Sri Lanka: Wickremesinghe’s straw in the wind

Sad but true, self interest is very much a part of human nature.

3 mins read
The brains leave the city with their luggage. [ Illustration: istockphoto]

President Ranil Wickremesinghe a few days ago suggested that countries like ours, losing skilled professionals to the developed world, explore the possibility of those countries employing our people compensating us for the loss of human capital educated at home at taxpayer expense. We are not the only Third World country paying the price of losing skilled professionals like doctors, engineers, academics and others due to the so-called “brain drain.” Rich countries can offer greener pastures to skilled workers including professionals and the emoluments, facilities, living conditions and numerous other attractions enabling revolutionizing lifestyles of the beneficiaries prove irresistible to many. They are not loath to seize the rewards on offer.

The straw that Sri Lanka’s president has floated in the wind is backed by considerable moral authority. But it will require a massive collective effort by all affected countries to make First World nations deliver. There are ongoing processes in many rich countries, the Netherlands being the latest, to apologize for their role in the global slave trade but reparations cannot be realistically expected. Some of the imperial powers of yesteryear have begun a painfully slow process of returning cultural treasures looted from their colonies. A few of them are attempting to accord some semblance of justice to indigenous people pillaged and slaughtered by immigrants from European and other countries. But there can be no quick fix to any of these historical injustices. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s straw will most likely be floating in the wind for a very long time.

The professional and other white collar migrants to develop countries generally immigrate with their families and make new homes and lives for themselves in the countries of their domicile. Whatever they save is mostly held in the countries in which they live. There are people with obligations to parents here in Sri Lanka who send money for their support. While some may eventually come back in their retirement to the land of their birth, very few, if any, will bring back their capital amid the economic uncertainty prevalent here today. Blue collars on the other hand leave their families back home in Sri Lanka and remit most of their earnings to support their dependents here.

The Director General of Health Services (DGHS), Dr. Asela Gunawardena went on record earlier this year saying that about 700 doctors including some medical consultants had migrated last year. According to the GMOA about 125 consultants are among about 477 doctors who had migrated up to the end of August last year. Given that there are about 20,000 serving doctors and 2,800 consultants in the country at present according to Health Ministry figures, such attrition makes a sizable dent in the availability of medical facilities. Though no reliable figures are available for other professions like engineering and academia, the broad brush picture would approximately be the same. We are losing too many of our best and brightest to other countries.

Among prospective immigrants among professionals, there is too little feeling among many that they owe their country a duty for the free education they have received right through university. There is no concept that taxes largely paid by the country’s poor enabled such education. We are not aware of the number of bonds signed and broken by various individuals who have gone abroad either on scholarships or at government expense and failed to return home. Usually foreign scholarships externally funded are not conferred on individuals but on countries. But there are recipients who do not see it that way. Sad but true, self interest is very much a part of human nature.

It is in this context that our columnist Nan, whose weekly People and Events column has been a regular feature in this newspaper for many years, has written a heartwarming account of the tremendous work done by a retired doctor who had long worked in the UK and returned to his homeland to do some marvelous work in the north of our country. This benefactor who allowed himself to be interviewed after much coaxing, laid down the strict condition that he must not be named if the story of what he had done is published. Not for him the blare of publicity. What Nan has written is a must read. It tells a story of a person who has not forgotten what his homeland has done for him with a heart big enough to share his good fortune with those not similarly blessed.

In this context it is worth recalling what Dr. PR Anthonis, the brilliant surgeon whose name was a household word in his day, said during a newspaper interview the day he retired from government service. “I owe all my skills to the poor people of this country on whom I operated in government hospitals,” he declared in a clear admission that his skills were developed by practice and experience gained by treating patients too poor to afford private health care.

Today a section of the Tamil diaspora is dangling a carrot of investment here in an effort to influence the political direction of resolving the problems, whether perceived or real, of their community. There are a large number of people of Sri Lankan descent living in many parts of the world with considerable capital they may be persuaded to invest here if there convinced of the safety of such investment and a fair return. These are all possibilities that must be mobilized.

Manik De Silva

Manik De Silva is the Editor of Sunday Island, a Colombo based weekly published by Upali Newspapers Ltd.

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