In the latter part of the 1970s, serving as a cub reporter at the now-defunct Sun newspaper, the Ministry of Public Administration was one of my beats. While the public service was still in its heyday politics was slowly (but surely) creeping in. On one occasion I walked into the office of the Secretary to [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Knight in shining armour


In the latter part of the 1970s, serving as a cub reporter at the now-defunct Sun newspaper, the Ministry of Public Administration was one of my beats. While the public service was still in its heyday politics was slowly (but surely) creeping in.

On one occasion I walked into the office of the Secretary to the Ministry, in an era of Permanent Secretaries now gone-by. D.B.I.P.S. Siriwardena, at his desk, got up to greet me. He was dressed in full white – nicely creased short sleeved shirt and trousers – and after the usual pleasantries, we sat down for an interview. Noticing the immaculately clean desk, bare except for an old, black telephone, I asked him about the files that deal with day to day business. His response: “When a file comes to my attention and action, I immediately deal with it without waiting for the next day.”

A few years later I happened to walk into the office of D.S. (Lal) Jayasundera, then Chairman of the Hayleys Group. Dressed in a well-pressed, beige suit and tie, his elegant desk too was bare – without a file on it. Asking the same question I received a similar answer.

These are imprints in my mind, years later watching how the engines that drive a country – the public and the private sectors that were held in high esteem – have disintegrated in dignity and decorum. While the public service has been highly politicised, much of the private sector succeeds by greasing the palms of politicians and corrupt public servants, a fact alluded to in a Hayleys Group annual report many years ago.

These thoughts came to my mind when I read about the Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe’s ‘darlings’ and his ongoing ‘confrontation’ with the political administration.

The AG had recently told a meeting that the Minister of Finance had said he was the darling of the media. His response, “The only darling is my wife” and “what can I do if what I do draws the attention of the media”.

So why take issue with a public official whom the media and his wife love in equal or different doses, is the question.

The reality here is that though the fearless AG has become an irritant to some ministers with his outspoken remarks and unrelenting stand towards accountability and good governance, even exhorting public officials not to bow to political pressure, his public posture has made him the new knight in shining armour. The most, he says, that can happen to an honest public officer is to be transferred. In his case, he has reportedly said, he was planning to return to the village on completion of his term.

Wijesinghe is fast becoming a ‘darling’ in public and media circles; a throwback to respected civil servants of the likes of Siriwardena, Bradman Weerakoon or Lionel Fernando among others, or that genre of public servant who served the public more than his or her political master. A senior journalist colleague recalls how public servants those days adhered to FRs and ARs. “These were their ‘Bibles’,” he says. They were not only dressed in white or cream but were meticulous about the use of official telephones, stationery, vehicles, etc.

The AG’s reports on the mounting losses of state institutions and finger-pointing as to who is responsible are not the main issues. The conflict is with the United National Party (UNP) section of the government appearing to protect former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran who in all or most of the probes (COPE and internal Central Bank inquiries) on two tainted Treasury bond issues in 2015 and 2016 was found to have overstepped conventional boundaries in favour of one primary dealer.

This is a key issue that has torn apart the government with Sri Lanka Freedom Party ministers demanding punitive action while the UNP is downplaying the issue and instead asking why the alleged wrongdoings of former Governor Nivard Cabraal are swept under the carpet in the near two- year-long saga unfolding before the public.

To the government’s credit, such outspokenness from public officials is freely permissible under ‘yahapalanaya’ and wouldn’t have been tolerated by the former regime. Transfer was not the only punishment then.

Open governance has become the Achilles heel of the government. In this context it would be interesting to see how the administration manages the ‘openness’ in the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the President to probe the bond issue. Though without punitive powers and only on a ‘fact finding’ mission, the Commission has decided, according to one news report, to open the proceedings to the public taking it to a whole new level, a kind of public trial without punishment.

One gets a sense that this could be a deft move by the President to let the public decide and make conclusions, as evidence and testimony are recorded for all to hear and see. Could this be another way to support the Auditor General whose report would be publicly available and shared for the public’s benefit during the Commission’s hearing?

On the other hand how the Central Bank would respond to its processes and ‘confidential’ data on the bond issue (initially refused to the AG) being discussed before the Commission at a public hearing, remains to be seen.

According to last week’s political column in the Sunday Times, the Evidence Ordinance does not apply to this Commission. “This means evidence not admissible in an ordinary Court of Law, like hearsay for example, would be allowed. Even the production of documents could be made directly instead of summoning the relevant authority to do so,” the report said. There is also provision to hold certain proceedings in camera.

These developments come at a time when the government struggles to come to grips with the Right to Information Act (RTI), a process that has been driven by the Editors’ Guild and other media unions for more than a decade and which became operational on February 3.

It also shows that while the government on one side is willing to open out to the public, on the other hand – owing to growing mismanagement and corruption – the secrecy clause is being thrown around to hide information.  On a more amusing note, I was drawn to a front-page newspaper story saying so-and-so was appointed the information officer at the Department of Information under the RTI law. Unlike other departments including the Central Bank which is yet to appoint an information officer designated under the RTI law, the only officer to be appointed – as far as the public is aware – is at a department that has little direct dealings with the public. According to its website, the Information Department “assists media in a macro level in welfare, training, policy planning and accreditation, and providing easy access to government news and information”. A much better option would have been for the department to coordinate a process whereby all required state institutions got their act together vis-a-vis the RTI and had the information officers appointed by the time the law came into force.

The gallant AG standing up to the government in an incongruous environment has given some hope and inspiration to the public service. With the RTI helping in open government and ensuring little can be hidden from the people (once the system starts working), the public sector could be made effective, efficient and non-condescending. Maybe Parliament should amend its recently-approved Code of Conduct for members to include a clause stipulating least interference as possible in the conduct of the public service. This, to a large extent, would restore faith in Parliament and in its Members.

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