The vision of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is to make Sri Lanka the miracle of Asia within the next few years. Making this vision a reality will be a formidable task, requiring commitment and action in several areas, including the political, social, economic, and ethical. If the national effort is mobilised and properly pursued, the UPFA vision could well be achieved.
In addition to creating the institutional infrastructure necessary to realise this vision, we equally have to create a favourable business environment. To do this, we have to engage our political and business leaders.
The total elimination of bribery and corruption is not possible, but we can try to reduce it. An environment where bribery and corruption thrives affects all different aspects of society, form governance, rule of law and human rights to trust and faith in the government machinery. Bribery and corruption can undermine the state’s sovereignty and national security. Fighting this menace, the “enemy within”, is a vital but challenging task. Past governments have failed to achieve any notable success in this regard.
Singapore is a role model in the fight against bribery and corruption. Singapore’s Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) was established as far back as 1952, but even into the ’80s, Singapore was considered a “corrupt state”.
The island republic was not attractive to foreign investors. Unlike her big neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore lacked natural resources. To add to that, business transaction costs were high because of bribery and corruption and inefficient and ineffective public service.
It was against such a background that Singapore’s political leadership committed itself to creating a competitive business environment and projecting an image of clean and efficient government. Prime- Minister Lee Kuan Yew brought the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau under his authority and took a ruthless approach to enforcing the law. Corrupt Ministers were not spared.
This approach paid rich dividends. The incidence of bribery and corruption started coming down dramatically, and today Singapore is virtually free of bribery and corruption.
Last year, Transparency International ranked Singapore as among the three least corrupt countries in the world. It is widely acknowledged that the critical factor that helped Singapore achieve this status is strong political will, something that is sadly lacking in many developing countries. Like Singapore, Sri Lanka has the legal and institutional mechanisms to fight bribery and corruption.
There is the Independent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (it ended its term last month without a new committee being appointed), an independent judiciary, the Auditor-General, the Attorney General, Parliamentary Committees, such as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), the Public Services Commission, the Police Commission, the code of conduct for government officials, the declaration of assets for certain grades of public officers, the public procurement procedure, and so on.
Sri Lanka is also a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. In fact, retired Supreme Court Judge, Saleem Marzoof PC, once remarked that Sri Lanka can legitimately boast of the best anti-corruption laws in the entire Third World. We have the laws, but we haven’t been able to check bribery and corruption, which is rampant in Sri Lanka.Last year, Transparency International ranked Sri Lanka in 97th place on its corruption perception index. Inadequate legal provisions cannot be the reason for this sorry state of affairs, although there could be further improvements, such as with the Right to Information Law.
In April 2008, Justice Ameer Ismail, the outgoing chairman of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, delivered a speech at the Key Persons Forum, organised by the Chamber of Commerce and Industries in Sri Lanka. He drew attention to the fact that corruption is not effectively confronted in the Third World. In this part of the world, he said, corruption often results in promotion, rather than imprisonment, for the corrupt person.
He also went on to say that “big fish”, unless they belong to the Opposition, rarely fry. Although Justice Ismail’s Commission was not markedly effective, his words seem dead accurate when applied to Sri Lanka. Consider what happened with the VAT scam; petroleum hedging; the privatisation of Lanka Marine Services, the COPE reports under the chairmanship of Wijedasa Rajapakshe, to mention some of the more notable cases.
Sometime back, the chairman of a Statutory Board in Sri Lanka was given an unusually high pay rise. His pay was more than double the pay specified in the Treasury Circular. This salary was paid exclusively to this person, not to any of his predecessors or any of his successors. When this was brought to the attention of the authorities, the matter was totally ignored. The reply was that it was recipient’s “good luck” to get such an unusually emolument.
Take the case of the retired General Sarath Fonseka. The state machinery was set in motion to dig up the General’s wrongdoings when he was Commander of the Army. Had he not gone over to the Opposition, he would have remained the much acclaimed General. Truly, the big fish fry only when in the Opposition.
The important point here is that if the genuine objective is fighting bribery and corruption, then the big fish should fry, whether they are in Opposition or on the government side. That is the strong message that should be sent to society at large.
A programme to reduce bribery and corruption should be top priority in any plans and programmes to realise the UPFA’s vision of making Sri Lanka the miracle of Asia.
Having anti-corruption laws and regulations in the statute book alone serves little purpose, unless these laws are implemented without fear or favour — and with ruthless efficiency and indomitable political will, something we have not seen so far under successive governments.