As is well known, Sri Lanka’s labour is no longer cheap. Wages here are the highest in south Asia. Rapidly increasing prices of goods and services force wage earners to leave the country for higher paying jobs overseas and this creates labour shortages leading to further wage pressures
aniel Bell, a well -known American sociologist, used the phrase, ‘post-industrial society’ to refer to highly developed countries like the US, Japan and Germany. Much of the labour in these countries had moved away from agricultural and industrial activities in favour of service industries.
This transition did not necessarily lead to a decline in industrial and agricultural production because labour was replaced by modern machinery and other labour saving methods of productivity improvement. Both public and private investment in Research and Development played a major part in the above transition. Newly industrialising countries like China and South Korea meanwhile became centres of industrial production as many industrial firms from already highly industrialised countries shifted many of their factories there, largely due to the relatively lower wages in the destination countries. On the other hand, many industrialised countries did not want their industrial workers to lose their jobs due to the export of industries. One significant way to prevent this was to further increase R&D investments and come up with better technology products and superior and more competitive industrial products. This strategy appears to have worked as recent evidence from the US has shown (See report in TIME, April 2013).
No country with cheap labour is going to have this labour advantage for ever. In China, wages are already rising. It is no doubt this realisation that has persuaded the Chinese government to increase R&D investments in an unprecedented manner and expand quality higher education in the country. Enrollments in tertiary education have already surpassed 20% of the younger population there.
As is well known, Sri Lanka’s labour is no longer cheap. Wages here are the highest in south Asia. Rapidly increasing prices of goods and services force wage earners to leave the country for higher paying jobs overseas and this creates labour shortages leading to further wage pressures. One major reason for slow industrial development is the labour issue, another being the persisting skill gap. Can Sri Lanka’s economy be developed without industrialisation?
The data on imports and exports show that exports are not increasing in keeping with imports leading to a widening trade gap. Since much of the imports are industrial products, imports cannot be curtailed without industrial production in the country. On the other hand, current mix of industrial exports also needs to be diversified. This cannot be done without promoting more industrial products for export. Yet, if industrialisation is to be technology intensive, higher investments in R&D are critically important. What is equally necessary is the revamping of the education system to make it more skill-oriented rather than examination-oriented. The current obsession with examination results needs to give way to a greater recognition and appreciation of the need to promote innovativeness, skills and talents of the younger generation. The National Education Commission recognized the above need more than a decade ago and proposed reforms accordingly but no concerted effort has been made to implement them. The country can hardly afford to postpone such reforms any longer. This of course cannot be done without allocating more resources for the sector.
Modern societies are increasingly required to make use of new knowledge to deal with diverse problems. But this cannot happen unless there is social and political commitment to fall in line and give expression to this imperative in our day to day actions. Yet, what one observes around is quite different. Instead of innovation, knowledge and skills, there is an overwhelming tendency to glorify superstition, religion, historical myths and all kinds of rituals. Instead of producing new knowledge and knowledge products, we have become voracious consumers of all kinds of imported knowledge products. Instead of providing our younger generations with various skills, we provide them with a superficial education and send many of them overseas for manual labour. Instead of developing our universities as centres of higher learning and knowledge production, we micro-manage them in keeping with the political aspirations of our leaders. The western capitalist development model already shows signs of its limitations, defects and shortcomings. Unlimited production of commodities and services using non-renewable natural resources to satisfy often artificially created consumer demand cannot be sustainable. The environmental fallout of the above pattern of economic growth is also quite obvious today. So, we may soon come to a point where this whole development paradigm will have to be revisited with a view to finding an alternative path. In other words, a new form of economic and social organisation would be needed to enable human beings to satisfy their needs in a contended and sustainable manner. In such a process of societal transition, modern scientific knowledge might be increasingly integrated with conventional wisdom derived from what is widely referred to as traditional knowledge. This is already happening to some extent. In the area of human health, there are many examples of such integration, particularly at a popular level. The practices of Yoga, meditation, return to herbal drinks, increasing consumption of unprocessed food, use of herbal remedies and Ayurveda for chronic ailments, etc. are some of the examples. In all these, it is not a matter of going back in history, but deriving inspiration from the past human experience, particularly outside the western industrial civilisation. This is no doubt a necessary corrective to the excesses of industrial civilisation.
There are of course similar examples in other spheres such as agriculture, culinary culture, natural resource management and even human social relations. The cumulative effect of all these would be a moderating influence on the dominant way of life that has come to characterise most human societies across the world today.
Yet, the challenge for Sri Lanka is not to go back in history. For we still have not adequately internalised the ethos of modern industrial civilisation. Scientific literacy, modern ideas, and basic scientific and literary skills are yet to have a lasting impact on our younger and older generations. In this sense, our schools, universities, other educational institutions and the mass media have yet to play a catalytic role in the above regard. So far, they have by and large failed in their mission. What is required is not mindless vocationalisation of education at all levels but to combine skills and competencies with a well-rounded, holistic education for all. Education then would become relevant, useful and interesting for everybody. This would help reduce the present very high drop- out rate in the early stages of school education. A better educated and highly skilled population would be good not just for the economy but for the wider society as well. People with such an education would be able to derive what is intrinsically good from their past leaving behind what is irrelevant and counterproductive for life in the contemporary world.
Many of the conflicts and problems that we observe around the world including those in this country are the result of an uncritical reading and acceptance of a fossilised past which of course is in tatters in the contemporary world.