Biswal’s Dreams Just Pretentious Prattle
Jul 25 2016 (The Sunday Times – Sri Lanka) – So Nisha Biswal, the US State Department’s point person on Sri Lanka, says that Sri Lanka could be another Singapore.
That will be the day. If after six visits to the country in 20 months she has still not grasped the basics of Sri Lanka’s socio-political culture and mores, the lack of respect for law and order and the rule of law infused by political interference and intimidation, she could hardly be a messenger of hope and good sense.
Perhaps she has become accustomed to the obsequiousness of foreign minister Samaraweera for things western and his habit of clinging on to the hands of every foreign visitor seemingly as a token of eternal friendship but actually in case they make a break for a quick getaway as some suspect.
The other day media carried a picture of our over-zealous foreign minister holding on to the hand of the visiting Chinese foreign minister leaving the latter looking rather perplexed. The Chinese reaction was not surprising given that the pro-western UNP leadership turned its back on Beijing shortly after the “good governance” coalition came to office possibly because China provided financial help to the Rajapaksa government when our so-called western friends would not do so and even refused to provide weaponry to fight an insurgency.
But now that the pro-western UNP finds itself in a financial mess it has no qualms about kowtowing and publicly displaying a willingness to accept its financial help with open arms and empty money bags.
An occasional peck on both cheeks might be considered by some in our diplomatic fraternity as a sign of undying friendship and gratitude. But in the world of diplomacy such over-familiarity especially in public might not always win friends and influence nations.
Speaking to a group of Sri Lankan business leaders during her recent visit, Nisha Biswal said that Singapore’s one time prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had wanted to model his country on Ceylon at the time. But now it is time for Sri Lanka to be turned into a Singapore.
Does Biswal believe that Sri Lankans are gullible or is this an insidious move to make this strategically-located nation an integral cog in Washington’s pivot to Asia policy intended to stymie China’s economic and military advance westward in the Indian Ocean?
If Biswal was even faintly aware of the bedrock on which the nascent Southeast Asian city-state was built she would not be proposing that we turn ourselves into a soulless nation however economically advanced and rich it has turned out to be.
I do not know whether Biswal has met Lee Kuan Yew when he was leading his newly independent state and talked to him. I have when I was working in Hong Kong and Mr. Lee visited the then British colony for a major conference.
So meticulous was the Singaporean he was able to tell me what I had called him in some of my writings – a dictator, an autocrat and a politician who did not tolerate dissent.
He did not entirely disagree but he carefully adduced reasons why he had to act the way he did, to craft a policy framework for a majority Chinese population sandwiched between two huge Malay-dominated nations. He said even Singapore’s language policy was determined by this geopolitical consideration.
Mr. Lee said that when Singapore was heading for independence Ceylon was the model on which he hoped to build the emergent state. Ceylon had a high rate of literacy, an educated people with a good educational system, an efficient civil service, a well-functioning judiciary and a performing economy.
But all these important qualities that made the Ceylonese nation were dissipated and destroyed by over-bearing and obtrusive politics. In later years when his people asked him for democratic rights and political freedoms he asked them whether they wanted to be another Sri Lanka involved in ethnic conflict.
Those who know the real Singapore story – I nearly went to work there when the editor of a new newspaper scheduled for launch invited me to join – how Ceylon born J.B. Jeyaretnam, the only opposition MP was treated (or mistreated) after he entered parliament after several attempts, how several journalists suffered including a friend of mine on the Business Times, Kenneth James, for ‘offences’ that most journalists would have considered normal professional duties.
Space does not permit an elaboration of the restrictions Singapore places on its citizens including the use of laws that a public gathering of five persons or more requires a police permit and charges of contempt of court, criminal and civil defamation and sedition are used to rein in government critics.
Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2015 states that the “Singapore’s government limits political and civil rights—especially freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association—using overly broad legal provisions on security, public order, morality, and racial and religious harmony.”
Admittedly some advances have been made – however meager – in the way of democratic freedoms. But the Singapore that Biswal and others speak of glowingly was not build on democratic foundations and the rights and freedoms associated with a free society.
So is Biswal then asking Sri Lanka to dismantle the constitutional and other rights guaranteed to its people, the democratic political system that took root even before independence in 1948 and the free press that politicians unfailingly promise the country?
I dare say Sri Lanka can well do without the corrosive and corrupt politics practiced today by many equally corrupt and abrasive politicians. If a nuclear destruction of the existing political system was possible that would certainly be for the betterment of the country.
Is Biswal able to provide such purifying political cleansing that is surely needed if Sri Lanka is to become another Singapore? Despite the democratic deficit that marks Singapore’s years of independence, it was able to achieve an enviable economic record because there were certain prerequisites that its leaders laid down.
Singapore was founded on meritocracy where only the best entered public service and other institutions and followed professional careers. Equally corruption was stamped on wherever it appeared and the guilty were shown no mercy.
Respect for law and order was inculcated in the populace and those who violated the law paid for it. That was the social order that produce Singapore’s economic miracle and a people who called themselves Singaporeans rather than by their ethnicity.
Moreover the city-state has had a political leadership that placed the country before self and was truly committed to building a prosperous society where the majority of its people were able to lead a comfortable life.
The reverse is surely true of Sri Lanka. Why talk of meritocracy when some of those who occupy official positions probably do not know what it means, where relatives, friends and acolytes are handpicked and planted in jobs for which the public pays. The qualified are deposited in the closest dust bin because they do not belong to the correct party, have not paid pooja to the presiding almighty and have sought to expose corruption and abuse or to indulge in it.
How could we build a meritocracy which is what Singapore has done, if a fundamental principle on which Sri Lankan politics is founded is nepotism and clannishness which this government promised to eliminate but practices with the same vigour as its predecessor?
The promises that the current government made to introduce “good governance” have been shattered long before the first year of this National Unity Government has ended. A classic recent example is the admission in parliament by the Higher Education and Highways Minister Lakshman Kiriella that he recruited 45 persons as consultants to the Southern Transport Development Project of the Road Development Authority at Rs.65,000 a month. If the highest qualification most of them have is the “O” level or some even lower how are they qualified to be consultants and consulted on what?
Lakshman Kiriella, who is increasing becoming an embarrassment to the UNP, admitted they were given these jobs because they helped in bringing his party into power. Whoever consults these unqualified consultants should seek psychiatric assistance.
It was not long ago that he wrote letters to two university authorities seeking to influence the appointment of persons known to him.
Just a few days ago I saw an article in which the writer says that the High Post Committee had advertised in newspaper calling for public comments on three persons whose names were listed for particular appointments.
It seemed that these three persons, one of whom is the President’s brother, was already functioning in those posts and have been doing so for some time. If the story is true then somebody should remind this committee of the bolting horses and the stable door.
So this is the country that Biswal wants to turn into another prosperous Singapore. Either she knows little of what she is talking about or is deliberately trying to sell these ideas to drag Sri Lanka into a tighter embrace with Washington so we will loosen our ties with China.
If this is the kind of rubbish that visiting diplomats oozing with spurious bon homie, lecture us about we could well do without it.
Before she comes here next and the Foreign Minister rushes to offer another handshake she should rid herself of the mental sloth that characterizes her advice.
This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka