Politics

System Change: an Aragalist touch-me-not?

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4 mins read

Such diversity! Such passion! Such innovation and creativity! Such courage and heroism! Such were and still are the encomiums floating around in mainstream and new media about the Aragalaya. Yes, there was diversity, passion, creativity, innovation and courage. These however do not necessarily constitute good, healthy, wholesome etc. For example, the LTTE, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban and other such outfits had little diversity as is the case in identity based ‘struggles,’  but that all have long histories marked by creativity, innovation, passion, courage and heroism.

There was diversity and there was division. There were LGBTQ collectives (who, if probed, probably had very divergent views on things like governance systems, capitalism, the so-called ‘national question,’ elitism etc) and there were people spouting homophobic rhetoric. There were nationalists and those who equate the term with Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. There were victims of the system and system-beneficiaries. There was the left and the right getting comfy with one another (of course the radical credentials of many self-styled leftists have long since been compromised). And there was Julie Chung playing Viceroy in the midst of a flag-waving multitude. But, clearly, they all got together.
For what? Well, even as they blared out their pet slogans, passed around leaflets and posted in social media nutshell version of particular ideologies and preferred outcomes, and ‘educated’ the ‘ill-educated’ at every turn in pitiful attempts to dislodge long-standing angst, they were in unison in the call for the resignation of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

If anyone truly believed that getting rid of Gota would sort the country’s many ills, that’s delusion of the highest order. Nevertheless, it could be argued (and it has) that ousting him is a necessary first step in the process of putting things right. This theory is full of holes.

Systems can be represented by a single person or a collective of a few individuals, a family in this case as is argued for example. A system however is not a person (or a collective). The removal of a representative will not alter it. In this instance there was no agreement among the diverse multitude unified by a person-focused slogan and nothing else about successor or succession. Neither was there any cogent idea or even discussion about what kind of system would be desirable and how to go about installing it.

This is not surprising when outfits such as the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) and the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP, which by the way dominates the IUSF) who formed the agitational vanguard in the main and professed to be committed to system-change failed miserably in a) coming up with even a halfway decent set of proposals for system change, and b) did not attempt to mobilise the agitators around the idea of a system-change. The second is understandable given the ideological diversity and a marked tendency to back-burn system change, never going beyond what at best could be called a peripheral slogan/demand.

Not surprisingly neither was there much of a system-change discourse emanating from the Neddas (those individuals/groups directly or indirectly benefiting from funds channeled through the National Endowment for Democracy — NED — the US outfit that took over the CIA’s country-destabilising operation), Candlelight Ladies, Rent-a-Protest Agitators, Stink Tanks, Con-Artists, Bornagainazis and other Funded Voices and other Kolombians. Indeed, for most of them the system was coterminous with Rajapaksas which again demonstrates both naïveté and duplicity.

Not all of this is captured in a survey of the Aragalaya recently carried out by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, but even this suspect outfit has (perhaps inadvertently) come upon a few startling truths about public perception related to what for some, such as the Asia Foundation, was ‘revolutionary’.    

The CPA assures that the semi-structured questionnaire administered among 1100 respondents from the four main ethnic communities (one wonders whether these were weighted to reflect real percentages) covering all 25 districts yielded reliable data.

On the one hand, a vast majority of respondents were willing to compromise on travelling and transport as well as food consumption (76.3% and 69.5%), but more than half were reluctant to agree to more taxes and almost 75% were vehemently opposed to any move that might result in a family member losing a job. This is all understandable. What’s missing here is hat some of the proposals for ‘change’ include these kinds of measures, especially those conditions currently being insisted by the IMF.
More than 80% want ‘system change’ but are clearly wary of neoliberalism. They want welfare and they also want less government. They want foreign companies to invest in Sri Lanka and they don’t want limits on earning capacity but they are not happy about privatising state-owned enterprises. They vehemently oppose greater involvement of the private sector in health and education.

Many questions have not been asked and therefore the data is not available. Here’s a list of issues that the CPA could consider if/when it conducts a follow-up survey:

1. What are the perceptions of Julie Chung’s involvement in the Aragalaya? 2. Can the IMF help the cause of changing the system? 3. Has the system changed? 3a. If ‘yes,’ in what ways specifically? 3b. If not, why not? 4. Does the replacement of a leader amount to system-change? 5. Did the institutional arrangement and the system of state processes change at all thanks to the Aragalaya? If conditions have not improved (The CPA’s income-expenditure data from the survey indicates that the situation has got worse) what really are the positives vis-a-vis ‘change’ that the Aragalaya yielded?  

While at it, the CPA (or anyone else) can ask if people know anything about the global capitalist system, whether or not it is important to develop the country’s manufacturing sector, whether or not development banks are necessary, whether or not a comprehensive plan for food and energy sovereignty and the will to implement it has to be part of a changed-system, whether beneficiaries of the system so reviled (the rich and powerful) truly wanted the structures and processes altered, and why and how the idea of system-change fizzled out the moment Ranil Wickremesinghe took control.

They could also ask what happened to the energy, creativity and courage? What happened to the agitational heroes? Who really benefited from the Aragalaya? Does Galle Face Green look prettier now if more boring? Were they right, those who said that it was a circus, all things considered and that the well-intentioned who were without political affiliation but were determined to build a new Sri Lanka cheated?

Lalith: A Beacon of Nation-building

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9 mins read

Following article is based on the keynote speech by the author as the President of Sri Lanka at the late Lalith Athulathmudali commemoration held recently in Colombo.

I was thinking about when I first met with Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali when he was a lawyer and a lecturer at the Law College and I was an apprentice under Mr. H. W. Jayawardena, before I took oath. The day I took oath I also invited Lalith to come to my oath party, another person I invited was another young lawyer older than me and a member of Parliament Gamini Dissanayake. I had two other members of Parliament I invited since I knew them. One was the Chief Opposition Whip, Mr. R. Premadasa and finally, the Leader of the Opposition Mr. J. R. Jayawardene.

I think the destiny of the country and the UNP was to a large extent tied to the interaction between all these members. Lalith, like me and Gamini, was eager to see a modernized UNP. Now, why did I join? My family has been UNP from the start.

But what attracted me as a modern UNPer was what was called the Kalutara Declaration of the 1963 UNP Convention which was a draft done by Dudley Senanayake and J. R. Jayawardena which laid the ground for social democracy.

We had envisaged as a party from the time of Mr. D. S Senanayake for a capitalist economy and the fact that we wanted to do away with hunger, illiteracy, and disease. That was in 1947.

The next most important part was trading. The trade was given over to Lalith. Later on, shipping was added that the other major project, which is to be the impetus for the development was one was going to be the greater Colombo Economic Zone with the President kept for himself and the other one was the Mahaweli program which had given to Gamini Dissanayake. that is how we started. Lalith’s job was trade.

It didn’t have the flash of the other jobs, but nevertheless, it was important. And he opened up the trade the Greater Colombo Economics. At that time we were a socialist economy, everything was controlled and President Jayawardena wants to go decided to proceed cautiously. And what did he do? He took seven electorates in the Gampaha District starting from Negombo and ending with Biyagama where the normal laws of an open market economy, were applied and special concessions were given in the two investment zones of Katunayake and Biyagama.

But Lalith realized that we can’t get export only from those areas. We need to have the rest of the country. Therefore, he started the Export Development Board to promote exports outside the economic zone.

So he undertook the development of Sri Lanka’s main port, the Colombo port. So you are getting into that two big areas of development around Colombo. On one side was Colombo, the trading hub, and Colombo, the port connected to Colombo was on the other side, the Greater Colombo Economic Zone then into the rural areas came this massive development program which really developed the north central province, parts of east and the whole of the Kandy district.

So these were the driving forces of growth that went along .then as it went on., I was then the Minister of Education Lalith came up with this idea of scholarships for those who want to go to the university. So you had the Mahapola scholarship. It is the first time that we funded individuals for free education and not the institutes.

Unfortunately, we didn’t carry it through with our institutes. And you have, the universities which are today taking money directly from the government and which have not developed, unfortunately, structured around the UGC. I think we have to rethink all mechanisms rather than the countries which funded the student who funded universities and therefore the courses had to be employment oriented.

But in addition, the universities run their external courses so they are external students and every year we had to take in about additional 10,000 people which contributes to the 500,000 excess in the government service.

So anyway, he started the Mahapola scheme to go ahead. So these are what we have to learn of the changes that we have to do now, keeping free education and making it more meaningful. Then came Lalith’s next stint as the Minister of Agriculture where he started modernizing the villages and looking at modernizing agriculture and looking at exports and then his stint as the Minister of Education.

Another one in the picture is Lalith as the Minister of National Security. Much had been said of this, so I will not cover that. I will look at the contribution he made both to the economy and to the development of Sri Lanka. It was then in 1991 that we all parted ways. Lalith decided he will leave the UNP and I thought that I will stay with the UNP.

That the party mattered and the party had to be strengthened. He felt there had to be changed and that he had to go out. And then the politics of Sri Lanka took a different, state altogether. By 1993, Lalith was assassinated. That was a great loss to the country. Within a week, President Premadasa was assassinated. And by the end of next year, Gamini was no more.

So the drivers of the development, the people who were to shape the country were no longer there. And then we had to look at a new phase. By that time, the world was also changing. The whole concept of social democracy had gone further forward. And it was known then as what we call today a social market economy.

When I became president, it was partly because we didn’t follow Lalith’s advice. He said you export or perish. We didn’t export, so the economy perished. Now, the whole issue was how do you restart it again? What is the type of economic model? Are we going in with a completely open new liberal model or something else? So I thought we should stay on with the social market economy and define it should be vibrant. It has to be vibrant.

It cannot be otherwise. And we developed what was relevant for today, a highly competitive economy with social protection. So the economy has to be highly competitive, highly competitive globally. Then it had to be an export-oriented economy. We’ve included in that for the first time what Lalith said, export or perish. And we brought in an issue which was not important that the time Lalith was living or the others. But today, climate change and environmentally friendly, green and blue economy, the green and blue economy, a word that was given to us by the late Mangala Samaraweera at that time, And finally, what Lalith again laid the ground for and what I also work for and what we did to the digital economy So it’s a highly competitive economy, which is export-oriented, which has social protection which is environmentally friendly, and the characteristics is a blue-green economy.

It doesn’t apply to the government of today, and a digital economy. This is what we have. Now we have to go ahead. We can’t be begging anymore. We can’t be going to countries and asking for loans anymore. We have to learn to stand on our own feet. When India fell in 1991, I was the Minister of Industries at that time, they decided to come up by themselves. Deng Xiaoping in China decided that he’ll bring the country up. Japan destroyed by war with the atomic bomb decided to come up by itself. Now, what the hell we are doing; Getting aid all the time?

I certainly don’t like to recreate a beggar nation. We must now in our own effort get back. There is no other way. We can’t aim low. We are looking at a 25-year programme. Many of us won’t be there when it ends. But we, as a nation, are going to complete 100 in 2048. I was born in 49, then we were second to Japan. Today we are just above Afghanistan. Now, where are we going? Let us make up our minds that we are going to build this economy and we can do it.

It’s an open market economy, highly competitive. It won’t come overnight. Gradually over a period of five years will build up our competition. We must aim for five years to sustain a growth of 7%. Easier said than done, but it can be done and international trade as a percentage of GDP must equal 100 or more. We are not doing it overnight, but certainly, over 5- 6 years, which we have to do.

And the annual growth rate from net exports should be $3 billion. Investment annually must be $3 billion and we have to create an internationally competitive workforce, highly educated and highly skilled. It has to be employable skills, not otherwise. So all this is what we have to aim at and we have to go for it. Then what is it? Before that, we have to stabilize the economy.

So we started that process in 2023 our fiscal stabilization program envisages, the government revenue increasing to around 15% of GDP by 2025 and from the present 8.3% at the end of 2023. If you look at an economy with social protection, I think our revenue will have to go beyond that to about 18% of the GDP.

But that can take another five years. We need that. We have to do it. Then we are looking at a primary surplus of more than 2% in 2025.

We are to improve thereafter we have to reduce the public sector debt from 110% of the GDP to 100% of the GDP in the medium term. We have to bring inflation under control and a single-digit and interest rates I presume have peaked and will gradually come down to a moderate and single-digit level.

And the exchange rate in this will become stable and strong with this has to come the growth-enhancing structural reforms. So we are not looking at the four years for the stabilization program and the modernization afterwards is running to get there. It’s supposed to start next year but we’ve already started getting the stabilization program and starting the structural reforms also at the same time.

So this is where we are and one wish on the structural reforms because my friend honourable Charitha Herath had raised it in the debate. Unfortunately, I was not in the chamber to reply. Yes as the policy, we accept that the government should not be running businesses at full stop. Except for one which is an exception, we will stay in the financial sector, we will build the banks we own and make them stronger, but it will be run like any good commercial bank and we don’t mind giving a part to the minorities shares to the deposit holders, amongst others.

File photo of young Lalith with beloved mother and father at Oxford [ Special Arrangement ]

It will bring some discipline in. So the financial sector. Yes, well, you control it with the financial sector. Not with the water’s edge or the Hilton Hotel. That is secondary. So we will keep building on our financial sectors we don’t mind helping out in the technology sectors. The digital economy will have to have some investments there. But the rest, yes, we have tried everything.

We tried state ownership. We have tried mixed economies. We tried to run it with corporations, that trillion of rupees that we have lost and we made us poorer than we were in 2019. So that is what we are going to do. And when you look at the future, one of the biggest new areas of development in Sri Lanka is as a logistics centre. Sri Lanka can be a feeder to most Asian countries, a transhipment hub first is the Colombo port.

Now we have got the south port very soon. We will have investment for the east terminal. And when that is full, the next project we are working on will be the north port, which will take all the way up to Ja-Ela making it the largest port. And from Ja-Ela only five miles away from the airport, you get an Air-sea hub naturally.

Then Hambantota another port, which can we reach out to Africa and Trincomalee on the eastern side of the Indian Ocean. So here we are. This is what we have and we have we are starting at that. Now that is what Lalith started. Secondly, large-scale modernization of agriculture small or big we have to modernize agriculture.

Which will aid the largely rural areas to increase our paddy production. We have a big market for export. The Middle East requires food. Singapore requires food and many other growing markets. There would be at least 500 million more people from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia by 2050 not counting the hundreds of millions in East Africa and South Africa. That’s the area we are looking at highly automated manufacturing because Lower-Wage economies will be in Bangladesh, Myanmar and even in India. We have to jump ahead. Our tourist industry has to now reorient itself to high-level tourism. We can’t have 10 million tourists coming in paying $100 to $150 a night. It’s better to have 2 million tourists at $ 500 to 1,000 a night.

So let’s see how we can build this society. Last time when Lalith, Gamini, Premadasa, Jayawardene, and all of us started, it was derailed by a war. I don’t think there is going to be a war in the country but the consequent, after-effects has to be actually rectified. And we decided after the budget debate is over in the following week that the party leader and the Speaker will meet and the Government to discuss how we can resolve the outstanding issues.

So that one thing we can all work together if you remember a large number of people who have graduated, thanks to what Lalith has done, so let’s work together both for the University and for a better Lanka, where those who graduate, those who post-graduate degrees from that university can exist.

Sri Lanka: Formula for Lasting Peace and Prosperity

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5 mins read

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results – Albert Einstein

The momentum for resolving the ethnic issue that has bedevilled the country since independence has taken a fresh urgency with the President calling on all parties to convene to discuss the issue and resolve it before the 75th year of independence in 2023.

Underpinning such a resolution will be the imperative of sharing power and in this context, an end to the dominant Sinhala Buddhist polity perspective that has stood in the way of a resolution. In attempting to find a resolution, one hopes that all political parties of all persuasions call a halt to which came first, the chicken or the egg simile when it comes to the ethnic issue. Rather than a debate on who came first and who lived where, a solution based on contemporary realities would be more beneficial for the current and future generations.

If political parties accept equality of all citizens irrespective of their numerical strengths and/or the length of their history and ancestry, all closely knit in the political mess that has been created, and that diversity within such equality is what is unique, and also importantly, move away from ancient geographical boundaries that have been used to create divisions rather than unify people, a resolution will be possible.

Sinhala culture, Tamil culture, Muslim culture have been fashioned over many hundreds if not thousands of years, not just within Sri Lanka but outside it, especially when it comes to Tamil and Muslim cultures. However, the founders of the major religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam may frown and express their disappointment over the way ritualistic cultural practices have deviated their current followers from their original teachings, overshadowing the fundamentals of their teachings with such cultural practices.

