I adore Sri Lanka and I love its people, possibly with the exception of the politicians. I spent some ten years on and off working in Sri Lanka and was privileged to visit just about every corner, from Jaffna to Galle and Ampara to Colombo (I got close, but missed out on Batticaloa and Trincomalee). I experienced a stunning country and a warm and generous people. I despaired at the waste caused by the civil strife and the many lives pointlessly lost. Rather than being depressed by the poverty, I was amazed at the smiles, the dignity and the generosity of people who had so little.
But none of that is on my agenda today. I beg your indulgence if I might be allowed to write about three sorts of people I pity the most: the corrupt, the politicians and the nationalists.
I know that most corrupt people didn’t start off aiming to be corrupt. Early on in my political work, I was taught that corruption is ‘something the mind goes along with’. When you are starting in life and it is difficult to scrape the money together for even the basics, then you tend to do whatever is necessary for your family. It’s all very well having high ideals, but such ideals don’t feed the hungry family. The mind weakens and it is convinced that once, just once, it will be OK. Like a drug addict or alcoholic, one incident leads to another. The greed overtakes you, the corruption becomes more blatant and as you become more senior you demand larger bribes. Eventually corruption becomes society-wide and, whether it’s a speeding fine when you weren’t speeding,or a sly bribe to get your children into the local school, there are always two parties to corruption.
The big problem with corruption is that it benefits a few and impoverishes the rest. A friend once told me of his efforts to get a power station generator into a Middle East country. After weeks of the generator being stuck on a ship in the dock, he was sent to find out what was causing the problem. A few days later he returned and informed his boss that it was all down to the lack of bribes. It seems that the dock manager wanted a bribe to get the generator off the ship, as did the crane drivers, the lorry driver, the policemen escorting the large load, the customs officials and myriad others. His boss talked to the ministry official in charge of the project, but he too wanted a bribe. His boss went to the Minister in charge of the ministry, but he wanted the largest bribe of all.
The end result is never good. The contract was cancelled when the bribes were refused and the generator was returned to the factory in the United Kingdom. Years later the half built power station remained empty and several Ministers later the project had been quietly ditched.
Hundreds of thousands of people were deprived of electricity that would have made their daily lives better and thousands of businesses failed to grow and recruit more workers because of the lack of reliable electricity.
If the company had paid the bribes then a few dozen people would have benefitted marginally with a few (and you know who) benefitting heavily – because that’s the way it works. The only thing that businesses can do in those circumstances is to add the cost of the bribes on to the costs in the contract.
If the product or service is more expensive, then it is always the end user that ends up paying – and that is you. But do spare a thought for the corrupt ones. They have all that fuel to find for their 4×4 vehicles purchased with bribe money.
Talking of 4x4s, the next group of people I pity are the politicians. It’s tough being a politician in Sri Lanka unlessyou are a Minister, because then you don’t need bribe money for a 4×4, because the government (taxpayer) will give you a fleet of them.
The 2020 general election has been an interesting election. Divisive? Yes. One where the result is already known because the opposition has done a good job of splitting itself right down the middle? Yes. An election with the usual attempts to buy votes through lavish election promises that will evaporate just as rapidly as the morning mist once the election is over? Yes.
When I was much younger I complained to a very old friend and senior British Member of Parliament about the quality of MPs. The wise old fellow pointed out to me that standing for election is the only job in the world where every four or five years you have to go back to your employers (the voters) and ask for your job back.
Of course elections cannot be fought without lots and lots of volunteers. So spare a thought for those Sri Lankan MPs who, once elected, have to find jobs for all those people who helped them to get elected, all the people who voted for themand all those who didn’t vote for them but have promised to do so next time, if the MP can find them a job. That’s a lot of jobs for one person to find. It is probably the reason why so many MPs are so keen to become Ministers (and why there are so many Ministers), because then they can tap into all those state owned companies and quangos and place all their ‘friends and relatives’ in non-jobs paid for by the voters. The trouble is those pesky things called elections keep coming around with regular irregularity and you have to start all over again.
If only someone could break the cycle of patronage associated with elections in Sri Lanka then just think how much better off everyone would be. Politicians could spend their time debating how to dig the country out of the economic hole it is in, caused largely by corruption with some incompetence thrown in. Then voters wouldn’t have to grovel to politicians for a job or a school place for their children, or a passport to escape the country.
Talking of passports it brings me nicely on to that final group I pity – the nationalists. They are a pretty odd bunch of people. Some spend years working in other countries getting rich and then come back and tell you that the world is a wicked place and you should pull up the drawbridge. Have you noticed them in the streets? They are the ones constantly looking over their shoulder in case some nasty foreigner is following them. They have spent years studying these nasty foreigners who want to take over Sri Lanka and turn it into . . . er not sure, but clearly something very, very nasty. They all have a nervous tick, but beware don’t spend too long studying them or they will think that you are an agent for a foreign country.
Really, you should be kind to them. We are blessed with them in the UK as well. They provide us with hours of harmless fun with their ranting and ravings about foreigners.
But have you noticed how the nationalists crave their two minutes in the media. It is like oxygen to them. Without it,they would be nothing, just sad creatures who see moving shadows in every corner. Their latest target has been the American Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) which was set up to fight against global poverty. No matter that it was the Sri Lankan government that approached the MCC for some Rs 85 billion of funding for projects including infrastructure improvements. The nationalist movement seems to think that it’s all a ploy for the Americans to take over Sri Lanka (or at least a strategic corridor).
When it isn’t the Americans then it’s the Indians, Chinese or Japanese; it seems we poor Brits don’t get a look in these days.
I hate to think how many projects have been killed off by nationalists claiming that the wicked foreigners are ‘trying to take over our country’; projects that could have made Sri Lanka as prosperous as Singapore by now. Instead the poor remain poor, the corrupt remain corrupt, the political system still runs on patronage and everyone wonders where it all went wrong. I wish I knew the answer.