ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 08, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 19
Front Page
Financial Times
TV Times
Funday Times
Kandy Times
ST - 1
News feeds
Contact us
Daily Mirror
Hi !!
Wijeya Pariganaka

Changes must begin at home

In an unprecedented move, the President summoned all of Sri Lanka's 52 diplomatic heads of mission to Colombo this week for a pep-talk on what he expected of them as the nation's flag bearers across the world.

There were home-truths aplenty. The President remarked how many in the Foreign Service were only interested in their children's education abroad and attending cocktail parties; that many were not fluent in their native languages and ignorant of our cultural heritage. Some did not treat Sri Lankans overseas with the dignity they deserve, he said, and asked them to acquaint themselves with the Mahinda Chintanaya doctrine.

Most of what he said hit home. Unfortunately, the President was unable to have an inter-active free and frank discussion with the envoys, to hear of the constraints under which many of them have to serve President and Country abroad.

Take for instance, the President's remarks about tourism. He certainly drove the point home when he said that Cuba attracted 2.5 million tourists annually compared to Sri Lanka's 600,000. Why go so far as Cuba? Take once sleepy Penang, in Northern Malaysia, which attracts more than a million tourists, quite apart from the rest of Malaysia. It was turned into an idyllic tourist destination for the modern up-market tourist.

In contrast, our own Industry and the Tourism Ministry are in shambles.

But what was the President's intervention in this imbroglio? Basically, to cast a Nelsonian eye -- not wanting to disturb the status quo. He even allowed a letter sent dismissing the chairman and appointing a new chairman to be deftly side-stepped. Today, the chairman continues, unable to leave the country because of a bribery investigation, and the Minister is recalled from a foreign trip because he went without permission, then is allowed to go with nary an explanation.

Amidst this chaotic situation, while those in the industry are tearing their hair at the goings-on at the helm, is it fair to keep whipping our envoys asking them to deliver the goods?

The President also spoke of the funds expended on the Foreign Service, asking whether this was "value for money"?

Yet what a huge sum is expended on running the country's Political Service, the jumbo-size Cabinet of Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Presidential Advisors, Provincial Councillors and the like, the duty-free permits, fuel allowances, houses and guards, staff and telephones? May we ask what reciprocal value for money they provide?

An ambassador in a prominent station cannot get his car air-conditioner repaired without sanction from Colombo – such is the tight-fistedness in the Foreign Service. But its carte blanche duty-free import permits for those in political service. The envoys were asked to find the cheapest fares to Colombo, but the President had no qualms about taking a record delegation of 60 plus to visit New York, on what was for most, a joy-ride at the expense of the public purse.

Take the colossal expenditure on the suicidal campaign to have a Sri Lankan elected as the UN's next Secretary General. It started with the previous UNP administration with the then Foreign Minister visiting countless number of countries in support of his own candidature. Then, having toured the world, he gives up the race even before it has started, and another takes the baton. The entire Foreign Service is deployed to ensure his victory. With limited resources and fighting a global terrorist organisation, these envoys were ordered to argue a hopeless case. At what cost? Even the Foreign Ministry is shy to say how much. And now the blame is quietly being shifted to the pedigree of the Rajapaksa administration, nay the country -- and not the individual. The President urges our envoys to establish contact with the highest and humblest in the countries they serve. True, many of our diplomats are too bureaucratic and too cowed down by politicians to call up anybody above the desk officer at the foreign office where they serve for fear of a rebuff. But then, not every President goes for private dinners with a foreign High Commissioner.

Professionalism in the Foreign Service has long been ignored by successive Presidents and Governments. It was the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who tried, amidst great odds, to bulldoze some professionalism into the service, and whatever good is being reaped now could largely be due to his commitment and sagacity. But it is slipping once again, with nepotism and cronyism slowly creeping back.

Parliament's High Posts Committee has been a thorough let-down in permitting some rotten eggs as our envoys abroad. At a time when proposals to establish Executive Committees and Oversight Committees in Parliament abound, the High Posts Committees is a disgrace to parliamentary control over such appointments.

So, while most, if not all, of what the President told the envoys is true, there is much more that can be done to help them perform better in their stations -- if only things at home are put in better order.

Top to the page

Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.