Unfortunately, politicians, and many contemporary religious leaders, especially within the Sinhala Buddhist community, have institutionalized religion using ritualistic cultural practices that have no place in what Buddha taught.

In terms of political governance though, the reality is that a fundamental requisite for resolution of the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka is the recognition of cultural diversity and everything associated with that diversity and a mechanism for each group to be able to make decisions through a process of discussion, debate, compromise with other groups. In such a model, a group with a numerical majority cannot be more equal than others as it is against the very principle of recognizing equality within cultural diversity.

The challenge before politicians is whether they are willing to accept this premise, as without an acceptance, and then acting on a mechanism to operationalize such an acceptance, the ethnic issue will continue to be used by all shades of political opinion for their own political ends as they have been doing since independence.

Having said this, even if the premise is accepted, it will not be easy to operationalize it due to various politically important forces preventing the premise being implemented. Despite 74 years of prevarication, political battles, even a war, Sri Lanka has not been able to resolve the ethnic issue and it continues to be an issue that divides the country. It will not be overcome during a few meetings of the political parties represented in Parliament today. Mutual suspicion harboured by different ethnic groups will not disappear overnight after a bon homie in Parliament.

The entire governance system and the caliber of politicians who enter Parliament has to change if a lasting solution to the ethnic issue is to be reached. While the power of interest groups cannot be removed all together from the political arena, their influence can be reduced by strong legislation. These are long-term, time-consuming activities and possible only through progressive steps.

An interim political solution

In the interim, a solution has to be found which will assist in moving the political pendulum in the right direction. The suggestion to introduce a second chamber with powers to veto and/or amend bills presented in Parliament that impinge on the equal rights of ethnic groups has been made as an interim measure until a more progressive new Constitution is introduced to reflect the equality of all belonging to different races and religions, and a degree of self-determination within a unitary, sovereign country.

It is suggested that the second chamber consists of 100 members, with political parties represented in Parliament nominating, by consensus, an equal number of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, and one person as the chairperson of the second chamber. None of the nominees should be members of the Parliament, and they should be persons of eminence and proven capabilities, especially in the arena of human rights and social policy development and implementation. In a sense such a body would act like a political watchdog over any basic human rights indiscretions that may be attempted by any government.

While a second chamber of this nature could bring all communities together via their political representatives as far as facilitation of legislation that do not impinge on equal rights of all races and religions, the political system and structures need to change if the people of the country are to be better served by those who the public chooses as their representatives.

A revamped Local government to be bedrock of a new constitution

In this regard, readers are referred to an article written by this columnist under the heading “An opportunity for a reformist Constitution to take Sri Lanka forward

The main thrust of that article was that local government should form the bedrock of a governance structure and that provincial councils should only be forums for local government members in each province to meet annually or biannually to discuss, debate and agree on the governance trajectory in each province. The task of a national Parliament comprising of 150 members elected by the people was proposed only to be engaged in policy development.

This to be done in discussion with local government members in each province, and of course the general public, business organisations, academics, unions, female organisations and civil society organisations.

National Planning & Monitoring Council (NPMC) mechanism and Regional Planning & Monitoring Councils (RPMC)

Finally, in respect of a political system change, this columnist also wrote an article titled “Contours for a new constitution with a difference, for the future, not the past http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2021/09/contours-for-anew-constitution-with.html) where three key features underpinning the suggested contour proposal was presented

The first one being a much-needed stakeholder participation outside of party politics through a National Planning & Monitoring Council (NPMC) mechanism and Regional Planning & Monitoring Councils (RPMC) responsible for developing a high level 10-year (minimum) National Governance Plan. The NPMC and RPMC mechanism and its influence were considered as a means of drawing more and more people from the private sector, universities, and other special interest groups into economic activity, and lessen the involvement of any government entity in activities they should not be engaged in and not competent to do anyway. It was proposed that the private sector should lead and be the engine of economic growth in the country if the future is to be different to the failures of the past.

The second, a devolved political administration via Regional Councils, that provides greater inclusiveness and participatory governance, by the people, for the people. The pivotal role of local government entities within each regional council was stressed as an important prerequisite. The central government’s role was noted as one of coordinating the implementation of the National Governance Plan developed by the NPMC and the RPMCs, once it was approved by the National Parliament.

Thirdly, the coordination of implementation to be led by a 10 to15 member central cabinet of ministers drawn from outside Parliament and appointed by the President, who will work with the relevant ministers in Regional Councils and with the local government entities for effective implementation of the National Governance Plan. This, along with the role to be played by the NPMC and the RPMCs were proposed as a means of bringing in the talent that is there in the country to move the country forward economically, socially and environmentally, more effectively and efficiently, for the benefit of future generations.

The need to change the political system is fundamental to ushering in a new Sri Lanka. It will be insanity if this is not done and if the same system and the same or similar people, some just simply Chameleons changing their political colours from time to time, are given the task of building a new Sri Lanka.

The second chamber that has been proposed as an interim measure could well be a permanent feature in a new reformist constitution, and its representatives selected by Regional Councils rather than the national parliament. Such a chamber would add to the fundamental requisite of power devolution that essentially has to be the foundation of a new Sri Lanka

End of Ethics

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4 mins read

Ethical progress produces a beneficial form of dogmatism. A normal, healthy society does not debate whether rape and torture are acceptable, because the public “dogmatically” accepts that they are beyond the pale. By the same token, a society whose leaders speak of “legitimate rape” – as a former Republican congressman in the United States once did – or of tolerable torture is exhibiting clear signs of ethical decay, and previously unimaginable acts can quickly become possible.

Consider Russia today. In an unverified video that began circulating this month, a former mercenary from the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group is accused of switching sides to “fight against the Russians,” whereupon an unidentified assailant smashes a sledgehammer into the side of the mercenary’s head. When asked to comment on the video – posted under the header “The hammer of revenge” – Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s founder and a close ally of Vladimir Putin, replied that, “A dog receives a dog’s death.” As many have observed, Russia’s behavior is now identical to that of the Islamic State.

Or, consider Russia’s increasingly close ally, Iran, where young girls who have been arrested for protesting the regime are reportedly being married off to prison guards and then raped, on the grounds that a minor cannot legally be executed if she is a virgin.

Or, consider Israel, which proudly presents itself as a liberal democracy, even though it has gradually come to resemble some of the other fundamentalist-religious countries in its neighborhood. The latest evidence of the trend is the news that Itamar Ben-Gvir will be a part of Binyamin Netanyahu’s new government. Before entering politics, Ben-Gvir was known to display a portrait in his living room of the Israeli-American terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers and wounded 125 others in Hebron in 1994.

Netanyahu, who was Israel’s longest-serving prime minister before being ousted in June 2021, is fully implicated in this ethical decay. In 2019, the Times of Israel reports, he called “for a fight against rising Muslim and left-wing anti-Semitism in Europe, hours after the [Israeli] government published a report that said the far-right posed the greatest threat to Jews on the continent.” Why does Netanyahu ignore far-right anti-Semitism? Because he relies on it. The Western new right may be anti-Semitic at home, but it also staunchly supports Israel, which it sees as one of the last remaining barriers against a Muslim invasion.

Unfortunately, all this is just one side of the story. Ethical decay is also increasingly apparent in the “woke” left, which has become increasingly authoritarian and intolerant as it advocates permissiveness for all forms of sexual and ethnic identity – except one. The sociologist Duane Rousselle has characterized the new “cancel culture” as “racism in the time of the many without the One.” Whereas traditional racism vilifies the intruder who poses a threat to the unity of the One (the dominant in-group), the woke left want to do the same to anyone who has not fully abandoned all the One’s old categories of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. All sexual orientations and gender identities are now acceptable unless you are a white man whose gender identity corresponds with your biological sex at birth. Members of this cisgender cohort are enjoined to feel guilty just for what they are – for being “comfortable in their skin” – while all others (even cisgender women) are encouraged to be whatever they feel they are.

This “new woke order” is increasingly discernible in absurd real-world episodes. Just this month, the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania planned to sponsor a student-organized event for all those who are “tired of white cis men.” The plan was for attendees to “come paint & write about” their frustrations with “comfortable in skin” white men. Following an outcry and charges of racism, the event has since been postponed.

