Gehan Perera rues Sri Lanka’s crippling political status

Q: What is your opinion of Sri Lanka in the present day especially when it comes to the progress it has achieved in recent years?

A: Sadly, very little progress has been achieved to date.

Sri Lanka was considered one of the most developed countries in Asia when it gained independence in 1948, ranking far above Japan, South Korea and Singapore. However, it continues to go backwards globally and now languishes in the lower tier despite 70 years of independence, as well as the end of a self-inflicted and needless war.

This is the work of our short-sighted and selfish politicians.

The country has won a war but I doubt whether it has achieved lasting peace – this calls for winning the hearts and minds of all ethnic groups, and reconciling all Sri Lankans.

Q: How do compatriots in your country of domicile view Sri Lanka?

A: Very positively – as a desirable country to visit on holiday but not necessarily one in which to invest.

Q: What were the main takeaways regarding Sri Lanka on your most recent visit – and has the nation changed significantly from the past?

A: There is visible improvement with Colombo in particular appearing to be transforming into a relatively modern city. However, the fundamentals leave much to be desired. Although some improvement in accountability has been achieved over the last few years, the political culture remains deplorable.

Q: How do you view the brain drain and why is there still no significant reversal of it?

A: Almost 50 years ago, as a preparatory school student, I distinctly remember our headmaster mentioning at a prize giving that “we are importing grain and exporting brains.” As a young student, I could not comprehend what that meant at the time.

The sad reality is that the situation is much worse today even though five decades have passed.

To reverse this trend, we need to restore the fundamentals – i.e. eradicate corruption, bring back discipline, restore meritocracy and depoliticise all key public institutions to reinstate their independence. Most importantly, the public needs to be politically mature to elect principled, honest, capable and visionary leaders – people who can lead the country with integrity and foresight.

Q: What more do we need to do to make Sri Lanka more attractive to prospective returnees?

A: We also need to muster the political courage to find a just and lasting solution to the recurring national issue, by addressing the root causes that led to an unnecessary and protracted war so that it will never recur.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka needs to celebrate its diversity, and win the hearts and minds of all its ethnic groups so that everyone is truly equal and united as Sri Lankans.

Q: What do you believe must be done to attract Sri Lankans living overseas to contribute or return to their country of birth?

A: If the above fundamentals are in place, I would think that most erstwhile Sri Lankans will return as they continue to love this country and its people from afar. I do not believe that tax breaks and other incentives would be needed.

Q: In your opinion, what should Sri Lanka focus on most in the coming decade?

A: As I have alluded to the macro issues previously, let me confine my comments to a subject that lies close to my heart – tourism.

Sri Lanka is truly a blessed island and has the potential to be the jewel in the crown of the world of tourism. But sadly, we have failed to realise this potential for the benefit of the country and its people. We need to put in place proper policies and infrastructure, and have competent professionals at the helm who do not harbour conflicts of interest.

If so, tourism alone can solve most of the major economic issues confronting the country, which include taking development to rural areas, being the largest source of foreign exchange, creating new jobs on a mass scale and attracting much needed foreign investment.

Q: Looking ahead, what do you envision for the country in the post-conflict era?

A: I wish we could get rid of the current political culture and all its actors of different hues. Since the mid-1950s, Sri Lanka has been severely let down by all its leaders – they’ve only had their own interests at heart.

Perhaps democracy was a luxury that came too soon and continues to be hijacked by our politicians for their sustenance.

The masses have been hoodwinked by demagogues who’ve amassed power and wealth at the expense of the very people they were elected to serve. Sadly when national leaders are corrupt, it percolates down to all institutions including once respected conglomerates and all levels of society.

We require a new political culture whereby well-educated young people with integrity, capability and vision lead the country. I believe that Sri Lanka has abundant resources and an intelligent population, and is a true paradise compared to the nations to which most Sri Lankans continue to migrate in large numbers.

The reason Sri Lanka is not a developed nation is due to poor leadership, indiscipline and corruption. I wish we could one day have the right leadership to develop the country with long-term plans in place – for the benefit of the wonderful and warm people of our dear island paradise.