By Kassapa

Sometimes, ministers make a fool of themselves. That is an occupational hazard. Occasionally, they display their lack of intelligence. These days that is not rare. Every once in a while, a minister shows what a complete buffoon he is. That is what happened to Minister of Public Security Tiran Alles this week.

Alles was trying to defend transferring the task of issuing ‘on arrival’ visas to tourists to a foreign company. This was after an incident where a gentleman, Sandaru Kumarasinghe, complained about the arrangements for issuing ‘on arrival’ visas at the Bandaranaike International Airport which had been delegated to an overseas based company from May. The gentleman’s agitated rant at the airport went viral on social media and needed a response from the government.

At the time, Alles was overseas. Minister of Tourism Harin Fernando was the first port of call for the media who wanted to know why such a measure- which was so blatantly a disincentive for the tourist industry- was being promoted. Fernando tried to dodge the questions that came his way. These were immigration matters that came under Alles’s purview, he said, but was silent on why he, as Minister of Tourism, did not raise objections when the proposal was presented to the Cabinet.

On Alles’s return to the country, he was compelled to confront the issue. His defence was probably worse than the offence: his reasoning for the decision made absolutely no sense.

Alles attempted to justify the transfer of issuing ‘on arrival’ to an overseas company on the grounds that there were flaws in the software that was being used locally and also because some Immigration Officers were corrupt and resorted to bribery. Explaining the former, he said, there were fake sites that advertised the issuing of visas to which foreigners had become victims.

Surely, if there was a flaw in the software, the solution is to improve or replace it with more stringent measures to prevent scams, not just to outsource it to someone else? There have been forged passports too. Is the next step hiring another company to produce our passports at the Immigration Department?

Alles’s claims about bribery are ridiculous. Possibly every government department in the country reeks of bribery. Are we to outsource them all? The Police Department is well known as an institution where bribery is rampant which incidentally also comes under the purview of Alles. Will Alles then hire an overseas company to replace the Police?

If one were to extend Alles’s theory that institutions where its representatives engage in bribery should be outsourced to overseas agencies, we wouldn’t have a Parliament or Cabinet of our own, they too would have to be run by overseas entities. After all, isn’t a Cabinet minister now languishing in jail on allegations of bribery and corruption?

Then, it was noted that the overseas company nearly doubled visa fees. Much of that goes to the company. Even previously ‘visa free’ countries such as neighbouring India now had to pay a ‘service’ fee. Why does the government think of implementing such a scheme when it is desperate to attract as many tourists as possible, to earn foreign exchange that can resurrect the economy?

It also came to light that the proposal from the overseas company was unsolicited. So, are we to believe that, just at the time when our Immigration Department was having a problem with its software, by a strange co-incidence, this company presented its unsolicited proposal?     

At his media briefing Alles went on to publicly threaten the gentleman who complained loudly at the airport saying ‘action will be taken’ against him. Indeed, he was requested to present himself to the Airport Police where a statement was recorded from him. Alles however did not mention what charges will be laid against him because all he did was to engage in his constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of expression. So far, the Police haven’t been able to charge the gentleman.

Quite apart from all the arguments trotted out by Alles defending the decision to outsource the ‘on arrival’ visa process, there is another question that emerges: is it safe, from a national security perspective, to do so and is it absolutely necessary? At a time when Ranil Wickremesinghe is talking of taking Sri Lanka to the digital age and creating an Information Technology hub in the country, Alles is telling the world that it cannot manage a simple visa issuing process!

The majority of those who observed this drama unfold came to one conclusion: that there was more to this than meets the eye and the most likely reason for this decision was probably some money changing hands. Alles, after all, was the ‘go between’ for Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the 2005 presidential election that saw the defeat of Ranil Wickremesinghe when the LTTE ordered a boycott of the poll.

To cap it all, a day after Alles’s macho performance at the media conference, it was announced that the Cabinet had reversed almost all of the decisions that Alles had so strongly defended. The visa fees was reduced, the ‘visa free’ status of some countries was restored and it was also stated that it would be the Department of Immigration that decides on visas. However, what was still unclear in that announcement was whether the overseas agency would still be involved to some extent because Alles at his media briefing was quite adamant that they were here to stay, at least for the next dozen years.

That was how Tiran Alles, Minister of Public Security was made to eat humble pie. This son of the founder of D.S. Senanayake Vidyalaya obviously got the meaning of the motto of his school wrong: when it said ‘Country before Self’, he thought it was ‘Self before Country’ and was then made to look like a buffoon under the glare of public scrutiny.

The country must be grateful to the gentleman who made it possible with his outspoken tirade at the airport: take a bow, Sandaru Kumarasinghe, you deserve more than a honourable mention, this country needs more people like you!