Let’s make our voices heard loud and clear: We want the constitutional reforms The President of Sri Lanka for the next five years (assuming the constitutional reforms are passed in Parliament) is Maithripala Sirisena. However, it appears that the new political race, precisely owing to the reforms, are for the Prime Minister post, and possibly [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka



Let’s make our voices heard loud and clear: We want the constitutional reforms

The President of Sri Lanka for the next five years (assuming the constitutional reforms are passed in Parliament) is Maithripala Sirisena. However, it appears that the new political race, precisely owing to the reforms, are for the Prime Minister post, and possibly that of the Leader of the Opposition. The same kind of politicking that was there for President, Chief Minister and Mayor is now being played out for the PM post.
Even parties within the coalition, including the SLFP and the JHU appear to place their stakes on it, rather than being eager to usher in a new political culture, that this government got the mandate for.

Quite ironically, it is those outside the government, namely the JVP and the TNA who see that the only absolute requirement before Parliamentary Elections are called, is to pass the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.

It appears from the conversations that I hear in public – particularly within party politics, but also in the corridors of education – that we Sri Lankans are hooked on the notion of a ‘strong leader’. What the leader stands for is almost secondary. The current President’s moderate and democratic rule is considered too ‘soft’ or ‘weak’ and not good for the country. We need a president who can ‘stand up to the Western powers’ is a common sentiment echoed across even the so-called intelligentsia (misleading the general public to think that this is even possible for a country of our size).

This model of leadership has been described using the ‘bus driver’ (and passengers) analogy. The leader is perceived as the bus driver who knows where we are headed, so the passengers (the citizens in our analogy) can be as disinterested as they need to be. Even those concerned about where we’re headed may only make their opinions known, if their opinions are sought, not otherwise. This model is safe as long as the driver is honest in seeking the best interests of all the passengers equally.

It has a single point of failure – the driver, and their decision making. It carries the risk that we’d only be aware of being driven to a place far from ideal, far too late. And even in that case, to convince the driver would take too much effort, since they have already been given the mandate to take us to where we thought they would be good for us. Listening to the opinions of the passengers is strictly optional, often considered unnecessary.
A contrasting model of leadership is that of an orchestra which is led by a conductor (no pun intended). This is quite a different model, quite alien to our culture to begin with. In an orchestra, all members (the citizens in our analogy) are expected to play their part to the best of their ability.They are not simply ‘passengers’ in the task being performed (governance in our analogy). The leader, far from being the one who makes all the decisions, has the task of ensuring that members, while attempting to play their individual role, avoid affecting each other in detrimental ways, but rather complement each other in an optimal way. It is still the conductor who can ‘make or break’ the orchestra and determine how it sounds. However, in this model, each member is responsible for playing their own part; rather than being incidental to the process they are involved in it. In other words, they need to engage in the act with their leader. They need to co-operate.

As a teacher in Sri Lanka for many years I have experienced the reality of how hard it is to communicate the idea that I’m not infallible. The reason why it is so hard is that in our culture, the teacher is supposed to know everything there is to know about the subject they teach. A teacher who is realistic in the estimation of their own limitations is often taken to be weak or incompetent.

In contrast, a teacher who keeps up appearances of being omniscient is held in high esteem.

This same phenomenon carries through to administrative leadership too. This is what allowed heads of organisations (both state and private to be sure) to lead their organisations ‘with ease’ and without worrying about how their decisions affect the lives of those they serve.

In January 2015, Sri Lankans – at least those who were either enlightened, or so oppressed – came together to question the status quo. It was a historic vote. For the first time, it appeared that the predictive behaviour of our citizens was somehow overridden. Whether the RAW, the Americans or the British had some role in it, there is no going behind the fact that large numbers of Sri Lankan citizens voted against the old regime. Apart from those who were most oppressed and most adversely affected, the demography of the ‘victory for change’ clearly shows that those with access to information (in the cities and towns rather than the villages) voted to defeat the old regime. This is why it is all the more important that along with constitutional reforms, not just the legal right to information, but access to it, is an essential ingredient in any modern democracy.

