Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected President in 1988 at a time when the country was in flames by the bloody revolt by the LTTE in north and east and the JVP in other areas of the country. While all these civil wars were continuing he had a vision to increase the government tax revenue to meet [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Ranasinghe Premadasa – the man who disciplined Sri Lanka’s Customs


Ranasinghe Premadasa was elected President in 1988 at a time when the country was in flames by the bloody revolt by the LTTE in north and east and the JVP in other areas of the country.

While all these civil wars were continuing he had a vision to increase the government tax revenue to meet the expenditure on war and other welfare and economic activities. He was very well aware that the correct tax revenue was not being collected by the main tax departments due to various corruptions in and out of these departments. He ensured that more than 50 per cent of the tax revenue was collected by the Sri Lanka Customs.

But he knew that this could be raised to about 60 per cent if the department was a more disciplined unit. Corruption within the department was no secret because he had a good intelligence squad who reported to him the internal affairs of the department. Many smugglers came from Colombo Central and Colombo South areas who were the paymasters of many customs officers for the services rendered by them for safe delivery of smuggled goods. Those who were directly involved in the protection and delivery of smuggled goods were given a higher pay and for those who did not squeal also received monthly payments. A few officers maintained their dignity without subjecting to the demands of the smugglers. Ultimately they had to face life threats from the smugglers when they attempted to stop these activities. It was the practice in those days that most of these smugglers were maintaining good relations with President Premadasa in order to safeguard their illegal businesses and to discourage the genuine officers against their smuggling activities. Mr. Premadasa also had a good estimate of their illegal activities but was waiting for an opportunity to destroy their activities. When he took office as the president, he requested all these businessmen to do their duty on behalf of the country by paying the correct taxes for their goods. He also strengthened discipline in the department by changing the attitudes of the officers and instilling courage in the staff to do the right thing. He assured officers that they would be safeguarded and provided the required facilities and remuneration. His strategy was to win the hearts of the staff to achieve the revenue targets.

After he took office he visited the offices of Customs and the Colombo Harbour and shared his vision with us. He said that the Customs and the Colombo Harbour are the gold mines of the nation and if they function well, the country will get all the revenue it needs without having to depend on loans for the government’s recurrent expenditure. He then introduced a mechanism to achieve it which was as follows:

1. Provided a good salary increase to all Customs staff.
2. Infrastructure facilities were developed.
3. Intelligence based, security network was established covering all the institutions under Ministry of Finance under the charge of retired DIG A.C. Lawrence.
4.Tax defaulters were brought under control to encourage them to pay their dues rather than dragging the cases in the Customs and thereafter at the respective courts.
5. Every officer was given a responsibility to complete their day’s work before leaving the office.
6. A delay report system was introduced for those who could not complete their work on time to do so before leaving the office.
7. Officers’ salary, overtime, panel examination fees and rewards were paid without any delay.
8. Officers’ uniforms and other materials were given on the beginning of the year and wearing full uniform while on duty was made compulsory.
9. No politicians were allowed to interfere in Customs matters without his permission.
10. For any officer guilty of some corrupt activity, the minimum punishment was dismissal from the service.

The salary increase was appreciated by officers who newly joined the respective position/grade. For instance before the salary increase was given, the new appointee to Class-II, ASC grade enjoyed only 3rd class railway warrants. But after the salary increase they all had the privilege of enjoying 1st class railway warrants. However after President Premadasa, none of the politicians or the officers at the Salaries and Cadres Commission and the respective higher authorities wanted to maintain that position for us in the subsequent salary conversions. As a result, the new ASC officers are not entitled to enjoy 1st class railway warrants because their salary step is below the required salary level to qualify for this class of railway warrants.

Regarding the developing of infrastructure facilities, the best example was giving us a new rest room facility at the Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake. When President Premadasa visited the airport, he wanted to see where officers have their breakfast, lunch and dinner while working a continuing 24-hour.

He found that the rest room at the airport was unsuitable to rest for weary officers and ordered that this be corrected immediately. The Airport and Aviation (A&A) Services office was asked to make arrangement to build a restroom for all the grades of Customs at the airport within two years. When our union representatives selected the present location, the officers at A&A objected saying there was a high tension power cable running under it. He reprimanded the authorities and asked them not to come up with flimsy excuses to avoid the task but to do it on the agreed location.

During the tenure of President Premadasa, the implementation of the law at the Customs was at the maximum level discouraging smugglers and their supportive elements.

When President Premadasa enforced strict discipline at the Customs, a number of smugglers -once the paymasters of Customs employees – slept on the Preventive office bench in the night before being produced before the magistrate the following day. Some smugglers left the country in fear of legal punishments they would have had to face. Within the department officers feared to do any wrong and undertook their duties with extreme caution.

Because the officers’ remunerations were paid without any fuss, there was a common tendency to do the maximum to secure the state revenue.

Before I conclude this letter I would like to highlight the difference I saw as a Customs officer between President Premadasa and his predecessors/successors in the administration of state machinery specially the Customs. President Premadasa was a hot tempered person. None of the government officers could deceive him.

He gave an assurance to government officers to work to their maximum capability in performing their tasks to the public for which he gave due remuneration and protection. His post audit supervision was very success.

I must admit that what was created in the Customs by President Premadasa has vanished from the department after President D.B. Wijetunga and his successors took office.
J.P.U.L. (Customs officer)

Share This Post

comments powered by Disqus

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.