Rebooting System Sri Lanka

If one were to define the meaning of the word “democracy”, the words of a revered American President spring to mind. It was Abraham Lincoln who in his epic speech known as the Gettysburg Address famously described the concept of democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Lincoln’s profound words hold true and remain relevant to the democratic world a good 157 years after they were first uttered.

We were reminded of these words following the ha-ho that erupted in Parliament when convicted death row inmate Premalal Jayasekara was sworn in as a Member of Parliament last week. The Speaker of Parliament, who is the custodian of the rights of all elected 225 members of the House, was of the opinion that since the Court of Appeal had upheld the petition made by Jayasekara seeking permission to attend Parliament, there was no impediment to swearing in the controversial MP in order for him to participate in parliamentary proceedings.

Nevertheless, what must surely be pricking the conscience of the newly appointed Speaker, who has been thrown straight into the deep end, is the moral dilemma and not so much the legal aspect of his decision, when all of his predecessors would have none of it even for those incarcerated on much lesser charges, leave alone a conviction of the gravest crime.

But the beleaguered Speaker can seek refuge in the words of Lincoln, as MP Jayasekara, for all intents and purposes, remains the elected representative of the people of his electorate, who despite the conviction that came a week before the election, thought it fit and proper to elect him to Parliament.

But the choice of his supporters has put not only the Speaker but the whole of Parliament in a quandary, as now, for all intents and purposes, this convicted criminal is also a lawmaker and is designated as an “honourable” Member of Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

The controversial swearing in of the MP, the first time such an occurrence has taken place anywhere in the world, naturally made headlines across the globe for all the wrong reasons, showing the country, its people, and of course its Parliament, in a very poor light.

Whether the whole of Sri Lanka should be held hostage and brought to ridicule owing to the action of the electorate that got him elected to Parliament, is the poser we have before us today. Given this scenario, how do the majority of right-thinking people, especially those entrusted with formulating a new constitution, prevent a bad situation from getting worse? Let’s hope history will be kind to us all.

To make matters worse, the current Parliament has at least one other murder suspect in addition to Jayasekara and numerous others facing a multitude of litigation for an assortment of crimes but all duly elected by the people to the “august assembly”. How is it that a country that boasts an impressive literacy rate of 96%, elected such individuals to formulate laws? What hope is there when this is the best the country can produce in terms of government?

How does one explain the phenomenon of a lawbreaker taking on the role of a lawmaker concurrent to serving a lifelong prison sentence? How is a law-abiding, self-respecting citizen expected to address such an individual as “honourable”? This is probably the point at which Lincoln’s idealisation of democracy seems hopeless and pointless, giving way to the despair and frustration of Cicero, a Roman orator, who millennia before, in 70 BC to be precise, cried: “O tempora! O mores!” in similar circumstances.

What must be kept in mind however is the fundamental fact that the blame for what has come to pass cannot be placed at the doorstep of the political party that nominated him, the entities that paved the way for him to get to where he is, or anyone else for that matter, for he is where he is by virtue of the will of the people, and according to the Constitution, the will of the people is supreme. Once the people have spoken, everything else that follows is simply about complying and falling in line. End of story.

But will the same story keep repeating? Chances are, yes, now that a precedent has been created. The only way the respect and dignity once associated with the lawmakers of this land can once again be restored is by halting the moral decline encompassing every strata of society brought about by the unprincipled, corruptive brand of politics that is practiced today. The rot has to be stopped, at the root. At the end of the day, parties will continue to nominate individuals whom they see as potential winners irrespective of their backgrounds. They cannot be faulted for that. After all, elections and politics are all about the art of winning.

Therefore, the process to clean up the mess that has been created over the years, to cleanse the system that paves the way for lawbreakers to become lawmakers, must begin and end with the entity that controls the whole process – the people of this country. Let’s hope that the framers of the new constitution, at least now, realise the importance of specifying criteria for any individual seeking public office, be it a pradeshiya sabha member or a member of parliament.

The country deserves this legislation in a scenario where there are laws and bylaws governing anything and everything, except the lawmakers themselves. They too, at the very minimum, must be subject to the criteria required for an individual to join the state sector and a specified minimum educational qualification is a must. In addition, a character free of blemish, at least at the point of nomination, should be part of the mandatory criteria. This small and simple piece of legislation will help solve the biggest of problems faced by the country.

Once that legislation is in place, it is imperative that the focus should shift to the education system. A good place to start would be by accepting the fact that the current system has failed the country. Let’s make the distinction that a 96% literacy rate does not mean that we have an intelligent people who are capable of taking responsible decisions. Literacy, in its broadest sense, is the ability to read and write. Politicians are known to wax eloquent that our people are educated and infer that by extension, they are also intelligent. This is where things begin to go wrong, because that is simply not the case.

Our whole school education system is only designed to measure memory capacity rather than develop minds to think independently and act intelligently. Maybe this servile system has served the politicians well, but the time has come to change the status quo.

We can only hope that even at this late stage – 70 years too late – political expediency will not take precedence over what’s best for the country for it can ill afford any further delay. This may probably be the last opportunity the country has to get its act together and put itself on the right track in order to get to where the Asian Tigers did decades ago. Let’s not yet again squander this opportunity at constitution-making.