Corruption Kept SL Stagnating As A ‘Developing Country’ – PRECIFAC Secretary
by Ifham Nizam
The Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC) is expected to submit its fourth interim report to President Maithripala Sirisena shortly. The Sunday Leader learns the latest report will deal with some 27 cases most of which are almost complete. Some of the cases have reached 98 per cent progress level and others between 65 and 90 per cent.
Corrupt activities at SriLankan Catering, fraudulent activities of some officials at Mihin Lanka, corruption at Lanka Sathosa, misuse of State assets of the National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) by former Minister Wimal Weerawansa and the NHDA Chairman, irregularities in supplying solid waste disposed from industrial zones belonging to Board of Investment to Holcim (Lanka) Limited are some of the cases to be investigated.
PRECIFAC Secretary Lacille de Silva, in a wide-ranging interview with The Sunday Leader said the Commission is pleased with President Sirisena for taking prompt measures to facilitate their activities. He says the President and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have now reached political consensus in understanding that rule of law and good governance are a fundamental necessity to achieve sustainable development and economic growth – a winning formula when coupled with the political will to achieve the status of developed nation.
“To put it simply, our rulers since the 1970s did the opposite. They deprived our people of their enormous potential. They took steps to consolidate power at the top and ruled the country from the top for their own benefit. They disregarded the famous quote by President Abraham Lincoln that a democracy is a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
De Silva says it is a pity that Sri Lanka had two constitutions since Independence. The country had to go through a thirty-year war and two insurrections due to misrule. “I wonder why we blame the Constitutions for our failures and whether it is because we did not have good leadership compared to countries like Malaysia and Singapore,” he said. “There have been all types of promises by politicians at every single election that changes to our Constitution will be effected. The present President has taken the necessary steps to fulfil his promises.
“People are going through immense hardships due to poor governance. There is corruption in all areas beginning from politician down to the lowest public servant. The culture of impunity, if it continues, will ruin the country and its resources, which we should preserve for the future generations.
“Successive governments since independence have miserably failed in achieving sustainable growth and economic development. It is indeed sad how we have fallen to such a despicable state of affairs having been a country which enjoyed adult suffrage, democratic rights and an elected legislature for nearly a century, well before our other Asian neighbours.
“We need to produce a good Constitution of our own as well, which will eventually ensure two political moralities, namely morality of law and the morality of government.”
“Since the 1970s, the country had been led on the wrong path. Mother Lanka is weeping as the majority of her children, irrespective of their caste, creed or religion, are fighting hard for existence.
“Having won the devastating war which lasted for 30 years, we should now make every possible attempt to improve our system of governance,” he says.
On the subject of PRECIFAC, De Silva said that on their part they are very cautious and careful in making decisions in accordance with the law. He hinted that, in some cases, the delay was mainly due to the fact that ample opportunity was afforded to the other side to defend themselves.
De Silva also said that the government had extended the term of the Commission until March 3, 2017.
The Government is also expected to expand and speed up the scope of the Commission including granting more powers to investigate ongoing cases of large-scale fraud and corruption.
Appointed by President Sirisena, PRECIFAC has received nearly 1,500 complaints about large-scale of fraud and misuse of power and public money in State institutions. These offences and acts of wrongdoing have been committed/occurred during the period between January 10, 2010 and January 10, 2015 and have resulted in serious loss or damage to State assets and State revenue. He added, “Of the 1,500 complaints, we have considered nearly 900 complaints during our first term. The remaining 600 will be investigated during the second term.”
PRECIFAC, which handles some 60 cases of large-scale fraud and corruption, has already submitted its third interim report and the final report on alleged misuse of State funds on the Negombo Lagoon development project to the President. The Commission has decided to finalise the ongoing investigations into financial irregularities at the Independent Television Network during the 2015 presidential election and the Coconut Cultivation Board in the near future.
De Silva says in Sri Lanka, it has been observed that employment in the public sector is considered to be a duty performed for the benefit of running a family – to keep the home fires burning. It is not considered a duty towards the country or service to the nation.
