Sunday, June 10, 2007

Financial Times: Why is Business Silent (About Corruption) ?

Source: Financial Times

Why is Business Silent?

Every Monday morning, most Sri Lankans wonder what’s in store for them. Rather than look at the week ahead with a lot of vigour, vitality, drive and passion, we have become a nation of what one would call the “what next or so what” mentality.

Never a day passes without distressing news on the warfront of combatants dying on either side of the fence. But that doesn’t worry too many people. “Why bother” is the commonly accepted expression.

The biggest news to hit us and trigger the “why bother” response was the alleged involvement of Treasury Secretary Dr P.B. Jayasundera in the alleged financial deal that President Mahinda Rajapaksa had with the LTTE prior to the election. If this is true – and the Treasury Secretary hasn’t denied the report – it is the first time that a high powered official from an important ministry has been implicated in such a transaction.

Civil society was appalled by this development and in any other developed society the accused would have quit and defended his innocence, if that was the case, outside. But in the Sri Lankan case, the Treasury Secretary appears to have chosen to ignore the report. However, shouldn’t he clear his name?

On the other hand the politicisation of ‘permanent’ secretaries is not new. It happened during President J.R. Jayewardene’s time, followed by Ranasinghe Premadasa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and now Mahinda Rajapaksa. So in this sense, it’s a follow the leader kind of exercise. But shouldn’t this kind of behaviour stop and parliament be called to review the role of the permanent secretary?

The high priests of the business community are also a pathetic lot – choosing to ignore or only raise concerns of the state of Sri Lanka in private. The Chamber of Commerce (CCC) statement this week was a weak attempt to draw attention to the growing crisis in Sri Lanka.

There were two massive business conferences – the CCC’s economic summit and the CIMA Business Summit. But these chose to sidestep or ignore the crises with probably some passing reference if it came to economic stability. The business community came with all guns firing in 2001 when its bottom-line was hit after a series of LTTE attacks (Colombo airport and oil refinery) and a crisis in US markets for garments.

With profits sharply down, some groups within the CCC came together to launch the Sri Lanka First initiative with a massive ‘hold hands for peace’ involving close to a million people across Sri Lanka being the focus of attention. It was the biggest display of private sector involvement in a non-business but political issue.

What has happened to that initiative – at a time when business desperately needs some leadership and direction to ensure that the fighting ends and peace talks resume? US Ambassador Robert Blake was among those who this week said there was an urgent need for a negotiated settlement to the war and noted how much had been lost in terms of investment due to the conflict. His audience – top business leaders; any discussion on this issue? As far as we know, NO. At the same time as these conferences were taking place, hundreds of Tamils were being bussed out of the city against their will!

While the crises and uncertainty increase, lopsided government policies are not helping even those who choose to invest. For example local companies that have invested in mini-hydro and dendro power projects are coming up against a wall of bureaucratic processes that would deter any foreign investor.

The approvals are so numerous that companies have spent months in going from desk to desk at some government office trying to get the project off the ground.

These are national projects intended to ease the acute power crisis plaguing this country. While this ‘harassment’ goes on, Power Minister W.J.M. Seneviratne in a statement this week spoke of a major power crisis and warned of power cuts in the future!


aussielankan said...

I think the business community is in a tight bind. On the one hand they need to project an image of confidence to the international community re investment. On the other, they are no doubt suffering in silence. However, there are also some who are probably profiting from the war. But I think it is the need to project business confidence that keeps them quiet.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion and experience during the past 60 years of SL history, the business community always chooses to make hay, both, while the sun shines and when the cyclone storms hit.