Sri Lanka: The moral factor in our politics

The crucial point about the big multinationals is that their investments are on a huge scale and on a long term basis. That would presuppose some degree of confidence and trust in the host Governments.

by Izeth Hussain

 ( January 14, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I have done my share of reading and thinking about morality, a pursuit that could be very interesting but also very difficult and very time consuming. I stopped that pursuit sometime in the first half of the ‘nineties after browsing through a biography of John Dos Passos at the American Library. He was not a philosopher but a writer of fiction whose trilogy USA will I believe come to have classic status. I hold that most creative artists capable of attaining classic status are also capable of dazzling insights that are beyond the ken of common humanity. A famous instance is that of D.H. Lawrence who went on a walking tour of Germany and sensed many years in advance the grisly horror awaiting the Germans: the advent to power of Hitler and the Nazis.

Dos Passos also showed insight in a letter in which he wrote that the moral sense is part of the human equipment for survival. When I read that I concluded straightaway that I did not need to pursue the question of morality in politics any further. I made sense of Dos Passos’ remark along the following lines. Human beings are social beings who cannot survive as individuals without a society. What holds the society together? There have to be beliefs, from which derive values, from which derive norms of behavior: in other words a moral system that dictates what can be done and what cannot be done, what is right and what is wrong. There is no known society that is without a moral system. Something so ubiquitous has to have a fundamental justification. The evident justification is that a society cannot hold together without norms of behavior behind which there is a moral system.

As I wrote in my last article, After two years (Island of January 7), the 1977 UNP Government provided a vivid illustration of that fact. It was not a case of double standards in which hypocrisy pays tribute to virtue, something in which practically all Governments indulge. It was a case of outright and outrageous attack on moral standards in public life by President JR and the Jay Gang. I prefer the term “Jay Gang” to the term “Government” because it was not the Government as a whole that was involved but a segment of the UNP power elite, JR and the Jay Gang, that could commandeer the power and apparatus of the State to carry out the rape and attempted murder of public morality. I gave instances: the public thrashing of Sararthchandra and Buddhist monks for daring to speak out against the ills of the liberal economy; the abuse and threats by the Jay Gang against Supreme Court Judges for daring to give a verdict against the Government; the elevation to high UNP status of the convicted gang rapist Gonawala Sunil. In accordance with the theory enunciated in the preceding paragraph, the Sri Lankan State was in a state of disintegration by 1988.

In my last article I wrote as follows: “There was a failure in attracting foreign direct investment: the big multinationals stayed aloof from Sri Lanka not only after the 1983 holocaust but even before that – the reason for which requires exploration”. We usually think of that failure only in terms of the 26-year civil war. I have not seen any explanation for that failure during the considerable period of the first five years of the 1977 Government. We must recall that President JR proclaimed “Let the robber barons come”, and that he had as his exemplar the Singapore success story in which foreign direct investment played the crucial role. But the robber barons didn’t come; only the small-time garment manufacturers did to a significant extent, in the expectation of making quick profits and making a quick getaway if it became necessary. The usual explanations would focus on purely economic factors such as the inadequacy of a docile labor force, the inadequacy of technically qualified personnel and so on. I would find such explanations unconvincing. For me the convincing explanation would focus mainly on the inadequacy of the moral factor in our politics, though not on that factor alone.

The crucial point about the big multinationals is that their investments are on a huge scale and on a long term basis. That would presuppose some degree of confidence and trust in the host Governments. Would that have been possible with the 1977 Government? I will mention just a few details, more or less at random, to show that the moral factor was conspicuous by its absence right from the inception of that Government. It should not have been too difficult to move towards a definitive solution of the ethnic problem by holding the promised All Party Conference and allowing some measure of devolution to the Tamils. Instead JR launched the first anti-Tamil pogrom just three weeks after coming to power, and he kept up the anti-Tamil violence until a civil war became inevitable after 1983. He had a huge Parliamentary majority and could have safely entrenched a fully functioning democracy. Instead he violated democratic norms by for instance depriving Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights, which outraged even his Western supporters. And so on. The truth is that there was no major FDI because President JR and the Jay Gang were morally too low grade to be trusted.

But what hard evidence do I have to show that the moral factor counted most in preventing major FDI? More than one of my readers has sent me a study prepared by Ajit Kanagasundram explaining the contrasting performances of Singapore and Sri Lanka. He is an ex-banker who has worked in both countries and is therefore eminently fitted to provide that explanation. He writes that Singapore has an enormous amount of capital to invest abroad, and has set up industrial parks in China, India, Myanmar, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. He did what he could to direct Singapore FDI to Sri Lanka, but without success. He writes “Why not in Sri Lanka? Because they do not believe that we will carry through our part of the bargain in providing the necessary infrastructure and tax concessions and regulations, bribery may be required and our labor was considered lazy and unreliable and prone to strike, compared to those in, say Vietnam”. The moral factor, more specifically the inability to trust us, looms large in that explanation.

I wrote in my last article that a moral rottenness was installed at the very core of the Sri Lankan state after 1956. The reason was that the quick rise of the Sinhalese lower middle class to positions of power and affluence was possible only through the state sector, and that meant that the resources of the state were commandeered inordinately for the benefit of that class. It was a form of theft, and the State kleptocracy established after 1956 was strengthened with successive Governments and became part of the natural order of things in Sri Lanka. Positions of high office in the state have been determined far more by ethnic and other affiliations than by merit. I am told that the situation is only marginally better in the private sector. That has meant that able Sri Lankans, the best and brightest of their generation, have fled the country to prosper abroad, and that has been going on for decades. The consequence is that the Sri Lankan ability to deliver on this, that, and everything is very low indeed. We are therefore in stark opposition to Singapore where the merit principle reigns supreme.

I realize that what I have been trying to do in this and the previous article is to develop a cultural critique of Sri Lankan politics. My focus has been on the moral factor which should really be seen as part of the broader culture of Sri Lanka. By culture I mean culture in the anthropological sense: the ensemble of beliefs, values, and norms that shape behavior in a society. I don’t think there can be much doubt that the Confucian culture has been peculiarly conducive to economic performance, the explanation for the excellent performance of the East Asian economies and to a lesser extent the South East Asian economies. It may be that some cultures conduce to excellent political performance.  But Sri Lankan culture has a peculiar potency to mess up our politics. Can that be changed?



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