison must be made when there have been so many instances in the past where governance had been probably forgotten and maybe the word good governance was never in the vocabulary of those who governed. I think I’ll leave it at that with the comments on the question that you raised.   Q: As Secretary, have you seen anything that differentiates President Rajapaksa as opposed to some of the other leaders? Can you recollect a particular incident or a policy? A: President Rajapaksa has always kept in mind one particular thing in his program of governance. The need of the public has always been the uppermost thing in his mind. When certain leaders have made decisions, I have seen certain flaws; I don’t want to name them. It is not fair by those leaders but I want to be fair by my leader, President Rajapaksa, who has always been very careful in taking decisions, taking into consideration many things. You see, I may see certain things in a certain way but at that level as the President who has to take consideration of provincial, district and community issues, people who represent this country, who will bring issues forward, he has always stuck to a program where he has given the most importance to public needs more than anything else. In doing so, he has not violated any procedure or practice that has been there from the time we gained Independence.   Q: On the issue of corruption? A: I have an index here that can be referred by Transparency International – the Global Corruption and Perception Index. Sri Lanka’s rank – you go to 2002 up to 2014, the index is very clearly worked out. In year 2002 our rank was 51%; in 2014 our rank has come down to 49%. Let me just trace the year as it might be very useful. There is also a score in 2002; the score is if you are closer to 10 you are least corrupt and closer to 0 is most corrupt. This is how the rank has been going through 3.7 to 3.8. The word corruption is a perceptive thing. Often we are accused of corruption and I must admit this. But someone must come forward and say this is what you have done, there is a Bribery and Corruption Commission. People would want to say that the commission would do nothing but the act is absolutely clear; if there are lawyers here, if I’m wrong, please correct me. The commission will not accept anything anonymous; it will accept something that is with written evidence, someone who will make a complaint. That is to safeguard the reputation of people who would do various things in Government or even in the private sector. This is not only Government; this is for private sector as well. If anyone is found to be corrupt, they must complain to the Corruption Commission and just be assured that action will be taken.   There are three independent Judges appointed. A former Supreme Court Judge, a former Court of Appeal Judge and a former IGP. So that’s how corruption is looked at. I think I made this clear to the gentleman who has come from Australia, this is being talked about and social media plays a huge role today. That is also because in 2004 the ICT literacy in this country was just 3.5%, today it’s closer to 50%, thanks to the work that the Government has done. You know if Sri Lanka is not doing things right, we will not be winning the world’s most prestigious award for internet access to rural communities. That was the Bill and Melinda Gates Award that we won in 2014. This was through a very independent judgment; you can’t influence them and say please give us the prize. They came here; they looked at it; they were so impressed that they came back again because they are going to write a case study on Sri Lanka.   President Rajapaksa took decisions when it had to be taken without postponing any decisions. That is why within two-and-a-half years the decision of confronting the LTTE was taken, a measured decision which was taken at the right point of time. From 1987 our leaders have been taking decisions, they vacillate, they sometimes talk to them, they sometimes fight, you gave time for the terrorists to build up, and that is how decision making has gone. I will quote four instances where decision making in this country was done by leaders without consulting the public, which have been extremely dangerous to Sri Lanka.   When the Indo-Lanka Accord was presented to this country, people were never consulted; it was done just behind the scenes and you know how and what it led to for circumstances in 1987, 1988, 1989; every one of us knows that one could not walk on the road and there was so much of unrest in the country. What did it lead to? It led to provinces being connected without any reference to the country. These are age-old things which we had nine provinces in the country, just to say that we will annex the Northern and the Eastern Provinces. That is a decision by the Government without consulting the people. Never went to Parliament.   I have been in government for 38 years so I can say this very well that when you have an Amendment to the Constitution, you go through the Legal Department, you go through the Attorney General, there is the process; then you put it on the web or whatever, at that time we did not have webs, you put it on the Gazette and let people go and comment. And there is room for people to grow and move something in the Supreme Court. Fundamental rights have been provided in the 1978 Constitution. The CFA, the Cease Fire Agreement of 2002. No one was consulted, absolutely no one, not even the President of this country knew that. It was just hashed out between a particular Government and the Prime Minister of this country. That led to the LTTE getting areas called LTTE-administered areas. For the first time in this country my dear friends we had nine provinces and you had something called LTTE-administered areas. And the consequences are known to all and a debate by itself. Then we come to the most interesting thing; the Interim Self Governing Authority. People have forgotten these things, unfortunately. What did it lead to? The Interim Self Governing Authority was a complement to the CFA to say that until there is a political solution found in this country, the LTTE can rule on its own in its areas; that is the Interim Self Governing Authority.   