“Nevertheless, the Parliament is the most vital institution in our country. Will the staff of Parliament be able to perform their duties efficiently and effectively? Could they rise up to assist the elected representatives to live up to the expectations of the citizens?” In De Silva’s view, the role of Parliamentarian is the only profession for which there is no job description. Effectiveness of parliamentarians therefore largely depends on the effectiveness of the Parliament Secretariat.
“Let me add that I love the Parliament very much. I had the good fortune of serving the supreme institution for over three decades. Let me also say that we Sri Lankans should firmly resolve that there is an obligation on our part as citizens to put Parliament right so that we will be leaving a healthier, cleaner and better place for our children and future generations,” he said.
Narrow political agendas
“Sri Lanka’s first post-independence Prime Minister Don Stephen Senanayake whose death was untimely, laid a strong foundation for the country and its people to rise above the bitterly divisive communal and religious emotions. The late DS envisioned his country as a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, secular State, in which minorities would be able to participate fully in governmental affairs. His vision for the country soon faltered and communal rivalry and confrontation became visible.
“The Donoughmore Constitution of 1931, the Soulbury Constitution of 1946 and granting of adult franchise were progressive steps introduced by the British for preparing the island nation for independence two years later.
However, in 1956, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias (S.W.R.D.) Bandaranaike, successfully won parliamentary elections and took steps to enact laws to make Sinhala the official language. This decision thereafter caused communal riots which rocked the country in 1956 and 1958. Communal tensions continued to rise thereafter. Tamil agitation for separation too triggered.
“The Sirima Government accordingly enacted the 1972 Constitution with the sole purpose of introducing a ‘homegrown’ Constitution. After the enactment of the 1972 Constitution, Ceylon was renamed Sri Lanka while making it a free, sovereign and an independent republic in the Commonwealth.”
“In 1977, when the UNP was voted to power with a 5/6th majority, J. R. Jayewardene introduced the Executive Presidency by way of the Second Amendment to the 1972 Constitution. Thereafter, in 1978, the then UNP government came up with the 2nd Republican Constitution and created the Executive Presidency sans the usual checks and balances.
“We must always mutually respect each other while maintaining the separate identity of each religion. We must remember we cannot expect the rain to bring down good people from the sky. t is unfortunate that our present day politicians do not practise morality and varied social responsibilities unlike their fore-fathers.
“Both politicians and countrymen should now not resort to any mean practice (by practising unethically) to earn money with greed – like the way animals hunt their prey. Being a Buddhist, I always consider it important to learn the art of acquiring transcendental merit (you may call it wealth too) which will appreciate and bring karmic benefits for worldly gain. Time has now come for the change,” he stressed.
Sri Lanka – Classified as a Developing Country for too long? Why?
“Nearly four decades ago, prior to the commencement of economic reforms and trade liberalisation, the then Chinese rulers maintained policies that kept their economy very poor, stagnant, centrally-controlled, vastly inefficient and relatively isolated from the global economy. After opening up to foreign trade and investment and implementing free market reforms since 1979, China has become one of the world’s fastest growing economies. It is now the world’s largest economy and has emerged as a major global economic power – a manufacturer, merchandise trader and the holder of large foreign exchange reserves. Why did Sri Lanka fail, having initiated economic reforms since 1978, one year before China?” he queries.
“Increased production and exchange of goods and services play a key role in economic development and global integration. Due to languid and lacklustre performance of the public sector, our country is currently classified as a “developing country.” The delay in industrialisation, inefficient public sector and corruption has been the primary causes for our overall failure.
“At the time we became independent in 1948, Sri Lankans enjoyed the third highest per capita income in Asia after Japan and Malaysia. The economy was based on three main crops – tea, rubber and coconut – and these brought in a considerable amount of foreign exchange. Nevertheless, the industrial sector, due to numerous reasons up to 1977, had its own problems because the past rulers failed to pursue a meaningful progressive plan for industrialisation. International aid received for development purposes had been abused. Taxpayers’ monies too were plundered. Pompous ceremonies and various other empty rituals including luxury vehicles became more important than improving the lives of the people and taking the country forward,” he added.