There is a paradox in how woke non-binary fluidity coincides with intolerance and exclusion. In Paris, the prestigious École Normale Supérieure is now debating a proposal to establish dormitory corridors reserved exclusively for individuals who have chosen mixity/diversity (mixité choisie) as their sexual identity, in order to exclude cisgender men. The proposed rules are strict: anyone not fitting the criteria would be prohibited from even setting foot in these corridors. And, of course, such rules would open a path to even tighter restrictions. For example, if enough individuals define their identity in even narrower terms, they presumably will be able to demand their own corridor.

Three features of this proposal are worth emphasizing: it excludes only cisgender men, not cisgender women; it is not based on any objective criteria of classification, but only on subjective self-designation; and it calls for further classificatory subdivisions. This last point is crucial, because it demonstrates how all the emphasis on plasticity, choice, and diversity ultimately leads to what can only be called a new apartheid – a network of fixed, essentialized identities.

Wokeism thus offers a quintessential study in how permissiveness becomes prohibition: under a woke regime, we never know if and when some of us will be canceled for something we have said or done (the criteria are murky), or for simply being born into the forbidden category.

Far from opposing the new forms of barbarism, as it often claims to be doing, the woke left fully participates in it, promoting and practicing an oppressive discourse without irony. Though it advocates pluralism and promotes difference, its subjective position of enunciation – the place from which it speaks – is ruthlessly authoritarian, brooking no debate in efforts to impose arbitrary exclusions that previously would have been considered beyond the pale in a tolerant, liberal society.

That said, we should bear in mind that this mess is largely confined to the narrow world of academia (and various intellectual professions like journalism), whereas the rest of society is moving more in the opposite direction. In the US, for example, 12 Republican senators voted this month with the Democratic majority to codify the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Cancel culture, with its implicit paranoia, is a desperate and obviously self-defeating attempt to compensate for the very real violence and intolerance that sexual minorities have long suffered. But it is a retreat into a cultural fortress, a pseudo-“safe space” whose discursive fanaticism merely strengthens the majority’s resistance to it.

This piece was originally published in Project Syndicate

Interview:  Why did Mahathir lose election so badly?

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2 mins read

“For the first time in Malaysia’s history we are facing a hung parliament,” Pearl Lee, Managing Editor of Kuala Lumpur-based news website, Twentytwo13 told Sri Lanka Guardian in an exclusive interaction from the capital of the Country. With the outcoming of this election, “Malaysia will see a 4th pm being sworn into office in 5 years. Another unprecedented thing in the nation’s history.”

“None of the coalition parties, especially the main three, namely – Barisan Nasional, Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional managed to secure a simple majority (112 from the 220 contested Parliamentary seats) to form the government,” she said.

According to Pearl, “The 15th General Election also saw Barisan Nasional’s worst-ever performance. Barisan Nasional is the country’s longest-serving political ruling coalition.”

“It is now up to the main coalition parties (mainly Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional) to present to Malaysia’s King that they are able to form alliances with the other smaller coalition to form the next government,” she added.

“This is the first time in the country’s history that a unity government will be set up. The national palace or Istana Negara had today given the coalition parties a large number of seats to present their alliance and name their prime minister candidate by 2 pm on Monday (Nov 21, 2022). If all goes well, the King could possibly announce the name of Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister by tomorrow evening,” she further observed.

While talking about the worse-ever defeat of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the modern father of nation-building in Malaysia, 53 years of his undefeated political journey, Pearl said that “Dr Mahathir Mohamad set up Pejuang in 2020 (after he resigned from his previous party, Bersatu and as Prime Minister for the second time). Pejuang lost all the seats that it contested in this general election (115 parliamentary seats). Even his son Mukhriz, who is Pejuang’s president, lost. Dr Mahathir contested in Langkawi while his son, Mukhriz, (a former chief minister of Kedah and federal cabinet minister) contested the Jerlun seat; both in their home state of Kedah.”

Why he lost this election, according to Pearl, because his newly established political party “is fairly a new party. It’s also a sign that the people are tired of his narrative, that every other coalition is wrong, and only his is right.”

“For the record, Dr Mahathir’s coalition (made up of smaller parties) is called Gerakan Tanah Air (GTA) but it did not contest under that name in the election as Dr Mahathir claims the authorities have refused to register the coalition. As such, GTA contested under Pejuang’s logo,” she added.

However, when we asked about the significant challenges that the winning party is going to face, she says that “the challenge right now is who is willing to work with who, and this will be resolved once the King makes an announcement on the matter (earliest possibly tomorrow evening).”

“What lies ahead will be interesting to watch, as two coalition governments had to be set up following Dr Mahathir’s resignation in 2020. The nation saw Muhyiddin and later Ismail Sabri (of Barisan Nasional) being sworn in as the 8th and 9th prime minister respectively within a short period. Muhyiddin served 18 months as prime minister while Ismail Sabri served barely over a year as PM. The collapse of Muhyiddin’s coalition in 2021, was due to Barisan Nasional pulling out its support,” she added.

“The leader of the new alliance that will be formed now must ensure it can obtain continuous support from political parties that will form part of its alliance. But this could very well translate into a bloated cabinet line-up in order to please all parties. They would also have to convince the people how they plan to work with parties that they previously regard/openly declared as foes,” she further observed.

Sri Lanka: Medicinal drugs crisis and Health – Field Note 2

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This series is based on the excerpts of the first report of the Sub-Committee in identifying short and medium-term programmes related Economic Stabilization of the National Council tabled in the Parliament by Patali Champika Ranawaka as the Chair of the Sub-Committee.  Composition of the Sub-Committee in identifying short and medium-term programmes related Economic Stabilization of the National Council,  Patali Champika Ranawaka (Chair), Naseer Ahamed, Tiran Alles, Sisira Jayakody, Sivanesathurai Santhirakanthan, Wajira Abeywardana, A. L. M. Athaullah, Rishad Bathiudeen, Palani Thigambaram, Mano Ganesan, M. Rameshwaran;  all are members of the house representing various political parties – editors

Background

  • There have been reports of the physical resources challenge of maintaining a proper health service owing to the dearth of medicine, equipment and accessories.
  • A human resource crisis is emerging with the professionals at different levels of the medical fraternity leaving the service or migrating.
  • It is also reported that the opportunity for the public to receive a continuous health service is getting limited owing to the deficiencies found in the supply of food, fuel and electricity.
  • It is the opinion of many experts that we are faced with the long-term risk of losing the relatively high health indices that we have achieved as a middle-income country.
  • This shows that a health crisis that is intertwined with the shortage of foreign exchange, financial crisis and the energy crisis is looming large.
  • It was the opinion of the Expert Committee that the current cost on medicine can be significantly reduced through the adoption of a practical scientific methodology. A programme that ensures medicinal drugs security should be implemented with the participation of the public and private sectors and the pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Solutions and Proposals

  • The preparation of a “Common Programme” with the concurrence of both the public and private sectors is proposed upon declaring an emergency situation similar to the one during the Covid-19 period, in the face of the current economic breakdown.
  • Further, considering the following facts;
  • It is reported that a sum of approximately Rs. 160 billion is spent on importing pharmaceuticals annually and 85% of that is spent on imports (US $ 380 million). Out of that nearly 45% is public expenditure and 55% is private expenditure (WHO Report – 2016). There are 15 local manufacturers of pharmaceuticals (including the State Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Corporation (SPMC)) and they manufacture 15 % of the total value of medicines thus providing 35 % of the medicine requirement of the country. The local medicine sale through private pharmacies is 4% (96% is imported). In government hospitals, it is 24% (76% is imported).
  • The import cost on the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals locally accounts for 70% of the total value on imports (An expenditure of US $ 45-50 million) The added value is 30%.
  • The private manufacturers are faced with the problems of the government not making payments to suppliers (Rs.28 billion), issues relating to issuing letters of credit and taxes on raw materials for medicines.

Therefore, it is proposed to increase the manufacture of those medicines to the level of at least 30% within the next three years, after identifying the problems faced by the local pharmaceutical manufacturers upon the constitution of a High Level Steering Committee in which the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Finance and the local pharmaceutical manufacturers are included.

