What I learnt from my school is, irrespective of one being privileged at birth, it is equality which matters. When we were on the playing field it was always about who had the better defence to open batting, who was more accurate in swinging the ball and who was the most alert for the slips- the discussion was about that. It never occurred to us that somebody was Tamil or Muslim because always the focus was on commonality. That sense didn’t prevail even among teachers.
Q: What made you quit a high profile office as the CEO of National Development Bank PLC (now known as NDB Bank) and take up politics which undoubtedly would have been challenging and at the same time entailed a colossal financial loss?
A: When one makes a transition, it is the family that will bear the brunt and consequences of it. In my case too, the biggest challenge was not for me but for my family. My decision to come into politics is not considered a personal decision because I found out that when I first came in, that I was the first CEO of a public quoted company ever to come into the Sri Lankan Parliament. If you are 40 plus and well accomplished in your profession and you have a couple of grown up kids who still haven’t got into university or professional education, the risk is greater because between 40 and 50 are the years where your savings got to rise, so that you can take care of your family and your children. But really, the country needs you at 40 despite the barriers to enter politics. I came into politics hoping that at some point we could remove that barrier so that others too could come in.
One or two professionals coming into the scene will not change the face of Sri Lankan politics. Here, when I mean professionals, I don’t narrowly define that because professionals have always been in local politics. They have been largely lawyers and doctors who are self employed professionals. But here we are talking about professionals who are engaged in organizations and can’t really come in because of barriers. The other barrier to entry in the present political context is it’s a popularity contest. If you are typical professional you do your work and part of being a professional is, I think, inbuilt is that you are not in the popularity books. That inevitably in this political climate is a challenge. When political leaders make decisions about candidacy, they make them based on who can win rather than who is suitable to run. There is a difference between these two questions. Therefore people get left out.
Other than those barriers, there are inhibitions from the side of the professional, mainly about the reputational loss when you come into this field. The capital you will bring into politics when you come as a professional is credibility. That credibility rests on two pillars- one pillar is your personal credibility and other is your professional credibility which will either stand or take a hit depending on the profession you are in. Every profession has its place on the credibility rank and if you take any survey, politicians here have the lowest credibility! Since all politicans are painted with the same brush, you got to overcome public perceptions such as ‘is he one of them?’ or ‘you wait and see he will also become one of them.’ So you’ve got overcome all these. I believe that by sitting on easy chairs it will not make any change for us; we’ve got to be involved and this belief drove me to take up politics.
Q: What are the principles which govern your political journey?
A: I believe in justice and a society built on the rule of law. Justice must be served and seen to be served, for which the institutional framework must be in place. It’s not just the making of laws- we have enough laws but the issue is their implementation. Your confidence in the system comes from the faith in an independent judiciary which as you know took a big hit in the recent past. We can’t just sit back and just blame politicans. Professionals, including those in justice whether they be lawyers or judges, should all exercise without fear or favor the power that is given to them so that justice is dispensed.
Secondly, I feel strongly about equality. Even in the realm of law, justice should be applied equally. Everybody should be treated equally. A government has an obligation that every child is assured of an education. But we have to redefine that obligation because it’s not about education anymore. It’s about quality education. To get a quality education, you got to go to a reputed institution.
It’s been a journey and my family business is not politics, I’m a complete outsider. This was not a journey anyone could have charted, not even my parents, but the right circumstances prevailed and those circumstances propelled me to get into where I got into. So I feel strongly about justice and equality.
Third principle I’m guided by is opportunity. We have to create a society where people will have opportunity. People come to see us when they want to put a child to a school or to get a job for themselves or their children. These are the two dominant areas and how ridiculous can it become? How can a politician dispense at an individual level, a good school or a job? There is something terribly wrong in our society. What we should be doing is creating the policy framework which gives opportunity and that opportunity will be through education and that is not merely academic education but one which is more skill-driven which is linked to income. Here we can take a cue from the dual educational system which prevails in Germany where ever student is given a skills training.
Q: In what way do you think your family and your education at Royal College were instrumental in shaping these principles?
A: What I learnt from my school is, irrespective of one being privileged at birth, it is equality which matters. When we were on the playing field it was always about who had the better defence to open batting, who was more accurate in swinging the ball and who was the most alert for the slips- the discussion was about that. It never occurred to us that somebody was Tamil or Muslim because always the focus was on commonality. That sense didn’t prevail even among teachers.
When we went to assembly, every scripture was read- the Dhammapada, Bhagawath Geetha, Bible and the Koran. It was instilled in us that we got to be respectful of everybody’s difference and everybody’s culture; also that you could learn from each other. That way I think Royal College is a very good model.
Family plays a very important role because you learn all your basics from the family. I don’t know if all this happened unconsciously but in my home I have never heard a word of racial or religious prejudice. I would have probably grown up with it. Education is important but what is more important is character. In my view this character will come largely from home.
Q: How do you think the political commitment could be pledged towards investing in people for a better social set up?
