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Is the Auditor General the panacea for all our ills?

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by Avantha Munasinghe

One of the contentious issues surrounding the 20th Amendment seems to be the issue of the removal of Auditor General’s capacity to audit companies where the Government, Public Corporation or a Local Authority has a majority shareholding. Many critics seem to have picked on this issue, and most of them are resisting the proposed change. Their fear seems to be that if the Auditor General is not permitted to audit a certain government company, it is prone to be riddled with corruption and malpractices.

The audit by definition is a systematic and an independent review and investigation on certain subject matter, which in this case is the financial statements, management accounts, management reports, accounting records etc. of a company. In the case of a company, there is a statutory requirement for such review and investigation to be reported to shareholders annually. The review, is produced as an “opinion” of the “Auditor”.

Other than the shareholders, it is also customarily used by the tax authorities, banks, creditors, analysts or public for their respective decision-making and also to form their own opinion about the status of the company and its future. In all the government companies, the law required them to be audited by independent auditors, qualified to do so as specified by the Companies Act, until 2015. The 19th Amendment changed their auditor to be the Auditor General.

Auditing, just like Accounting, depends on certain commonly adopted set of principles. The audit of financial statements is normally done in accordance with International Standards on Auditing sometimes modified by local auditing standards. In Sri Lanka’s case, the Sri Lanka Auditing Standards are based on the International Standards on Auditing (ISAs) published by the International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board (IAASB) of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), with slight modifications to meet local conditions and needs. Thus, to begin with, whether it is the Auditor General or a private auditor, the standards applicable to the task are the same. It is the approach that is different.

There are a large number of companies in Sri Lanka whose shareholding in some way is linked to Government or quasi government entities for whom Auditor General has now become the Statutory Auditor. Some of these companies are merely an extension of government entities serving a function of the government. For example, Rakna Arakshaka Lanka Limited is a government-owned company, providing security services to government installations. Another is Ceylon Petroleum Storage Terminal Ltd., whose only customers are its parent entities i.e. Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and Lanka IOC PLC, only to whom it provides services. Such entities do not have to face competition to secure business.

However, there are also a large number of government-owned companies which do business in the marketplace competing with other local and international companies, which are publicly and privately owned. Lanka General Trading Company Ltd., Lanka Hospitals Ltd., Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation Limited and Milco (Pvt.) Ltd., are a few examples. Each of them has to compete for business with large segment of local and foreign companies which are purely driven by profit motive and enhancement of shareholders’ value.

These companies have very flexible systems and procedures. Their boards of directors can take appropriate decisions in a timely manner to make an urgent procurement or select suppliers to be more competitive and manage all their affairs just in time. They can buy their raw materials without calling for quotations if they think it is a profitable opportunity. Even a junior level executive of such a company may be able to decide a price discount to secure a sale.

The situation of a state-owned company in the marketplace in such scenarios is quite the opposite. They cannot do procurement as the situation demands. They have to dutifully follow the procurement rules, which even the board of directors cannot overrule. The officials have very little flexibility to seize a business opportunity. It is so easy for a private company to grab business from state-owned enterprises as the latter cannot be proactive. There is little surprise most such companies are loss-making and is a burden to the government and taxpayers.

The government officials and Ministers however want these quasi state organizations to be profitable or run at least without being a burden to the Treasury. The basic business model of these organizations is at a severe disadvantage to begin with. What 19th Amendment brought to such companies by way of auditing by the Auditor General was to push them from pillar to post. This is quite evident by the powers granted to the Auditor General in the National Audit Act, which even a crime investigator would envy. Some of the powers are:

(1) The Auditor-General shall…

… access or call for any written or electronic records or other information relating to the activities of an auditee entity;

… call any person whom the Auditor-General has reasonable grounds to believe to be in possession of information and documents, as he may consider necessary to carry on the functions under this Act, to obtain written or oral statements and require the production of any document, from any person, who may be either in-service or otherwise;

… examine and make copies of or take extracts from any written or electronic records and search for information whether or not in the custody of the auditee entity;

… after obtaining permission from the relevant Magistrate’s Court, examine and audit any account, transaction or activity of a financial institution, of any person, where the Auditor-General has reason to believe that money belonging to an auditee entity has been fraudulently, irregularly or wrongfully paid into such person’s account;

…require any officer of financial institutions to produce any document or provide any information relating to an account, transaction, dealing or activity of person referred to in paragraph (d) and to take copies of any document so produced, if necessary… There is a fundamental difference in the audit approach of a professional auditor and a Supreme Audit Institution such the Auditor General. In a private sector audit, the primary objective is to ensure the report’s recipient gets a true and fair view of the financial status of the company. While the professional auditor is supposed to report on adequacy of the controls in place and report any lapses to shareholders, the focus is primarily on the status of the shareholder’s investment.

The approach of Auditor General is more on ensuring the Compliance to rules, regulations and procedures. This is natural since the Auditor General is supposed to audit the manner in which a government organization has handled its allocation from the consolidated fund to provide a service to the public. The approach is, therefore, not focused on whether the organization is making adequate return on the government’s funds.

What the 19th Amendment did was to replace the professional auditor, who focused on performance of government companies by the Auditor General who is focused on compliance. The officers running such government-owned companies got a signal quite contrary to what the government officials and ministers were pushing them before. Compliance became the key. There is no better way to achieve compliance than to do nothing. The truth is in the last few years; these organization put profit motive in the back burner and wanted to escape from various audit queries raised by the Auditor General. The best way to do that is not to go that extra mile their competitors would go to make the organization profitable. Doing nothing became the modus operandi.

