Sri Lanka: Moving beyond ‘fighting below its weight class’

By Ranel T. Wijesinha

At the dawn of each New Year or subsequent to an election, the print and electronic media have often asked me what my expectations of the government were and I have responded. However, I did not do so at the dawn of 2020, although it is difficult not to respond to the requests of representatives of the media whom I have known for decades. Some inquired why I maintained a relatively low profile with regard to national matters, in particular over the previous 18 months. That, I said, was because of a regulatory position I held and it was important that while I remain independent, I am also perceived to be independent. I assured them that I will share my thoughts on the expectations not only of the Government, but perhaps also of professionals by mid-January 2020. That time has arrived and I must live up to my promise.

My expectation of the Government today is identical to and consistent with what I have stated in the public domain for decades, which I articulated through a written statement in a leading business daily as far back as in November 2005, just before the then presidential election. Political manifestos or annual reports of companies speak of visions for a country or company. It is equally useful to envision a future of an individual within the country or company, from that individual’s perspective. My November 2005 statement captures this approach. But in order for readers to identify with the practical reality and spirit, which prompted this statement, let me at the outset say that my origins are from the village of Getamanna in the Beliatte electorate in the Hambantota District. Against this background, here’s what I said 15 years ago:

Expectations of a product of a small village

“As a product of a small village in the deep South, let me envision for a moment the life of a less-than-privileged resident there, one among many I regularly converse with. I would expect a government which provides me with a road that is tarred, a bus that travels on it, a low-cost house to live in, access to safe drinking water on tap, electricity for my son who is about to sit the Ordinary Level examination to study with the aid of a telephone, a doctor, and a dispensary at hand, a hospital close by, a school to go to, (and) a temple to worship at.

“I do not wish to see a government that makes cement, paint, and bricks, shirts, trousers, and shoes, salt, sugar, or steel. I will expect a government that provides an environment that generates enterprise, small or medium, which provides goods and services at competitive and affordable prices. I will expect a government that has the courage to step in and stricture any private provider that is monopolistic and socially irresponsible, and that is in conflict with the Consumer Affairs Authority Act.” (I served on Sri Lanka’s first Consumer Affairs Council, the apex body of the authority, between 2002 and 2004.)

I further said: “I wish to see a government that will bridge the individual income and wealth disparities, the regional disparities that I have discussed publicly, by helping me make my lot better rather than reduce the net worth of those who have more, simply to make the gap narrower. I need a government that bridges the ‘opportunity gap’ between that of my son and that of the son of the owner of the land that I till. This, in a nutshell, I trust, captures my philosophy about poverty alleviation.”

Perhaps I must explain what triggered the above statement. Here is the background in the very words I wrote in articles I contributed on successive World Press Freedom Days, subsequent to 2005:

Flashback – presidential election 2005 and politics of professionals

“In the run up to the presidential election during October/November 2005, there was a considerable ‘anti-open economy’, ‘anti-market economy’, ‘anti-public sector reform’, ‘anti-privatisation’, ‘anti-multinational’, ‘anti-multilateral’, and ‘anti-World Bank’ sentiment that was being aroused by and on behalf of one of the presidential candidates. Selected professionals, vocally and visibly, endorsed this “arousal”, surprisingly. These professionals spoke publicly on TV and at private and public gatherings in support of this dialogue that was now gathering momentum.

“They even professed that privatisation was not necessary and that the question was only about good management. I joined the debate to say that even if my corporate American hero Jack Welch of the US were handed over the management of an ailing Sri Lankan SOE, sans capital and sans autonomy, he would be a failure since it would be like sending a good soldier to battle without arms and ammunition! This was also the time that a part-estranged alliance partner of the then Government pledged to pull the plug out of the global economy and the World Bank.

“What was hypocritical on the part of the professionals is that their business ventures, their employers or employees, their relatives and friends, and their children had personally benefited from Sri Lanka’s transition from a closed, inward looking, insular country to an open, outward looking, market-oriented one as far back as 1977. The stance of these professionals irked many progressive, right-thinking people.

“Several professional, business, and civil society representatives, who called and emailed me, persistently suggested that I organise an independent seminar to share my practical experiences in the subject matter. I, therefore, took the initiative to design a seminar at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sri Lanka (ICASL) – now CA Sri Lanka – through its Continuing Professional Education committee (CPE). I titled the seminar “The Open Economy and Privatisation: Myths, Realities, Risks, and Safeguards”, which was due to be held on 2 November 2005. There was considerable interest in this seminar. Registrations were taking place based on members’ circulars rather than press and TV advertisements, which we avoided.

“To my absolute shock and surprise, just the day before the scheduled event, the then President of the Council of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, who had served with me before when I was President, called me to convey that the Ministry of Commerce (under whose purview the ICASL is, and the subject Minister under provisions of the ICASL Act appoints six members of the Council) considers the seminar politically motivated and had requested its cancellation. The seminar was therefore cancelled.

“It later transpired that there was no compulsion by the Government, the Ministry, or any candidate, but that this was the manipulation of certain professionals – members of the ICASL itself! It was the late Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria who had read about the cancellation and rang me to disclose that he had spoken with the then Secretary to the Ministry of Commerce who had divulged that the late Minister of Commerce, who was in London that week, had requested the Secretary to look into an alleged complaint he had received about a ‘political’ seminar at the ICASL. The Secretary had apparently only rung the ICASL Secretary at the time, on behalf of the Minister, but had never directed its cancellation!”