  • It is reported that the National Medicine Regulatory Authority (NMRA) regulates 14000 different medicines. An Independent Expert Committee should analyze these approved medicines and make arrangements to reduce their quantity. The importation of different varieties of medicines belonging to the same brand should be limited on the recommendations of an Expert Committee. The recommendations of the World Health Organization can be used in this regard (WHO Anatomical Therapeutic Chemical (ATC) classification system). It is emphasized that the current standard tests should not be limited to approval steps but also the samples should be tested at distribution of goods (the standard is tested only in relation a very few medicines issued at present)
  • It is proposed to appoint an Independent Board of Experts as a matter of urgency and make the National Medicine Regulatory Authority more independent. It is also proposed to correctly identify the vital, essential and non- essential drugs and prepare a priority list with the focus on their results, quality and price.
  • It is proposed to prepare a new methodology by making a formal investigation on the supplementary food and supplementary drugs based on their quality, market factors and health implications in order to limit them.
  • It is proposed to issue guidelines on emergency procurements by bringing the government procurement to 2-4 weeks. The aforesaid guidelines should be rescheduled to fall in line with the standards of various international institutions such as the Indian Line of Credit by which the provisions have been received, World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
  • It is proposed that a large amount of foreign exchange is spent on the importation on non- medicinal equipment and accessories (US $135 million per year). A management that is based on a proper audit of equipment is proposed for controlling such expenses.
  • Even though it is reported that proper data is available about stocks of pharmaceuticals, it was reported that a huge amount (Rs.15 billion) is spent on local purchases done by hospitals at certain times. It is essential to take steps to prevent such purchases as much as possible. The action taken by the directors of hospital should be recognized.
  • Considering the wide gap between the prices of generic drugs and brand name drugs, a management audit should be conducted regarding the amount of brand name drugs and with the approval obtained for that from the said Panel of Experts, a methodology should be developed for every doctor and pharmacist to abide by that. The cost effective treatment guidelines should be developed for the common diseases and pharmaceuticals should be imported accordingly.
  • Considering that stocks of various drugs and equipment are donated by certain organizations, it is proposed that guidelines focused on their standards should be developed by the Ministry of Health. The donation of substandard drugs should be discouraged.
  • It is proposed that a new mechanism is required for proper coordination between the State Pharmaceuticals Corporation and Medical Supplies Division (MSD) of the Ministry of Health.
  • It is proposed that the establishment of joint ventures of State Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Corporation (SPMC) and local private manufactures is the most suitable strategy. The money could be saved by facilitating private pharmaceutical manufacturers to function as direct suppliers instead of supplying through SPMC.
  • It is proposed to establish a trade zone for pharmaceutical manufacturing in a semi urban environment. (It was reported that the proposed Anuradhapura Zone was not suitable for that.)
  • It is proposed to increase the number of tests through a joint mechanism involving the laboratories of the Ministry of Health, laboratories of universities and private laboratories. An additional practical education will be incorporated into educational institutions through that.
  • It was observed that a certain amount of foreign exchange is spent annually for indigenous medicine as well. A methodology of joint public and private herb gardens and medicine manufacturing facilities is proposed for the manufacturing of indigenous medicine. The direct contacts should be maintained by Ayurveda Drugs Corporation with Ayurveda hospitals to alleviate the existing drug shortage.
  • It is proposed that laboratory facilities should be improved and that public private joint research should be conducted to ensure the quality and efficiency of indigenous drugs. The Ayurveda Formulary Committee and the Department of Ayurveda too should be strengthened for that.
  • It was observed that food and life styles to prevent non-communicable diseases should be promoted as drugs for such diseases in the top of the list of the most used drugs. A joint programme of western and indigenous medical systems is proposed for that.

Source: Sri Lanka Parliament

Sri Lanka: Ramifications of Constitutionalism

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The Sri Lankan Tamils of the North and East have been urging for the recognition of their traditional homelands from almost the time of Independence. During the grant of Independence, the Tamils though occupying their traditional homelands in the North and East were also resident in all parts of the Country for Government jobs,  trade, commerce and what not.

The Tamils felt safe and secure under British rule. Often the Sinhalese leaders would say the Britishers showed partiality to the Tamils and they adopted a policy of divide and rule. That concept was wrong. The British had good opinion of the Tamils, not because the British wanted to divide and rule (in fact they had no reason to divide and rule since most Sinhalese leaders aped the Britishers, converted to their religion and supported the British except the Left Leaders) but because the Ceylon Tamils were hard working, duty conscious, conscientious workers and they preferred them in many of their colonies. After all the Bhagavad Gita had preached disinterested devotion to duty several centuries ago and the idea was implanted among the Hindus, whether Vaishnavites or Saivites. It was the duty consciousness of the Upcountry Tamils that made Ceylon (Sri Lanka) prosper under the British and even thereafter.

The Federal Party was formed in 1949. If we had requested the British to grant us Federalism in the first instance it would have been granted because the Kandyan Sinhalese also wanted Federalism. Maybe because most of his clients were from the South, without disturbing the demography pattern of the time, Mr. G.G.Ponnambalam, the then leader of the Tamils put forward the 50:50 request, where the majority Sinhalese were to hold half the seats in Parliament and all the Opposition Parties together were to hold the balance 50%. This request was rejected by the British.

Mr.SJVChelvanayagam left Mr.Ponnambalam’s Tamil Congress Party and formed the Federal Party in 1949. The reason for asking a federal dispensation was because power was soon going to pass on to the hands of the Sinhala majority in the Country. Since the Britishers had unified the Country’s administration in 1833, and they were leaving now, the Tamils justifiably felt unsafe among the Sinhalese majority. They had to preserve their traditional homelands and the best way to preserve their areas was by asking for self-rule in their own areas without dividing the Country.

Federalism is not dividing a Country. On the contrary, it is a way by which unity could be maintained among disparate communities. The Tamils of the North and East of Sri Lanka are the most qualified people for federalism. They have occupied continuously for over 3000 years their traditional homelands in the North and East, have had a language of their own, culture of their own and in fact kingdoms of their own before the British unified the Country for administrative reasons. Even though Eastern Province had several sub-kingdoms they were all governed by Tamils. They paid tithes sometimes to the Kandyan King. The last King of Kandy was not a Sinhalese. He signed the peace treaty with the British in 1815, in Tamil. Tamil was the language of Royalty.

The reservations among the Tamil leaders, especially Mr. SJV Chelvanayagam, was to soon prove true. First the Upcountry Tamils were disenfranchised. Then by the Sinhala Only Act, the Tamil Government servants were driven away from  State Services.Then through pogroms and riots the Tamils who lived in the Provinces outside the North and East were driven away. Ultimately by standardisation, the studious Tamil students found it extremely difficult to enter higher echelons of the Educational ladder. Meanwhile lands falling within the boundaries of the traditional Tamil homelands were soon being expropriated and Sinhalese from the South were made to colonise those areas.Many of them were Island’s Reconvicted Criminals.

In 1956 Mr.SWRD Bandaranaike when he brought the Sinhala Only Act, did not foresee what he was going to do to the Country. He knew he was being unreasonable to the Tamils who occupied a distinct area, had a language of their own, culture of their own and belonged to religions other than that of the majority. For political reasons, to defeat the UNP, he formulated his policy of Sinhala in 24 hours. But he thought he could bring in the Reasonable Use of Tamil Act and assuage the Tamils. But he had released forces by his political short-sightedness which he just could not control. The Buddhist Priests stormed his residence at Rosmead Place and had him tear up the Reasonable Use of Tamil document. The same unleashed forces ultimately murdered him.

Lee Kwan Yew when he met SWRD, the Prime Minister, the latter had boasted, puffing at his pipe, that he had made the language of the majority the State language of Ceylon! Lee had warned him that it was wrong. In fact, he had made four languages, Chinese, Tamil, Malay and English, the State languages of Singapore and Singapore today prospers while Sri Lanka is bankrupt! 

Political, Social and Economic mistakes have been made in this Country. Costly mistakes! Mistakes devoid of common sense.Mistakes merely to get the votes of People at the next election. But the wise would not cry over spilt milk.They would ask how best could we change the situation and improve our lot.

Let me come to your question now. Yes!  I did say that unless the President consents to a Constitution other than a Unitary Constitution for Sri Lanka it would be purposeless having talks with Leaders of Tamil Parties. Under a Unitary Constitution, the majority community rules the roost. They predominate in everything. They decide what is good for minorities. They had the power to obstruct the progress of communities other than theirs, as we have seen in the case of the Northern Provincial Council. Projects beneficial to the People of the North had been sabotaged. We were not allowed to have the Chief Minister’s Fund when other Provinces had. All Provinces have seen modernisation in this Country except the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Only those who would go and cringe and beg the members of the majority community were found worthy of condescension by the powers that be.

