Non-Cabinet Minister of Economic Reforms and Public Distribution, Dr. Harsha De Silva sat through a candid interview with the Daily Mirror where he expressed his views on several matters at hand while responding to questions posed by the public.
Q The UNP seems to have had a democratic method in selecting its Presidential Candidate. What was your role in this process?
We are a Democratic Party. In the 1940’s when we established this Party when D.S Senanayake was the founder, we had Sinhala, Muslim, Malay, Burgher and all these people coming together to create a Democratic Party. And the Constitution of our Party very clearly states that we shall follow a democratic process in making decisions. It’s just the foundation, it is in the DNA of the UNP to follow a democratic process to select leaders and candidates particularly for the presidency. So in this case it’s nothing new for us. We followed the process and at the working committee meeting the Party Leader proposed Deputy Leader’s name as he’s the most popular personality. With there being no other names proposed, Sajith’s name was unanimously approved. My role was significant because I took the position that Sajith should be the candidate. We need a new, younger, democratic, inclusive UNP and younger people in the context of politics not in terms of Sri Lanka but the entire region; as such we wanted a young leader with dynamic thinking to deal with this nation’s problems. Therefore I take a lot of satisfaction in the unilateral, unanimous decision of the UNP to propose Sajith as the Presidential Candidate and hopefully as the President by mid-November.
Q Is that why you think Sajith Premadasa is a better candidate than Karu Jayasuriya or Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe?
It’s all about data on the ground. What is public opinion. Karu Jayasuriya has played a significant role in the UNP for decades. Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has held the party together for 25 years during crisis times, etc. But right now Sajith is the most popular UNP personality. Not that we are taking anything away from our leader or Mr. Jayasuriya, both of whom I hugely respect, but Sajith is the right person for the right time.
Q Why a new UNP? Has the old UNP failed?
All old parties have not been able to deliver. It is not only in this country but across the world. You see new leaders and new political parties emerging. You see non-political movements coming into governance roles across the world. Sri Lanka is no exception. We need a new breed of decent politicians, who have the capacity, vision and the ability to deliver for this nation. That’s why we believe that this is the right thing to do.
We need a new, younger, democratic, inclusive UNP and younger people in the context of politics not in terms of Sri Lanka but the entire region; as such we wanted a young leader with dynamic thinking to deal with this nation’s problems.
Q Do you believe Ranil Wickremesinghe made a huge sacrifice?
Ranil made sacrifices throughout his political career. If you look at it from a personal point of view, personally he has made a sacrifice because he’s letting go of a possible chance of becoming the president of this nation. I guess that’s the ultimate goal for anybody who is in politics. But the value of that sacrifice from a UNP or national perspective is going to be felt much more than the individual Ranil Wickremesinghe. Therefore, yes, Ranil Wickremesinghe made a sacrifice for the Party and the country.
Q Why wasn’t party leadership handed over to Sajith Premadasa and he continues to be Deputy Leader despite being your Presidential Candidate?
That is always been the tradition of our party. You don’t have to become the leader just because you become the candidate. The leader is elected democratically and Ranil Wickremesinghe was elected leader and he will continue to be in that position in the foreseeable future. We shall see when the time comes but this is nothing unusual. In fact when Chandrika Kumaratunga ran for office as President in 1994 she wasn’t the Party leader, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the leader. When Mahinda Rajapaksa ran for office in 2005, Chandrika was the Party leader. So this goes across party lines also.
Q We can look at new things to export rather than our traditional products including thambili water, coconut oil, tropical fruit juices. We currently export raw materials in the raw form but we need to export finished products. What’s your opinion?
Absolutely spot on. This is what I’m talking about. New vision and dynamic thinking. The other day I was in Parliament in a Committee and some people may have seen that in a democracy we have open committees to the public and its live. It was about graphite. I believe that the next revolution will be based on the transformation of graphite to graphene. If you look at what Greta Thunberg says who speaks on behalf of billions of young people from around the world, she says stop using fossil fuel, stop cutting trees, plant trees. She’s becoming a world figure. So what we believe is that we have to move into a renewable energy usage in the future. That means using solar, storage of the battery which is lithium ions. That means in the next generation graphene-based storage of solar. If you look at Tesla or what Elon Musk is doing, people are trying to create lighter weight, more efficient, more effective batteries and battery technology is going to change the world. The best material for the new battery of the world is based on graphite. Where is graphite? We have graphite in Sri Lanka, especially at the Bogala and Kahatagaha mines. The lead we use in pencils is the new oil and if we can use graphite to make graphene and use graphene to leverage the emerging solar technology then I believe that we can have a significant jump in our growth path. Instead of exporting graphite which is USD 1,000 per metric tonne, if we can export graphene which is USD 5,000 per kg, that is what we have to do. People like myself have been articulating this. Yes, thambili water is one extreme but I’m talking about the other extremes and this is the kind of vision that I have for this nation. We are trying to do all that we could to get to that position.