A: It comes from the more deeply held view that people are the centre of the reality in which we exist, therefore everybody has dignity and equality. If I look at it from a development economist’s point of view which is where my training comes from, centre of development is also people. That’s fundamental to understand. Therefore the way I would define in the Sri Lankan context at this point of time is development must mean that people should directly benefit both at individual level and family level. Fruits of development must flow freely to the low income groups. We should go from hard infrastructure to soft infrastructure and that’s where education comes in as the base along with skills development etc. I think what I described just now was widely accepted by the UNP. The UNP’s policy from 2002 to 2004 has been more like a free market oriented Washington Consensus although we were never that. Today we certainly aspire for a social market economy. What it means is that the social aspect is brought out into the centre. The market aspect is important because we still think that market is more efficient and the market is competitive. Competition is important to reduce corruption. Pricing is where corruption comes- that is the philosophy. So I think the political will is there but in the quest for development, you need to consider how investment could benefit the most number of people.
Q: What is your post January 8 experience?
A: I would say in the first 100 days it was an interesting experience because it was about change. It was about delivering some of the promises we made in our 100-day program. I would say we have done in 100 days what a single government in the past hadn’t done within such a period of time. Now going beyond the 100 days, the feelings are a little bit more mixed. The reason is because we have got a lame duck parliament. When we got a lame duck parliament, it affects the government. The defeated forces are trying to assert themselves and this is the real issue here. As a minority government, what we have done is significant within 100 days. The majority is a reactionary majority of defeated forces who are trying to assert themselves. This should not be allowed because people wanted a change on January 8.
Q: Do you think that right UNPers are in right positions in the government?
A: In politics the principle is little different to the private sector. The private sector culture is performance-based. In the military and also in the legal profession it’s seniority which is the overriding principle. If we look at our history, it’s been seniority that has been the principle in politics. So I would say as we look at international experience that it should probably be a mix because if we look at lot of countries, they are led by young people because for one thing you have to keep on updating your knowledge constantly. I think we should increasingly move towards that.
Q: What is your personal view on the move for a national government?
A: My personal view on this is in the next phase there are lots of reforms we need to push through if we really want to think about pulling this country out of the mess it is in. In doing so, it will be good to build a national consensus and move towards some national policies on major issues. So I think for a limited period of time, ideally maybe for three years, that we go on the basis of a national government of pre-agreed things.
To some extent it’s going to be a new concept because we have been used to a Westminster system of politics where the language is Government and Opposition. So to get people to look at it differently and work differently may be a bit of a challenge, given the fact that we need to put some basic reforms into place. I think the prime minister has already agreed that if we were to become the majority party and we are going to form the government, we will invite SLFP to form a national government on a national agenda which I think is good. Then after basic reforms we can get back to the competitive political landscape.
Q: What are your concerns about the 20th Amendment?
A: One of the problems people often claim to be having in the existing electoral system leads to kind of violence particularly between the members of the same political party. I think that’s a law and order problem. If I attack someone or destroy someone else’s property, it’s a law and order problem. Attempting to sort out a law and order problem by an electoral reform is not really going to work and if you don’t have the preferences, the law and order problem will continue. The second reason people often give on this is they say you need a lot of money to go and compete in a larger geography which is a half truth because where people are abusing resources for campaigning now, will take the same quantum of resources and apply it in a smaller geography and they might still buy the votes. This is to do with campaign expenditure reform. So the reforms which are presently being proposed will not solve those issues. The other one is if people really want to get rid of the preferential system that’s fine, but what do you replace it with?
One of the laudable things about the present system is that it has proportional representation (PR).
In 1970 election the UNP polled more than the United Front government of the day but the UNP was reduced to nothing in opposition. In 1977 results, the gap was not very big but the gap in Parliament was huge because of the first past the post system. What PR does is, it gives a better democratic representation in government. So the PR principle must be retained. We are for a mixed system. We are opposed to what’s being proposed now because we don’t want the parliament increased by even one seat. For a 20 million population, 225 is a big parliament. Within the 225 let’s reform it. Then how many electorates are we going to have and how much PR? If you are going to do the one vote system, then you got to increase the PR because the minor parties, the minorities, can only get represented if there is a larger PR.
The more preferred method which is the mixed member majoritarian system is where you vote in your electorate, you take the proportions, you look at the seats and allocate the seats. The other is the two vote system which is more democratic which basically says you have your electorates, you are past the post and you cast a separate vote at national level and the PR is decided based on the whole country and you top up on to this so a two vote system is more democratic in that sense. The other advantage of the two vote system is that it addresses something which none of the present proposals address. None of the present proposals solve the fundamental question of suitable people coming into parliament. The two votes system solves it. Because in two vote system even if there are no preferences, you know in a particular electorate these four people are competing. If the UNP runs a drug peddler people will know and think the minority party candidate is a better representative. At the national level they might still say for instance, ‘the UNP has a vision for the country, a better management team, let’s vote for them at national level’. So PR is decided on that vote and is adjusted to this. The existing ones don’t really solve our problem and therefore moving to two ballot system would be better.
Q: What would be your agenda as the UNP organizer for Moratuwa?
A: Moratuwa is very dynamic with different people’s groups and industries. Then there is a professional community coming from there. I aspire to strengthen the local industries there. It’s also rich in its cultural diversity. There is dynamism from art to music to dance. It has a culture of its own with a long history and I think we need to nurture that. Third thing is it’s an important base for education with a grand network of schools. One of the things on my agenda is I want to see basically that they grow. There are 10,000 business establishments there so obviously there is entrepreneurial energy out there. I have also identified some weaknesses in health care and then education. There are also some environmental issues and also housing.