Dateline Colombo

Riot and Responsibility: Governance in Sri Lanka

17 Nov, 2015    ·   4934

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera weighs in on the need for education reform

One of the greatest Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka, Most Ven Maduluwawe Sobitha, who spoke fearlessly to overthrow the previous Government to usher in a better political order, has passed away. The entire nation mourns the loss of this great human being. In his speech at the book launch of this author’s “Towards a better world order,” a clear statement was made: “politics in Sri Lanka is a direct ticket to hell.” 

The first serious shock to the new Government was the resignation of the Minister of Law and Order Hon Thilak Marapana over an issue about Avant Garde, a floating armoury. While political stability should remain a priority, looking at the present state of the economy, Sri Lanka should spend time working towards the economic vision indicated by Prime Minister in his economic policy statement. 

In Colombo, 39 students from the Higher National Diploma in Engineering (HNDE) were arrested after an intense battle with the police. The student protest was to reinstate their Higher National Diploma to a B Com degree for recruitment and promotion purposes as well as a few other demands against privatisation of education, increasing levels of university intake, and upgrading existing infrastructure. All these demands could have been discussed and peacefully worked out but unfortunately it turned to a violent police attack. The opposition and some members supporting the 18th Amendment are now requesting the National Police Commission to investigate the incident. It was the present Government that re-installed the independent commissions that were Government scrapped by the previous. 

It is important that the Government address the student issues. Unfortunately, the Education Ministry’s portfolio is split across many Ministries and due to this it will be difficult to take policy measures. The university student intake would be increased to 40,000 and this should be increased further with adequate infrastructure. Producing the best competent graduates that could contribute to the economy should be the priority just as the example of Singapore which invested heavily to create a world-class labour pool during the time of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Investment in education and R&D is essential as a nation and getting the right education policy to introduce a single qualifications authority to certify this is essential. Most students that graduate are not qualified for jobs or have an opportunity as graduates to find work. These challenges have to be addressed by the government as student unrest can lead to serious complications if unheard. Sri Lanka has previously faced two insurrections before as a nation in 1971 and 1989.  

The gruesome pictures from the protest were available in all social media. This is a significant negative blow to the country and the administration that promised to introduce good governance. Some comments from media were a re-visit to the past regime. However, authorities have now taken measures to address the issue. 

Sri Lanka with its new administration needs to fix many areas in the economy, ignored by the previous Government. As a nation Sri Lanka is the only South Asian country that has moved to stage 2 - an efficiency-driven economy - this year according to the Global Competitiveness Index report. All others are in Stage 1 – factor-driven - or in transition to stage 2. This shows that Sri Lanka has done comparatively well with other South Asian countries to improve the basic factors of the economy. It is time to start competing with the East Asian economies, as it should aim to achieve a per capita of US$ 8000 in 2020. For this several wheels of the economy need to be strengthened. 

Value-added exports need to be increased from the existing low percentage to a higher value. Sri Lanka should aim to map as a regional financial centre such as Singapore and Dubai, to be planned out by Finance Ministry. Improving university infrastructure and providing space to more students to get a world-class education is a priority. The recommendations from Chamber, IPS and all top think-tanks in the country and outside need to be carefully looked at and considered. 

After more than a decade, there will finally be high-level political representation with the Sri Lankan Prime Minister present at Davos 2016. This is a great opportunity for him to spell out the new Government’s economic policy to win investment and build confidence. The first top-level foreign conference Daw Aung San Suu Kyi attended after being in house arrest was the World Economic Forum in East Asia where she clearly spelled out her political vision for the people of Myanmar. This author was honored to meet her in person at the conference where she shared her view on the importance of national reconciliation in Sri Lanka after a three-decade war. 

When a fearless voice dies, another is elevated to victory. The late great priest Ven. Sobitha Thero and the force of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and their desire for change is what helps instill good governance in their own societies.