Any faithful reader of Kussi Amma Sera’s exploits in the kitchen – lunu miris, kochci miris and katta sambol included and her fiery explanation of economies – would be perturbed about this headline. ‘Enemy of the state? What! Who! Why! Hold your horses; it’s a definition that arose during a tele-conversation with my jolly-mood economist [...]

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Enemy of the state


Any faithful reader of Kussi Amma Sera’s exploits in the kitchen – lunu miris, kochci miris and katta sambol included and her fiery explanation of economies – would be perturbed about this headline.

‘Enemy of the state? What! Who! Why!

Hold your horses; it’s a definition that arose during a tele-conversation with my jolly-mood economist friend, Sammiya (short for Samson). Both our households are still reeling with the Avurudu absence of the domestic aides and the kitchen fires waiting to be lit again; so the tele-talks these days take longer.

“No one to disturb us, no!” says Sammiya, referring to his domestic aide, Ammandi, also being away.

The silence of the household continues (waiting for the return of Kussi Amma Sera from her long Avurudu sojourn) with even the trees in the garden going silent – probably missing KAS’s loud and juicy gossip with her comrade-in-arms Serapina. No early morning tea for me too!

Back to Sammiya and his wake-up-call (the telephone rang at 7.30 a.m.), and the conversation is about the ability or inability of a state to effectively communicate with its people.

“Machan, communication or the lack of it seems to be the biggest enemy of the state,” says Sammiya.

“What do you mean,” I ask.

“There are these big newspaper ads by the Finance Ministry these days, for example, the one on Friday allaying fears that senior citizens would be taxed. The notice says only those earning over Rs. 125,000 per month in interest income would be taxed.”

“So isn’t this a reasonable explanation and won’t affect the bulk of senior citizens who earn far less on their deposits? I think this is a fair decision by the state.

Furthermore, everyone has to pay some taxes as long as it’s reasonable and just,” I respond, bracing for an argument.

“Ha … ha …ho… ho.” (I can hear him laughing his guts out … as usual in a jolly mood). “Got you there! What I meant was that the newspaper ads are a good thing. But the fact remains that this kind of effective, simple communication has eluded the Government in the past three years and given out negative signals. It is clear the Government lacks an effective communication policy and communication (or the lack of it) has become the biggest enemy of the state.”

The last part was stated in a more serious note, before Sammiya returns to his usual humorous self with a parting shot: “Machan, a typical case in Sri Lanka — it’s the Koheda Yanne Malle Pol scenario that we face every day.”

Consider a recent example of communication. The Prime Minister asks UNP parliamentarians to withdraw a no confidence motion against SLFP Ministers and deputies who voted for the unsuccessful no confidence vote against the PM. Nothing wrong with that except the messenger to the media was the Department of Information. Should a state institution be the communication agency for political party issues? Certainly not. The public is not paying state institutions to work for political parties.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. The reality is that while the Government complains about unfairness in media criticism of its policies, the inadequacies are showing, be it in tourism, economic policy formulation, infrastructure development, foreign investment, etc.

The preparations for the new Inland Revenue Act were shrouded in secrecy until alarm bells were rung by unions and some tax professionals as to whether the IMF was forcing laws it produced for Ghana, on Sri Lanka. Changes were, to some extent, made in line with the local environment.

Then, consider repeatedly talking about the gigantic debt burden, left behind by the former government – according to the ruling coalition – and often mouthing a figure that each citizen has to pay for the sins of the former regime. Citizen Perera’s response or Kussi Amma Sera’s, for that matter, would be: “Who cares. That’s the reason the politicians were changed for the better, not for worse times, Ah?”

Then, what has happened to the so-called Harvard input into making Sri Lanka a better economy? Hidden from the public and the glare of media attention, this costly exercise goes on and what is the return. It began with a grand conference in a blitz of state-managed publicity in January 2016 with the involvement of controversial billionaire George Sores and Harvard University academics. That event triggered 2-3 visits to US-based Harvard by Sri Lankan ruling coalition ministers and deputies, government officials and advisors on “learning” expeditions. They are still going to Harvard! This exercise will turn out to be another waste of time and costly experience at public expense.

Months later after opposition scrutiny, the Government says it didn’t invite Sores and that he came on his own! Furthermore, it was stated that the Government didn’t organise this meeting but it was done by Sores and his team and that “the PM and government officials were invited!” Interestingly, the key local organiser who worked with government agencies on the conference is a controversial businessman with strong connections to the former regime.

Sometime last year when this column raised this issue as to what has happened to the Harvard discourse, an embarrassed advisor said, “No, no, there are many things happening”. Asked why the administration has been silent on this process, the advisor was dumbstruck but agreed that channels of communication could have been better.

Ad-hoc decision making is also not making it better. For instance, the labour portfolio has been assigned to Minister Malik Samarawickrama, a businessman by profession and who is having a running battle with professionals on the entry of services in free trade agreements. While this is said to be a temporary position ahead of a wider cabinet reshuffle, this is the first time a businessman has been appointed to this post at a time when trade unions are flexing their muscles over a number of labour-related issues.

In the past it has been either politicians, lawyers or trade unionists like M.C.M. Kaleel, T.B. Illangaratne, M.P. de Z. Siriwardene, Ranjit Atapattu, C.P.J. Seneviratne, D.B. Wijetunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Alavi Moulana, John Seneviratne, etc who worked as labour ministers. These ministers are expected to be supportive of the labour force and their needs and strike a balance with business and economic needs.

There are many other examples that have confirmed the failure of a proper communication strategy by the Government and one of the reasons why even its good deeds hasn’t got any ‘positive’ play in the media or other public channels.

At a tourism conference that I attended in the Maldives on Wednesday, there was a presentation by a tourism advisor on an annual survey where tourists are interviewed on issues and needs, etc. The advisor, who undertook the survey on behalf of the state tourism agency, pointed out weaknesses in the system in a ‘breath of fresh air’ presentation. “Instead of praising our tourism services, let’s look at what is going wrong and how we can correct these flaws,” he said and showed pictures of bad toilets in the airport, dirty areas and poor guest experiences.

Now, that’s an innovative and bold way to move forward, admitting your mistakes, rather than hiding them. The enemy of the state in Sri Lanka is a simple case of looking in the mirror than finding fault in others. And, given the speed in which governing political parties say they would be moving to “make things right in the country (before the next presidential election)”, a poor communication strategy can potentially reverse the process and undo all the good.

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