Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy, last week hit the nail on the head and made, what one would call in rugby parlance, a ‘blinder of a tackle’. Speaking at a glittering ceremony organised by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) to mark its ‘Best Corporate Citizen’ awards in Colombo, Indrajit – a dashing rugby wing [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s entitlement culture


Central Bank Governor Indrajit Coomaraswamy, last week hit the nail on the head and made, what one would call in rugby parlance, a ‘blinder of a tackle’.

Speaking at a glittering ceremony organised by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) to mark its ‘Best Corporate Citizen’ awards in Colombo, Indrajit – a dashing rugby wing forward who went on to captain Sri Lanka in 1974 – said the country has a ‘deeply entrenched entitlement culture’ that along with populist politics has for decades stalled Sri Lanka’s march to progress.

In fact, many of the comments at various fora this week reflect to what extent politics and ‘our right and privilege-kind of culture’ has pervaded Sri Lanka hurting the country’s growth and the people’s prosperity. In Parliament for example, proposals to increase allowances for parliamentarians were made when the purpose of engaging in politics should be to serve, not earn.

Another comment which makes the grade in today’s discussion is by a top foreign hotelier who said Sri Lanka can attract not one million but 10 million visitors if the right policies are in place. The lack of right policies, particularly a consistent tax policy rather than controlled by political considerations, was echoed in many other public discussions this week.

Entitlement — ‘my due’ or ‘my right’, as Indrajit says, is deeply rooted in Sri Lankan culture and comes across all platforms like a plague.

For instance, as stated earlier, parliamentarians are demanding higher salaries, wages or allowances. Furthermore, these concessions – given at public expense – are also a gratification nowadays to keep some ‘troublesome’ MPs within the government fold without ‘straying to the other side’ with threats emerging from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s new party.

Like Oliver Twist’s agonising plea “Please Sir, I want some more”, but more as a demand and entitlement, many Sri Lankans in different strata of society want government handouts or financial rewards.

Not always legal, in some instances. For example, it is common knowledge that traffic police can be bribed by motorists to get away after committing an ‘offence’. In some cases, there is no offence but harassment of particularly motorcyclists and tuk-tuk drivers who are stopped and asked all kinds of questions.

“Pay us if you don’t want to be taken to court” … is the message from traffic cops waiting to pounce on hapless motorists. ‘Pounce’ is the way many other motorists see how some of today’s traffic cops operate (giving the entire force a bad name) and woe betide anyone who is brave enough to challenge a traffic cop for being wrongfully charged.

Then come politicians at all levels. During canvassing to contest local, provincial or national elections, there is not a murmur about ‘their entitlements’ on winning.

For instance, they would go to all lengths to inform an unsuspecting public or their vote base that ‘we want to serve you without any rewards’, gulling the public into believing these are the best choices, the incorruptible who would bring some sunshine to national politics with meritorious service and deeds. But once in, it’s a different ball game – getting contracts, favours and increasing wages and now daily allowances – are the order of the day. The constituent is forgotten except for ‘picking his pocket’, for it’s the taxpayers’ money that is used to sustain and fatten those elected.

Then we come to students who enter universities from Sri Lanka’s rural countryside. Again influenced by politicians on their ‘rights’, undergraduates demand government jobs as their entitlement. Rather than work hard – in addition to learning workplace culture and corporate ethics – and competing for jobs like anyone else, youngsters from highly-politicised rural areas are indoctrinated by politicians that they have a right to a job given by the governing party. The number of street protests by unemployed state graduates demanding jobs is a good example.

State graduates prefer government jobs to higher-paid ones in the private sector. For example they are unhappy working in a private sector, highly-demanding environment but getting a decent wage. They quit for a government job which gives them just 1/4th of what they get in the private sector, for what reason? Simply because there is a pension on retirement and less work  to do  (certainly not performing as ‘servants’ of the people as their job entails). But they still need more money and equivalent to what they would have got in the private sector. So ‘money under (or over) the table’ is the mantra or their entitlement!

The other day there was an interesting piece of information from Australia pertaining to pension rights. It said: “The pension is not welfare. It is the dividend due and paid to you for the capital investment in Australia’s national infrastructure and services enabled by your decades of hard work and paying taxes. Pensions are the compound effect of your contribution.” It was a political slogan against Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s government decision earlier this year to cut pensions for elderly Australians who travel overseas.

But in Sri Lanka, do we any more have public servants who work hard and are dedicated as the case should be? Often the public is faced by a grumpy official and people have to put on a smiling or ‘guilty-looking-sorry-we-are-troubling-you-kind-of-face’ when approaching a public official. Unlike the time when officials actually served people and genuinely provided services for which the public has paid for through taxes, today the ball is in the other court. Public servants, policemen and elected politicians behave as if the people are obliged to them and should not waste their time.

Then we have local government officials particularly Grama Sevakas and other mid-level officers who also see their jobs as an entitlement to other perks – for doing the very job they are paid to do. For example, if you want something done fast, some ‘rupees’ slipped under the table (however today it’s over the table and taken without any hesitation) will do the trick. Gifts are an added perk.

Next comes the garbage collector who demands his pound of flesh. A couple of 10-rupee notes will do the trick to ensure your garbage is collected on time, while another ‘entitlement’ is their annual list during New Year, Christmas or some celebration that garbage workers bring along. Refuse payment? Then prepare to see your garbage piled up outside without collection!

There are times, few though, when people have confronted officials and government workers and demanded services or speeding up of a lengthy process. It works, but not always because there is no punishment culture in the public service for those who send the public from pillar to post. The same applies to politicians. The only punishment for them is to wait for the next election and send them packing home! But by that time they have made their money and a pension to boot to survive for generations to come.

Private bus drivers are another lot that fits the entitlement category. They speed, stay long hours at stands to pick up passengers, while others inside sweat it out, and drive on the roads putting others at risk as their entitlement.

So while politicians reap the rewards of being in politics enriching themselves with perks and costly-to-maintain-from-public-funds cars and policemen rub their hands with glee as bigger fines (Rs 25,000 for some offences) means bigger ‘takings’, it has unfortunately become the public’s turn to ask, nay demand: “Isn’t a public service given, dutifully, willingly, gladly and rightfully, our entitlement?”

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