Life Online – Anusha David

Eran Wickramaratne, Deputy Minister for Highways, Education and Investment Promotion is first and last a gentleman. Hailing from a prominent Christian family, Eran is like a breath of fresh air wafting into the somewhat jaded political halls. A man of firm beliefs and principles, with God and family coming first in his life, he is a symbol of a new breed of politicians this country so desperately needs and lacks.

An old boy of Royal College, with a Degree in Economics and Politics and a M.Sc. in Economics from the University of London, he is married to Kushlani – the occasion being the happiest of his life and has two children, a son Dhishan and daughter Sohanya.

On leaving the privileged private sector to serve the people, Eran said “his decision, finally, is a response to the call of my conscience, it is not a decision of sacrifice. It is, rather, a privilege. The chance to give my best working years to the highest calling in a democratic society: the calling to serve my country in Parliament.”

What is the present strategy for bringing greater investment into the country?

The first thing investors look for is a stable environment, political, legal and social, so one of the first things we have done is to re-establish the rule of law. We have put the most senior judge on the bench as the Chief Justice. Now that is more significant than you think because investors want to feel that their legal contracts will be honoured and the law upheld. We are also installing a transparent culture where we are not taking unsolicited projects, but we are going to establish a system of open bidding. We will also be going overseas and promoting Sri Lanka.

Notwithstanding serious environmental concerns, do you think scrapping the Port City project could deter other investment projects?

I don’t think so. When people see that we have taken decisions for very good reasons, genuine investors will be encouraged rather than deterred.

Has the discussion about reforming the health, education and agricultural sectors begun?

Even before we came into government we had taken a decision to move from an emphasis on hard infrastructure to soft infrastructure. This means higher investments in health and education in particular. That means that in the health sector investment will increase from 1.5 % of GDP to 6 % over a period of time. Agriculture will always be important. Our focus on agriculture will be to increase productivity. Sri Lanka really needs to increase its productivity so that we can release more people from agriculture into other service areas because there is going to be a dearth in human resources in other areas. With regards to health we have an ageing population and therefore health issues are becoming critical. There has been underinvestment in health, but like most countries, the government needs help to meet the needs of the people so we are going to increase investment in health and want more people to invest in the health sector.

By profession you are a banker, why did you choose to enter politics?

For long professionals have stayed back and criticized politics and politicians. The question I had to answer [in my conscience] is do I sit back in my easy chair and join the critics or do I become a part of actually resolving the problem. I am of the belief that if you want change you have to be part of that change. It was a hard decision but I decided to answer the call of my conscience.

In your view what’s the road ahead – a return to a two-party system or national coalition governments?

I think in the long run the country needs a strong opposition to any governemnt in power, therefore the two-party system is necessary to preserve democracy and society as we know it, but there is a case at this point of time , a unique situation where the two major parties and others could get together and actually reform the system. Maithripala Sirisena was chosen by the opposition in a very unusual move to become its candidate. It has brought together warring factions and it is indeed an unprecedented situation. So I think with a common agenda for a limited period of time there is much to be said for forming a national government, to reform the constitution, to rebalance the powers between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. We can keep them independent. We can reform the electoral system of the country, so I think for a limited period of time, on a given pre-agreed agenda of reform, there is a case for national government.

You have said, ‘We [the government] have got a golden opportunity’! However many such ‘golden opportunities have been there in the past. What will you and the government do to ensure that this will not be yet another wasted opportunity?

Your question is the question of a sceptic and I can understand that. I returned to the country after completing my studies abroad after the ethnic riots. It was a time when most young people were leaving the shores of Sri Lanka after the ’83 riots. I actually took the reverse trip back. I came back thinking that we could reverse what had happened, that in a short period Sri Lanka could be on a take off. I actually believed that. 25 years later I was wondering whether Sri Lanka was the country that was on perpetual take off but never quite takes off. People were losing hope. Then the war came to an end and the government tried to turn the republic into a kingdom. The presidency into a kingship. It was at that time that I decided that I needed to do my share to ensure Sri Lanka remains a republic. A citizen is the most important person in a republic, not the rulers. I wanted to be part of the process that ensures that it happens. On the 8th of January people voted for that change. We now have to build on that change and yes we have a golden opportunity now to rebuild the economy so that future generations have opportunities to blossom.

What is the most rewarding part of being in government?

I’m not sure, it’s too soon.

What is the hardest part about being in government?

You get blamed for everything, even what you are not responsible for.

Who are three people in history you admire most and why?

Mahatma Gandhi for the way in which he came out of South Africa to India and was able to lead a movement that freed India of the yoke it was labouring under. Gandhi led a non-violent movement. I admire Martin Luther King who basically spoke courageously for the rights of minorities in a predominantly white culture. He didn’t fight just for black rights, he fought for human rights and he paid with his life for it. In a world that is dominated by ethnic and parochial thinking, Barack Obama’s victory is a testimony to what Martin Luther King fought for 40 years ago. Nelson Mandela a man who spent 27 years in prison for his beliefs, but he comes out after 27 years with a message for peace and reconciliation. Mandela came out with a world view that was totally different. Instead of seeking vengeance, he proclaimed a message of reconciliation. He showed it by example, by his actions.

How does your family inspire you?

