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I am reproducing this sober and thoughtful analysis of the current situation in Sri Lanka by my friend Prof Janek Ratnatunga in order to give his views wider publicity.
From the slogan of “Gota go Home!” directed at Sri Lanka’s former president Gotabhaya Rajapakse, it appears that protestors are now chanting “Ranil Go Home!” against the new president Ranil Wickremesinghe.
In Magician’s parlance this is called “misdirection” – the action or process of directing people in the wrong direction, whilst the real manoeuvring goes undetected (and unsuspected) behind the scenes.
Sri Lanka is burning, and the only thing that the social media, some sections of the mainstream media, various politicians and expert commentators can shout about is the legitimacy of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election as President and that he is just a puppet of the previous regime.
Whilst these are legitimate concerns of the people, we have (like it or not) a new President – and we need to back him in this time of need for Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, the new President’s options are limited.
He could go with a begging-bowl to the IMF and friendly superpowers to give us emergency loans that come with stringent conditions so that we can keep our nose above the water – OR he could change the ‘mindset’ of our people who believe they are entitled to everything whilst being totally unproductive themselves.
The former option is obviously the easier of the two and probably what he will do. The latter option is significantly more difficult and what he should attempt to do, if he has the moral fibre to change our people’s ‘entitled’ lifestyle.
In order to fix our economy in the medium-term, Sri Lankans must change from within themselves – in other words, they need to radically change their views about themselves and their country.
We can no longer continue being subservient coolies who export our raw materials, producing clothes and frilly underwear for western consumption and show our beautiful country and its culture to budget tourists at cut-rate prices.
This is a hangover of our colonial past, where we were conditioned to think that our role in life was to feed our western masters.
This was further drilled to us by those like Professor Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, who promoted the economic theory of comparative advantage – which suggests that countries will engage in trade with one another, exporting the goods that they have a relative advantage in. The problem was that our advantage was in agriculture – producing raw materials for processing in the west which they sold back to us as finished goods. Later, SL developed a comparative advantage in exporting domestics to be in servitude in foreign lands and depended on their remittances back to their families. Slowly, our industrial base and know-how was eroded, and where our one-and-only comparative advantage was cheap labour – here and overseas.
Thus grew the mindset that “Sri Lanka is Dependent on the World” – for its markets, trade, resources and ultimately, the lifestyle of its population.
Actually, given the current Geopolitics, the converse is true.
This concept of The World is Dependent on Sri Lanka is the mindset we need to change. How is this justified? Let’s look at Sri Lanka’s strengths and weaknesses.
Sri Lanka’s Greatest Strengths
One of Sri Lanka’s greatest strengths is its strategic location. We have two superpowers, India and China at our doorstep, and US interests are not far away in the Pacific. Further, its southern Port, Hambantota, is the key link between the East and the West for global transport and shipping as well as global telecommunication.
Such a strategic location can easily be monetised if Sri Lanka has the mindset to do so.
Today, we have a Port and Airport that lies dormant when it could be developed to earn money for the country. With regards to the Port, the new President must not only revisit the 99-year lease agreement, but also do a full forensic audit of the financing and expenditure of the foreign loans. If this is done professionally by dis-interested foreign auditors, may also address the accusation that the previous regime orchestrated the new President’s meteoric ascendancy from the political wilderness of a single seat party to the Top Job because he promised them protection from investigating their corrupt actions.
The same goes for the Mattala airport. Its whole business case and financing must also be forensically investigated. It is unbelievable that such a large-sized airport was dubbed ‘The World’s Emptiest International Airport’ by Forbes magazine due to its low number of flights – when, location-wise – it could easily be developed to counter Changi airport in Singapore.
Why have we allowed all this to happen?
We believe that we need foreign powers to both develop and use our assets and are beholden when they pay us peanuts for their use.
Another of Sri Lanka’s greatest strengths is its highly qualified and competent scientists, doctors, engineers, and finance professionals. Unfortunately, these individuals have made their mark in foreign lands, which are more welcoming of their talents than Sri Lanka itself. For example, the key scientist that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine at Oxford University was Sri Lankan born consultant physician Dr. Maheshi Ramasamy. The highest paid CEO in Australia is Sri Lankan born Shemara Wikramanayake of Macquarie Bank.
I could go on.
With such talent, why are we not developing ‘world–class’ research labs, hospitals, and solar farms in this country; or making Sri Lanka a global financial hub?
It is all in the mindset.
We think we need Foreign Direct Investment or a technology transfer from the West – and now India or China – and that we cannot do it ourselves. In fact, in my own field of education, we allow third-rate foreign universities to open campuses in Sri Lanka – to siphon valuable foreign exchange in return for a lousy education – when we have world-class academics in our own universities.
Given Sri Lanka’s dire situation, this mindset change will only happen if we get onto a ‘war footing’. For this we need to take a leaf out of the playbook of the LTTE. When all sources of official funding were cut out of Jaffna, it still managed to have alternate sources of fuel and food and even develop a light aircraft and a submarine. This was because they had a Cause they belived in and a ‘can-do’ mindset that overcame all odds.
Today’s ‘cause’ is the revival of Sri Lanka, and we need all communities to pitch-in. But this leads to a discussion about greatest weaknesses.
Sri Lanka’s Greatest Weaknesses
The first major weakness is obviously the continuing communal disharmony. For example, the ‘Aragalaya’ – which was initially about Gota’s total economic incompetence and his Regime’s perceived corruption – was expanded to unrelated issues such as ‘war crimes’ and ‘church bombings’. It must be remembered that whilst there was total agreement and camaraderie amongst all communities about the economy and the corruption; there are strongly diverse views about Gota’s performances in other areas. Therefore, this is not the time to dig these old wounds. In a war situation, all communities must put their differences aside and protect Sri Lanka.
The second and perhaps an even greater weakness is our labour force of millions of under-employed government servants, public utility workers, three-wheeler drivers, and others who do not want to toil as hard as farmers and factory workers. Their numbers will need to be radically culled for Sri Lanka to have any hope of revival. The new President, who arguably does not have to worry about getting their votes in a future election, maybe the only leader, if he has the nerve, who can fearlessly do this without committing political suicide.
Of course, the new President cannot do it all by himself. He needs everyone’s support – not this mindless and continuing cry for another Regime change.
Therefore, I will conclude by paraphrasing a saying from John F Kennedy:
“Ask not what Others can do for Sri Lanka, but what you can do for Sri Lanka.”