Financial Times

PBJ finally steps down

Treasury Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, unquestionably Sri Lanka’s most powerful public servant since the days of super-bureaucrat R. Paskaralingam, finally stepped down on Wednesday or rather President Mahinda Rajapaksa accepted his resignation after hemming and hawing for weeks on end.

Why was there reluctance on the part of the President to accept the resignation? For many reasons no doubt. The Treasury Secretary – who wielded as much power as Paskaralingam during President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s tenure – was steering the November 2009 budget preparation and was the one who knew the economy in-and-out more than anyone else. There is a general belief that there is no one else more suitable to run the country’s finances – at least in the eyes of the government – and Dr Jayasundera is well aware of this. Thus he chose to remain despite the Supreme Court judgment enforcing a Rs 500,000 fine and implication in a corrupt deal. It was one of the worst indictments of a senior public official.

The last straw came when Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva asked why the Treasury Secretary still remained in office when by doing so he was violating the constitution, almost courting arrest. With the next court date for the LMSL (still unfinished) case nearing – September 29 –, state agencies like the Police, the Attorney General’s Department and the anti-bribery commission must answer as to what action is being taken against those implicated in the Lanka Marine Services Ltd (LMSL) case.

Unfortunately the heat has been taken off many others who were connected to the privatisation – those in the then United National Party government like Ministers (then and now) Karu Jayasuriya, Milinda Moragoda and former Treasury Secretary Charitha Ratwatte. What about Paskaralingam who was also a senior advisor in the government at the time LMSL was privatised and was involved – directly or indirectly? What was their role in this transaction which to the court was a sordid affair bent to favour one party? Furthermore should only JKH Chairman Susantha Ratnayake take the rap for this deal? What about the entire board of directors at JKH at the time? What about collective responsibility – or does this apply only to the government?

These are the many questions that lie unanswered as the public woke up to the fact that the most powerful public official had quit. As we all know, wheeling and dealing for lucrative state tenders and contracts with multi-million rupee payoffs is not news. That happens all the time and it doesn’t take rocket science to figure out the way the entire contract-system is tainted with money, power and influence. There is a general acceptance that one cannot get a government contract without a suitable payoff – any CEO will sheepishly confess. Corruption is deeply rooted in the private sector – however much one might talk of governance, accountability, transparency which is all crap and a reflection only on paper. The you-scratch-my-back-I-scratch-yours is embedded in the system and a case in point is the manner in which the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) is handling the issue of whether JKH’s behaviour has violated the chamber’s code of ethics.

Like it or not, a judgment is a judgment. Like or not we have to accept the rule of law however much we may disagree. That is sine qua non in a disciplined society. A judgment must be respected and dignified men of letters, honesty, standing and stated uprightness know better than to stick around while issues are raised over the judgment. Was it a fair verdict? For that matter thousands of decisions have been made by the courts over the years and, always … always the aggrieved parties would beg to differ with the verdict -- unless it is in their favour.

According to the CCC’s Code of Ethics which is displayed in its website, “A concept of social responsibility and ethical conduct is inherent in every stable society. Business ethics do not merely refer to laws that govern commercial activity. Business activity is regulated by a series of laws and regulations framed by the state, just as much as political activity is governed by the constitution of the State. Business must obey the laws and regulations, or run the risk of suffering the penalties that may be imposed for their disobedience. The concept of ethical behaviour however goes beyond the activity of mere compliance with the law. Business ethics in large measure deal with the spirit in which commercial transactions are conducted and in particular with the effect they may have on consumers and the public in general.”

With such a clear provision in the code to deal in particular with ethical behaviour, the good gentlemen and ladies at the chamber are labouring to “find a solution’ to the dilemma of the chamber – how do we crack the whip against its most important or rather, most powerful member? The silence (apart from a few) of these ‘good’ men and women at the last meeting of the CCC’s main committee when JKH directors chose to remain despite a conflict-of-interests issue (on JKH) being discussed, must be telling on their conscience. All due to their reluctance to rock the boat, offend a friend and colleague, and keep business and trade ties intact. The chamber code is clear. We rest our case.

Having said that … where are the non governmental organizations that promote good governance, transparency and accountability in both the public and private sectors? Why are they silent? Why are also the politicians silent on the doings of the private sector?

Just like how the government silences the media when it suits them, the private-private sector also, it appears, wants to silence the media when it suits them. See how the US and global media is tearing to bits the companies that have crashed in the latest US crisis that has rocked Wall Street. That’s independence of the media and in the public interest.

We repeat: a judgment must be respected. The rule of law must be respected – however much one disagrees with the verdict. Otherwise for those who stand accused, their behaviour is no better than the likes of ‘Dr’ Mervyn Silva whose blatant distaste for the law is well known by the Sri Lankan public.

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