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Why even Saudi women scorn us

1 March 2015 07:28 pm - 2     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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ast week, a rather interesting news story that appeared in an Emirati news portal and picked by local and International media reported that Saudi women who had refused to employe housemaids from Chile and Morocco, since they were ‘beautiful,’ prefer to hire women from Asian countries, including Sri Lanka.
My objective is not to assess the beauty judgment of Saudi ladies, which nonetheless would be a difficult task to the naked eye since the Wahabi state confines all women into an all encompassing Islamic garment, the Burka.



Rather, what should worry us is as to how Sri Lanka, after over seven decades of free education and other generous welfare measures, ended up being a country which primarily relied on foreign remittanes from our women working in Arab countries under near slave-like conditions. As of 2012, Middle East is the destination for 94 per cent of Sri Lankan foreign workers; 42 per cent of them are housemaids and an additional 22 per cent are of other categories of unskilled workers, according to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment. Of a total of 1.8 million Sri Lankan workers employed abroad, only 25 per cent are skilled, plus another 10 per cent described as professional, middle level and clerical. In 2012, Sri Lanka received US $ 6.4 billion in foreign remittances from Sri Lankans working abroad.  
But, how did we end up sending the most vulnerable of our women to work under abusive conditions in a region which, barring Israel, has extremely lax labour laws.



Anyone who analyzes the contrast between our plight and our history of free education (and other extensive social welfare benefits) are right to be worried about the dangerous mismatch of the promise it held and the stark abject reality it has produced. The problem lies in the fact that the welfare state of Sri Lanka is built not on a clear strategic vision, but rather on vested political considerations that have greatly diluted the positive trans-formative impact those measures could have on the people.




Sri Lanka has failed to create growth since  independence as the political leadership thought it was of secondary importance to their myopic ideological bias to statism and self- serving foreign policy of non-alignment; the latter prevented the country from taking a decisive break from  a host of other newly independent countries, which were  also in dire conditions at that time, which they wallowed in, rather than trying to salvage themselves from those existing circumstances.
The world, primarily Asia has seen two waves of economic take-offs, and the third is currently underway. The first began in the 50s (after the Second World War and more-so after the Korean war) and in the 60s, when the demarcation of the post-war bipolar world was better defined. Countries in the first wave included Japan, which nonetheless had reached its industrialization by the Second World War and had only been catching up after being reduced to ashes during the war, and South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. All those countries, other than Japan had pro-growth authoritarian political systems, which was a reaction to the greater evil of communist expansionism at their neighbourhood. (In fact, communism in the form of great purges in the USSR, the cultural revolution and mass famine in China and killings fields in Cambodia killed more people than those who perished in the two world wars.)



We completely missed the first wave of economic take off, though we had human capital and right infrastructure that the British had built. Our per capita income at  independence was 120 US $; South Korea’s after the end of the Korean war was US $ 67. Not only that we missed the opportunity, during the first three decades of independence, we squandered every opportunity for economic transformation and gradually undid every relative advantage that Sri Lanka held at  independence. This callous disregard could be explained statistically. Our per capital income grew only by 22 dollars during the next 12 years since  independence. It was US $ 142 in 1960 and it grew by a paltry US $ 20  by the end of the decade. By the end of the 60’s, South Korea which started from scratch, had already grown four-fold.  Another example: Per capita income of Singapore at its independence after the short lived merger with Malaysia in 1965 was $ 516. When it celebrates its 50th anniversary of independence this year, its per capita income would be well over $ 55,000.



