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What is Wrong with Sri Lanka?

The stagnation of the education sector has been a primary problem area in Sri Lanka now for a long time.

5 mins read
A farmer takes a break from working in a rice paddy on the outskirts of Ambanpola, Sri Lanka [Photo: Indika Sriyan/ Unsplash]

It is not the country per se, but the politicians and the people who are wrong. While politicians should take 70 percent responsibility, the people also should take the rest or 30 percent. It is true that these wrongs on the part of the politicians or the people are not limited to Sri Lanka. Even in a country like Australia where I now live, there are intermittent corruption, crime, gender abuse, killing, and misguided politics. However, the difference is extremely vast. Sri Lanka’s wrongs are perhaps 50 times higher than a country like Australia.

One may pinpoint this difference to the economic difference or development. There is some truth in it. However, the whole truth is not that. It is rooted in the political culture and social culture in general. That is one reason why Sri Lanka was not being able to develop after independence like Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea etc. India also has come to the forefront of development today. Sri Lanka became caught up in a vicious cycle where political culture prevented development, while underdevelopment influenced the political culture.

What is this political culture? It is mainly renovated feudalism with family at the core of politics that dominates the political culture. It is also the same in social culture, families dominating business, religion, entertainment, and the media. Only female members are set apart. It is in a way natural for members of a family to follow their fathers, brothers, or other close members. Or it can happen the other way around, fathers or uncles helping and promoting their siblings.

Even in America or the UK, this could be seen. The Kennedy family promoted members into politics. However, in Sri Lanka this is overwhelming, some families completely dominating politics and social arena. While Rajapaksas are the most prominent example with abhorrent practices, Bandaranaikes, Senanayakes and Jayewardenes (Ranil Wickremesinghe with links) were also playing the same game. In Australia, I have not come across this process. When John Howard was the Prime Minister, his brother Bob Howard continued to serve as an academic at the University of Sydney whom I used to meet often.

Among most families in Sri Lanka, if family favoritism is not followed, that person is considered disgraceful. There is a mental gap or deficiency in this respect that should be changed. Family favoritism goes into political favoritism. A political party is virtually considered as an extended family. When it goes to public appointments, when people are selected on the basis of family, political party, or personal connections, the public service becomes inefficient and incapable. Merits and qualifications are neglected.

In 1995, I decided to come back to Sri Lanka to serve the country as much as possible, among other reasons. I applied and got the appointment as the Director of the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) through a competitive interview. It was a great institute with many capabilities and the people working there were quite flexible and committed. However, when it came to filling vacancies and expanding the staff for new tasks, I came across political influences and pressures.

I managed to overcome them luckily as the SLFI came under the purview of Chandrika Kumaratunga as the President and as she did not make any interference at least in my case. However, I resigned and came back to Australia within six months as the situation was unbearable. People who tried to influence me were either top ministers or bureaucrats.

Again, when I finally came back in 1997, I first joined the University of Colombo before undertaking any other appointments. By that time, I have fairly learned how to overcome political influences. The university system was fairly reasonable (not completely) and on that basis it was possible for me to follow my impartial principles. However, there was at least one instance where a former friend of mine tried to blame me publicly, claiming that I myself asked for favors! It was heartrending. 

Sri Lanka’s public service is large and widespread. There are around 1.5 million people working in its various institutions, departments, and branches. Although there is the Public Service Commission which is supposed to be independent, even in its appointments political and other influences are paramount. The most discriminated people in this service are Tamils, Muslims, and Women. Although there are over 15 percent of Tamils in the population, their presence in the public service is less than 10 percent. Apart from discrimination on the reason of ethnicity and gender, there are discriminations on the basis of caste, religion and region. The dissolution of Provincial Councils since October 2019 has enlarged these discriminations overwhelmingly.

It is mistakenly claimed that the ‘large state sector’ is the primary defect of Sri Lanka’s economy. It is not the size of the sector that has mattered but its inefficiency, incapacity, unproductivity, and sometimes duplication. In Australia, out of the total workforce, 20 percent are in the state sector. But it is sufficiently productive and provides necessary services even to private enterprises. In Sri Lanka, if we count 12 million as the workforce (adult population 14 million), the state sector comprises only around 12 percent.

The state sector undoubtedly should be restructured, and the workforces should be retrained or even dismissed. There is no point in keeping people like Sirimanna Mahattaya in the public service if we take an example from the teledrama, Kolam Kuttama (Funny Couple)! Even privatizing certain (loss making) state enterprises is in order. However, there are certain sectors and services that the state should hold on to. Education and Health are the most priory sectors among others, depending on national dialogues. It could allow the private sector to participate, but the state should not give up its primary responsibilities.

There can be other strategic sectors where the private sector could be allowed like the ports, airports, airlines, electricity, gas, oil, and even water, but the state should not give up its responsibilities completely. Public-Private partnership can be a model in certain areas in this respect.

The stagnation of the education sector has been a primary problem area in Sri Lanka now for a long time. This applies both to school education and university education alike. In the case of university education there have been some curricula and teaching methodology changes but those are not up to modern and current needs.

We still get a huge number of Arts students while the country’s need is in the direction of Science, Technology, Medicine, Nursing and Business Management. Those who come from the Arts streams in schools, if it is not possible to change in the short run, should be able to move to scientific areas, if capable. In Australia, there is no prohibition of changing the stream if the students show high capability in whatever area that they qualify in. School education should be totally reformed with emphasis on scientific and international knowledge.

The discarding of English education (since 1956), in my opinion, has been the major mistake that the country has committed in degrading the educational system, the economy, and the country’s international profile. In recent times young generations are trying to overcome these barriers through private education, tuition, and social media. However, this is mostly limited to the well to do. English should not be considered as a superior or imperial language, but a practical and international language.

While this short article, with word limits, confine to only few areas of ‘wrongs’ that Sri Lanka is committing, a possible conclusion is to call for an overall change in the political and economic system in the country. Those political leaders and parties responsible for the country’s present political and economic crisis should be completely ousted.             

Laksiri Fernando

Laksiri Fernando, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, is a specialist on human rights having completed his PhD on the subject at the University of Sydney. His major books include, Human Rights, Politics and States in Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka; A Political Science Approach to Human Rights; Academic Freedom 1990; Police Civil Relations for Good Governance; Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict in the Global Context among others. Having served as Dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS Colombo), he is a promoter of post graduate studies.

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