Glimpse of a street in Colombo. Source: 'Daily Mirror' of Sri Lanka. - Photo: 2023

Sri Lanka — The Status Quo Resumes?

By Charles Seevali Abeysekera

BROMLEY, UK, 3 May 2023 (IDN) — Fast forward the clock nine months and the country appears to have got through the worst with funds being provided by friendly donor countries and more recently by the IMF. A semblance of normality has returned or so it appears on the surface.

Gone are the demonstrations and barricades at Galle Face Green, gone are the endless queues at fuel stations and gone are the fears of imminent starvation.

The foreign exchange reserves, almost zero last July, have risen appreciably, fuel is available, albeit at a very high price and an essential life blood of the country—tourists—are returning.

Therefore, is Mother Lanka slowly but surely on the way to a full recovery and has normal service resumed…. or is it but an illusion? if I am penniless and someone lends me a few shillings to get by, am I to then assume that I am suddenly very solvent?

After a hiatus of many years, I recently visited Sri Lanka, albeit for a short period, and had a few but very interesting conversations with those who I believe provide a barometer into the so-called ”pulse of the nation”—those who depend on a daily or monthly wage in order to feed themselves. In other words, the vast majority of the populace.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, Sri Lanka looked exactly as it did when I was last in the country halfway through the last decade—chaotic, disorganised, dusty, manic and poor. I hasten to add that I did not venture into those parts of Colombo which to me are but an artificial edifice to those who seek to glorify delusions of grandeur!

To listen and absorb the voices of the desperate in the form of the bus driver, the baggage attendant, the receptionist, the porter, the waiter and the sales assistant describing just how desperate their lives are, was both very disturbing and sad.

For you know that you are but a passing stranger with whom they are sharing the experience of their day-to-day struggle and the resulting trauma. A stranger who will go away and live a life that they can never dream of, let alone aspire to, in their own country—no matter how hard they try.

The bus driver who finds it hard even to pay for the room he lives in because the spiraling inflation has resulted his earnings being effectively halved because the cost of goods has more than doubled but his wages have either remained static or even reduced.

The porter who laments the absence of tourists because he can no longer depend on tips to supplement his measly wages and thus even offers to carry my lap top case in the hope of getting a tip.

The sales assistant working in a retail spa outlet in a hotel, who laments the fact that only a single customer had walked in that day and wonders how he is going to make ends meet.

These are but three individuals whose economic plight is pathetic to observe and who hope desperately that things will improve. ”Hope” being the operative but meaningless key word !

The conversation with the sales assistant at the retail outlet revealed another aspect to Sri Lankan, or Sinhalese culture and society to be more specific, which I had long understood to be the case, but this was the first time it had revealed itself in such a stark manner.

Whilst conversing with him in Sinhalese, he made a statement that I was not from Sri Lanka. I responded by asking him if my Sinhalese was so bad?

No, he replied, “your Sinhalese is very good but you speak in a way that tells me you are not Sri Lankan or at least not living here”.

Having aroused my curiosity, I asked him to clarify what exactly he meant. His explanation was thus:

You have spoken to me in Sinhalese with courtesy and civility but such conversations do not happen, or at least are very rare, with customers who are Sri Lankan. When Sri Lankans (default Sinhalese) speak to us, they speak to us as though we are lesser beings and expect us to be servile. The way you speak tells me that you have not grown up here and thus you speak to me as an equal, and not as though you are a superior.

This simple exchange highlights one of the many reasons why Sri Lanka is where it is. For a society that discriminates against its own on such a diabolical socio-economic hierarchical manner is simply incapable of progressing.

”Sri Lankans are such friendly warm and welcoming people” or so claims the banners and videos that invite the world to come to Sri Lanka. However, what this marketing campaign omits is a simple but stark reality.

Sri Lankans are indeed very friendly and welcoming people if you happen to be light skinned aka white! They are also very friendly and warm if they conclude that you can do something for them or that you are more affluent than they are. They are equally friendly and warm if they treat you on a ”machang” level.

However, if they think you are of a lower socio-economic class to them, they will treat you as lesser beings and expect you to be servile. This obscenity works all the way down the socio-economic food chain.

A recent observation I heard from someone who frequents upmarket hotels in Colombo was just how disinterested staff appeared to be, their sullen faces and poor demeanor. I guess if those who are surviving on the breadline observe the financial disparity between themselves and those that have money to throw away like confetti, the above observation does make sense.

Sri Lankan or at least Sinhalese culture does not allow for the dignity of labour because it is a society based on feudal patriarchal values and not on meritocracy. For example, a person who patronises a hotel can never understand what it is like to be in the shoes of those who work there and whose job is to serve him or her.