 

"Anyone who analyzes the contrast between our plight and our history of  free education (and other extensive social welfare benefits) are right  to be worried about the dangerous mismatch of the promise it held and  the stark abject reality it has produced. The problem lies in the fact  that the welfare state of Sri Lanka is built not on a clear strategic  vision, but rather on vested political considerations that have greatly  diluted the positive trans-formative impact those measures could have on  the people"




Our leaders were of course, busy with other  missions. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was touted being a pioneer of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM). His government took over the British bases in Trincomalee  harbour and the Katunayake Air base. Sinhala was made the national language. In the subsequent decades, there was a series of nationalization programmes, from public transport to land. All those measures would have been taken with good intentions. But many lacked sound economic and foreign policy judgement. Free education was tainted with compulsory swabasha education, which nonetheless was not Bandaranakaike’s fault, but was the decision of the father of Free Education C.W.W.Kannangara, who along with the Free Education Act, proposed a phased-out implementation of compulsory swabasha education. His policy dampened the intended positive impact of free education and condemned local youth to sub-standard education which lacked depth and universal outlook. Later two generations of youth went to take up arms against the State and Sri Lanka saw three insurrections in the South and the North.



If the politicians did not tamper with education and left English as the language of instruction, our women who now toil in Arab houses would well be working in call centres.
It may sound unpatriotic to criticize the taking over of British bases. But, consider the wide range of security guarantees that the British military presence would have entailed. The importance of such guarantees loomed large, especially in the context of our bitter experience in the early 80s, when India began arming and training Tamil militants. That were exactly why Park Chung Hee, Chian Kai Shek and Lee Kuan Yew sided with the Americans. Such a relationship also provided economic benefits in terms of foreign capital and technology transfer which were the underpinning of the economic transformation those countries.



Whereas our Non-Aligned policy, impressive as it may sound to naïve idealists, prevent us from extracting those potential benefits. The bottom line in international politics is that countries (at least successful ones) do not take decisions purely driven by idealism; they take decisions that serve their self interests. Our self interest was the uplifting of millions of Sri Lankan lives and transforming our economy. Our interests lie right here, locally, and not in some abstract rhetoric in the form of solidarity with Cuba, or Africa, or Arab nationalism; all of which could have been noble causes (though some later proved to be not so noble), but had little bearing on bettering our lives.   



What is also interesting is that the opening to send housemaids to the Middle East was a reciprocal gift by the Arab countries to Sri Lanka’s commitment to Non-Alignment and solidarity with  Palestine. Sri Lanka begun exploiting this offer only after the NAM summit in Colombo in 1976.
The second wave of economic take off began in the late 70s and in the early eighties and included some South East Asian economies such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and China, which opened up their economies in  1978. Except China and Malaysia, others took a heavy blow in the Asian economic crisis in the late 90s, which dampened their growth. The government of then president J.R.Jayawardene, having got rid of the shackles of statism, made a genuine effort to catch up with the other emerging economies. However, his own misdeeds of authoritarianism which provoked two insurrections and the drain on the economy and the quality of human capital caused by the first three lost decades of independence, left our economic dream unfulfilled.
Now we have another chance; in fact some economists have described Sri Lanka as a potential “breakout nation” among ten such countries which can follow the path taken by the Asian Tiger economies in the past.



What those successful economies had and we lacked in the past was political capital - sheer political will and rational policies to usher in higher economic growth. This is where I cannot help but acknowledge the salient contribution made by ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa. His regime was corrupt, mildly authoritarian and nepotistic, but, like the East Asian and South East Asian autocrats in the yester era, he put in place infrastructure and made sure investment projects would not be held captives by the self- serving criticism of myriad  critics. The new administration should nurture that capital. However, with critics  back to lambast every project from highways to a port city, and casinos to private universities, one could only hope that the new administration would not squander this opportunity.
 If it fails, it would be condemning another generation of Sri Lankans to work somewhere in another hellhole under equally distressing conditions. 

 

Follow Ranga Jayasuriya
@RangaJayasuriya on Twitter

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  Comments - 2

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  • Rasa Monday, 02 March 2015 02:50 AM

    A good article. It is certainly a disgrace that our women go and work there in mostly low grade jobs.

    Don Jayalath Monday, 02 March 2015 04:04 AM

    Very good. Some home truths, stated succinctly.


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