SRI LANKANS OVERSEAS
A QUESTION OF GOVERNANCE
Louzanne Perera calls for effective governance to sustain development
Q: What were your impressions of Sri Lanka on your last visit and how much has it changed from the past, in your assessment?
A: I moved out of Sri Lanka only two years ago, and travel back and forth quite often. So the one thing I can say for sure is that the traffic can best be described as ‘utter chaos.’ It is good to note though that tourism is at its peak with increasing visitor arrivals and domestic travellers – and along with this, many international hospitality brands are investing and building infrastructure in the country.
On the other hand, having lived in the island until not so long ago, it’s becoming increasingly evident that Sri Lanka’s development has come to a standstill, wiping out the progress made thus far and with no relief to the economic burdens faced by the people.
There has also been significant vulnerability to natural disasters – for example, the recent floods – which has hugely impacted the quality of life of citizens.
Q: How do you perceive the country today in the context of the progress it is making in the postwar era?
A: There is no doubt that Sri Lanka is witnessing unprecedented economic growth. However, we seem to be blindsided by what one would perceive as ‘development.’ Yes, a country needs highways and metropolises but compared with developed nations, we are far behind. And in the process of catching up, the economy is trending towards becoming a heavy burden on the people. I think it’s time for us to think more innovatively about what is most suitable for our island-nation.
Q: And how do compatriots in Malaysia – including Sri Lankans domiciled in that country – view Sri Lanka?
A: Malaysia is home to a sizeable number of ‘Ceylonese’ (mostly Tamils with smaller numbers of Sinhalese and Burghers) citizens. They brought along their respective religious beliefs, cultural and social practices, and way of life, which are now very much entwined with the Malaysian lifestyle. Therefore, as far as Malaysians are concerned, Sri Lanka is also home to their own.
But considering that most of the Ceylonese migration occurred in the prewar and war eras, we often come across sections of the community that are still concerned about civil issues who habitually degrade the country.
Q: How do you view the brain drain and why is there still no reversal of it, in your opinion?
A: I believe that Sri Lanka suffers from a skills mismatch, which is a result of the education system not preparing people with the capacities that businesses are seeking. On the other hand, businesses are not offering jobs that educated people desire.
So when individuals in this pool of highly skilled workers begin to see that other countries will receive them with open arms, they leave their homeland in search of greener pastures.
Sri Lanka being a lower-middle-income country factors into this equation. People now choose migration as the preferred option as our political and economic foundations consistently fail to deliver a higher standard of living and better employment.
The powers that be must instil hope in the youth so that the chances of them remaining in their country of birth and contributing to economic development are higher. Until such time, the brain drain will not reverse and Sri Lanka may remain stagnant.
Q: What must be done to entice Sri Lankans living overseas to contribute or return to their country of birth?
A: I think that a more favourable economic environment is key. Migration most often occurs in response to positive income differentials between the host and home nations. In these models, migrants should only be expected to return if the economic situation changes so that their earnings at home increase compared to what they earn in the host nation.
Q: In your opinion, on what should we focus most in the coming decade?
A: An economy for the future – an innovative, ethical and sustainable future with solar panels and organic farms, widespread entrepreneurial spirit and revolutionised businesses.
Sri Lanka has abundant opportunities to build on its success due to its fortunate location for trade, a relatively educated workforce and remarkable natural resources.
Q: And finally, what are your hopes for the country in the post-conflict era?
A: A new generation of modern leaders – leaders who understand the new and future realities, and are brave enough to disrupt age-old organisms.
Sri Lanka is in many respects proving to be a success story in terms of development. But effective governance will be needed to navigate the country on a path that will sustain the progress it has made.
I am not in agreement with your comment on brain drain. From my experience working in Singapore for past 4+ years, I find many of my colleagues in jobs that does not necessarily match their skill set. There is a similar scenario in places such as Melbourne. The main reason for them to exit their motherland is the prevailing system. It is a culmination of lack of proper law, corruption, security and political issues and etc. There are many local industries such as apparel trade that offer good jobs, but has no suitable candidates. It is of paramount importance that the government addresses these issues, so that migrants would return.