It is vital that we continue the march we have begun, away from the feudal model of ‘lordship’ to a modern participatory democracy. Away from the bus driver and passengers model to a conductor and orchestra model. A model where each of our voices, and theirs would and should count in the direction we take our country in. A model where we no longer vote and sit back, but stay engaged between elections. A model where governance is truly of the people, by the people, for the people.

So, the way ahead: Do we want to roll back time and return to the old feudal model with its reliance on the ignorance of the masses, or do we move forward embracing the new political culture we inaugurated this year, towards an educated and enlightened society which ensures the rights of its weakest members, as a true democracy should. In this age of social media and activism, there is only one way forward, let’s not slip back.

Am I campaigning for the UNP, the President or to some particular coalition that forms the current government? No! It is precisely because we cannot leave politics to politicians that I make my case.

Am I campaigning for the passage of the constitutional reforms via the 19th Amendment? Yes! That’s what forms the bedrock on which any civil movement can be built. With the unbridled and unaccountable power of the Executive Presidency and with no access to decision making within government, we are at the mercy of those we elect. The 19th Amendment with its devolution of power to the Constitutional Council and the Independent Commissions together with the Right To Information clauses, are exactly what makes the orchestra model of governance possible.
Should we not also worry about electoral reforms at the same time? Yes and no. They are important, but nowhere near as important as the constitutional reforms. They are not a ‘must have’, but possibly a ‘nice to have’. No matter who comes to power through elections (in short whatever the election system is) we need to ensure that the system of governance holds them accountable.

Let’s make sure we make our voices heard loud and clear: we want the constitutional reforms, and a chance to elect a set of MPs who are credible – not those tainted with malpractices of the scale that is being uncovered gradually. Whether by proportional representation or first-past-the-post is only a detail which can be resolved by any new parliament so elected.

Ruvan Weerasinghe
University of Colombo


Electoral reforms: Increasing parliament
seats not the answer

I cannot but agree more with Bernard Fernando (letter published on April 12), who has adroitly illustrated the futility of increasing the number of seats in parliament by a further 25.

This, as he points out, will be an unnecessary burden on the people. Even at present, one can see the scant disregard some of the MPs have for people’s representation by not attending parliamentary sessions.

We often see empty seats in the House when important questions are raised or important matters are taken up for debate.

Can one expect any improvement if the number of Parliamentary seats is increased? Far from it, the empty seats will be more!

Instead, the parties should consider further delegation of authority to the periphery but of course with adequate safeguards on accountability on the part of the people’s representatives. It is the lack of accountability that has made the Provincial and Local Government machinery a white elephant and a burden on the people with hardly any worthwhile service being provided. It is this environment that makes the local politicians take things for granted with their focus being only the benefits that they can derive from the system.

Equally important is the adoption of a methodology to increase efficiency and service consciousness among the public servants, without whom, the politicians will not be able to achieve anything.

As Mr. Fernando suggests, political reforms should cater to the people’s needs rather than the needs of the political parties and the changes can be brought about to meet the representation needs of various communities without increasing the number of seats and consequent financial burdens on the people. Appropriate delimitation based on voter strength or logistical needs should also be given equal attention.
Janitha Deshapriya
Via email


Save our cultivation from monkeys.

The people of Galagedara, until about three years ago, grew coconuts, vegetable and fruits in their own gardens and did not have to buy them. Now they have no option but to buy them from faraway places.

This is because monkeys play havoc with our crops. The Government gives incentives to the people to grow more food, but the monkeys destroy our crops before our eyes. I have seen women weeping after watching their crops being destroyed.  Children and women cannot chase the monkeys away because the monkeys are not scared of them. Most of the people have given up cultivation, knowing that it won’t serve any purpose. We have no one to tell our grievances.

