Peace for the World

Peace for the World
First democratic leader of Justice the Godfather of the Sri Lankan Tamil Struggle: Honourable Samuel James Veluppillai Chelvanayakam

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sri Lanka out of viable political options Prof. Siri Hettige

Professor Siri Hettige secured his Ph.D. in Social Anthropology from Monash University, Australia in 1980. He functioned as the Head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Colombo for nearly ten years, since 1987. After the establishment of the current government in 2015, he was appointed as the Chairman of the National Police Commission, but he tendered his resignation in January, 2017. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Professor Hettige discussed the current political situation in the country, the crisis between private and public medical health sectors and the education system. He said Sri Lanka was in a serious situation as the country had also run out of viable political options.  
  • The government seems to have lost direction.
  • You can’t clap with one hand. It is a complex environment where I worked.
  • Why doesn’t the GMOA urge the government to strengthen the public health system?
  • There is a long way for a social revolution.
  • Having a high literacy rate is not very impressive unless it shows in the development and public welfare.
  • Education system has been politicized so much.
  • There appears to be reluctance on the part of the authorities to have knowledgeable people around the table to address big problems.
  • There are gender issues within the Sri Lanka Police.
  • Country is not making any headway in development.
  • Taxation needs to be reformed.
Q What made you resign as Chairman of the National Police Commission?

The immediate reason was that I had to go to Germany to accept a professorial post for one semester. As I couldn’t take leave for such a long period, I had to resign. On the other hand, I am a bit of an idealist who likes to do things in the best possible manner. If I find some difficulty, I have second thoughts.   

Q You didn’t receive much support to perform your duties. Am I right?

You can’t clap with one hand. These are collective efforts. It is not like your own organization that you try to improve. It is a complex environment where I worked.   

 What did you identify as the shortcomings of the Sri Lanka Police?

 I can’t pinpoint them and there are many issues. We initiated many programmes that in the long run would address most of the issues. We had to understand the present situation before bringing about a change. We initiated a study on the whole organization, with the purpose of identifying structural problems within the Sri Lanka Police. Based on that analysis, we tried to make the required reforms. The identifying process is done. We realized that there were issues regarding women in the police service as well. We identified gender issues within the organisation.   

We proposed a programme where people would comment on the performance of the police. Proposals were also made to digitize the system more as it would help improve the transparency and accuracy of the investigations. These things are underway. They are not known to people. In the long term, they will have a positive outcome.
Q  Do you see the government going anywhere with their concept of good governance?

 There is so much confusion in the country. The government seems to have lost direction. They may not be able to do everything. But there are some areas you have to pay attention to without any hesitation. Things are not easy. Nevertheless, we have to make an attempt. For instance, there are three big issues in governance. The first is reconciliation. People want to see peace among ethnic groups in this country which went through a thirty-year war. That is the bottom line. There must be some consensus on that. The government can’t really avoid that responsibility which is a major issue in the country at the moment.   

The second issue is development. I think the country is not making any headway in that respect. There is a degree of confusion in the sense that there is no direction in which the economy of Sri Lanka is moving towards. There must be some effort to have industrial development in this country, because not every citizen can be packed into the service sector. Unfortunately, that is what we have been doing. Everybody is moving into the service sector. Capital is basically circulating within the service sector. However, at the end of the day, people need commodities. If there are no commodities, the country has to import them. That is exactly what Sri Lanka is doing right now. In my opinion, that is a huge problem in the economy. There appears to be reluctance on the part of the authorities to have knowledgeable people around the table to address big problems. The third area is equality. I don’t believe we can sustain that kind of equality in this country. We should have a policy to rake the excess capital circulating within the economy. It is unbelievable that millions are spent to buy cars for politicians. We have one of the lowest tax rates in the world. Taxation needs to be reformed. Inequality will not exist if taxation is reformed in a beneficial manner. I don’t know why this is not obvious to so-called economists in the country.  
If the law is not implemented and if corruption is tolerated, there is no chance a country can move forward. In the case of Sri Lanka, we say we don’t want corruption but at the same time there is corruption everywhere.   

Q  What areas do you expect the government to consider in drafting the new constitution?

As far as I am concerned, a lot can be done even before drafting a constitution. Though we have had proposal after proposal regarding the devolution of power to local government bodies, we have not done anything. We have seen how difficult it has been for local councils to deal with issues like the garbage problem and the recent natural disasters. Local councils are riddled with corruption. A country can have the best constitution in the world. Yet, if the principles and legal provisions in the set of documents are not put into practice, we are living in a fantasy world. Have we prosecuted a single politician for corruption charges? Of course, you could say we were on the way to doing so. We are talking about corruption deals and incidents that have taken place, but we have failed to bring a single culprit to book. The laws that are already in the country should be implemented. We can’t wait any longer.
If the law is not implemented and if corruption is tolerated, there is no chance a country can move forward. In the case of Sri Lanka, we say we don’t want corruption but at the same time there is corruption everywhere.     

Q What kind of political changes would the country experience in future other than tribal party politics?

