31 August 2017

I am not buying "corruption-inevitability," are you?

Dr Harsha De Silva, Deputy Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Development, has come out strong on the subject of corruption.  He has observed that the entire country is corrupt.  The implication of course is that his government is also corrupt. He has said that he’s ‘sick of it all.’  

The deputy minister should be applauded for having the courage to say it as it is.  One hopes that he will soon disassociate himself from the corrupt regime he is a part of and not give it any further legitimacy.  One hopes, also, that he will in due course detail the corruption and identify the corrupt.  

His, however, is not an isolated cry.  Following the recent resignation of Ravi Karunanayake and the information that has surfaced in the course of investigating the Central Bank bond issue scam, ardent supporters of the yahapalana regime, perhaps in damage-control mode, have taken refuge in the timeless legitimator: ‘corruption there will always be.’  

The subtext is easily obtained: ‘we are not going to get anything better if we throw these people out.’  

That logic could of course be applied to a lot of ills. One could say, for example, ‘there will always be nepotism, abuse of state resources, violation of democratic principles, bribery, embezzlement, petty theft, murder, rape, child molestation, racism, and gender inequality.’  In short, it is a mischievous statement. 

Another set of people, more cautious and cute, while chiding the government for its failures, nevertheless offer legitimacy by interjecting that the alternative would be worse.  They talk of ‘fearful memories (of the previous regime).’  The Friday Forum, while conceding that “the government’s agenda seems increasingly disconnected from the hopes and expectations (of the voters) and that its record on corruption [is] abysmal, interjects ‘the Joint Opposition is a spoiler’.  [There is] abuse of executive power.’  Another ardent critic of the previous regime and campaigner for ‘good governance,’ during a recent television debate cautioned, ‘we can’t go back to the future,’ even as he lambasted the government along the same lines.  

Interestingly, most if not all of those taking this position, had no qualms in supporting people who had corrupt track records or were part of corrupt governments including the one they backed Maithripala Sirisena to oust in January 2015.  At the time it was all about regime-change, never mind the integrity or competence of the would-be replacement(s).

So it’s all about relative merits at best, or more likely a matter of which faces one likes less (or more).  What it also means is that the commentariat is intellectually and morally poor or worse, corrupt.  

What is it that prevents people from imagining a state that is different, a political reality where corruption is seen as corruption and therefore objectionable and not reduced to a debate on degrees?  Perhaps it is a mental block which stops people from imagining a Sri Lanka that is not governed by either of the major parties or coalitions led by them which include smaller political organizations the hands of whose leaders are dirty or bloody or both.  It is that, or else, it is a simple matter of complicity which speaks of a serious integrity-deficit; simply, it is all about assessing marginal benefits against marginal costs.   

The Chairman of the Elections Commission, Mahinda Deshapriya recently attributed declining numbers in voter-registration to disillusionment among young eligible voters, especially in the Greater Colombo area.  That ‘disillusionment’ can be read in many ways.  

One can be worried about it because it could indicate a lack of confidence in the democratic process and institutions, and therefore point to extra-democratic affirmations of citizenship.  On the other hand, it could mean that a significant number of young people are not willing to go along with the kind of pussy-footing that supporters of the two main parties engage in.  They may be unwilling to play the game of relative merits and this can be seen as a positive rather than a negative trend.  

Time will tell if the rejection of the politician and political party implied in these developments translate into extra parliamentary political action or lead to the creation of a new political coalition where such parties do not figure.  In any event, it is time that the citizens of these country do not short-change themselves by backing those they know have short-changed them time and again.  

If anyone says ‘corruption there always was and always will be,’ the chances are that he/she is peddling excuses on behalf of the corrupt or lacks the courage, integrity and commitment. 

The question we should ask ourselves is, ‘are we really that impoverished?’  We need to ask that question because if that is the case then all talk of good or better governance is meaningless.  

Now if we are not impoverished, what next?  First and foremost, we need to shed our fixations on the two major parties and all those other parties, political groups, civil society organizations and the various individuals identified with such entities.  They will not deliver, this they have established beyond all shadow of doubt.  

We are fooling ourselves if we think it is prudent to support this government because it might do this, that and the other close to our hearts or as the case may be desist from doing this, that and the other that we abhor, even if we cannot stand the nepotism, corruption abuse of state resources and the by now established readiness to unleash violence on objectors.  Similarly, we are fooling ourselves if we recall the positives of the previous regime and allow such recollections to erase from memory everything that was despicable about it.  

We simply cannot afford to push the default option button again and again; certainly not if we want a safe and sustainable Sri Lanka and a clean environment for our children.  We simply cannot suffer the corrupt just because the probable replacement is not to our taste.  We need to look for a different pathway to the future and we need to think of different companions on that necessary journey.   Dr Harsha De Silva has expressed disgust and if he were to make a clean break from the disgusting, he would be contributing greatly to the development of a different way of thinking about Sri Lanka, a Sri Lanka that is not willing to be resigned to corruption or be hoodwinked by the notion of corruption-inevitability.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malinsene. This article appeared in the Daily Mirror, August 31, 2017.