The Sunday Times Editorial

11th August 1996

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Lesson from Malaysia?

The UNP got down Goh Keng Swee of Singapore and the PA has got down Tun Daim Zainuddin from Malaysia to tell us how to manage our economy. Tun Daim first visited Sri Lanka in 1957 when we were economically well ahead of Malaysia. When Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew came to Sri Lanka a few years later, he calculated the number of days Colombo port workers were on strike and went to develop the harbour of the then hell-hole of Singapore. Today he is thanking the Communists and Trotskyites of Sri Lanka for the economic development of Singapore.

We are learning from these two South East Asian economic miracles on how to run our economy. Lee Kwan Yew himself suggested 'continuity for stability' and J.R. Jayewardene held a highly questionable referendum instead of general elections.

Tun Daim's Malaysia believes that an opposition and the press must support the government. They don't believe in having Communists or Troskyites in government. The Reds are not tolerated even in politics. The Malaysians have busted the trade unions well and proper. It is a complete contrast to the principles and values of the democracy that we have cherished and practised in Sri Lanka. The protests and pluralism of democracy are absent in the South East Asian Tigers.

Malaysian investors in Sri Lanka openly claim it was under R. Premadasa that the investment climate was most acceptable to them - the JVP terror and tyre fires, the LTTE and human rights abuses notwithstanding. Why was it favourable? Because they felt a word was a word. When a job had to be done it was done. That is a terrific eye-opener. But do we want then a return to that kind of government in Sri Lanka?

The Malaysians under Premier Mahathir Mohamed and economists like Tun Daim run their government in the Premadasa fashion. They tell their favourities, "Here's the money - do the job. If you fail don't come back." The difference possibly was that a bigger coterie enjoyed the favours than in Premadasa's Sri Lanka.

All this apart, certainly there are lessons to learn from the Malaysian experience. They too overcame an insurgency and pursued national integration. In however hamfisted a fashion they pushed their Bhumiputra (sons of the soil) policy towards this goal.

What Tun Daim said over and over again in Colombo, though not so bluntly, was that Sri Lanka requires leadership, commitment, vision, consultation with the private sector, implementation and a single-minded purpose to achieve goals.

For starters we need to change the situation where Sri Lanka still has no full-time Finance Minister. After the Jayewardene Presidency ended in 1988, that is for the past eight years and it is quite a long time, the President has kept the Finance portfolio. During the Premadasa and Wijetunga administrations, the controversial Ramalingam Paskaralingam ran the show. Today President Kumaratunga's economic team is to say the least, in shambles . Deputy Finance Minister G.L. Peiris is not on talking terms with the Central Bank Governor A.S. Jayawardena. Since the day Dr. Peiris virtually forced the President to sack A.S. Jayawardena from the Treasury, the Deputy Minister has obviously been put on the economic sidelines by the President. The Presidential Economic Advisor Lal Jayawardena cannot give a word of advice sideways.

A sense of direction and unity is totally lacking in Sri Lanka. The investors here say they can stomach the politics and even live through the bombs to an extent. But not through wilcat strikes. At least the UNP had a single-minded approach to the market economy. In the PA, only half the government is for a market economy the other half appears to be following policies abandoned even by Russia.

The world has changed. There are more market economy players for us to compete with. Trade and investment are finding new areas in our neighbourhood. But we are out of step. Our Cabinet this week was asking the Tun Daim's of this world some elementary questions like, "How do you run the economy?" and "How do you get public servants to work?" The UNP for its part is smacking its lips as it watches the PA running the economy to the ground. This is a destructive approach. What they inherit will not be easy to resucitate. At least here the two parties need to get together for the greater good of the nation. But, alas, we know, that is an impossible dream given the confrontational politics that is part and parcel of the noise and chaos of a democracy.

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