SRI LANKANS OVERSEAS
TIME TO UNLEASH OUR POTENTIAL
Romesh Niles urges Sri Lanka to focus on its core competencies
Q: How is Sri Lanka progressing in the postwar era?
A: A few years since the war ended, Sri Lanka commenced major infrastructure projects and displayed signs of progress. Corporates genuinely contributed as they took on new initiatives, and mapped development plans for exports and organic growth, entailing more jobs and growth. Even foreign investors were interested, focussing mainly on war-torn parts of the country given their abundance of natural wealth.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of established or consistent systems vis-à-vis policies and procedures, corruption by way of government administrators and politicians became a stumbling block, and this has affected the nation’s progress. There’s some hope as at least the legal system maintains its integrity and is devoid of interference.
Q: How do your compatriots in Australia view Sri Lanka?
A: Most Australians associate Sri Lanka with tea and cricket, while some recall the island primarily for its warm hospitality. The likes of Bangkok, Singapore and Bali competently identify themselves as more desirable holiday destinations, having invested in focussed marketing strategies through electronic media and by building quality infrastructure. Planning a holiday is easy and they offer value for money.
Sri Lanka has more to offer if only it focusses on a global marketing strategy that reaches everyone by way of electronic or social media and other e-commerce strategies. The present approach is sinking our ‘pearl’ lower by the day in terms of global competition.
Q: What were your impressions of Sri Lanka on your last visit?
A: I witnessed investments in basic infrastructure – such as roads, highways, sidewalks and restored colonial buildings – bearing testimony to a facelift in motion.
Unfortunately, a lack of unbiased feasibility resulted in a couple of failed projects as well although I’m glad that initiatives of such magnitude are being rolled out. Significant progress was also noted in ICT and inland air travel.
I lived through the almost 30 year war amid constant fear for my life, and the aroma of freedom and peace was alien to me. When I walked the streets recently, I started to realise how it feels to be certain to get back home in one piece every night.
Q: How do you view the brain drain?
A: The two main reasons are the lack of opportunities and high cost of living. Sri Lanka is a small nation with a population of 21 million of which 75 percent is eager to find jobs, and settle down in and around Colombo. Although new infrastructure such as highways and roads connect the country, remote villages struggle to attract businesses and factories.
I remember the lengthy process, red tape and corruption involved in obtaining approvals to set up a plant in a remote area of Sri Lanka. And once you passed this hurdle, it was hard to find quality manpower from these villages.
Employees travelled daily from Colombo to these locations as it would be a social killer to resettle in these areas. As a result, life became difficult, hectic and challenging.
I have found life overseas to be more rewarding both financially and socially. There are ample opportunities for the right skills, room for career growth and plenty of time for family, as the infrastructure and systems are more focussed to cater to the needs of the people with more recognition for the importance of safety, wellbeing and quality of life.
Q: How can Sri Lankan expats be enticed to contribute or return to their country of birth?
A: The administrators governing the country should do so free of corruption and prejudice. This should be reflected in consistent policies, and transparent and effective support systems that genuinely fuel both local and foreign investments through a more confident private sector.
This would lead to employment opportunities and attract Sri Lankans domiciled abroad to return, and impart their wealth of global experience and creative ideas. Eventually, development in rural areas would attract communities to settle down with families, thereby relieving Colombo’s overpopulation.
Q: In the coming decade, what should Sri Lanka focus on most?
A: Sri Lanka should start working on long-term strategic initiatives revolving around its core competencies such as flora and fauna, and garner business community and societal involvement by way of key performance indicators.
It must look beyond traditional tea exports and the apparel industry to more diverse ventures, step up tourism and hospitality to host niche or upmarket tourists, and probably sea transportation so that it can act as a transit hub for refuelling, docking and storing sea cargo. These strategies must be communicated through digital marketing platforms, promoting Sri Lanka as a preferred travel destination for its diversity, history, location and size.
Q: What are your hopes for the country in the post-conflict era?
A: I hope to see Sri Lanka’s 90-plus percent literacy rate being abundantly reflected in its public sector, state institutions and politicians – the combined engine that drives the nation’s operations.