 I think currently we are facing a serious situation. We have run out of viable political options in the country. People say they will go out and start a social revolution. But we know there is a long way for that kind of transformation to take place. In the meantime, we have to bring hope to people and give them direction. Unfortunately, the elections will come and certain people will be elected. We have no control of it.
QSri Lanka boasts of a high literacy rate in the South Asian region. Does this demonstrate the real state of education?
Having a high literacy rate is not very impressive unless it shows in the development and public welfare of a country. Attention should be paid to identify what kind of impact it has towards the country. In fact, we can’t boast of the education system in this country at all.  
Q What is your take on the existing education system in Sri Lanka? 

The existing system does not produce inquisitive citizens. There was something called the ‘diploma disease’ way back in the early seventies. We have not been able to leave that behind. We are still living with the diploma disease. Our younger generation is very much affected by it. They basically collect certificates to carry to job interviews. When asked questions during interviews, they are sometimes clueless. However, the point is that education has become an instrumental activity these days.   

Young people are not knowledge-seekers, as they have no thirst for knowledge. It is important that we change the situation because education should serve a wider space in society. Unfortunately, we have deprived our young generation of having access to different viewpoints spreading around the world. It is partly because we have not cultivated their minds to be curious. The motivation for young people to learn is at a very low level now. The younger generation should be able to become independent learners with certain skills. The internet is full of sources of knowledge. The youth should be able to capture at least a small part of it. They lack the language skills and motivation to do so. They should locate themselves in a much wider canvas. But that is not happening in Sri Lanka.   

Q What kind of changes should be made to develop the state of education in Sri Lanka?

 You have thirteen years to do so. This period starts from Grade 1 and goes up to Grade 13 and is a very important period as far as the form of identity is concerned. You can use that opportunity to build up modern society using education as the vehicle of information, knowledge and ideas. There might be a few people within the system who really want to do this. Yet, the vast majority are products of the same system. Therefore, they don’t feel the need to do so. But, of course, they have to find ways and means of bringing about change. We have more than 264,000 teachers who can be motivated and mobilized for this task.   

Nevertheless, educational changes are already there in documents. The National Education Commission functions with academics and educationalists. However, they have not been able to implement what was in the documents due to the fact that the system has been politicized so much.   

Q  How do you see the storming of the Health Ministry by university students during a recently held protest against the SAITM?

It is a manifestation of a larger crisis. It should not be considered an isolated incident. It is just a tip of the iceberg. We all know there was a major controversy relating to the private medical faculty established in Ragama in 1980. It was similar. State sector medical students, medicos and other university students came out in protest, which resulted in a major calamity. In fact, we had a lot of trouble at the University of Colombo. The Vice Chancellor of the Colombo University, Stanley Wijesundera, was also gunned down.
Q Can you explain the crisis between private and public medical faculties? 

 This is a very strange situation. If you take the health system into account, it is not entirely public anymore. We have a private health sector in the country with flashy private hospitals popping up everywhere. They also offer a very good health service attracting many people who go to these hospitals, not just for medical tests, but even for consultation. Well-to-do people naturally rely on such private hospitals. The point is that marginalized people who are poor naturally have to rely on the public health system. This has created a huge anomaly between the public and private health systems.   

However, the so-called progressive medical people are not even able to address these issues. There is not a single parent today who does not pay for their child’s private education. Recently, while conducting a class, I asked my students whether they had ever gone to a tuition class. A hundred percent said yes. Yes, we have free education but it is utter nonsense. It is hard to find a single student who has passed his or her GCE Ordinary Level or Advanced Level without going for private tuition classes. There is a plethora of private institutions in villages and towns ranging from various private certificate courses to international schools in and around Colombo. Some schools are even run by politicos.
Basically, the gap between the rich and poor has rapidly widened within the education and health sectors, despite the public health and free education systems. The factor of the matter is that there are a number of people who have been marginalised. They are furious. They have absolutely no future. This is a deep-rooted problem.   

Q How should the issue be addressed?

 Nobody is talking about it in Parliament. It is a very serious situation. The state refuses to address this issue. We are not the only country with issues in health and education. There are countries that have addressed these issues very effectively. But we don’t want to learn from the countries that have succeeded. We just talk about countries where nothing has improved. Northern European countries like Norway, Denmark and Sweden should be taken as examples. Their politicians know what they are doing. Here, we hold a microphone to politicians and they just utter all kinds of nonsense. That is the unfortunate state of Sri Lankan democracy.   

First, we have to strengthen the public system. We must spend public money on improving it so there won’t be a marginalisation of the underprivileged. The rich can do whatever they like. What the rich do with their money is none of our business. We don’t have progressive taxation in this country. We leave most of our money in the hands of the rich. What is the rate of taxation here? It is just 17%. Nowhere in the world do you find this kind of low taxation. You can’t have 17% of taxation and leave 83% of income in the hands of the rich. This is merely nonsense.   

Why doesn’t the GMOA urge the government to strengthen the public health system? The point is whom you are going to ask it for. The rich will send their children to local and overseas private education centres. They would also go abroad for medical care at public expense.
Pic by Kithsiri de Mel