We have not been allowed to run our own schools. Our fishermen are unable to fish in their traditional fishing areas. The Military controls everything from land to sea and may be air too! The Military are stationed in the North and East from the time of the end of war continuously. Expropriation of our resources by the South takes place daily. Appropriation of our lands by various Departments and most notably by the Mahaweli Authority takes place continuously. Buddhist places of worship are coming up illegally in places where there are no Buddhists living. Chinese influence is maintained in Tamil areas with ulterior motives. I once heard a Government Official tell some Chinese officials that they were close to the Chinese because of the closeness of their religion and that the Tamils are Hindus, meaning the Tamils are close to India.

I could go on enumerating the woes of the Tamil speaking of the North and East.

But the fact remains that talking reconciliation and making ad hoc changes to the existing Constitution as it is today being a Unitary one, would take us nowhere. The Tamils need to be freed from the yoke of Sinhala dominance. Even though the LTTE had asked for a separate State, our Voters have brought us into Parliament on the basis that we agitate for a Federal / Confederal Constitution so that we could live within our traditional homelands in amity with other communities, still continuing to be Sri Lankans. My Party alone asks for a Confederation because we want to minimise interference by the Central Government in the areas of our residence.

Unless we divide Power amicably among the different communities in consonance with the areas of their residence we cannot live in Peace and Unity. Always the majority Community would want to interfere and sabotage the activities of others if they feel unequal to the others. The Sinhalese though the majority in this Island suffer from an inferiority complex. The fact that a large contingent of Tamils live close by in South India might be one cause. The fact that Tamils are more hardworking and industrious is another reason. After all the Tamils who were driven out from Sri Lanka have proved their mettle in far-off lands. It took over twenty countries to coalesce to destroy Prabhakaran. He kept the North and East under his control for almost thirty years against a Sinhala Government all-powerful!

You would realise why a constitution other than a Unitary Constitution is necessary. We could discuss the difficulties that we may face in bringing about a federal constitution but certainly to continue with a Unitary Constitution will only bring misery to all.

Views expressed are personal

What Sri Lanka Can Learn from China’s Bitter Experience

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The following article, describing the economic growth of China, extracts information from “The Power of Capitalism” by Rainer Zitelmann. The reader is encouraged to refer to this book for more details and references.

The Great Leap Forward

Mao Zedong wanted to turn China into a shining example of Marxist Socialism, and in 1957 proclaimed the Great Leap Forward to the “worker’s paradise”.

The population was informed of the plan “to overtake all capitalist countries in a fairly short time, and become one of the richest, most advanced and powerful countries in the world”.

This ambitious experiment started with millions of farmers (around one-in-six of the population) being forced to work on massive irrigation projects such as dams and canals without sufficient food or rest. The removal of a large part of the agricultural workforce was one of several reasons for which famines started to spread across China.

During this period private ownership was abolished, and peasants were forced to leave their properties and live in factory-like barracks.

Private plots, which comprised “houses, animals and trees” were confiscated for the purposes of “benefiting production and control”. Homes were to be dismantled if a commune needed bricks, tiles, or timber.

People were also banned from eating at home. Food was served in canteens often hours away from the workplace. This forced people to move to the sites of canteens and live in crammed spaces with no privacy.

Food production was too low and due to the climate of fear created by their own works the Communist Party officials avoided acknowledging the problems. Communes that submitted false data showing phenomenal harvests were taken at face value, while those that submitted realistic numbers were punished.

There were also logistical problems which resulted in large parts of the harvest being destroyed by pests, in particular sparrows. Mao mobilized the entire population to wave sticks and brooms to create a racket that would scare away these birds. This was so effective that pests controlled by sparrows flourished with catastrophic results. The government then sent a “top secret” request to the Soviet Embassy for 200,000 sparrows.

Despite the worsening famine the government was loath to lose face. They were too proud to suspend Russian grain exports, defer debt repayments or accept Western offers of aid. In keeping with the ‘export above all else’ policy they even donated wheat to Albania and other allies when the famine was most severe. According to government propaganda, the Chinese economy was going from strength to strength and breaking records.

Mao was particularly obsessed with steel production. In 1957 steel production was 5.35 million tons and in 1958 the government set a goal of 12 million tons. At the time, Chinese steel was largely produced in small blast furnaces (many of which were unfit for purpose).

The piles of iron ingots produced by rural communes were too small and brittle to be usable in the modern rolling mills. The lack of good raw material led to party cadres going from door to door confiscating household and agricultural equipment such as farm tools, water wagons, cooking utensils, iron door handles and even women’s hairclips. Later Mao was forced to admit that “only 40 per cent is good steel”.

Mao was aware that millions would have to die to bring about his bright future. He told Soviet leaders “We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution.”. He said of labour-intensive steel manufacturing: “Working like this, with all these projects, half of China may well have to die. If not half, then maybe one-third or one-tenth – 50 million – die.”

Mao’s experiment caused 32.5 million people officially (unofficially around 45 million) to die between 1958 and 62. Most died of starvation, but around 2.5 million were tortured or beaten to death, killed because they were rich or dragged their feet, or killed because they spoke out or were simply not liked.

The Chinese historian Jisheng says as follows: “The starvation that preceded death was worse than death itself. The grain was gone, the wild herbs had all been eaten, even the bark had been stripped from the trees, and bird droppings, rats and cotton batting were used to fill stomachs. In the kaolin clay fields, starving people chewed on the clay as they dug it. There were frequent cases of cannibalism. At first, desperate villagers would only eat the cadavers of animals, but soon they started digging up dead neighbours to cook and eat. Human flesh was sold on the black market along with other types of meat”.

Mao was eventually forced to abandon his Great Leap Forward. However, this did not stop him from launching his even more radical Cultural Revolution in 1966 where hundreds of thousands were killed in forced labour camps.

Learning from the world

Following Mao’s death in 1976 the government sensed that the Chinese people had had enough of socialist experiments.

Mao’s immediate successor, Hua Guofeng, paved the way for Deng Xiaoping to contribute towards China’s transformation. Deng and his party members took some Confucian wisdom to heart: “By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

Having learned some hard lessons the Chinese looked at what was happening in other countries. From 1978 began the busy period of foreign travel to bring back valuable economic insights.

Chinese delegations made trips to more than 50 countries including Japan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the US, Canada, France, Germany, and Switzerland. Deng asked the delegations to see as much as they could and to ask questions about how economies were managed.

The delegations were greatly impressed by what they saw in Western Europe: modern airports such as Charles de Gaulle in Paris, car factories in Germany and ports with automated loading facilities. They were surprised to see the high standard of living even ordinary workers enjoyed. Deng himself traveled, and after an eye-opening visit to the Nissan plant in Japan, he commented, “now I understand what modernisation means”.

The economic dynamism of neighboring countries, such as Japan and Singapore, were seen as role models. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, remembers “I had told Deng over dinner in 1978 in Singapore that we, the Singapore Chinese, were the descendants of illiterate landless peasants from Guandong and Fujian in South China … There was nothing that Singapore had done that China could not do, and do better. He stayed silent then. When I read that he had told the Chinese people to do better than Singapore, I knew he had taken up the challenge I quietly tossed to him that night fourteen years earlier.”

The delegations’ findings were widely circulated in China. It led to the realisation that the alleged benefits of socialism for the working class were based on lies and fabrication. Deng noted repeatedly “The more we see (of the world), the more we realize how backward we are”.

Difficulties with privatisation

However, this newfound enthusiasm did not instantly result in a conversion to capitalism. It was a slow process of transition, starting with tentative efforts to grant public enterprises greater autonomy. This process, which relied on initiatives from both the grassroots as well as top-down from policy, took years or decades to mature.

Peasants began to circumvent the official ban on private farming. Since they were able to achieve far greater output the party cadres allowed it to carry on, and starvation was alleviated long before the ban was finally lifted. By 1983 all Chinese agriculture was de-collectivised.

The 1980s saw the establishment of an increasing number of collectively owned enterprises and township and village enterprises. Being legally owned by municipal authorities, the distinction between state and private ownership was blurred, resulting in these companies having the guise of public companies but being de-facto privately run. Between 1978 and 1996 the total number of employees in these companies rose from 28 million to 135 million, while their share of the economy grew from 6% to 26%.

Subsequent waves of privatisation saw municipal owned companies become less important compared to genuine private businesses.

