After one of Sri Lanka’s bruising elections not too long ago, someone with a penchant for coining phrases-not always elegant but telling-talked of a “computer jilmart.” That, I suppose, was another way of saying that technology was being manipulated to ‘fix’ election results. There was “insufficient evidence” as our judges are prone to say now [...]


Living it up on other people’s money


After one of Sri Lanka’s bruising elections not too long ago, someone with a penchant for coining phrases-not always elegant but telling-talked of a “computer jilmart.” That, I suppose, was another way of saying that technology was being manipulated to ‘fix’ election results. There was “insufficient evidence” as our judges are prone to say now and then, to establish any computer fiddling but the phrase seem to have found a permanent place in our lexicon devoted to questionable activities particularly by politicians of dubious character and their cohorts from officialdom.

Britain's Home Secretary Theresa May and leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling arrive at a press conference in London. A petition to the British House of Commons calling for a re-run of the recent referendum to decide if Britain should pull out of the European Union had reportedly been hacked into.REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

So it was déjà vu, so to say, when it was reported that one or more persons had hacked into a petition to the British House of Commons calling for a re-run of the recent referendum in which some 52 per cent of UK voters demanded that Britain pull out of the European Union.

Media reports said this petition which should have been signed only by British citizens or those with permanent residency had been infiltrated with either malevolent intent or just to ridicule the attempt to reverse the people’s verdict. The biggest joke was the discovery that 42,000 signatures came from the Vatican. The population of Vatican City is only 840. So it seemed that an entire population had been ‘reincarnated’ several times over even faster than the rise of Lazarus.

The House of Commons’ Petitions Committee removed 77,000 fake signatures within three hours or so of the fraud being detected.
A week or more before this genuine “jilmart” hit the news sites, some Sri Lankan ministers were in London to coax and cajole persons of Sri Lankan origin, many of them British citizens or permanent residents, to vote for Prime Minister David Cameron who lobbied for the UK to stay in the EU.

But before the actual voting the ministers went their different ways checking out of the Grosvenor Hotel at Buckingham Palace Road. This flying mission was paid for by Sri Lanka and not Cameron as some said, probably to denigrate our leaders who they thought were all “clean suit empty pocket” types.

That is all ballyhoo of course. If our politicians did not have a Sterling Pound or two in their pockets to tip the bell boy they could always pick up the phone and call the IMF for a quick loan.

It is not for nothing that we are constantly paying pooja to the western deity and have a foreign minister who appears to be permanently airborne. He was here early last week for a tete-a-tete with British Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire.
There is always China’s Exim Bank to turn to now that kowtowing to Beijing is back in fashion what with the Colombo Port City back on track and a couple of projects in the Polonnaruwa district apparently joined to the Silk Road with just a tender touch, if you get my meaning.

There are some who mischievously see a causal connection between the visit of our ministerial team and falsifying what started as a genuine petition. That of course is blasphemy not to mention that Sri Lanka’s political maneuvering could hardly stretch that far even if such tales of derring-do might give a turbo boost to political egos.

To even suggest that the ministerial presence had something to do with the Sri Lanka-style attempt to undermine legitimate democratic practices is to be endowed with a highly elastic imagination.

It is true that Sri Lankan politics has seen candidates at some elections receiving more votes than there were eligible voters or national leaders finding on reaching their polling centre that their vote had already been cast by some intrepid democrat.
I also remember a voter whose polling booth was at Torrington Avenue where I used to cast my vote telling me that he had voted three times. I thought it was mere bravado until he showed me how to erase the so-called ’indelible’ ink from the finger by rubbing it with a piece of pineapple.

This is not to say that the UK has been spared the spirit of such innovation. Some years ago an attempt was made to tinker with the voting process at an election in northern England using methods we Sri Lankans were long accustomed to. It was in a constituency with a substantial South Asian population. Globalisation had indeed resulted in reverse aid!

However much government ministers might insist that new or raised taxes are imperative as the Sri Lankan economy has fallen on hard times now made worse by Britain’s proposed exit from the EU, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration appears to have enough funds to spend on activities that are not intrinsic to the well-being of the people.

