The West and the Rest!

Is it really all about the West? The recent political developments have given rise to a renewed debate within business circles on Sri Lanka’s dependency on and exposure to Western markets. The business community is abuzz with speculation about the possibility of new embargoes and sanctions, a curtailment of GSP + privileges, travel advisories and other negative measures arising from the West that could hinder the economy. While it is reasonable enough to entertain such fears given the current morass, isn’t it also prudent to revisit our dependencies outside of our country and far outside of our ambit?
The global super powers have been promoting a new wave of nation-centric consumerism – promoting local production, local employment, and home grown brands as the path to making their countries great again. Donald Trump’s “Make America great again” rhetoric has in fact now translated to an economic boom that no one thought possible, and has everything to do with the business-friendly policies he has introduced in under two years. Despite Wall Street’s (and his opponents’) reservations about the longevity of the euphoria, Trump’s America today has happy American consumers, happy American employees and very happy American businesses.
Trump’s words, admittedly not always well-framed, are no longer empty catch phrases: He is beginning to prove to the world that believing in and supporting one’s own products and services is the new paradigm for economic prosperity in these times. Trump has made it his business to set forth facts in their barest form and involve his people in his quest to make his country the best in the world. For a man so vilified, he seems to instinctively understand that an economy is all about the people within it, from the very start to the very end.
What’s interesting is that the same nation-mindedness is spreading globally but leaders are no longer even required to cajole or overtly entice their populace to purchase local brands and engage local services. Buying local has now established itself as an innate expression of patriotism.
Believing in the goodness of local production and home grown brands: now isn’t that a good ethos for Sri Lanka to emulate? At least it’ll help us fret less about the possible backlash from the West. Alienating ourselves, particularly from the West, is a strategy that is neither feasible nor healthy. As a small, developing nation, it is to our advantage that we have positive ties with the world. But shouldn’t we aspire to have both? We must: by maintaining sterling diplomatic relations with the world while believing in a shared dream for Sri Lanka.
If size and might were an argument, let us point out the example of Singapore, as tiresome as it is to keep comparing the progress of our two countries. Singapore still remains the ultimate example of a country that transformed itself into first world status through sheer economic vision, honest and effective bureaucracy, and a disciplined citizenry. The geographic and population size of Singapore imposed no limitations. Many of us forget that Singapore was once an alienated nation, until Lee Kwan Yew took on the mantle of leadership, driven by his sole desire to make his nation the best in the world.
Our economic progress is often hindered not by the business community’s vision for a better economy but by the short sightedness of those in charge of policy, and the ‘divide and rule’ approach embraced by political forces to enable their respective reigns. At the risk of sounding whimsical, we do believe that progress is truly attainable if Sri Lankans work towards it as one people, transcending racial, religious and political ideologies. The desire and mind-set is there within us – if we only fight back the divides that we fall prey to. Our local businesses are most certainly capable of creating real value for the country and thereby delivering the true independence that our resourceful island nation so well deserves.
It is important that Sri Lanka builds the confidence to negotiate from a position of strength rather than be seen as islanders going around with a begging bowl. This imagery lacks the vision to preserve our own identity and independence, and the courage to compete on a global front on an equal footing. Business performance and the policy environment are naturally interdependent; to win and hold the confidence of the business community, policymakers must enable the conditions that foster the regional and global competitiveness of our home grown industries and businesses. At a time when even the economic giants are looking at protectionism as a force of greater good, it is critical that our decision makers are mindful of long term consequences when negotiating trade agreements.
Lee Kwan Yew-style leadership may not be ours just yet, but the collective acumen of Sri Lanka’s entrepreneurs can truly show the world that we are not just a “So Sri Lanka” but a “So wonderful Sri Lanka”.