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End of an era
Published Date: 05/02/2015 (Thursday)

There are an enormous number of lessons to be learnt from the presidential election held on January 8. I shall touch on a few that I think significant.

The first is that in my opinion no previous such election had the historical significance that this one did. It needs very little reflection to realize that had Mahinda Rajapaksa won, this country would have been under a dictatorship for many generations to come. MR’s intention, it is alleged, was to hand the reigns over to his eldest son at the end of his third term. This is what happened in North Korea and would have happened in Libya and Egypt if the dictatorships in those countries had not been abruptly terminated. So we have had an exceedingly narrow shave and should be grateful for it.

Rajapaksa is said to be a staunch believer in astrology and superstitions

To me the biggest mistake MR made was calling the election two years before it was due. A staunch believer in astrology, he sought astrological advice to hold early election on an auspicious day in January.

I have written before on the absurdity of making decisions on astrological grounds. Astrology is a superstition that has no place in this day and age. It is only education — and I do not mean the passing of examinations by routine learning that passes for education in this country — that equips an individual to reason and analyse; to sift fact from fiction. In this educational backwater when an astrological prediction goes awry (as happens more often than not) it is not astrology itself that is faulted but the astrologer: he was not competent. So despite the host of failed marriages which had astrological guarantees, parents will continue to consult horoscopes. Our country is so backward today (far from being the Wonder of Asia that our politicians claim) that no government project is initiated except at the ‘auspicious’ time. This unflagging faith in superstition is what has brought us close to becoming a ‘Failed State’. Will the new Government have the courage to move (unostentatiously and without fuss) away from the current superstitious reliance on ‘auspicious’ times? It will be a step forward. But it will need courage. Fortunately MS himself does not seem to lack it.

The second big mistake that MR made was to openly and brazenly indulge the extravagant tastes of his children. The Lamborghinis and racing cars were a catastrophic mistake that the JVP exploited brilliantly in its propaganda. There is nothing more irritating and offensive to a citizen struggling to make ends meet than to see a brazen display of unearned, undeserved, wealth by the spoilt children of politicians.

MR would have lost thousands of votes when the JVP highlighted the extravagances of his children. The story of the imported horse and the chopper rides to Nuwara Eliya would have done inestimable damage to MR’s cause. He has only himself to blame. Lack of perception and sensitivity was fatal to his cause. A lack of judgment and empathy (key components of Emotional Intelligence) is a serious handicap to any aspiring leader.

Another major mistake that MR made was to surround himself with third rate types like murderer suspects, drug dealers and other doubtful characters (‘Bad Elements’ as our Chinese benefactors would have it) many of whom ended up in key posts that were clearly beyond their level of competence. His closeness to them would have harmed him. There is no doubt that a man gets tainted by the company he keeps. His open support for the BBS was another fatal mistake. It lost him the minorities. The Tamil and Muslim vote made all the difference in a close campaign. It is extraordinary that neither he nor his advisers foresaw this.

There is one other matter that needs elucidation. A study of the recent (January 2, 2015) ‘Road Map 2015′ put out by the Central Bank indicates that our economy is in excellent shape. Every measure of economic health — inflation, exchange rate stability, GDP, unemployment, foreign reserves, and Balance of Payments — shows substantial improvement over the past five years. It would appear that MR’s government has done well; and there could therefore be dangers in changing course. This is why so many businessmen preferred the status quo to remain. But pause for reflection. There has to be something wrong here. We all know — it is undeniable — that the bulk of the population is finding the increase in the cost of living painful, if not intolerable.

Hospitals are short of drugs, schools are ill-equipped, VAT and Income Tax Refunds are piling up, and the Government appears seriously strapped for cash. The Treasury is said to be almost bankrupt. If the Central Bank figures are correct (there are good reasons to doubt them) we should be swimming in cash, especially with the vast increase in inward remittances. What has happened to that money? Its disappearance cannot be attributed to capital expenditure because that has been covered by foreign loans. Could it be that huge (and I mean huge) sums of money have been siphoned out by those at the top? Most people know that there has been massive (unprecedentedly massive) corruption in all the ‘development’ (Mattala Airport, The Highways, the Hambantota port and Cricket Stadium, Nelum Pokuna, Mihin Air, the Colombo Port City development, and so on and so on) that the Government boasts of; and the corrupt gains would obviously by now have been remitted to foreign tax havens. That the people have not benefited from the good economic performance is incontrovertible. It would therefore be clear that an end to massive corruption alone will enormously improve our situation. We would not be dependent on exemplary management; merely stopping the robbery would suffice.

The replacement of incompetent political stooges by honest public servants, and a drastic reduction in the number of ministers who are at present only getting in each other’s way (while costing us a fortune) will automatically result in a great improvement in efficiency. None of this will be difficult to achieve, and the new government is already on the move.

One imperative is that the new Government must investigate all cases of fraud and ‘kickbacks’ and ensure that those guilty of dishonesty are punished. Every effort must be made to recover the money that has been robbed and stashed away. No naive notions of avoiding ‘revenge’ should prevent deterrent action being taken. The honest who have sacrificed the opportunity of feathering their nests should at least have the psychological satisfaction of seeing the fraudsters behind bars. The deterrent effect of condign punishment must not be lost sight of. We must think of the future. Corruption has lasting attractions and will never be wiped out altogether. Many of those who are now in power will, in the course of time, succumb to temptation. At all cost crime must not be seen to pay. It is an extraordinary thought that as a result of the change in government there may take place a permanent change in our culture. We may become an honest nation, where even among politicians; honesty is the norm and dishonesty the exception! If that happens (and there is no reason why it should not) we would truly be The Wonder of Asia.

With these random thoughts let me express my astonishment (and gratitude) at the turn of events. It is seldom that Good triumphs over Evil in this dramatic way.

By Charitha P. de Silva

The writer is former Chairman and Managing Director of Aitken Spence, Chairman to the Employers Federation of Ceylon, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka. He is a Deshamanya recepient.


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