Some of the supporters of Auditor General’s auditing argue that his mere presence stops corruption. Stamping out corruption was the all-pervasive theme of the 19th Amendment. So many new entities were instituted under it to check corruption. Where are we today? Do we see any positive results? In the Corruption Perception Index published by the Transparency International in the year 2015, when the 19th Amendment was enacted, Sri Lanka’s scored 37 out of hundred. In 2019, our score was only 38. We rank 93 out of 198 countries, four places down. It is no secret that the public perceives state sector organizations as corrupt as ever and certainly more corrupt than any private sector organization in this country. The Auditor General has been auditing these state sector organizations for more than 200 years. If the cure against corruption is audit being done by the Auditor General, why are we in this situation today?

The truth is the Auditor General’s presence is a necessary evil in any government ministry or department, which does not have a commercial objective. His presence does ensure at least some level of corruption is made more difficult to accomplish. However, we must not come into the false conclusion that the presence of the Auditor General is the way to root out corruption. In a State-Owned Enterprise (SoE) with commercial objectives, his presence certainly does more harm than benefit.

There is a wrong perception that most public companies are loss making and, therefore, they should be subjected to an Audit by the Auditor General so that the “control” of public funds will put things right. As explained above, it is the business model and restrictions placed that is the very cause for loss-making SoEs to proliferate. If this argument is correct, we should see, out of more than 120 or so government companies, at last one which became profitable due to the Auditor General’s presence during last five years. There is none to show. In fact, this remedy will only make the patient even more sick.

Another untruth floated on the matter is that the financial statements of the government companies are not required to be submitted to Parliament unless they are audited by the Auditor General and that would undermine parliamentary financial oversight. The truth is that the entity, which is the shareholder in these companies, have to consolidate the company’s financial statements with that of the parent entity and the latter is certainly subjected to parliamentary oversight with financial statements of the company audited by a private auditor.

Another misconception is that supervision by COPE will put everything right in the public institutions. COPE’s examination carried out by set of parliamentarians, who on most occasions have no knowledge of the particular business, is not what is required to put these organizations right. In most cases it is the bad business model rather than lack of COPE’s oversight that fail these businesses.

SriLankan Airlines is a case of point. Many people say the bad procurement deals, continued losses and increased dependence on the Treasury by the airline would continue to happen if the Auditor General is not auditing the airline. It was making losses ever since it was set up with or without Auditor General as the auditor. The Airline business is one of the most competitive businesses globally. Even the largest airlines sometimes find it difficult to be in the black. The industry needs split second decisions to be made by professional management. As said before, this is not possible at SriLankan Airlines. We have seen Chairmen and Directors coming and going with every change of the subject minister. Nobody is having a long-term commitment to make it a success. Its competitors have boards, which are removed only if the airline makes losses, not if their political masters change. Without changing the business model, even if we have hundred auditors to audit SriLankan Airlines, nothing will change.

We all know that our country is suffering from a severe debt crisis. We invested on massive infrastructure projects, which were all debt financed. To balance that off, we desperately need to bring foreign equity into our economy. Further debt, while giving us temporary solace, will only aggravate the problem. The government is devising Public Private Partnership (PPP) programs to bring Foreign Investment from large global corporations. The government also needs to be in control of them. The 19th Amendment requires such PPP companies to have the Auditor General as its Auditor. Which global business entity would drop their global audit arrangements by the likes of KPMG, Ernst & Young or PwC and accept this arrangement? We can talk till the cows come home on how professional our Auditor General is and how independent he is, but the reality is that we live in a dream if we seriously want to promote PPP structures with this kind of legislation on.

The effective functioning of Superior Audit Institutions such as the Auditor General is definitely an essential requirement of a functioning democracy. However, let’s not fool ourselves – it is not a panacea for all ills.

Even in India where the previous Companies Act required the appointment of Auditors to Government Companies by the Controller and Auditor General of India, the arrangement has been questioned in the Report of the Expert Committee On Company Law, which said “The Committee discussed the application of the corporate law framework to Government companies on many occasions and took the view that in general, there should not be any special dispensation for such companies. …Therefore, the extension of special exemptions and protections to various commercial ventures taken up by Government companies in the course of their commercial operations along with strategic partners or general public should be done away with so that such entities can operate in the market place on the same terms and conditions as other entities. In particular, reflection of financial information of such ventures by Government companies and their audit should be subject to the common legal regime applicable. The existing delays are enabling a large number of corporate entities to evade their responsibilities and liability for correct disclosure of true and fair financial information in a timely manner. In this context, the relevance of the present section 619B of the Act was considered appropriate for a review.”

If the government needs its companies to compete with private sector, the way forward is to make their management more flexible. Throwing those decision-makers to the Auditor General is the last thing required to be done if we want them to compete effectively with the private sector. While the world is moving to embrace the scarce private capital by making things easier for such investors, some of our so-called professionals seem to be, while paying lip service for bringing more and more FDI, doing exactly the opposite by criticizing the removal of this disastrous piece of legislature brought in by the 19th Amendment.

(The writer is an Accountant based in New South Wales, Australia)


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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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.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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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!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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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!

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