Sixty years or so ago I remember reading a collection of essays by that superb American humorist S.J. Perelman titled “Crazy Like a Fox” published by Penguin (if my memory serves me right). From that first encounter with Perelman’s writings I was enamoured of his satire and humour, the wry, witty pieces that he contributed [...]


All this in the name of the people


Sixty years or so ago I remember reading a collection of essays by that superb American humorist S.J. Perelman titled “Crazy Like a Fox” published by Penguin (if my memory serves me right). From that first encounter with Perelman’s writings I was enamoured of his satire and humour, the wry, witty pieces that he contributed to The NewYorker magazine, some of which appeared subsequently in the Penguin edition.

Minister John Amaratunga:the recent increase in the price of vehicles was to stop unnecessary people from buying vehicles.

I wonder what this American humorist would have made of Sri Lanka’s politics and politicians over the last 20 years or more had he lived in this miracle of Asia. In my mind’s eye I could almost see him scanning the socio-political landscape each morning as he brushed his teeth and sharpened his tongue.

Perelman’s wit and satire came to mind while reading some recent comments made by Sri Lankan ministers some of whom, I am sad to say, have long passed their shelf-life and should have been put to grass by the party they represent without prolonging the public agony.

The other day a news report quoted the remarks of Tourism Minister John Amaratunga which, for sheer ludicrousness is hard to beat. Speaking to reporters after some event at Wahakotte, Minister Amaratunga is supposed to have said that the recent increase in the price of vehicles was to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads. That is fair enough though there are other ways to achieve that result if the government genuinely intended to do so instead of increasing prices such as good public transport services and good roads.

Had the minister stopped after saying that it would have been left to the public to discuss and debate the merits or otherwise of this ministerial wisdom. But politicians are hardly people of a few words. So he adduced a second reason which was a real shocker. Another reason he said was “to stop unnecessary people from buying vehicles.”

One has to spend quite some time trying to understand what he actually meant to say because as it is the remark does not make much sense. If he really meant “unnecessary people” then the public has a right to know who these unnecessary people are and to whom they are unnecessary. If he really meant what he said one detects a social or class bias, a hauteur that suggests condescension towards what he might see as the underclass, which is miraculously transformed into a necessary class to be assiduously wooed when elections are round the corner.

If on the other hand what he intended to say was that people were buying vehicles unnecessarily thereby adding to the problem of traffic congestion one is constrained to ask what he means by unnecessary vehicles. Is the minister saying that people are buying vehicles purely for show, that the vehicles are then cushioned in cotton wool, wrapped in cellophane and displayed for visitors and passers-by to see?

Is this some kind of joke? If so one might find better humour in the farcical exchanges of Manappuwa and Josie Baba in the early Sinhala films.

“Cars are being purchased by everyone today irrespective of their job positions or social needs….Cars should be used by high income groups but now owning a car has become a fashion or a trend with the owners mixing up their priorities.”
What kind of rubbish is this! The tourism industry would surely have been safe in his hands. Foreigners visiting this country would have thought that Sri Lanka was endowed with ministers whose IQ and logical thought was such that more and more foreign travellers should be encouraged to visit the country and witness these wonders of Asia.

It is of course typical of the party he belongs to that the snobbishness and the nose-in-the-air attitude of its master class would sneer at the far less affluent and think them unworthy of owning a car.

However much you take such politicians to water and wash them daily old habits and thinking are not washed away by Rani soap. Such attitudes and thinking are ingrained and only organ transplants would perhaps succeed in achieving transformation.
As though to rub salt into an already wounded public the government then restores the duty-free car permit scheme for MPs and people’s representatives at the provincial level and even senior public officials.

Later three wise men of the government, Media Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka and his deputy Karunarathna Paranawithana and Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne, defended before the media the supplementary estimate moved in parliament the other day to buy expensive new vehicles for some ministers and deputies.

Perhaps the most astounding remark of the day came from Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne. It is true that as a dentist he would like to see open-mouthed people. But since he is unlikely to extract his own teeth it would be advisable for him to keep his own organ more closed, unless he wishes to put both his feet in it, such anatomical gymnastics not entirely unknown as readers and others would have noticed.

Senaratne says that ministers, deputies and other worthies of yahapalanaya need luxury vehicles to travel round the country performing their daily duties for and on behalf of the people.

The sense of déjà vu prevailing in the country with political popularity dipping like the rupee, it is not at all surprising that ministers and their lesser cronies want to have luxury cars to travel in. It is always advisable to have a reliable car to make a quick getaway when public wrath is vested on the people’s representative.

It might be recalled that when UNP parliamentarians met at a Bentota hotel for a workshop in December last year, Finance Minister Ravi Karunayake who emerged the other day from the no-confidence motion victory looking like Mohammad Ali, briefed them on the budget proposals.

At the time he said the government would lose a huge amount of revenue if the duty-free permit scheme was continued. He claimed that even vehicle dealers were taking advantage of the permits issued to professionals who apparently sold them for a tidy sum.
Not too long after that budget proposal was ditched by the wayside as were several others leaving Karunanayake’s 2016 budget looking like a Swiss cheese with so many holes in it.

Rajitha Senaratane’s defence of luxury cars for ministers to traverse hilly, narrow and roads in disrepair is arrant nonsense. My mind goes back to the 1965-70 Dudley Senanayake government when, as Prime Minister he took a genuine interest in agriculture and irrigation and travelled to most parts of the country to inspect and promote production.

He did not have a luxury car. Neither did Agriculture Minister M.D.Banda. But they travelled far and wide and did far more for the people than the current worthies would even if they lived to be as old as Methuselah.

I covered for the DailyNews most of those inspection tours by Prime Minister Senanayake to almost every district in the country. The roads were certainly not developed as they are today. Often they were only muddy tracks and jeeps were the recommended vehicles. But as the jeeps and a few ministerial vehicles took to those roads, the Volkswagen Beetles that Lake House used at the time, kept pace with the heavier vehicles. Nobody had “luxury” vehicles.

I have had occasion to travel in Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s car and sometimes it stalled too. He was always alert to the needs and comfort of journalists. If our vehicle broke down and he was passing by he would offer a lift. Interestingly the Prime Minister had only one security officer— ASP Shanton Abeygunawardena I believe is how is name was spelt.

Half the road congestion problem is that every Tom, Dick and Ravi — some not even elected by the people — will not move without security vehicles to escort them, with security men often shouting at other road users and virtually shoving other vehicles off the roads. If MPs travelled like those in years gone by and rid themselves of this public display of self-importance traffic would flow more smoothly than it does today.

I have often come across British MPs travelling by train and even in the tube often standing and nobody paid pooja to them like the obsequious in Sri Lanka.

What seems so incredible is that on the one side the government is facing a revenue deficit at home and has to seek foreign loans to tide over foreign exchange shortfalls. On the other it has no qualms about removing or slashing duty on vehicles for select persons and importing luxury vehicles spending foreign currency.

Could somebody please point out the logic in this? The finance minister pleads for consistency in policy. Of course there is consistency. This administration is consistent in its inconsistency.

Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons, said the American writer and humorist Mark Twain.
Unfortunately our MPs can be changed only every five years. That is why there is such an odour in the civic nostril.

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