A powerful video doing the rounds in Sri Lanka these days is a statement by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong denying accusations by his siblings over a house he inherited from their father, the legendary Lee Kuan Yew. Praised by many Sri Lankans on the exemplary behaviour of a Prime Minister, the video which [...]

Business Times

Tackling dengue: Unity in diversity


A powerful video doing the rounds in Sri Lanka these days is a statement by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong denying accusations by his siblings over a house he inherited from their father, the legendary Lee Kuan Yew.

Praised by many Sri Lankans on the exemplary behaviour of a Prime Minister, the video which has gone viral shows Lee announcing a parliamentary debate on the spat that has gone public. He says he sold the house and donated the money to charity only after first offering it to his sister for 1 Singapore dollar, which she refused. Lee’s sister and brother are now making all kinds of accusations against the PM, which is affecting his position and the integrity of the Government. Premier Lee, meanwhile, says MPs of the ruling PAP party are also free to openly express their opinion on the matter.

While there is definitely more than meets the eye in the private-turned-public row, the emergence of a parliamentary debate also shows that a politician’s life – particularly when at the top – is not private anymore. Lessons for many in Sri Lanka’s political leadership!

Openness and peaceful engagement with all sides on whatever issue, is not happening in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the country that ended a bloody 30-year conflict eight years ago, is driven by disagreement, squabbles in the government, racist forces nibbling at the core of reconciliation and simply turmoil. Student protests continue and irrespective of who is right or wrong, the government is yet to resolve the SAITM issue which has turned out to be a festering wound, creating havoc on the streets.

National calamities follow one after the other and now at our doorstep is the deadly dengue epidemic which is threatening the fabric of society. A Business Times-RCB poll this week (see Page 4) on the dengue issue reveals a sad side of Sri Lanka – the inability to work in unity to resolve a national issue that affects all and sundry.

This is where Lee’s message comes out strongly – the need to be transparent and accountable to the people. It is only then that national issues can be resolved, with everyone pitching in.

As Thursday morning’s rays of the sun crept through the crevices of my office room where I was busily typing this week’s column, the phone rang, shattering the stillness broken only and occasionally by Kussi Amma Sera’s sweeping of the compound.

It was my friend, Good-For-Nothing (GFN) on the phone, once again waking up after 9 a.m. and lazing at home:

GFN (speaking in Sinhala): Machan, I hear you’re doing a survey on dengue?

Me: Yeah, so what (bored and hoping to end the conversation fast).

GFN: So, most people must be blaming the Government, No. These fellows are not doing anything.

Me: Not really, people are looking in the mirror and saying they are part of the problem.

GFN: But garbage is not being collected?

Me: Well ….. (I excuse myself saying there’s another call and cut the line).

While going back to my computer, KAS shouts from the compound, having (as usual heard the conversation), “Mahattaya oyage yaluwa, kiyana de waradi”.  Aei,” I ask.

“Issara kaale, api kunu demme waththe ne. Kochchara hondata waththe thibba da. Dang venas. Api apey kunu danna hari kremaya hoyanna oney. Eke apey yuthukama (Those days, garbage was dumped in one’s own garden and done properly. Today it’s different. We should find a proper way of disposing of our waste. That’s our responsibility),” she said sweeping vigorously but ensuring that there is no dust – by sprinkling water on the ground (prior to sweeping) to reduce the dust.

She is absolutely right. If only today’s politicians will also think alike and with reason (sans corruption and selfish politics) and the public acts selflessly, Sri Lanka won’t be a sad place as one respondent said in the poll.

In fact, an interesting comment in the poll was that Sri Lankans have lost their manners, basic courtesies and civil responsibilities, throwing food and other stuff from cars and dumping their own garbage in others’ frontyards! This respondent went further to suggest that it’s time that civics – the role of a responsible citizen – should be taught from the kindergarten upwards to mould the next generation as right-thinking and responsible citizens, who don’t run to the government at the first hint of trouble.

What was striking in the comments received in the poll was that many respondents were in agreement that the public along with the government must share the blame for the present dengue epidemic.

While the common grouse is that garbage is not collected by local authorities on time, residents also have to sift their garbage into the 3 Rs – reduce, reuse and recycle to make it easier for the authorities.

The polls also clearly signal a role for the public, not only the government and local authorities, in garbage disposal, tackling the dengue menace and essentially keeping one’s environment and the city at large, clean.

The authorities and foreign investment-seeking agencies proudly proclaim Colombo as a garden city but driving around the city the beauty is marred by garbage piles and flies whizzing past you not only in restaurants but also banks and shopping malls. Garden city my foot!

The delay in holding local government elections has led to politicians fighting each other and then, no garbage collection.

Maybe if elections are called in Colombo, as one poll respondent suggested, the garbage will vanish in double quick time. Garbage dumps in the city are a sure way for a ruling party to lose.

Last week the President denied reports that he had called on the armed forces to sweep the city clean in three days and get rid of the garbage. On the contrary it may have been just what the doctor ordered.

One of the poll respondents said that if ‘Mahinda’ was around, the garbage would have been cleared in a jiffy. Maybe he’s right, if one turns a blind eye to the former President’s ‘other’ methods.

Interestingly, while both Presidents Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa were known for their ruthless ways of stifling dissent in whatever form (JVP and LTTE), their record of making the public sector work efficiently (though through unconventional methods) is hard to match.

Dengue has cost the lives of more than 200 people so far, far more than the number of deaths for the whole of 2016 while 60,000 to 70,000 have been affected. The loss of man hours from this deadly virus – calculated by the loss of lives, hospitalisation and loss of hours for family members looking after patients comes at a huge cost to the economy. Then consider the cost to individuals if you are treated at a private hospital: One man spent over Rs. 250,000 for just two days at a private hospital!

The challenge facing Sri Lankan today is in bringing together all Sri Lankans in a national campaign to tackle a national calamity. If KAS is able to look in the mirror and say “Mamath waga kiyanna oney”, then the answer (like Bob Dylan’s ‘… my friend is blowing in the wind’) lies in the ‘physician heal thyself’ approach.

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