The last one was the most controversial PTOMS; it was to give LTTE the sole discretion or the authority to negotiate with any foreign government for funding and you know what it had led to. I think we still would have been fighting the LTTE with all that money coming in and you know that the LTTE doesn’t have to be transparent. In fact in my discourses with some people (as the Secretary of the President, I had to) because President Rajapaksa thought first we will try to talk to them, I was one of them, who talked to these guys and when they asked me about certain things I said look, you have a very simple way of getting things done, you just put a gun to someone’s head, a culvert will be built or the bridge will be built and the road will be built; we can’t do that. We go through a tender procedure, we are open to criticism, we are open to scrutiny by the court of law, and we have so many things to go through. So obviously they were delayed and asking me why are you delaying this and that road. These are some of the things that I should be telling you and I think that is where President Rajapaksa’s regime was much more different, positively different than any other regime in this country.   Quick decision making and that why you have the Katunayake Expressway, that is why you have the Southern Expressway and that is why you have the Norochcholai Power Plant, and that is why you have harbours and some people want to abandon these projects, it’s up to the people to decide whether you want port cities or you want more land in this country, you want investors to come in, you want conducive environments to be made. The President himself said ‘I’m someone who will say something and will do it and before I do it, I will consult you.’ I’m saying this as a long-serving public servant; since I was asked to stay I stayed beyond the period of working age. I just wanted to tell you that things that he has done have always been for the welfare of the public. Uppermost in his mind as I said is ‘what does the public want?’ Then you start thinking On the subject of ICT, it is a perfect partnership between the Government and the private sector. The Government could have never gone to this level, the Government can set the policy but if you talk to ICT providers, if you talk to their associations, like SLASSCOM, we work together. The whole idea of the Government and SLASSCOM is to raise this to a $ 6 billion industry by about 2020. But right now it’s closing up to a $ 1 billion industry. There is perfect harmony between certain sectors of the Government and certain sectors of the private sector. You heard the industry leaders here; you talk to them and see how well the Government connects. Maybe liaising and coordination is also misunderstood.   What do you mean by liaising and coordination, does it mean that there is no permanent forum, where the Government is on one-side and the private sector is on another and then talks to each other. But let me give you one example on how well the Government has engaged the professionals, the citizens, and the self-employed personnel, most often forgotten. Every time the Budget was made by the President as the Minister of Finance in this country – we start that process by around July/August every year and the Budget is presented generally in November, this time it was slightly earlier in October – from July onwards the President meets different groups of people from different locations, people from different professions, self-employed persons, women’s organisations, even people who are differently-abled and talks to them and asks them what their needs are so it can be incorporated in the Budget. Please use the Department of Archives and check how the Budget process was done in the past years and how the Government has engaged professionals in formulating the Budget; this is the best example of how people are engaged. The pride of place is given to who would and wouldn’t benefit out of the policies of the Government so that both parties can come and give in feedback. Quite apart from all that, there are sectoral discussions in developing the city. Similarly, with many other industries as well. Maybe these are not put out properly as a message. Counter-allegations of the Geneva resolution every year; we don’t want to be seen as a country that slaughters people and social media has a key role to play. In Malaysia, Government servants above a certain level have been mandated to be on social media in order to monitor and counter such allegations as well.   We inherited all that happens around us and we are trying to correct them one by one. Having corrected the most obnoxious of all, we have eliminated terrorism. That I think is a very clear cut example of doing it in a manner that has found the Rajapaksa model of eliminating terrorism. This is a research done in the US, published in journals and that is how this country was able to do the most difficult issue. Other issues are things that can be sorted but once again none of these are created by us. These are things we have inherited. We need to eliminate these things one by one.