Highways and Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella in an interview with Daily Mirror said the government is stable. He said President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were acting with great understanding. Therefore, he said the government would serve its full term without any hindrance. Also, he said SAITM should be recognized to promote further private sector investments in the higher education sector. He shared the following:
Q How do you assess the situation of the country in the backdrop of mounting countrywide public protest against tax hikes and all?
It is natural that a new government faces problems like a new born baby. As for a new born child, we see it struggling with teeth appearing and crying with a red face. There is saliva dripping from its mouth. It feels uneasy. A new government is also like that. We have a system of governance that is quite different to the mode of the previous rule. When a new system is in place, some people are displeased. It takes time for them to realize. I think the government can overcome all these problems with the passage of time.
Q It has almost been one year for the National Unity Government. Don’t you think time is enough now to tide over such problems?
We have actually inherited a terrible economy. The previous government has borrowed so much. Our annual income is insufficient for our annual debt servicing with interests accrued. That is the type of economy we have got. The President and the Prime Minister are trying to sort out everything in order to reduce debt burden. We have restored the rule of law. One must realize that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led regimes ruled the country for 20 years. There was a Mafia that benefited from that rule. That Mafia resists the change. I am certain that it will change.
Q Do you think the present ills are purely due to the wrongs committed by the previous rule?
That is the biggest burden. Our debt burden is the problem. Our exports did not improve.
"The government’s stability is in Parliament. In the House, we can garner a two-thirds at any time "
Q But, there are critics saying it is due to the mismanagement of the economy by the present government. What are your views?
It is not correct. If we mismanage the economy, critics should show where we have failed. It is inappropriate to use the word ‘mismanagement’ in general context to criticize us. They must name the sectors where mismanagement is taking place.
Q From your view, how long will the government take to tide over the situation?
First of all, what is more important is the direction of the government. By the middle of the next year, people will see the direction. When we took office, we were internationally ostracised. We had no status whatsoever. We got it corrected now. Today, we are heading in the right direction.
QIn reference to recent tax hikes, has it impacted public life by way of increased prices? Your comments...
Well, as I told earlier, our annual revenue is insufficient to pay debt instalments. Then, how are we going to do the other aspects such as constructing roads, schools and hospitals? I must tell you that the prices of essential commodities have not increased. The prices of dhal, sugar and other consumer goods were not increased. We have given a monthly allowance of Rs.10,000 to public servants. We reduced fuel prices. So, there cannot be an impact on the cost of living as such.
Arjuna Mahendran was an asset to Sri Lanka
Q Apart from that issue, the government also faced criticism over the bond scam of the Central Bank. How do you refute these allegations?
As far back as June last year, I told at several press conferences that former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran was an innocent man. Nothing has been proved against him. He is an Oxford-scholar and gave up his lucrative foreign assignments to serve in Sri Lanka. How many people would do like what he had done? He is a person with enormous international contacts. He knows what international trade is. He was a big asset. He was exonerated by the Supreme Court. He cannot be found guilty by the media.
The Auditor General’s report is an opinion. It is based on assumptions here. It can be right or wrong. One cannot find another guilty based on assumptions. All legislations promised to UNHRC will be enacted in time
Q During the ongoing session of the UNHRC, the government outlined a number of legislations to be enacted. As the Leader of the House in Parliament, how would you proceed with these Bills?
We are going ahead with them. All legislative work outlined by Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera to the UNHRC will be presented to Parliament in due course. There is no time-bound plan. We have been asked by the international community to go step by step.
"I saw media reports allege health ministry and my ministry were conspiring to recognize SAITM. The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) has said it. As far as the higher education ministry is concerned, SAITM degree is already recognized"
Q How is the United National Party (UNP) gearing for the next election?
We are organizing the party at grassroots level. We have appointed new electoral organizers. We are getting ready for the next next election. It will be conducted before March. It will be called for in January after the budget. We will contest under the elephant symbol.
Q How confident are you of the election?
We are confident of winning a majority of local authorities.
SAITM recognition will be a giant leap in higher education sector
Q As the Higher Education Minister, what are the latest reforms do you propose?
I must tell you that our policies are entirely different to the policies of the previous regime. We believe that the private sector has a role to play in the higher education sector.
We need more universities to accommodate students who have got through the G.C.E. Advanced Level Examination. The government does not have enough finance to build more universities. We need the support of the private sector. Now, under the Z-score system, students, even with distinctions for all the subjects, are denied university entrance from the privileged districts whereas less qualified students from the underprivileged areas have the chance. We are not against the system. But, we have to think of students who get through with excellent results. If you take England for example, all students who get through the A/L examination are entitled to university education. But here, students go aboard for higher education. It costs Rs. 14 billion a year as a result.
There are several private sector organizations willing to invest in higher education sector here. They are foreign investors. They are willing to do business with local partners. Some are willing to start universities in Jaffna. There are others willing to come to the Eastern Province and Nuwara-Eliya.
Q How far have you progressed in the process now?
We are having discussions with them. Manipal University of India is in talks with us to open a new Medical College in Sri Lanka. A land has been identified for it in the Bandaragama area. They went to see the land as well and they are keen. I will let you know the progress.
Q Yet, there is already a resistance to the private medical college called South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). How do you precede with setting up more private medical colleges then?
I saw media reports allege health ministry and my ministry were conspiring to recognize SAITM. The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) has said it. As far as the higher education ministry is concerned, SAITM degree is already recognized. It was set up by the previous government. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has given degree awarding status to it. There is nothing for us to conspire. It has been an open secret. But, we support SAITM and cannot let the students down. How can we do it? I feel SAITM should be recognized because it will open the door for higher education institutions to come here and invest.
The foreign universities which are planning to come here are awaiting the Court ruling regarding the recognition of SAITM degree. Its recognition will lead to a giant leap in the annals of higher education sector in Sri Lanka. Thousands of overseas students are willing to come and study here. Hence, it will really become a money spinner for Sri Lanka.
When the Colombo North Medical College in Ragama was started, there were similar protests. The GMOA made the same fuss. Today, 50% of the medical specialists in the country were produced there.
We will increase the university intake by 10% this year. We will open five technology faculties at different universities to admit 1800 students.
Govt stable enough; will serve its full term
Q There is perception that the stability of the government is shaken because of public criticism. How do you respond?
The government’s stability is in Parliament. In the House, we can garner a two-thirds at any time.
"It is not correct. If we mismanage the economy, critics should show where we have failed. It is inappropriate to use the word ‘mismanagement’ in general context to criticize us. They must name the sectors where mismanagement is taking place"
Q How long could you sustain it?
I think if we have a good programme for the future, even the SLFP members will be impressed, let alone the UNPers. The National Unity Government will serve its full term. There is a great understanding between the President and the Prime Minister. They have their respective roles to play.
Q But, the MoU between the two parties is only for two years. Do you think the two sides will continue to govern beyond it?
I am quite confident. There is no turning back now.
Q From your view, how would Brexit affect Sri Lanka?
Its a setback. Even those who campaigned for it, do not want an immediate divorce from the European Union. With time, it will settle down.