“After a landslide victory for the UNP in 1977, the JRJ government pioneered revolutionary changes, introduced open economic policies and liberalised the economy which eventually had its own pros and cons. “My argument is how did we nose-dive when China succeeded after having opened up the economy? This is purely because of bad governance, corruption and political bungling. Corrupt politicians and public officers, instead of channelling government resources for development, diverted all that for their personal benefit. These have ultimately added a heavy cost to our society because of that, establishment and development of effective institutions of good governance have become nearly impossible.
“Now that we have learnt bitter lessons, it is my firm conclusion that nothing can be achieved unless the government takes a tough stance. It is encouraging that the media too, as the watchdog of democracy, is doing its best in combating corruption etc. In fact, fraud and corruption had posed serious threats to the public sector. Shouldn’t we as responsible citizens think of our new role?” he stressed.
China on market oriented policy reforms
“China began market-oriented policy reforms that led to far-reaching changes in the structure and performance of production, employment and exports. Incidentally, both Chinese and Sri Lankan governments began numerous industries for export within the framework of liberalised trading during the same period.
“Sri Lanka started export-oriented Industrial Zones dedicated to increasing and competing with other exporting countries and failed. Why? It is purely because of corrupt, inefficient and ineffective politicos and bureaucratic red tape.
“I came across several local and international industrialists who were planning to commence large scale industries and disappeared because they were not ready to grease the palms of politicians and bureaucrats under different governments.
“Our politicians having introduced liberal economic policies, failed thereafter to take the trouble to come up with the necessary reforms to boost the performance of the public service. Nevertheless, the Premadasa government made considerable attempts to increase the performance of the public sector in several ways by establishing organisational goals, monitoring progress towards achieving the goals and also coming up with necessary modifications by reducing the excessive cadre to achieve the desired goals more effectively and efficiently.
“I recall that the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration (SLIDA) too introduced various training courses to measure the performance of government agencies by introducing key performance indicators (KPIs), Benchmarking, Continuous Improvements (CI), Total Quality Management (TQM), Management by Objectives (MBO), and Quality Control Circles (QCC).”
De Silva says due to the untiring efforts of the late President Premadasa, there had been considerable progress in all public sector agencies.“It is sad things have become even worse now,” he says.“The public sector lost its focus when subsequent governments expanded having recruited their stooges. It is noteworthy that when President Premadasa began changes in the style of running the political machinery, the majority of corrupt politicos came up with the impeachment. It was crushed skilfully with confidence by the late President.
“It is a commendable step that the government has decided to pay Rs. 25,000 and allow unemployed youth to serve in the private sector for a period of four years to resolve a burning problem. We should be happy that the Prime Minister did not decide to dump them in the overloaded public sector.”
“Why is the government trying so hard to reduce corruption? From an economic perspective,\ political corruption is one of the most unfathomable evils, an endemic cancer which reduces the government revenue, foreign direct investment, the quality of goods produced etc. Corruption no doubt raised the prices that the poor pay for goods thereby raising the cost of living. From a political perspective, systemic corruption corrodes the legal system, turns the bureaucracy into a self-seeking entity that disregards the public interest, undermines representational democracy and reduces educational funding etc.”
De Silva says, from a societal perspective, corruption breeds distrust, rage, despair and factionalism, exacerbates the emigration of skilled and qualified citizens and promotes individual advancement above ethical concerns. All this could ultimately discourage foreign generosity to even grant financial assistance. Larger portions of international aid too seem to have been stolen and not reached those in need. Rajiv Gandhi, the late Indian Prime Minister, had once said that 85 per cent of government spending on development in India never reached its intended beneficiaries but was robbed at every stage along the way.
On honest employees
“My own experience is that competent and honest employees have suffered, reducing their capacity for integrity and effectiveness. Instances of dramatic outbreaks of violence too have been observed increasingly.
Corrupt public officers have been mobbed by a disillusioned general public. Given the pervasiveness of the issues of corruption, inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the total system, we now need to desperately consider new policies that could take the country forward,” he highlighted.