They are highly supportive. My two children are very reflective and when I was invited to take a seat in parliament, my wife had asked them what do you think of this? It is going to certainly disrupt our lives; it’s going to be a costly decision for the family, to which they replied, tell him that we can look after ourselves. Tell him to make his decision according to his conscience. I will never forget that.

What’s the happiest or proudest moment in your life?

Happiest was when I got married. Proud well; we were talking at a meeting, people were talking about motivation, seminars etc. I was a middle level executive at CitiBank. I was managing the funds for US AID at the time. This was after the ’89 problems. They had plans for big seminars, etc dealing with motivation. They had this huge democracy programme, various seminars etc. Having put forward their plans, they then asked me what I thought, my reply was “ I would take all this money, I will take 5000 young people, they have been laying down their lives for us, I will take them to Singapore – as we arrive there I will show them a film – 1948 Sri Lanka, 1948 Singapore. I will say no more. I will send them to government hospitals, offices, I will give them a ride on the highway, I will take them to the malls, I will give them money for shopping, I will expose them to everything Singapore has to offer. That’s how I will spend this money. If people are exposed to what the world has to offer they won’t take to arms. I can’t give them that exposure by keeping them in Colombo or by showing them a film.

25 years later – I took in a young HR head, a woman. As you know where women are concerned there is a glass ceiling particularly in the private sector. So against much opposition I appointed a young lady as the HR head. It was the time of our corporate weekend, where all staff are taken out of Colombo to a hotel, all staff and their families. Well in 2008 was the financial crisis and when my young lady HR head came and told me, “Eran instead of taking the staff to the beach shall we take them abroad”? What sprang to my mind was my encounter with USAID, so I told her, tell me more. In short, we went to the board, I was asked how I would fund this. I said easy – it’s the cost of the car of the CEO. So I continued to drive my old car, the board approved it, Hemaka Amarasuriya was the Chairman and he asked why didn’t anyone think of this. So we all went on this trip. Everyone was thrilled. My driver came and spoke to me with tears in his eyes. His children were not even familiar with Colombo but had now gone overseas. The controller of immigration called me up. He said “We have never heard of anything like this. We have never been to a private institution and issued a passport. We came to NDB, we set up an office, we issued 500 passports to people who have never held a passport. We have never done anything like that. I had to call you and tell you that”. All I want to say is if you get your philosophy sorted out, the rest will work itself. I didn’t have motivational programmes, we did it in an year of global recession. At my farewell this was mentioned and it is definitely one of my proudest moments.

What advice did your parents give you that you best remember?

They gave me so much advice. One of the things that probably affected me most was to respect and be sensitive to other people. It is based on the premise that everybody is created in God’s image and therefore you basically need to love and respect them. Everyone has dignity. Everyone needs to be respected. You may have disagreements but you have to respect one another. All my ideas are driven by that belief.

What’s your most cherished family tradition?

Every year – this is a very carefully guarded secret, every year between the 26th and 30th of December, we spend time with the family. Nothing is allowed to interfere. No weddings, no funerals, no social occasions. We all lead extremely busy lives as most of my family holds some kind of public office. So this is the anchor my mother put in place when we were small – my mother enforced it and it has continued for decades. Then the wives / spouses came into it. The grandchildren have come into it, now they are getting married and it keeps growing. It’s not just a holiday, it’s the arguments, the conversation, connecting with each other, the correction and healing process. For instance if my mother had noticed one of us being rude to our wives over the course of the year, during those 4 days she will bring it up. It is a very important thing she established for our family. We communicate, reinforce connections. Communication is critical. We are 3 brothers and a sister. We are very different to each other and we have major disagreements, but we were taught to communicate and we do.

Who were your heroes or role models when you were a child?

My parents at one level, then at another level I was very interested in sports, so Anura Tennekoon was a cricketing hero, his batsmanship in particular. He was a very technically correct batsman.

What do you think has stayed the same about you throughout life?

I think that’s for other people to say isn’t it? Well I guess I worked with teams. I was a team player always. I was head prefect in school, I played games, and both at play and work I created teams. For one thing there is wisdom in the council of many. You get the best result if the whole team has had its input and something that most leaders don’t realize is that you look good when your team succeeds. I try to practice that philosophy. I had a lot of opportunities and there are always people who are better than me but I have had tremendous opportunities, so I believe in a team spirit and team players. If this country is to succeed, leaders have to build a good team.

Today’s society is so complex that everyone has to work together. No one person has the answer. The flow of information is mind boggling, the changes taking place are stupendous. So the only way to keep abreast of everything is to build a good team. The leader’s job is to build a good team, to motivate, to guide and to be there for your team. When I was at the bank, my philosophy was, you take care of the people and the people will take care of the business. Lots of CEOs come in and say I need to look at the bottom line. HR functions are regulated to the bottom of the pile. I made sure that HR reported to me because my philosophy was people which came to me from my beliefs and my upbringing. When I first sat on the CEO’s chair at the age of 44 I told myself, Eran you take care of the people and the people will take care of the business. To me that’s what leadership is all about. You have to understand human nature.

How do you like to relax?

My wife says I don’t know how to relax.

What are your hobbies and special interests?

My interest is people. It manifests itself in different ways but its people. Even if we go sightseeing, I am more interested in talking to people and engaging with them at every level.

Which single book has greatly influenced you, and why?

The Bible has influenced me the most. I was born into a family which had the Christian faith and that has influenced me more than anything else I have read.
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