Individuals who started or worked for private businesses suffered hardship and discrimination. Parents wouldn’t allow their daughters to marry someone who worked for these businesses as their economic prospects were uncertain.

Eventually, more people came to realize that running a business conferred financial advantages as well as greater levels of freedom. Self-employed barbers were earning more than state hospital surgeons, street vendors more than nuclear scientists.

The number of self-employed household businesses and single proprietorships increased from 140,000 in 1978 to 2.6 million in 1981. However, the proponents of socialism passed a resolution which saw over 30,000 arrested. In many cases their only crime was making profits or employing more than the legal limit of seven people.

Special Economic Areas

The erosion of socialism was accelerated by the creation of Special Economic Areas (SEA) where socialism was suspended, and capitalist experiments were permitted.

Shenzhen was an area through which, year after year, many thousands would try to illegally escape to Hong Kong. When the authorities investigated in more detail, they found refugees had set up businesses across the Shenzhen River in Hong Kong territory, where they were earning a hundred times more than people in the mainland.

Deng’s response was that China would need to increase living standards to stem the flow. Shenzhen then became the site of the first SEA experiment.

The experiment was so successful that, only a few years later, the authorities had to build a barbed-wire fence to cope with the influx of migrants from other parts of China. Soon other regions also began following the SEA model.

Low taxes, land lease prices and bureaucratic requirements made SEAs extremely attractive to foreign investors. The economies were less heavily regulated and more market-oriented than those of many European countries today.

The co-existence of public and private enterprises

Over time economic reforms became half-hearted. Public enterprises continued to co-exist with private businesses and SEAs. This co-existence caused a chaotic pricing situation, leading to inflation, discontent, and unrest.

Proponents of socialism believed that the reforms had gone too far. In response, Deng (who held no public office at the time), decided to intervene and visit Shenzhen. He expressed his amazement at the extent of the region’s transformation. He was impressed by the magnificent boulevards, resplendent high-rise buildings, busy shopping streets and seemingly infinite number of factories. The people were dressed in fashionable clothes and were the proud owners of expensive watches and other luxury items. Their incomes were three times higher than in the rest of China.

Deng’s tour and subsequent criticism of those who opposed reforms were featured prominently in Chinese media. Deng and his fellow proponents of free-market reforms continued to pay lip service to socialism, but they redefined the term to mean an “open system that should ‘draw on the achievements of all cultures and learn from other countries, including the developed capitalist countries”.

Increasingly, the reformers won the day. Capital investments in private businesses multiplied by twenty. In 1992, 120,000 civil servants quit their jobs, and 10 million took unpaid leave to set up private enterprises. Millions of university professors, engineers and graduates followed suit.

Furthermore, the list of government-set prices for raw materials, transportation services and capital goods was shortened from 737 to 89, with a further reduction to only 13 in 2001.

Reforming the public sector

The reformers hoped to make public enterprises more efficient by introducing performance-related payment schemes and replacing high ranking cadres with professionals. However, these changes failed to address the key issue, which is that public enterprises cannot go bankrupt.

In a market economy a constant selection process takes place which ensures only the survival of well managed companies that satisfy consumer demand. Badly managed companies go bankrupt and disappear, freeing up resources for other ventures. This natural selection does not occur in public enterprises, as losses are financed by the taxpayer. Thus, public enterprises were frequently in bad economic health.

Furthermore, in the market economy there are strong natural incentives to build and maintain a good reputation for the long term. With public enterprises these incentives do not exist and so executives were more interested in raising their income for the short term. Since there was no means for consumers to hold dishonest executives accountable, corruption was a persistent problem.

Still privatisation continued and by 1996, the share of public enterprises had dropped by about 50%, and around 30 to 40 million people had lost their jobs.

Income inequality

China’s development demonstrated that, rising economic growth, even with rising inequality, still benefited the majority of the population. Deng instructed “let some people get rich first”.

Contrary to popular belief, the statistics showed that the relative income gaps were narrowest in the regions with highest per capita GDP, where the markets were most open and companies made the highest profits. Regions with low growth and more restrictive conditions had wider relative income gaps.

Conclusions

In 2016 China overtook the US and Germany to become the world’s largest exporter. The quality of life for ordinary citizens had improved beyond recognition.

Many economists and politicians believe that the impressive growth is due to a special “Chinese way” which comprises a high degree of government influence.

This was not the case. The Chinese progress was not dissimilar to the progress of other developed nations, such as the UK, US, Germany, South Korea and Japan, which were all facilitated by reducing government involvement and increasing freedoms.

Chinese growth happened partly through the SEAs, and partly by decentralizing power to local governments, which in turn circumvented restrictive laws insuch a manner as to create the space needed for both private business and privatisation.

China grew not because of a special way of government, but rather in-spite of it.

Politics of capitalist transition and state repression

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5 mins read

Capitalist transition within a state is a process that involves changing institutions or the ‘rules of the game’, so that markets become the primary mechanism for resource allocation. These changes must be legitimised at an ideological level. When institutions to establish markets are successful, they become ideas that seem to be natural and common sense, thereby creating a hegemony.

The establishment of the hegemony of markets is not a technocratic process, but a political one. Conflict and struggles are always a part of this. These conflicts can be violent. The process of capitalist transition takes place in a particular society within its own history. This means capitalism is not some sort of a model. It is a historical process, influenced by political forces in a particular historical context. It takes place in a context of global capitalism.

Institutional changes to promote markets create social classes. Since the socio-economic impact of capitalism is always unequal, in Sri Lanka, different sections of the Sinhala majority benefitted unequally from capitalist transition. In other words, although the Sinhalese were unified in ethnic terms, they were divided in class terms. The inequality generated by the capitalist transition within the Sinhala majority could always combine with Sinhala nationalism to oppose the regime in power. In a political space defined by ethnicity, the Sinhala majority was the deciding factor who came to power thorough elections. The opposition to regimes could also turn into an opposition to capitalism, and a general opposition to the state itself.

Post-1977 is a new period of capitalist transition in Sri Lanka. It emphasised markets, the private sector and openness to global capitalism. It changed the process of capitalist transition from the state-dominated capitalism that characterised the 1970-77 period. Political leadership to the process was given by J.R.Jayawardene led the United National Party (UNP) in 1977 general election. Jayewardene saw the challenges that economic reform will face from the Sinhala majority long before 1977. In 1966, in the keynote speech to the 22nd annual session of the Ceylon Association for the Advancement of Science, he argued for the need to establish a directly elected president to carry out unpopular economic reforms. A powerful president would be elected directly for a fixed number of years and be able to face opposition to economic reforms.

The UNP won the 1977 election securing 50.9 per cent of valid votes. This translated into 140 seats in a parliament of 168. In other words, it gave the UNP, a degree of political power that was disproportionate to their voter base. At this point it is worth recalling how UNP the brought about this major change in institutions controlling the Sri Lankan state using this power. Prof. A. J. Wilson’s book The Gaullist System in Asia: The Constitution of Sri Lanka (1978), give details of how this happened.

The election was won in July 1977. On 22 September 1977, the government put through an amendment to the 1972 constitution that established a directly elected president as the head of state. Jayawardena, who was elected as prime minister in 1977 general election, became the first president. This bill was not even discussed by the government parliamentary group. It was discussed only at cabinet level, adopted by what then was known as the National State Assembly, and certified by the Speaker on 20 October 1977. There were only six speeches in parliament when this fundamental change to the structure of the state was instituted. Then a parliamentary select committee was appointed in November 1977 to draft a new constitution. This was totally under the control of the UNP. The select committee held only 16 meetings. There was no serious effort to get public participation. A questionnaire that was circulated received 281 responses. Sixteen organisations and a Buddhist priest presented evidence before the committee. The report of the Select Committee was tabled in June 1978, debated in August 1978, and the 1978 constitution became law in September 1978.

It is clear that what determined the establishment of the constitution that still rules over us was the political power enjoyed by the UNP. Often the key role played by the balance of political power in establishing these institutions get masked by discussions on legal aspects. Balance of political power is the key in forming constitution. Linda Colley’s recent book The Gun, the Ship and the Pen demonstrates this, by analysing the history of constitution making in many parts of the world.

Once established, controlling the presidency became the most important political objective for the Sinhala political elite who controlled the state. Although politicians criticised the presidency when out of power, they were reluctant to give up this power when they became president. A powerful presidency existed in a society where there was little possibility to challenge the power of the president through societal mechanisms. In addition, factors such as patronage politics, which seeped into all spheres of social life, and a traditional attitude of looking towards powerful leaders for solutions, made this office even more powerful. As soon as this kind of powerful centre of power was created, these factors generated a political culture based on loyalty towards the centre and the person who became president.

