Kumar Sangakkara may never know it but he has opened a hornets’ nest and indirectly questioned the courage of all right-thinking people: ‘Are you standing up for your rights?’
This would also apply to sections of the business community who conveniently ignore corruption in deal-making and follow the adage that only the fittest survive or ‘it’s survival through the biggest money pot’.
One prominent business professional once told colleagues, “what can we do, if we speak out we get marginalised and lost contracts’.
That’s exactly what former Chairmen of Hayleys, Rajan Yatawara and ‘Tanky’ Wickremaratne did and by not bowing to the dictates of politics in the game of tenders, found the company being distanced from some of the big contracts. Hayleys, a staid company following age-old values a lot ingrained during the late, much-respected D.S. Jayasundera’s tenure as chairperson in the early 1980s, has come a long way from those heady days of governance, values and disciplined management but its culture has changed dramatically after the entry of new, powerful directors with a different business culture.
This group got rid of the independent directors saying they were standing in the way of progress and brought in replacements who are from related companies. How these new entrants can assert their ‘independence’ beats one imagination.
Back to Sangakkara’s eloquent speech and thoughts at the hallowed portals of the MCC in London, there have been raves and rare admiration for a young Sri Lankan. The former test cricket captain won Sri Lanka many friends in the world at a time when the country is being slammed in the human rights and war crimes arena.
His critique of cricket administration – courageous indeed as he is a serving player and by contract is not permitted to speak against his employer like in any workplace for that matter – is admirable as he has put himself on the line and possible sacking for violating the contract. However it is believed that the current players have not signed contracts and if this is the case, Sangakkara is a free man to voice his views. On the other hand, the former test captain is no saint and was imbroiled in a controversy last year when he and other seniors opted to play in the cash-rich IPL series instead of a a foreign tour for which he must be faulted. Nevertheless, in the wider context of uprightness and accountability, Sangakkara’s move is welcomed by all and a call to those captains of industry to also stand up and, be courageous to oppose ‘the system’ when it rots.
Colombo is swirling in deals and deal-making. The Shangri-La, CATIC, Hambantota development and Galle Face reclamation deals are projects which the public doesn’t have access to as a right to information as tax-paying citizens who fund such development. This is important to ensure that they are clean which the government keeps saying.
There is a lack of governance structures and monitoring mechanisms particularly from the civil and the business communities. What has happened to J-BIZ which had the combined force of all chambers of commerce and industry across the country? This was a strong forum led by chamber leaders that was constantly knocking at the doors of government seeking a political settlement of the conflict and getting involved in other issues concerning business, the economy and society. These are the governance structures the country’s needs at this momentous time in Sri Lankan history when it moves to another economic dimension of its post-colonial history. And Sangakkara has shown the way.
While Sri Lanka has a handful of civil society activists and professionals including economists like Dr Harsha de Silva who constantly takes on the government on land and other deals--, the country needs more to speak out on these issues.
As Dr de Silva has highlighted, no one is opposed to special concessions being given to attract high-fliers in tourism or other sectors to drive the economy. However these transactions must be above board and the process transparent, which is not the case now.
Another tourism industry veteran, Malin Hapugoda (from Aitken Spence) recalls that in all previous projects like the Intercontinental, Oberoi, Taj and Hilton special concessions were given as Sri Lanka needed to attract big names which is the case in Shangri-La. “You need these big names to propel the industry,” he contends, an issue most people are in agreement. However such deals must be transparent.
Dr Indrajith Coomaraswamy, a former Commonwealth Secretariat economist, told a Colombo economic summit that the government should invite the IMF for a 'staff monitored' programme once the IMF Stand by Arrangement facility ends this December so that the country could benefit from regular performance reviews.
It’s a pity that Sri Lankans have to depend on an international agency to ensure the country doesn’t step out of line in spending limits, instead of relying on its citizens to provide the checks and balances of government budgets.
Another dismal failure is the absence of independent professionals in the decision-making process and relying only on has-been professionals who tell government politicians what they want to know, not what they should know.
Prof. Hilton L. Root of the George Mason University Washington told a group of parliamentarians and policy makers in Colombo this week that one of the reasons why some East Asian countries succeeded was because their leaders invited the best policy advisors from both home and abroad and used their skills, talents and knowledge to develop these nations.
Going by the ‘living in hope’ culture that Sri Lankans are accustomed to, one hopes, someday, this would happen here soon.