Some of you might remember Felix Dias Bandaranaike, the strong man in Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike governments. He was not afraid of taking on the formidable front liners of the Left parties, particularly after they had pulled out of her administration in the second half of the seventies. On one occasion Felix mischievously (and I [...]


Curious plea in support of authoritarianism


Some of you might remember Felix Dias Bandaranaike, the strong man in Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike governments. He was not afraid of taking on the formidable front liners of the Left parties, particularly after they had pulled out of her administration in the second half of the seventies.

On one occasion Felix mischievously (and I suspect with the intent of being deliberately provocative) said that a “little bit of totalitarianism” would not be a bad thing.

Strongman Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea was an economic disaster

The media, despite threats of government crackdowns hanging over their heads were not cowed and did not spare Felix who seemed to enjoy the encounter in inimitable style.

Reading an article in the sister paper, the Daily Mirror last Monday which seemed a plea for extended one-man rule, I was reminded of FDB’s remark which, in retrospect, appears much more reasonable than the spurious arguments and examples cited in support of all-powerful leaders irrespective of whether they had overstayed their welcome or usefulness.

The gravamen of the case appears to be that national leaders must not only be given enough power and room to achieve economic development but they should occupy those exalted positions over an extended period without being hamstrung by democratic or other political/civil impediments. The phrase used was “leg space”, a euphemism for authoritarian rule.

The choice of examples to buttress this fatuous argument is proof enough that thewriter had jettisoned all the important features of democratic governance in support of his case for untrammeled power for one-man rule.

I am told that the same or a similar argument was presented at a subsequent TV discussion. If this was not the same person who wrote to the newspaper, then the contagion of justifying authoritarianism seems to be spreading.

The argument, such as it is, adduced by the writer — if not the talking head on TV — gravitated towards a rather curious logic. Simply put it meant that economic development required a powerful leader with staying power, implying that without this, development would falter or not happen at all. Implied is the observation that the parliamentary system is an obstacle to development.

The writer, comparing the pre and post executive presidency Sri Lanka, strains to argue that the spurt in post-1978 economic development is due to the form of government.

This simplistic argument ignores the external environment and that the UNP government initiated a significant change in economic policy that latched on to global economic trends.

Economic liberalisation was already announced in the UNP election manifesto and the reforms began before the new constitution that created an executive presidency was enacted.

The writer also ignores the fact that the Sri Lankan economy today, despite allthe statistics trotted out, is credit-driven and we are paying heavily to service the debts as we continue to survive on borrowed time and money.

Moreover a major share of our foreign earnings today comes from remittances made by Sri Lanka’s labour force abroad including women slaving away as domestic aides, and not from any great economic policies.

All this has nothing to do with the system of government but with economic necessity and the exploitation of our human resources.
If I remember correctly during the CHOGM last November some 90 projects were identified for foreign investment. Pray how many of them were successful?

In defence of strong and extended leadership as a sine qua non of development the writer cites first the examples of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad.

The writer says that Singapore is a parliamentary democracy. In theory yes, but it is a strange parliamentary democracy which in its formative years and much later into its history hardly had an opposition member.

That was not because the Singaporeans all agreed with Lee’s policies but because no opposition to the ruling party was tolerated and political dissent and the media were both sat upon with dangerous consequences for any breach of Lee’s dictatorial rule, as subsequent events proved.
Mahathir’s Malaysia was certainly more of a parliamentary democracy than Lee’s Singapore ever was. But even here Mahathir was heavy-handed when it came to dealing with political dissent.

The writer concedes that both these countries made economic progress under a parliamentary system however flawed the respective styles of governance might have been.

Finally the writer cites South Korea under President Park Chun-hee, again ignorant of or deliberately avoiding, the circumstances under which South Korea achieved economic progress.

He forgets that after the Korean War, the US poured money into South Korea to keep the country afloat as it was a frontline state in the Cold War and was under the shade of the US nuclear umbrella. Park came to power after a military coup and his stranglehold on the Korean people served Washington well.

The writer looks at Asia. Let me also do so. If strong and sustained leadership is seen as essential for economic growth how is that neighbouring North Korea under Kim il Sung who held power from 1948 was a miserable flop?

How come the Philippines under the dictatorial hand of Ferdinand Marcos did not make giant economic strides? How come that China under Mao Zedong, who had to be eased out of power after the abject failure of his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution which resulted in the biggest man-made famine in human history, achieved rapid economic progress after him and under different leaders?
How come that Indonesia under Suharto whose family made enough money for several samsara as others have done, made little economic headway until the country progressed under democratic rule?

The writer is also silent about Burma/Myanmar which during long years of tough military rule failed to become a strong economic power in ASEAN. And what of Cambodia, pray?

Space does not permit a more detailed survey of the Asian scene leave alone the rest of the world.

The fact is that an executive president or a strong prime minister per se does not ensure effective economic management and progress. It would depend on several factors that cannot be enumerated now.

But if the writer who is said to be an independent researcher, extends and deepens his area of research we might be spared vacuous arguments.

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