This is especially condemnable because the ‘yahapalanaya’ leaders promised the people to discard financial profligacy as practised by the previous government and replace it with prudent and accountable use of public money.

While one might argue that the rationale for the presence of the ministerial emissaries was to appeal to persons of Sri Lankan lineage to help the mother country from a further economic slide. But it is surely difficult – nay impossible – to justify the huge amounts set aside for providing new vehicles for ministers, MPs and senior officials.

For a country whose balance of payments lacks all balance and fiscal deficits have caused even more burdens to be piled on the people how could a cash-strapped government justify such lavish spending on the representatives of the people some of whom mostly represent themselves, their families and their cronies.

At least it might be said to the credit of two of those who flew to London – Minister Harin Fernando and Deputy Minister Harsha de Silva – that they reportedly turned down their right to new vehicles.

But if one were to listen to persons like cabinet spokesman Rajitha Senaratne parliamentarians need good vehicles to travel on bad roads in the performance of their duties. If his memory has not gone into sleep mode, he would recall that for many years Indian prime ministers travelled in Indian manufactured Ambassador cars which in Senaratne’s estimation would be ungainly and inelegant even for an MP from distant Hanguranketa.

Unfortunately this lack of care and accountability for public money has over the years has had a contagious effect on state-owned institutions or those in which the government has an interest. I refer particularly to SriLankan Airlines which under the previous government turned out to be a private airline of family and friends despite its public visage.

Another institution that is turned into the fiefdom of whoever runs it at any given time is Sri Lanka Cricket, the body that administers the game and for the betterment of which this organization supposedly exists.

Both these institutions were represented in London recently – at approximately the same time our hard-working flying envoys were here – and spending lavishly as though they ran their own Central Bank.

Reports and photographs have already appeared about the hospitality box that SriLankan Airlines operated at the Lords cricket ground during the third test and who some of the invitees were. Judging by those in the picture they were all Sri Lankan friends and three top officials of the airline including the chairman and the CEO, who had all travelled to London to do what exactly?
Watch the cricket or promote the airline? If the hospitality booth was to hold 18 invitees and the only picture one saw was a group of Sri Lankans – no doubt great cricketers – but hardly corporate customers, where were the invitees who were supposedly to benefit the airline which had hired the booth for several thousand Pounds Sterling per day besides the extra expenditure on food and drink?

Here is an airline trying to sell off new aircraft it had ordered, closing down at least two European operations and has not only scraped the bottom of the barrel for revenue but even the floor on which the barrel stands.

It just cannot survive without the state injecting funds to keep it afloat let alone in the air. Yet when it comes to living on other people’s money this airline has never been shy about it.

After the mismanagement, financial wastefulness and the disgraceful conduct of some high-handed officials one would have thought the present lot would exercise caution, discipline and professionalism. What we have instead is financial extravagance and lavish life-styles while the airline signals May Day and cries for state money.

Otherwise how could one account for its top officials being paid salaries of between Rs.3-4 million monthly – sans the perks, that is.
If one is reminded of the band on board the Titanic continuing to play as the ship sank, it would not be inappropriate.
Sri Lanka Cricket is no better. If government allocating funds for duty-free cars for MPs is condemnable the conduct of Sri Lanka Cricket is both condemnable and contemptible.

The management flew in over a half a dozen officials according to reports some accompanied by their wives and even daughters at the expense of yet another institution facing financial problems. They were accommodated in hotels at the expense of the organization and those who opted to find their own accommodation given handsome per diems.

What happened at the fund-raising dinner held at the Lord’s Long Room is another story. When will the President of Sri Lanka Cricket and senior officials let the public know how many tickets were sold, how many bats auctioned and how much funds were raised. Or would they?

Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara was quoted in a newspaper as saying that to his knowledge the fund-raiser was a success and the Long Room was packed to capacity. It might well have been. But then it would be if a substantial number of attendees were present on complimentary tickets. Was this a fund raiser or fun-raiser?

Now that the people have a right to information maybe these two institutions would like to be the first to voluntarily provide information regarding money spent during this London sojourn. Or is that too much to expect?

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