Fixing cockpit off nation right is need of the hour
By Lacille de Silva
Our constitution is a written instrument of the state. It embodies the fundamental principles and laws that determine the powers and duties of the government. It guarantees specific rights, privileges of the citizens. It lays down the role of the Executive President, the executive government and the composition of the legislature. It also defines how the Provincial Councils share power and the functions of the judiciary, including the nine independent commissions.
The fundamental characteristic of a constitutional government is the rule of law. The Constitution is considered to be the supreme law of the land. It outlines the make-up of government and spells out the powers, authority and the duties of government. It also spells out the distribution of power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
J.R. Jayewardene, the architect of the present Constitution, said, “I can do anything except make man a woman or a woman a man”. After four decades, having promulgated the 2nd Republican Constitution, the Constitution is simply a bundle of papers of little value for the politicians in our country. As electors, we only have to elect Presidents, Parliament, Provincial Councils and local government bodies at an exorbitant cost.
Ours is the oldest democracy in Asia, having achieved universal franchise in 1931. We became one of the first countries to hold elections, in Asia, to run a constitutional government. A Cabinet of Ministers, made up of members of the Parliament, which is answerable to the Parliament, had also been established under the Donoughmore Constitution.
The Cabinet is an important element of the government. It is usually made up of the senior members of the ruling party. It is the highest decision-making body that approves policies with collective responsibility. After decisions are accordingly approved, by the Cabinet, every single member is required to stand by the decisions, without any reservation.
Ministers are required to achieve coherent long term policies, plans and procedures. The Cabinet is chaired by the President. Constitutionally, the Cabinet cannot exceed 30 Ministers at present. Their powers derive from Parliament through the Constitution and other laws. All such powers are subject to limits and constraints. Abuse of such powers could be challenged in courts. Ministers are allowed to spend public money, only for the purpose authorised by Parliament.
The Westminster system requires that the ministers are chosen only if they have the capacity, ability, expertise, knowledge, including the skills, to give directions to run the government machinery.
Ministers are also expected to carry out their duties in such a way that they uphold the highest standards of propriety, while ensuring that no conflict of interest would arise between their official functions and their private interests. They are also required to abide by all laws and have a duty to be accountable and answerable to Parliament for the policies, decisions and actions taken in their Ministries and all departments and other institutions coming under them.
It is also necessary to ensure ‘individual responsibility’, which implies that each minister is individually responsible and answerable for lapses, departures from policies and procedures in all the institutions under the purview of the relevant minister. In New Zealand, Health Minister David Clark, under similar circumstances, during the coronavirus pandemic, resigned from his portfolio.
The ministers are expected to accept responsibility for any failure in administration. Ministerial responsibility specifies, under the constitutional doctrine of responsible government, that they are totally answerable to the Parliament. It must be emphasized that there are both legal and conventional obligations attached to the performance of ministers. It is also the practice to give accurate and truthful information to the Parliament. Making a deliberate untruth is considered a contempt of Parliament. Ministers who deliberately mislead Parliament are expected to resign from their Cabinet portfolio.
If in case, a minister does not agree to abide by collective decisions, it is a tradition that the relevant minister tenders resignation from the Cabinet. All ministers are, therefore, required to carry out their duties, based on the guiding principles of integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality with a long term vision for the betterment of the citizens.
In Sri Lanka, when the ministers who had acted contrary to the public trust had subsequently been given appointments again without being dealt with by the law. Ministers in the UK are not allowed to accept any gifts or hospitality which could compromise their judgement or which could place them under an improper obligation. There are also specific guidelines issued that they should not use government resources, too, for political purposes in their political campaigns.
Boris Johnson, Prime Minister of the UK, in a letter addressed to his Cabinet colleagues, having enclosed a MINISTERIAL CODE, has stated, “We will make our country the greatest place to invest or set up business, the greatest place to send your kids to school, and greatest place in the world to live and bring up a family. To fulfil this mission… we must uphold the highest standards of propriety…. Time has come to act, to take decisions, and to give strong leadership to change this country for the better”.
In Sri Lanka, politicians think lying and dishonesty work. It is a tragedy that they have lied for decades to gain power. It is integrity which is the most valuable and respected quality of leadership. We need honest hardworking leaders in our Cabinet. Because it is a global phenomena that a Cabinet of Ministers is essentially a small one in size. We need Cabinet Ministers who can produce more leaders. Such leaders should help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better. Such a Cabinet could enable better policy outcomes and efficient and effective decision making. It is the ‘cockpit of the nation’. We need that fixed very well.
In Sri Lankan context, these considerations have been disregarded. All we need is a change of direction. We need a serious change in our thought process. That is the required paradigm shift at this juncture. Ministers are expected to uphold political impartiality and neutrality and allow public servants to act in the best interest of the citizens in accordance with the Constitution and other laws.
