Too early and not too late

Barack Obama says he understood early on in his presidency that “the federal government headed by the president is an ocean liner, it is not a speedboat”. In a CBS interview earlier this week, the former US President said the work done may be only truly appreciated a decade or two later as good work, but how at the time it feels like it isn’t happening fast enough.

That’s something to dwell on as our own President completes one year since being swept to office by a constituency hooked on his reputation as a results-oriented task master and “doer”, particularly because the same constituency now appears to be growing increasingly impatient with the perceived lack of progress on important issues and the perceived lack of regard for the mandate it provided in November 2019 and August 2020.

Opposition voices have been highlighting the failures of the President, laughing off the platforms billed as technocracy and meritocracy, and questioning the Government’s claims of professionalising the administration. It appears that the Opposition has of late got a handle on the intricacies of marketing, specifically when it comes to conducting social media campaigns. This is in stark contrast to the woeful public relations efforts (if there were any efforts at all) we saw in the nearly five years it was in power, when the masters of the PR and social media games were the then Opposition and the present Government. This sudden marketing mojo of the Opposition emerged at an interesting time, with the President only a few weeks away from his first anniversary in office. It is also no coincidence that the effectiveness of the Opposition’s campaign intensified following the emergence of the new wave of Covid-19 in the country.

Amidst increasing public displeasure and following the presenting of a budget which is generally seen as business friendly, the President addressed the nation on Wednesday (18), stating that his administration has pledged to eliminate waste and corruption in the state administration. He said measures should be taken to completely eliminate waste and corruption in all ministries and government institutions, and the wrongdoers brought before the law irrespective of their status. Yes, of course they must. But if there is will, a far more effective ploy would be to publicly expose a few major corporations that encourage such corrupt practices by initiating the process of influence and bribes. There were recent reports of a new effort at curbing begging at traffic lights – the special operation was to arrest the said beggar as well as charge the motorists who encouraged begging by donating money. Apply that same principle to incidences of corruption. Don’t just arrest the public servant accepting a bribe, also arrest and expose the business that’s party to the act.

The corruption and irregularity in the confluence between business and politics has become so deeply entrenched that today, Sri Lanka has come to a point where the bona fides of every public-private deal are questioned. It is true that anywhere in the world, the dual power bases of politics and business cannot be extricated and isolated from each other – one drives the other in constant motion, always balancing each other’s interests.

The military men brought into civilian administration has been one of the main points of contention for civil activists and the Opposition, given the fundamental differences between the order and discipline by design of the military and the far greater complexities of civil bodies. Perhaps the fundamental purpose in bringing former officers who have played no part in existing systems has been to weed out corruption and malpractice and establish discipline. However, it begs the question whether subject matter expertise counts for naught. Anyway, many of these officers have found the systemic corruption so well established that it will take years of rigorous supervision and punitive action to put right.

As Obama now reflects, the true results of today’s presidential action may not be seen for years; one year – three-quarters of which have been overshadowed by a global pandemic – is perhaps too soon to judge, and not too late to change course towards recovery, success, and prosperity. How the second year of the President’s tenure pans out is anybody’s guess, but today, we may at least celebrate his public acceptance that the presidency is not a privilege but a responsibility. The critics must also remember that if a nation’s president fails, that nation fails, and therefore we must all hope that the President “passes”, for the sake of Sri Lanka.


The Headlight is the editorial of The Sunday Morning Business.