Sri Lanka, one must admit, hasn’t been short of visits by foreign leaders since the entry of the Maithri-Ranil administration. Support to the current administration has been overwhelming compared to the ‘distance’ foreign leaders particularly from the West kept during the Mahinda Rajapaksa-years which were marred by human rights abuses. Now foreign leaders come during [...]

Business Times

Foreign leaders ahoy


Sri Lanka, one must admit, hasn’t been short of visits by foreign leaders since the entry of the Maithri-Ranil administration.

Support to the current administration has been overwhelming compared to the ‘distance’ foreign leaders particularly from the West kept during the Mahinda Rajapaksa-years which were marred by human rights abuses.

Now foreign leaders come during thundershowers and Gail-storms, they have come here during street protests and brawls by politicians. Reciprocally the President and the Prime Minister have returned the favour, visiting countries non-stop except for a pause, it appears, during the current local government elections.

This week, saw the visits of leaders from Singapore and Indonesia just as protests spilled onto the streets and provincial political leaders were engaged in fisticuffs in the Uva region.

Along with them came a retinue of business leaders holding high level discussions with their Sri Lankan counterparts. This week also saw the presence of a Japanese business delegation.

In the midst of a heavy election campaign schedule, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was at his ‘best” meeting the local business community and urging them to look outwards while encouraging foreign investment.

And with these developments comes the news that foreign investment has hit an all-time high of US$1.6 billion in 2017. Nice. Great day or week for Sri Lanka, business must be booming, one might think even though a chunk ($292 million) of the FDI came from the China deal at Hambantota.

But have these positive trends transformed into real benefits for Sri Lankans? Is the economy doing better? Is the rise in foreign investment being compared from a low base? Are our fundamentals right in terms of the ‘Doing Business Index’, are policies consistent and taxes smooth? Would inconsistent policy statements and disruptive implementation processes between the President and his team of ministers and the Prime Minister and his own team of ministers (sounds silly when you put it this way since a cabinet needs to speak with one voice, one mission and one objective) fade away after next month’s election is over?

Many questions and few answers. Inconsistent policy-making amidst a slow bureaucracy, worried to take decisions in case officials are hauled up before court for irregular decisions in a future administration is one of the dilemmas. An example of the threat of future action over ‘political’ decisions emerged last week when professional groups urging the government to refrain from signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Singapore, put Chandanie Wijewardana, Secretary Ministry of Development Strategies & International Trade on notice saying that these issues would be presented at a future Commission of Inquiry for failure to take into consideration stakeholders views in this process. Ms. Wijewardene is the convener of the stakeholder discussion on multiple FTAs.

There are quite a few examples of doubtful calls during Ravi Karunanayake’s tenure as Finance Minister and Mangala Samaraweera’s current tenure. While Samaraweera has been cautious to ensure the cabinet and the President is behind every decision made by the Finance Ministry, there was however one bad call; the decision to revoke an old law banning the sale of alcohol to women.

While the Finance Minister did it in good faith and to ensure equality within the law, there is a school of thought that he should have sought Cabinet approval first, particularly on a topic that is very sensitive in Sri Lanka. The decision not only opened a can of worms but led to the President deciding to undo the decision from an election platform!

There is no right or wrong here (on alcohol consumption), it’s just what a male-dominated society expects from a woman. Not a nice thought in an equal world.

The telephone rings. Rushed footsteps could be heard as Kussi Amma Sera, unusually silent reading the daily newspaper in the garden, walks into the sitting room and picks up the landline (more of a ceremonial instrument these days as mobile phones take over our lives).

“Mahattaya, apey Wije sir kathakaranne,” she shouts.

Thankfully looking for a pause – and a drink that cheers (tea not arrack in the morning!) – while contemplating today’s column piece, the conversation with Wije, a friend-in-need to discuss any topic under the sun, goes like this:

“Why are we fast becoming a ‘kadanawa-handanawa’ culture?

“Meaning?” I ask. “Why, when a UNP Minister proposes, the President disposes.”

“Isn’t that the fun part of politics?” “Yes but it destroys our society and gives wrong messages on ethics and values. This is not the way a rational government should function.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way but ventured to ask Wije. “But aren’t these changes made for the betterment of the country? Furthermore, the class teacher is now disciplining his students,” I interject, referring to reports that the Prime Minister has told his junior ministers to step off the pedal in criticising the President. And one would expect the President to do the same.

“Yes … but my humble view is that these inconsistencies in government would further deteriorate in the next 12 to 18 months with elections due in end 2019 and political wrangling taking over governance and administrative work.”

On a note of “interesting to see the outcome of the local government elections”, the conversation ends and its back to my column and thoughts on the procession of foreign leaders.

While the increasing number of visits by world leaders gives the impression that Sri Lanka is ‘open for business’ and ideally should attract billions of dollars of foreign investments, the rise in foreign investment has been slow in the past three years compared to the past.

For example, foreign investment in 2006 was $451 million, 2007-$548 million, 2008 – $691 million and then slumped, not unexpectedly amidst bloody fighting, to $284 million. In 2010 it picked up to $435 million. Over the past few years, foreign investment was $916 million (2013), $914 million (2014), then dropped to $680 million (2015) and picked up to $898 million (2016).

However compared to the performance of some other competitors like Myanmar (more than $4 billion in 2016-17), Vietnam (a phenomenal $30 billion in 2016-2017) Bangladesh ($2.2 billion in 2016) and Pakistan (over $2 billion in 2016), Sri Lanka has a long way to go.

Sri Lanka is like a hidden gem waiting to be picked as the jewel in the crown, so what’s holding us back? Many bets are being placed on the Colombo Financial City (or Chinese-funded Colombo Port City) to deliver the goods in terms of attracting sizable foreign investment.

This is only partly true for there are bound to be setbacks, even if it’s temporary, with elections coming up next year and politicians playing to the gallery. A good example: The Colombo Port City was all but ‘dead and buried’ when during the 2015 presidential poll campaign, then opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe vowed to scrap the project. A few months after Maithripala won the election, the project is back on track

While reflecting on these political somersaults and Lanka’s stop-start-stop governance now firmly entrenched in society, singer Saman de Silva’s version of “Biwwa Neda Wadakaha Sudiya” could be heard from Kussi Amma Sera’s battered radio. That’s why she was quiet all this while!

A keen follower of understanding the different meanings of various Sinhala terms with the country’s colonial past (Portuguese, Dutch and British), while searching for the meaning of “Wadakaha (a medicinal concoction for children)”, I came across “Wataka” which in Egypt means “hot girl”. Oops!

To end on an Egyptian note, who wouldn’t forget “Mustapha … Ya Mustapha”, the popular Egyptian hit that entertained the world including Sri Lanka? Enjoy!

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