Nevertheless, our political leaders have always catered to the demands of self-centred politicians. They hold onto power and leadership greedily while enjoying the privileges and rewards of a leadership role without meaningful involvement with their juniors. They are only keen to make the best use of the organization without putting value in. As such, they practice a leadership style where the leader allows the group members to take decisions. Researchers have proved that this leadership style leads to the lowest productivity among such group members.
We have similar political leaders in our country in abundance. They do not follow the norms practiced globally in the best interest of the citizens. After being elected, they totally forget that they had been elected based on party manifestos they had presented. They do not take the trouble to run a legitimate government. The role of junior party members is also such that they do not support their elected leader to implement the manifesto presented to people.
Such political party leaders do not insist that the government Ministers must attend Parliament, particularly at the question time, to answer questions without fail. It is also vital to keep the Parliament always informed of any important decisions they have taken in the Government. Constitutionally, Government is required to seek Parliamentary approval for all executive actions.
The government is answerable to the Parliament and through it to the electors. In this lies the distinctiveness of the Westminster model – the interrelation of the executive government and the Parliament. It is the essence of what in Westminster terms is called ‘parliamentary government’.
It is noteworthy, that the Civil Service, established by the colonial rulers, were able to perform their duties satisfactorily. The best proof for the purpose is Bradman Weerakoon, M. D. D. Peries had served as Secretaries to different Prime Ministers. They were competent to meet the heavy demands of their political leaders.
There had been several others who had served as Permanent Secretaries under different governments. They too had won the confidence of the Ministers in the past though the duties of the then Civil servants have been immensely numerous. They, too, had to assist various Ministers in different governments to perform their parliamentary duties.
They assist in preparation of necessary legislation. They also assist the relevant ministers during its passage through Parliament. They produce briefs, drafts rules, regulations to strengthen accountability and constitutionality to run legitimate governance. All these need a thorough knowledge of the subject matter and practical judgement.
Top public Servants, in the past, were afforded with the opportunity to rise up and develop the necessary skills as they go up the ladder. They were therefore equipped to handle political, economic, social, scientific and technical problems with competence at the time. They were fully well aware of the needs, aspirations and even in regard to the developments overseas. They were able to keep up with the rapid growth of new knowledge and had acquired the necessary skills etc to apply them in their day to day work.
The public service was not a place for the amateur. It was staffed by men and women who were truly professional. What went wrong? Since the promulgation of the 1978 Constitution, appointments of Secretaries to Ministries have been assigned to the President under Article 52. The appointments, transfers, disciplinary control of other top public officers have been entrusted to the Cabinet of Ministers under Article 55. The whole public service has therefore become totally politicised.
Being professional means two fundamental attributes, which in my view are extremely important in varying combinations to be a good public servant. One is being suitably skilled to perform his/her job, which usually is acquired with sustained experience and good training. The other is the possession of the necessary knowledge and the familiarity and the scrupulousness with the particular subject.
The work of government demands these qualities from the elected representatives and also from all types of appointed employees at all levels and in every public institution in the entire Island. Sadly, this kind of professionalism is presently not found in the public service in most places at different levels.
However, it must be placed on record that in certain sectors such as medical, academic and other fields we have plenty of them, who have acquired specific qualifications and skills in the relevant fields. It is unfortunate that such valuable professionals too due to political instability, poor quality of life, lack of economic and other benefits leave Sri Lanka in search of greener pastures, where they have greater opportunities.
Owing to political appointments, there are obstacles in all areas where they cannot reach the top without political support which should be removed. Steps should be taken to empower men and women with wide experience, ability and necessary qualifications in running the government machinery to become the fully professional advisers of Ministers and other elected officials.
Recruitment to the public service should be totally independent. Reports published the world over had condemned nepotism, the incompetence and other similar defects in the Public Service. We have experienced excessive politicization of the public service.
We now understand that the role of public service and the goals of a government have changed. The government is now compelled to take on vast new responsibilities. It is expected to achieve such general economic aims such as creation of employment opportunities, a satisfactory rate of growth, stable food prices including a healthy balance of payments. If it is a government genuinely concerned about fullest possible development of human potential, all that involves a massive increase in public expenditure.
We do not handle public expenditure as desired. Extravagant and unnecessary expenditure have not been avoided. Public money has been wastefully invested for corrupt purposes other than public good. All successive governments have failed to keep its budget well-balanced. There had been ever-recurring deficits in the budgets for decades and decades. Shouldn’t we put a stop to all that?
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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development
There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.
The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.
To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.
Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.
It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.
All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.
Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.
If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.
In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.
However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.
It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.
The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.
It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.
A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.
Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.
Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.
The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.
We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.
This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.
Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!
At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.
One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.
It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!
ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!
The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.
When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!
I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.
I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.
I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.
Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!
I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.
Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.
We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.
Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?
Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!
To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.
Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.
The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..
How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!
If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.
And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!
Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.
Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.
With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.
I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.
Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.
He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.
Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.
He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!
I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:
“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.
“There is no science to beat common sense.”
But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!