Business Times

Ethnic strife and good governance – lessons from Singapore

By Dulip Jayawardena

With the end of the war, we should now focus on development attaining economic prosperity and social harmony. To this end the political leadership should emulate Singapore which was propelled from the Third World to the First World within a period of 35 years since independence (1965- 2000). A book written by Lee Kuan Yew the founding father of modern Singapore titled ‘From the Third World to the First’ will provide a lot of inspiration and guidance to the Rajapaksa government in its determination to make Sri Lanka the wonder of Asia.

It must be stressed that the success of Singapore was due to three basic principles of good governance: (1) Stability and cohesion in society, (2) A cultural drive to achieve a thrifty, hard working people always investing in the future with high savingsfor a rainy day and the next generation, and (3) A great reverence for education and knowledge.

I shall now delve into the past history of Sri Lanka and what went wrong during the 62 years since independence in 1948 to present day. There are various reasons for the origin of ethnic strife in Sri Lanka and most of the political analysts attribute it to the Sinhala only policy since 1956. It is a fact the minorities, especially the Tamils, felt discriminated with this language policy as they were disqualified to apply for employment in the state sector. Discrimination of minorities also was seen in education, especially in admission to universities. This gave rise to the evolution of minority political parties who wanted to fight for their basic rights and also to identify the areas in the north and the east of Sri Lanka as their traditional homelands.

Some Tamil political parties also advocated their right for self determination. Most of these political changes gave rise to tension among the Sinhalese and Tamils and this resulted in the Tamil youth taking to arms to fight the government in 1983. The events that took place in Black July led to the internationalization of our ethnic war and the sympathies were with the Tamils who were given refugee status to prevent what was identified as prosecution due to race and ethnic cleansing.

This was the beginning of the build up of the strong Tamil Diaspora in the west which was a formidable force that could influence western countries to bring economic sanctions against Sri Lanka. It is also known that the Tamil Diaspora funded the civil war led by the LTTE. It must be realized that due to the absence of political foresight we have gone through a period of turmoil.

Good, Clean Governance
A firm commitment to good clean governance should be the core of any government which should eschew corruption. In a recent Transparency International survey Singapore was ranked as the third least corrupt nation after New Zealand and Denmark. We should endeavour to at least come 10th in this list if we are to attempt to be a wonder of Asia. Singapore’s efforts to weed out corruption took about 50 years!

It must be stressed that a clean government makes its decisions in the public interest. It is a beacon of confidence to investors who know that the rules of the game are laid down in law and more importantly adhered to. They cannot be changed arbitrarily based on personal favours or relationships. In the absence of good governance people question the fundamental integrity of the system as what happened in Sri Lanka when the finance companies collapsed in 2008 due to the laxity of regulatory controls. It is important that such arrangements are in place in Sri Lanka if more foreign investment is envisaged in the future.

Integrity and Meritocracy
The paramount concepts of ‘Integrity and Meritocracy’ and ‘Good Clean Governance’ are closely intertwined and inalienable. Sri Lanka should emulate Singapore where public officers are selected and promoted based on merit and not on their connections or the favours they can extend in return. But merit and ability is one aspect and personal integrity is another. Only then can we be assured that government officials will act in the public interest. It is important that when mistakes are made by such officials, integrity ensures that these mistakes are acknowledged and responsibility taken for them, rather than covered with blame shifted to others.

Anticipate Change: Stay relevant
Another key principle of governance and leadership is ‘Anticipate change and Stay Relevant’. The Singapore government forecasts global economic variations and anticipates future trends and adjusts relevant policy frameworks in relation to their impacts on the country. Such ‘think tanks’ should be promoted in Sri Lanka who could give long term perspectives on the global market trends and other economic indicators.

Accordingly anticipating change and staying relevant, leaders must remain flexible to respond to such shifting environment and remain alert to opportunities. For instance the Rajapaksa government during the period of the Eelam War from 2006 to 2009 kept development activities going, particularly infrastructure development in the south and also opened its markets for foreign trade as well as promoted foreign investment.

This policy of the government has now reaped the benefits as it is in a very strong position after the war was won. The secret of winning the war was the delegation of responsibilities for decisions in the armed forces which acted in a responsive manner as a team and successfully coordinated all military operations and worked together to deal with issues holistically. With the focus on post war economic and social development, the government should delegate responsibility to individual teams with pre-determined targets and guidelines that work towards required objectives. The report card for ministers as suggested recently by an entrepreneur is one way of monitoring such endeavours.
The Sri Lankan Government should study the Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) of Singapore which was formed in May 2009 before the end of the downturn to develop strategies for Singapore to build the capabilities and capitalize on the opportunities in a new world environment.

Leadership is the key
Leaders must have the conviction to do what is necessary, even if they may not win political points. Leadership was critical during the war with the LTTE from 2006 to 2009 where there were so many uncertainties and criticism from local political opponents as well as internationally on issues related to suppression of human rights and other allegations such as use of excess fire power by the forces.
However, no one can deny that it was the strong political leadership which won the war and liberated the entire country from the world’s most ruthless terrorists.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa should articulate the long term vision for the country under the ‘Mahinda Chintanaya –Idiri Dakma’ and clearly mobilize their stakeholders and steer them to this vision but this will not be effective if he lacks credibility and the trust of the people he leads.

(The author is a retired Economic Affairs Officer, United Nations ESCAP, Bangkok)

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