We strongly feel that the Government should guide us on how to protect our crops. In our country, killing monkeys is prohibited, although their population is increasing rapidly. What will happen to us after a few more years, if we do not arrest this situation now?

If the Wildlife Department can give us a solution, we can resume our cultivation. The Wildlife Department should capture these garden invaders and relocate them in national parks far away from our gardens.  We are ready to cooperate with the department in this endeavour.

I wrote to the previous government on behalf of villagers but received no response. I hope this letter will catch the eyes of relevant authorities and there will be help soon.
K.R. Indrani


Senior citizens’ fixed deposits:
A more realistic policy needed

A businessman friend told me the other day that when he wanted to renew a fixed deposit for a few millions, the bank manager advised him to withdraw Rs. one million and open a new account under the new formula so that he could receive a handsome 15 per cent instead of the bank’s usual 7.8 per cent.

My friend promptly asked, “But you are losing; so why promote it?” The officer explained that the state reimburses the bank out of taxpayers’ money for the substantial difference in interest rates.

The taxpayers are burdened to fill the pockets of ‘haves’, while a large number of senior citizens who are below the poverty line or who do not possess money to open a fixed deposit for even 50,000 suffer in agony; that includes the destitute Golden Key victims. This is a total deviation from the policy of helping the deserving senior citizens. For example take the case of an over-60 with no pension, no savings [or savings stolen by ‘finance thieves’] receiving only the Rs. 2,000 state dole, while the earlier mentioned millionaire category receive an enhanced interest out of tax collected from every citizen. A more realistic policy has to be drawn up.

Appoint a committee to go into the matter and recommend a system where the taxpayers’ money allocated for the benefit of poor destitute senior citizens can be dispersed in a useful manner.

Over to you, Finance Minister!
K.K.S. Perera


Open letter to Education Minister

Here’s wishing you strength to correct all that’s wrong

First and foremost, let me congratulate you (though a little too late) on being the Education Minister, one of the most important ministries. You have a Herculean task ahead because the system of education which is politicised is topsy-turvy, but I am sure you are courageous enough to take up the challenge. May you go from strength to strength to cleanse the Augean stables!

I am a retired English trained teacher with about 50 years of teaching experience behind me; in government service, teaching experience abroad and more than 20 years of teaching at an international school in Sri Lanka. At present, I hold classes in English especially to help the government school students. As such I have a clear idea of what is happening in most of the government schools in Colombo.

As it was in the past, there are no school inspectors to assess what is happening in schools. As a result the teachers are at liberty to do what they want. Therefore, flying squads should visit the schools at least once a year. Then they can find out where teachers have gone wrong and guide them on the correct path. Sometimes the syllabus is not covered; the methods they use to teach are not conducive. This is one reason why the standard of education has gone down; especially in English.

Text books published by the Educational Publications Department are another grave problem. There are mistakes in some books especially in the Maths and Science books. Some topics in the Science text books are boring and the illustrations are not appealing to the students. The new Grade 6 and Grade 10 English books look quite attractive and appealing to the children, but the Grade 6 book is too simple.

When it comes to conducting term tests and promotions tests, the Education Department fails totally. Either papers leak or there are mistakes in formulating questions, but the worst is when question papers of previous years are given. Even in the question papers of public examinations there are many mistakes. How irresponsible these officials are! They are playing with young students’ lives. This has to be stopped, Mr. Minister.
It was heartening to note that government schools are banned from collecting money from parents. There are so many other drawbacks in the education system. Parents undergo a titanic struggle to get their children admitted to Grade 1 by hook or by crook, especially in the so-called popular schools. Another hazard is the way the Grade 5 scholarship exam is conducted. Something has to be done about this too but you can’t do all this within hundred days.

The roots of education are bitter but its fruits are sweet. May you as Minister of Education go from strength to strength to make the fruits of education sweet for our children!
Hilda Gunawardana

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