( November 14, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Last week this column reflecting on concerns over the controversial expropriation bill used three words to describe public frustration over governance issues – Anger, fury, resignation. This week we add: ineptness, fear and eventually join the flow.This applies to the ineffectiveness in the chamber movements of today to challenge, be objective or firmly reflect their stand on any draconian moves by the state, an issue that was prominently seen in this week’s saga of the Bill to Revive Underperforming or Under-utilized Assets.
On Saturday, when six chambers led by the ‘powerful’ Ceylon Chamber of Commerce met the President to discuss the bill, the meeting ended with a tame statement saying they were assured by the government that this is a ‘one-off’ bill. How naïve can one get? The essence of the statement was a damning indictment on the chambers particularly since the previous day, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka came out strongly saying public comment and scrutiny is a must and the bill should go through the due process.As public criticism grew on Sunday with the clergy and the respected Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter, Ven. Thibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala – not forgetting the concerns raised by pro-government parties the JHU and Wimal Weerawansa’s NFF which were courageous enough to abstain from the vote – also opposing the bill, the chambers did an about-turn and ‘rushed’ a new statement to the media, essentially following the flow of public criticism.
From a subdued position of acceptance, five chambers (instead of six that met the President) issued a fresh call urging the government to defer the bill, a stand not expressed in the earlier statement. Since the media was not privy to Saturday’s meeting except for Rupavahini, it is unclear whether the chambers expressed their protest or concern or meekly gave into the government’s assertions. Or were they reluctant to express whatever strong views made at the meeting, in a public statement?
Nevertheless the hectic behind-the-scenes work into the second statement on Monday showed the anxiety of the chambers to get their ‘new’ position across and join the flow of public anger as the bill was being tabled the next day in parliament.
Hats off to the Daily Mirror Business for its headline “Gutless chambers” which says it all and is further reflected in the Business Times email poll where respondents called the chambers a set of ‘spineless leaders, lolling in their comfort zone’ rather than joining the public call for justice and fairplay, which they however did later.
Where are the doughty fighters of yester-year like D.S. Jayasundera, Chari de Silva, R. Sivaratnam or Ken Balendra and business leaders of that generation? Today only one leader of that generation stands up for what is right in an environment mired with corruption, mis-management, ethics, values and lack of governance and accountability particularly in the private sector which makes lofty claims of governance and transparency in its annual reports.
K.C. Vignarajah, a former President of the Ceylon National Chamber of Commerce, has been constantly taking publicly-listed companies to task for lack of governance, accountability and transparency and fearlessly critical of insider trading and price-fixing in the stock market. He is one of the few to call a spade a spade and not afraid to suffer the consequences. How many of today’s business leaders are prepared to speak out against unjust acts and omissions of the state? Another fighter is Chandra Jayaratne ,a former Ceylon Chamber of Commerce Chairman.
The reluctance of the chambers to make public statements on issues of public concern was also reflected in a recent statement soon after the clash between politicians Bharatha Lakshman and Duminda Silva. A statement issued by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce on October 14 (soon after the election-day shooting) said it viewed with concern the recent post election incidents and the breakdown in the rule of law. However – while the whole of Sri Lanka and the entire world was aware of the shooting incident – the chamber statement failed to cite this incident although it was obviously the provocation for the statement.
Sri Lanka’s top-line chambers are very much part of civil society and shouldn’t want anarchy and disregard for law and order to prevail like any other concerned citizen. What has happened to the J-Biz Forum that raised concerns, goaded the government in mid-2000? In one statement, the forum dissatisfied with tsunami reconstruction efforts, said firmly, “If tsunami reconstruction and relief is unsatisfactory, we will have to intervene.” Where is that kind of boldness, courage and forthrightness in today’s genre of leaders?
Another key point that missed everyone until the Sunday Times stumbled on it last week was that the Sri Lanka Exhibition and Convention Centre (SLECC), a Board of Investment approved foreign investment from Singapore, is also listed for take-over. The company was listed as Intertrade Lanka (Pvt) Ltd, part of Singapore-based Pico Holdings. This is a successful foreign investment and surprisingly after everyone was alerted to this development through our website story, it failed to ignite any public concern. Neither did the opposition raise this issue in parliament whereas all BOI investments are protected by the Constitution and cannot be acquired unless in extreme emergencies – national security, affecting the sovereignty of the nation.
Pico has the option of challenging this decision in international arbitration on the grounds of protection provided in bilateral agreements. Whether the Singapore investor will choose to challenge it internationally remains to be seen. What is even more disturbing is that the company or any others like Sevanagala or Pelwatte was not given the decent choice of calling for an explanation – by letter before hand – as to why their companies should not be taken over for the reasons stated in the bill, rather than taking them by surprise! It was not only unjust and against the principles of natural justice but a draconian step by authorities that can only be described as arrogant.
The principles of natural justice would have also applied in giving the public a chance to challenge the bill in the Supreme Court, and if the court still held with the state, then the process one could argue is fair and equitable.
In September 2010, the government presented the 18th amendment to the Constitution providing untrammelled powers to the President and a limitless term in office, ‘in the national interest’. A year later, the government expropriates private assets, again in the national interest.
This kind of governance expresses one clear point: That the country is not only fast-tracking development but also fast-tracking the process of dictatorial decision-making which leaves us with one ‘look into the mirror’ question: Are we all guilty of culpable homicide (killing the ethics and values) of the current generation where younger people are being taught these ‘negative’ values and that this is the way to behave in society?”