The second institutional mechanism that enhanced the despotic power of the state was the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). This was established just one year later, in 1979, to deal with the Tamil separatist threat to the Sri Lankan state.  It also normalised a discourse of terrorism. Although it came about because of a different issue, it has been used to deal with opposition to economic reforms in Sinhala majority areas. Reforming it, or totally getting rid of it, has been a consistent demand from those who have opposed state repression. But, even after four decades, the political elite who control the state is not ready to give up the power that the PTA provides. In post-war Sri Lanka, the power that presidency and PTA give to the political elite who control the state, is enhanced by well -developed security forces. These now absorb a significant amount of resources of a state facing fiscal problems.

The presidency and the PTA have been part of the Sri Lankan state for more than four decades. An account of the social impact of these in Sinhala majority areas is a study on its own. What we have is largely reports of individual incidents and numbers. A social history of this violence will reveal the true nature of state-society relations in Sinhala majority areas in the post 1977 period. This is a task for future researchers. We need similar research on the social impact of efforts to consolidate the territory of the Sinhala nationalist state threatened by Tamil separatism.

This year, the inability of the Sri Lankan state to satisfy the demands of global financial capital has led to social unrest. This is a part of a global capitalist crisis. Several other factors, like the situation Ukraine, have complicated the situation. A BBC news item reports that there have been various forms of social unrest because of economic discontent in 90 countries. For those who know the history of capitalism, this is not a new situation. What is important is to focus on is how the ruling political elite respond to the situation. In the case of Sri Lanka what we are witnessing now is a repetition of the same strategy of dealing with protests by using the coercive power of the state provided by the presidency and PTA. The scale of suppression might be different from what happened in the past, but the political economy is the same.

A key demand for any kind of progressive movement in Sri Lanka in this situation should be getting rid of both the presidency and PTA. It should be total removal of these institutions and not any kind of reform. The latter only goes to further legitimise these institutions.  Continuous criticism of the various discourses that currently legitimise these institutions will be essential. For example, the use of the term political stability, without clarifying how this to be achieved is opening doors for state repression. Instead, what we need is a regime that seeks to establish political legitimacy with a new social contract. This is necessary not only to promote democratisation, but also to promote social justice and pluralism.

Views expressed are personal

Sri Lanka: Wickremesinghe’s Machiavellian skills

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During the month, the government’s preliminary talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on structuring its economic recovery continued. However, debt restructuring continues to be delayed with China due to its preoccupation with the 20th NPC meetings of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Even negotiations with India and Japan are moving at a slow pace. Perhaps, this is due to their lingering doubts about the Wickremesinghe government’s ability to see through the structural reforms.

In this context, President Wickremesinghe must be heartened by the show of solidarity for his actions by the US and some of the EU members, despite the use of high-handed methods to suppress public protests. Internally, the passing of the 22nd Constitutional Amendment (originally introduced as 21A) to improve executive president’s accountability, the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to curb Aragalaya activism and the launching of the Rise Together (Ekwa Nagitimu) campaign at the grass roots to recoup the image of the Rajapaksas were key highlights of happenings in October 2022.

The events leading up to these important internal developments showed existing differences, not only within the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its cohorts, but also within the opposition parties as well. Of course, during the month political leaders continued to ride their time-tested political hobby horses – new constitution, electoral reforms, call for general election and the not be missed late entrant “investigation and follow up into the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks.” The government used the familiar gambit of appointing parliamentary select committees and presidential commissions to tackle the opposition moves. So, everybody continued to be busy doing something.

Strategizing economic recovery

However, President Wickremesinghe appears to be leveraging lack of unity within political parties to adopt transactional strategies to push through actions to achieve targets set in the 2022 interim budget for increase in government revenue and debt reduction. The actions taken so far, include reducing government spending, tackling public corruption, energy reforms to open retail distribution of fuel to private firms, privatise wasteful state-owned enterprises and promote foreign investment avenues. Normally, these issues are considered politically explosive. Despite paying lip service, political parties in power have seldom considered seriously implementing such measures. Given this dismal record of political parties, Wickremesinghe government’s actions do not seem to have animated the media. The Aragalaya movement has by and large eroded public credibility in political parties.

Inspite of the lack of credibility in the government, some progress seems to have been made in improving the business climate as indicated by the LMD-NielsenIQ Business Confidence Index (BCI) for October. Reporting on the state of business, Sri Lanka’s online business magazine LMD said the BCI provided “a semblance of relief; it has climbed a heartening 13 basis points to 89” during October from September’s 76. However, it quoted NielsenIQ Director-Consumer Insights Theirca Miyanadeniya’s assertion “concern over the socio-political status of the country is waning as business and people are in a race to survive against a backdrop of extreme hardships.”

With the major economies expecting a period of global recession in the coming months, it is essential that Wickremasinghe government survives to see the country through the period of economic privation in the coming months. Under such circumstances, the passing of the 22nd Amendment to the constitution 174 votes in favour and one against, may be considered as an indication of grudging acceptance of President Wickremesinghe’s leadership by over two-thirds members of parliament. The amendment was passed despite some pro-Basil Rajapaksa members of the ruling SLPP objecting to the clause on not allowing dual citizens to become members of parliament. This indicated two things: the decline of Basil Rajapaksa’s influence within SLPP and the Rajapaksas continued support to President Wickremesinghe.

The 22A is a compromise between the Yahapalana government’s 19A to curb the sweeping powers of executive presidency and Gotabaya’s 20A to restore the powers of the executive presidency. The bill was much debated by parliament members and the public and its present form represents a compromise solution reflecting some of the key elements from both the earlier amendments on the subject. For instance, it has retained the 20A clause on the powers of the president to dissolve parliament after two and half years, as against four and a half years stipulated in the19A.

On the other hand, 22A has reintroduced 19A’s clause prohibiting dual citizens from contesting elections which was allowed by the 20A. The 22A reduces some of the powers of the president enjoyed earlier under 20A, regarding appointments to high officers of the state including the Chief Justice, judges of supreme court and appeals court, chairmen of the election commission, human rights commission, and police commission and the IGP. The constitutional council created now has the power to make these appointments. The president and prime minister enjoy some influence in picking members of the constitutional council, which will have three members from civil society.

Conclusion

The writing on the wall is clear: Sri Lanka must achieve targets presented in the 2022 interim budget for increase in government revenue and debt reduction to overcome the worst ever financial crisis it is facing now. Otherwise, Sri Lanka’s debt will be unsustainable; international financial bodies like IMF and World Bank do not assist the economic recovery of such countries. Obviously, lack of understanding among the political parties in tackling long pending critical issues, has stood in the way of evolving a coherent national political and economic narrative to restore Sri Lanka’s credibility both at home and abroad. It will not be pragmatic to expect the political parties to give up their pettifogging and bury their hatchets to see through the crises. They are accustomed to using the economic crunch and hardship faced by the people to improve their poll prospects.

As a seasoned politician, President Wickremesinghe is using his Machiavellian skills to use factionalism existing within almost all the parties, to push through legislation to restore the economy. So far, political parties by and large are grudgingly accepting his rule for want of a better alternative. How long he survives this perilous journey will determine the future course of events in Sri Lanka. One advantage he only seems to enjoy is the moral, political, and even economic support of most of the major Indo-Pacific powers including India and China. But much would depend upon how President Xi Jinping will handle China’s economic downturn, that could have its fall out on Sri Lanka.

Tailpiece: Contact with BJP?

A columnist writing in the Colombo weekly Sunday Times said a group of former LTTE cadres identifying themselves after rehabilitation as the ‘Democratic Cadres Party’ were in New Delhi in India recently. They took part in “an event organised by a group that maintains close ties” with India’s ruling BJP. They are said to have had discussions with various influential political actors and policymakers in New Delhi. Their requests to Indian authorities included lifting of the ban on LTTE proscribed in India since 1991 and full implementation of 13th Amendment. The article said their allegations that Hindu shrines were being acquired by the Archaeological Dept and WildLife Dept under questionable circumstances seemed to have struck a chord with the audiences, “given the BJP’s aggressive campaigns based on Hindutva ideologies.”

[Written on October 30, 2022.]

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