Leading By Example
It was U.S. President Thomas Jefferson (the man who
glowers at you from the wrinkled depths of dollar-bills) who observed
that, "That government is best which governs the least." To
the extent that they share this belief, Jefferson and little Sri Lanka's
Ranil Wickremesinghe are birds of a feather. Like Jefferson,
Wickremesinghe believes in hands-off government: government that
facilitates rather than regulates. When it comes to government, our
worthy prime minister is a minimalist, leaving market forces and a
spirit of enterprise to deliver social and economic nirvana.
There can be no doubt that this strategy will deliver the
goods. The question is, however, will the society that evolves from this
free-for-all be worth living in? And there, Wickremesinghe may be making
a boo-boo. Although Jefferson's aphorism mentioned above is often quoted
by politicians who share his attitude to governance, the rider that
follows is usually dispensed with. To wit, what Jefferson actually said
was, "That government is best which governs the least because its
people discipline themselves."
There lies the rub. The price of minimalist government is
the self-discipline of those who govern. On this score, we take no
cudgels against Wickremesinghe. For all intents and purposes, he has
been a model leader, leading by example. The prime minister and his wife
move about with little fuss, they mix with ordinary people without
hordes of bodyguards fending the public off, they shun
headlight-flashing siren-blaring motorcades. There is also no doubt that
Wickremesinghe is the most approachable leader Sri Lanka has had since
Dudley Senanayake, who himself was something of a one-off.
But the motley crew of whom the prime minister is primus
inter pares, the first among equals, is another matter altogether.
Wickremesinghe's hands-off approach is leading to his government
enjoying to the full the freedom of the wild ass, with ministers each
pulling their own way. Not only is there insufficient strategic
direction to the government as a whole, there is a clear lack of concern
Elsewhere in today's issue, for the third time we provide
further evidence that brings into question the role that Jayalath
Jayawardena plays in the UNF government. Ditto for Rohitha Bogollagama.
Our intention is not to criminalise Jayawardena who, let's face it, did
some honest and difficult work in bridging the credibility gap between
the LTTE and the UNP when it was in opposition. That bit of yeoman
service ought not lightly to be cast aside; but the brownie-points
Jayawardena earned in preparing the ground for a UNF government do not
give him carte blanche to run amok when in office. What is the message
the prime minister sends to the rest of the cabinet, to the public
service, and indeed the international community to whom he is appealing
for funds for reconstruction when he brushes aside the outrageous
conduct of a minister merely because he cannot look him squarely in the
eye and put him in his place?
It is not in Wickremesinghe's nature to wield the big
stick. At the very outset of his government, he told his ministers that
he did not want to be the class monitor. But if he will not rein in his
ministers, the question is, who will?
Just last week, Deputy Plantations Minister,
Navin Dissanayake, goaded the CWC's Arumugan Thondaman with
regard to the latter's well-known opposition to the Upper Kotmale
hydropower project. Dissanayake reminded Thondaman that he (Thondaman)
was, as a member of the cabinet, bound by collective responsibility.
There was therefore no way Thondaman could obstruct the project while
remaining in the cabinet. The implicit challenge was, 'If you want to
obstruct this project, resign from the cabinet.'
While at the best of times such a statement from a junior
MP to a minister would be considered ill-judged, what makes it damning
in this case is the fact that Dissanayake also happens to be Power and
Energy Minister, Karu Jayasuriya's son-in-law. To make matters worse,
Jayasuriya is deputy leader of the UNP.
The net loser in this game of horse-knobbling is the
government, whose only major project to date is now in jeopardy.
Thondaman's objections to the project are centred on environmental
concerns. While these were assuaged to an extent sufficient for him to
let the project pass without open dissent, it should have been clear to
Dissanayake that he could score cheap political points with the more
jingoistic element of his Sinhala electorate only at the expense of the
government, if not his father-in-law. This is especially so given that
Dissanayake's younger brother Mayantha, who is chairman of the
government-owned Ingrin Institute of Printing, has unknown to Jayasuriya,
already met with Power and Energy Secretary, K.K.Y.W. Perera in the
company of a Japanese contractor vying for the Upper Kotmale project.
The fact that Wickremesinghe has not reacted to this new
twist in the Upper Kotmale saga speaks volumes for his tolerance of the
indiscretions of youth. While that is all to the good, it is also yet
another example of his forbearance of indiscipline in his ranks. He must
remember that Jefferson's truism that "That government is best
which governs the least" carries with it the obligatory rider,
"because its people discipline themselves." No discipline, no
The issue of discipline applies not only to government,
but also to society. The events of two weeks ago where weapons were
brandished in the Blue Elephant nightclub in the Hilton Hotel, evoked an
outburst from Wickremesinghe in far-away New York, about "rich
brats" running amok in Colombo.
One has only to look at the indiscipline on the roads to
see where a good start can be made. One need go little further than the
Blue Elephant on a Friday or Saturday night, where a police checkpoint
for drunken driving does brisk business with those very same "rich
brats." As each flashy car is stopped and the driver asked whether
he has been drinking, a Rs. 1,000 note comes out through the
power-shutter, and the car drives off. No curbing of the rich brats will
happen so long as this state of affairs continues. And what of the
ministers themselves? As we have pointed out time and again before, some
of them still dash about Colombo, lights flashing, sirens blaring, armed
commandos and all, ignoring all the rules of the highway code. They have
failed to note, after nine months in office, the example set by their
prime minister, who is busy leading by example.