For the simple truth is that the person who patronises the hotel will never ever need to be a server—at least not in Sri Lanka. The irony is that when those very same patrons go overseas, especially for education purposes, they are happy to do any jobs to make ends meet and despite them encountering working conditions opposite to those in Sri Lanka, when they return home, they revert to type—master / mistress—servant.

How does a society that looks down upon its own based on class and wealth, ever aspire to progress? The near bankruptcy of Sri Lankan has also very rightly been attributed to the industrial scale corruption and incompetence of the political class. It is generally claimed that a single family caused the downfall of Sri Lanka.

However, long before this single family allowed their cancer to metastasise, corruption was the standard operating procedure, not just amongst the political class but also the business class.

To blame the political class for the downfall of Sri Lanka is disingenuous, for the political class has been aided and abetted in the downfall of Sri Lanka by the business class.

It is claimed that of the $54 billion owed by Sri Lanka to creditors, some $34 billion has been moved overseas illegally. Did one single family steal all this and that too in no more than a decade? Of course not!

The truth is that money has been moved overseas illegally since the time that overseas developers were introduced into Sri Lanka in the late 1950’s and that was done by the local business class in cahoots with the political class.

The ”commission culture” started a long time ago with the difference between then and now being that back in the days of good old Ceylon , there were only a few chosen elite who knew the system and they operated within the ”old boys” network.

A fish rots from the head down. Sri Lankans have been desperately seeking a competent political leader with integrity to lead them into the ”promised land“. However, as much as the country needs such a political leader it also needs leaders of commerce who are also competent, are honest, have integrity, pay their taxes and can lead by example. Does the country possess such leaders?

As the country ended up being bankrupt due to both economic and political incompetence, the answer is quite evident. Is it not?

An interesting exercise in understanding where some of the $34 billion has ended up is to observe the property market in overseas cities such as Melbourne.

Whilst many who migrated to Australia did so with what little they could take in terms of foreign exchange and then got on the property ladder by way of job security and mortgage, what is equally revealing is just how many have arrived in Australia and managed to buy property for cash.

The obvious question is just how did these recently migrated folks end up being able to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions to buy property outright?

That answers can be found within the illegal trading currency market and those that leave Sri Lanka with thousands of dollars on their person. Those same people will rinse and repeat the process with each and every trip they make overseas. The fear of getting caught in Colombo is easily offset with an adequate bribe which is the standard operating procedure.

I became aware just how insidious this continues to be when I was recently listening to some very senior executives in some of the largest conglomerates in Sri Lanka talking about leaving Sri Lanka, which according to them had no future, and how they planned to migrate and move their millions overseas through the illegal currency market.

When the leaders of industry, to whom their employees and indeed the wider public look up for guidance, leadership and vision are contemplating migrating and taking vast sums of the nation’s wealth with them illegally, is it any surprise that the country ended up bankrupt?

To blame one corrupt family of destroying the country is utterly disingenuous because the country has been brought to its knees by its own corrupt and false values which by default actively encourages citizens to act illegally.

This corrupt system is aided and abetted by what I refer to as the ”machang culture”. A system that is based on who you know and what influence you possess, which by default, actively encourages rule breaking. A system where meritocracy and abiding by rules are alien concepts.

A society can only progress if it is a rules-based society where the majority of the citizenry abides by the law of the land. In such a society, processes, structures and systems will work seamlessly and will be fit for purpose because those who work within and manage them will adhere to the rules because they are expected to and is the culture.

However, in a society where false values and rule-breaking are almost inculcated from the cradle, processes and systems will be abused, manipulated and will not be fit for purpose.

In such a society, which Sri Lanka sadly is, each and every citizen therefore bares a direct or indirect responsibility for the bankruptcy of the nation.

To borrow in order to build, grow and become self-funding is simple visionary logic which is applicable to individuals, organisations and countries.

To borrow in order to steal the money borrowed, borrow again and repeat the process and borrow again and repeat the process yet again gives Einstein’s Definition of Insanity a whole new meaning!!

*Charles Seevali Abeysekera, a semi-retired sales and marketing professional, has worked in the UK mailing industry for over 35 years. He also scribes a blog on current affairs as well as reflections and thoughts on his own life journey. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Glimpse of a street in Colombo. Source: ‘Daily Mirror’ of Sri Lanka.

Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

We believe in the free flow of information. Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, except for republished articles with permission.

Related Posts

Begin typing your search term above and press enter to search. Press ESC to cancel.

Back To Top