Perhaps I should share further extracts of the statement I released to the media, moments after returning from the ICASL on that eve at 30, Longdon Place (now Malalasekera Mawatha) where I stood at the entrance to politely turn away those who may not have seen the notice of the cancellation at the eleventh hour. A former classmate of mine, who though not in my profession, had heard about the cancellation, called me, and came over to stand in solidarity with me.

I must add that this insensitive and rash cancellation brought disrepute to a government and minister due to an act that they were not architects of, and caused a strain in the relationship between me and the ICASL – my professional home to this day – and the members of the Council who allowed the inroad and met to cancel the seminar at the apparent insistence of just one or two members. This also created misperceptions in the minds of many others in the professional, business, and civil society. In fact, a group finance director of a public listed company, who was an annual sponsor of the ICASL, reconsidered whether they should be sponsors of an institute that was not able to protect its independence, more so they said since it was the home of a profession of which the hallmark was independence.

I’d like to reminisce about my return from the venue of that now cancelled seminar when I penned a statement to the media late into the night, submitting it to a private daily business newspaper to which I had contributed regularly.

This paper had the courage and independence to publish my statement prominently titling it: “Is the cancellation of the ICASL seminar on ‘The Open Economy and Privatisation’ a threat to professionalism?”

In that statement, I said, inter alia: “The cancellation of ICASL’s own Continuing Professional Education Seminar, which was open to the public, on a topic as generic as “The Open Economy and Privatisation” is a blow to all of us. To me, personally, as a chartered accountant and a representative of the professional and business community, this is unbelievable. I dedicated much of my life to the ICASL on my return to Sri Lanka, over 15 years ago in 1989. For 10 years alone, I served my profession on the ICASL Council and as Vice President and President. I also represented the ICASL as its first Sri Lankan President of the 23-nation Confederation of Asian Pacific Accountants, having won an election as the ICASL nominee in Shanghai, China.

“I was, as I always do, going to adopt an apolitical stance in my presentation. Those who know me, have worked and walked with me, read my writings, (and) heard my presentations will have expected nothing less. My presentation was to cover real-life examples, locally and overseas, about a ‘Market Economy with Desirable Regulation’. I was to focus on ‘Economic Growth with Equity’ and discuss strategies on ‘Empowering the Poor’ – topics on which I have written and spoken publicly.”

I further added: “I was to discuss ‘Myths, Realities, Risks, and Safeguards’. I was to share, what I often refer to as my ‘independent national perspectives’ on privatisation in Sri Lanka, of about 10 to15 entities, in connection with which I have been a consultant or advisor to local and foreign clients – in essence, my practical experience here in my own country.” (This was to include successful and unsuccessful privatisations, part divestments, part listings of what I now term “broad basing of ownership”, and transactions during the time of the Commercialisation of Public Enterprise Division (COPED) and the Public Enterprise Reform Commission (PERC), and thus will have covered the President Premadasa and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga eras, with no bias for or against any era, but with an objective analysis of merits, demerits, risks, and safeguards in order to be used as a basis for learning outcomes for the Government and the private sector, technical and financial evaluation committees, accountants and valuers, consultants and investment banks, investors, bilateral and multilateral development partners, and all in the relevant ecosystem.)

“My presentation was to be followed by a panel discussion. Deshamanya C.P. de Silva (FCA, BSc [Hons], Past Chairman of Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, a chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC], former Chairman of Aitken Spence, and a former Vice President of ICASL) and Ranjit Fernando (LLB, FCIB, FCMA, Attorney-at-Law, former Director/CEO of National Development Bank [NDB]) were to be panellists. Neither of these panellists requires any introduction for they are well known for their wealth of experience. The seminar, as the circular stated, was open to the public.”
I concluded by saying: “Any politician or policymaker, whether Green, Blue, or Red; any entrepreneur, whether small, medium, or large; (or) any regulator, multilateral bank, or multilateral or bilateral donor would have stopped to think and fine-tuned their thinking. It would have bridged perception vs. reality gaps, enhanced awareness, and also brought policymakers and beneficiaries – on all sides – to some kind of a common ground. The overall beneficiaries would have been all of us – stakeholders of the nation. A nation described by US Ambassador Ashley Wills as one which is ‘fighting below its weight class’, when he addressed us two weeks before 9/11 at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.”

End of extracts of the November 2005 statement to media.

My message is this: Beyond manifestos, campaign strategies, vote getting, and elections, the governments in office must fine-tune what they have identified as basic demand-driven needs and expectations of the less-than-privileged individual, his family, and the community he lives in, and then progressively move upwards to the different segments and groups, culminating in sectors, subsectors, geographic areas, or interest areas and finally an integrated, cohesive, apex national plan. This may require awareness building on what is good for the country, rather than designing manifestos to respond to less-than-informed expectations for the purpose of vote getting, which is driven by less-than-deeply-thought-out approaches, in turn fuelled by alarmists and less-than-aware political opportunists. Then, post elections, the governments and political parties remain hostage to that manifesto, campaign speech, or promise more so when a further election is forthcoming.
Professionals, at the same time, owe it to the politicians and political candidates to be independent and objective, rather than offering help and campaigning – even converting minds and votes – by hook or by crook, only to seek public office or private profit for themselves. It is due to this culture that we as a nation are yet “fighting below our weight class”.

(Ranel T. Wijesinha (FCA [Sri Lanka], MBA [USA] is a practicing chartered accountant and an international management consultant, who has held senior positions in the profession, in industry, in the private and public sector, locally and overseas, at KPMG, John Keells, Deloitte, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, and more recently as a director of Bank of Ceylon and Chairman of SEC)