President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during his speech at the Independence Day celebrations, not unlike his predecessors, rolled out what could be called a ‘should-be’ list, implying that things are not in order but should be and could be.
He spoke of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the state and the importance of public confidence in these for a country to function efficiently and not slide towards anarchy. He sought the support of one and all to ensure that such confidences are intact.
Two factors impede. First, structures. They include rules, regulations, processes and systems. He hinted that some of the are archaic, redundant or simply constitute obstacles. He also said that certain rules and regulations have been put in place without adequate study, thereby compromising overall integrity of the system, causing inconvenience to the public, exacerbating inefficiency and facilitating corruption.
There are structural flaws. There are glaring constitutional errors. These need to be rectified. Obviously the vanguard of such reform would be the Parliament. Here he runs into two problems: numbers and competence. Amendments require a two-thirds majority and a ‘yes’ in a referendum. If we are talking about things that can be changed by cabinet decisions or cabinet proposals that have parliamentary approval, then it comes down to who formulates such programs and projects and for what purpose. This is where competence or lack thereof comes into play.
Over and above all this, there is the sloth, corruption and incompetence of officials. Such things cannot be cured overnight. Proper oversight and rigorous training with rewards tied to performance would be required. The slothful, corrupt and incompetent will not cheer such things. Well, they may, but such people tend to be experts at foot-dragging. If they have cheques to cash, they certainly will submit such to politicians who could ‘get things done’ (or undone, as the case may be).
Every well-meaning politician and determined public servant has faced such conundrums. In a sense, it is largely due to a critical mass of competent and honorable people in each and every sector that the Sri Lankan state has not collapsed. Good, but not enough, for ultimately it is the robust system that will deliver efficiency. Good people: necessary but not sufficient.
What makes a person ‘good’ or compels someone to be good or rather conduct him/herself with honesty and integrity? That’s a tough one to enumerate. Let’s say ‘lot’s of things.’ It’s easier to talk about what makes things and people go sour. That’s a long list too, but here’s one that is most certainly quite visible: the wrecking of meritocracy. A close relation would be ‘bending the rules for friends.’
We have seen how governments, immediately after assuming power, target political opponents. Part of it is to obtain political breathing space. The classic case of J.R. Jayewardene’s government stripping his chief political opponent, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, of her civil rights. Part of it is revenge. The logic is simple, ‘we will give as good as we got!’
And so we see a slew of ‘cases’. We see cases being dropped and new ones opened. We see ‘accused’ being offered relief and we see a new set of people who are accused.
This culture obviously hinders the development of systems and processes that can deliver the kind of country the president envisioned in his Independence Day speech.
Rooting out corruption is about fixing systems in ways that forbid the corrupt. It is also about weeding out the corrupt. In the latter, ‘near and dear’ cannot be a factor.
In 2015, when the newly elected yahapalana government talked about investigating corruption, the then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was asked a very pertinent question: ‘Why is the “start-date” 2005?” And the follow-up, “Are you implying there was no corruption before 2005?” Wickremesinghe brushed that aside by saying ‘we have to start somewhere’ and added, ‘it is hard to find evidence even for the post-2005 cases.’ Start-date should be be a political convenience.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants a robust, independent and efficient public service. Indeed such an entity would be a great strength to him in implementing his manifesto. He should not do what his predecessors did, namely, going soft on friend and hard on enemy.
There are no untouchables. There are no perfect people. Previous good deeds do not give license to do wrong. As Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru once pointed out, there is a big risk in honoring people with statues while they are still alive. It is an issue of prediction. We expect people to behave in a particular way based on previous patterns of behavior. The problem is that human beings are unpredictable. They can get better with time, like wine. They can get worse like cooked food that’s not refrigerated.
Past record or future potential should never be the sole criteria in the matter of assessing a person’s worth. They can be brought to bear in establishing character to buttress a case, but such things should not be the core of a submission.
What’s worse than this is to ascribe to an individual the qualities of his or her associates, be it relatives or friends. Simple, they don’t connect. Terrible parents have raised exemplary citizens and decent, law-abiding men and women of unquestionable integrity have given birth to children who grew up to be pickpockets, swindlers, fraudsters and mass murderers.
We have at hand the forensic report of the Central Bank bond issue scam. Senior Economic Adviser to the Prime Minister and former Governor of the Central Bank, Ajith Nivard Cabraal has rubbished this report claiming that officers under a cloud were part of the team that prepared it. He has called for ‘a new investigation where politicians and officials from top to bottom who were responsible for the Bond Scam are named and shamed.’ It should not be forgotten that this report, compromised though its integrity could be IF Cabraal is correct, indicates that the hanky-panky started long before 2015.
Let there be, as Cabraal says, ‘a top to bottom’ investigation. And let it not be framed by a start-date that is politically convenient. There cannot be ‘untouchables’ in all this. Being ‘a party person’ or being ‘someone’s someone’ or ‘favors need to be returned,’ are certainly part of a recipe for failure. That’s if Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to be a different kind of president and if he is 100% committed to a Sri Lanka that works (in every sense of that word).
This article was first published in the Daily Mirror [February 6, 2020]