An educated workforce begets progress – Sumali Wijayatilleke

Q: As far as perceptions go, do you think Sri Lanka can regain its composure post-COVID?

A: Sri Lanka is one of a few countries that handled the pandemic well with a relatively low level of mortality. However, when the pandemic struck, the Sri Lankan economy was already vulnerable due to high debt levels – it had much weaker growth due to pre-existing conditions.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, not only tourism but most other industries were hit hard. Urgent measures are required to limit the damage and rebuild the economy, to ensure that growth is more robust, resilient and sustainable.

Q: How do you perceive Sri Lanka today in the context of progress or the lack thereof?

A: On every visit to Sri Lanka, I witness changes but they seem to lack the right direction. Improvements in infrastructure such as highways have significantly impacted daily life although congestion and pollution seem worse.

In urban areas, the creation of leisure and recreational spaces for the public is evident. However, less significance and awareness is given to environmental factors.

Despite the surge in new supermarkets in most towns, access to high quality organic food is limited. Easy access to quality healthcare is for affluent people and health services are dominated by the private sector. Public health services do not reflect much improvement.

And the gap in income distribution has widened over the years despite the increase in per capita GDP.

Q: And how do citizens of the UK view Sri Lanka?

A: Given the strong historical links between the two nations, the image that British people have of Sri Lanka is positive and warm. Despite what the country has been through, Sri Lanka remains a sought after travel destination.

Q: Likewise, how do Sri Lankans living in your country of domicile view their motherland?

A: While most yearn to return, there seems to be a lack of confidence to take a step forward. Hesitation stems from a deficit of trust in the judicial system, prevalence of political interference, and absence of long-term policies in vital areas – such as the economy, education, health and welfare.

Q: What were your impressions of Sri Lanka on your last visit – has it changed from the past?

A: The last time I visited Sri Lanka was in 2019. And for the first time in my life, I was able to travel to the north in 2015.

I grew up in the war era, and have witnessed the devastation and how it impacted people’s daily lives. It was nice seeing the country and people recovering from these wounds, and rebuilding the country gradually. 

Q: From afar, how do you perceive news about Sri Lanka?

A: The virtual world we live in has brought our home closer to us than a decade ago. There are online news websites, social media and easy access to live news on the main TV channels in Sri Lanka.

As for international coverage, negative news seems to make the headlines. There is a huge responsibility for diplomats to ensure that fair and accurate information is conveyed to the world.

Q: How do you view the brain drain and the lack of its reversal?

A: Most who leave to pursue higher education overseas make a permanent home in those countries. A lack of reasonable remuneration and career progression discourage their return.

Better living conditions, human rights, work-life balance and quality education in developed countries entice families with young children. Until these conditions improve in Sri Lanka, a reversal of it would be difficult.

Q: What should Sri Lanka focus on most in the coming decade?

A: Structured programmes to encourage more young entrepreneurs must be introduced with proper guidance and funding. Investments in R&D are crucial with a long-term view in mind.

Embracing diversity and promoting equality by enriching citizens’ attitudes will drive the country toward social harmony.

And overhauling the education system to create out-of-the-box thinkers with problem solving capabilities is crucial to keep pace with other developing countries such as India and China.

Q: And finally, what are your hopes for the country in the next decade or so?

A: For Sri Lanka to be able to utilise its strategic location, biodiversity and natural resources to its advantage. Lessons learned during the conflict era should aid progress as a nation with a united vision.

I hope future generations will continue to protect and cultivate the unique identity, rich culture, values and traditions of Sri Lanka.