Q Why haven’t you implemented these in the past four and a half years that you were in power?
We have been working on these matters through companies such as SLINTECH, through people like Dr. Manju Gunawardena who’s an explosives expert and a top scientist with credentials in Geneva and elsewhere. The government is trying to provide the infrastructure and the conducive background for technological improvements. Look at our tax incentive programmes we have just introduced. The 150% capital allowance and we are trying to work on removing dividend tax and give the ability to enjoy profits for startups. There are several levels in the government level and I’m at a junior level. I’m not even a proper Minister. What I’m articulating is what I will do when Sajith becomes president and these are our plans. We are building up to it and I will certainly push such things.
Q You spoke about renewable energy but quite recently the Cabinet sanctioned four new coal power plants.
I am completely against putting in new coal and that has always been our position and it will continue to be so. As a matter of fact I have been brave enough to object to that cabinet paper even though I’m not in the Cabinet. So when I’m not in the cabinet I don’t have the opportunity to go to Cabinet but the President appointed me in a cabinet sub-Committee on power. So I value such opportunities. We have to push for more renewable energy and I’m for renewable energy. We will show in our manifesto our game plan for renewable energy. I’m for solar and wind power. They are talking about clean coal but to what extent coal is clean is quite relative.
Q You came into politics stating that you possess expertise in economics, finance and governance. The public was expecting you to introduce policies to reduce the rate of inflation, reduce debt and enhance economic growth. But this hasn’t been the case. Do you think the working mechanism within government and perhaps in your own party let you down in achieving these objectives?
In this country and particularly in this region there’s something called seniority and once a person gets to that point it’s not necessarily based on merit or performance. These are things we need to change. Like I told a while ago I never got to be a Cabinet minister. I didn’t get that opportunity to make these decisions. I have a great vision in my mind which I think I could deliver but I have to have the opportunity to deliver. Without having the opportunity I have been able to do certain things and I think this nation is aware of what I have been able to do. Having said that I have also been able to participate in the decision-making process, so I will share part of that success and part of that blame for whatever the outcome. Inflation is 4%, it has remained in single digits ever since we took office and extending a single digit inflation from somewhere around 2011. We see that interest rate structures have been fairly stable to the extent that some people are saying that depositors are not getting a good deal because interest rates have fallen. If the interest rates rise, depositors will be happy saying that they get a better deal but investors who want to borrow money to start enterprises will say that it’s too expensive. So there’s always two sides of the coin. The currency has had a significant hit and that was particularly due to exogenous activities such as the US Federal Reserves had a complete change in their monetary policy which did not affect Sri Lanka’s currency but currencies across the globe. During this year we have seen our currency appreciate by about 1.5%. The biggest depreciation of our currency happened during the 52-day coup when certain people illegally took control of our government.
Q Do you feel that you were penalized by the leader of the Party for certain remarks you made about the bond scam?
I don’t want to comment on that because I was away from the economics where my expertise is concerned. But that was a blessing in disguise because I really have no experience in matters of international affairs but I loved the job and accomplished three things which I’m proud of. I was the chief negotiator in the government for GSP+, Mangala Samaraweera looked into politics and I looked into economics. We were in Brussels, Geneva and I recall vividly when a resolution was brought to deny us the GSP+, how we worked at the European Parliament and ended up with 450 votes against the resolution and 100 votes for the resolution which gave us GSP+ which tremendously helped our industry for exports. We were able to win back the concessions from Europe for fisheries. Fisheries exports have more than doubled in this country. Fishermen right around the island have benefitted. Another matter was economic diplomacy. I have started a programme with Harvard University where Sri Lankan diplomats are trained on a 16-week online programme and how their focus is being shifted from politics to economics. How Sri Lanka should be out there in the global capital, selling Sri Lankan products. The third was the consular affairs division which was a dump in an old building, when I took over the average time to get an authentication done was six hours. We won the award for the best transformation of a government department in terms of e-governance when we brought down a six-hour wait time to a matter of few minutes. So I take pride in these achievements.
Q Initially you defended the bond scam, even going to the extent of labeling an article, “as a bleeding analysis that was politically coloured and aimed at discrediting the transparent efforts of the government’. Subsequently over time you changed your stance. When did you realise that there had been a scam?
I realized it much later that there had been things that never should have happened. I trust people and expect them to be like me where no fingers should be pointed at financial scams or illegal things. But not everybody is the same. So I did make those comments at the beginning assuming there was nothing wrong, but now I’m convinced that there were things that should have never happened. A forensic audit is being conducted since 2010 and we are waiting for 18 months. The bank is supposed to conclude the forensic audits on the stock market scams which I spoke about back then and other bond market scams that continued. I’m waiting for the forensic audit and I hope it will come to parliament before too long.
Q If none of these things came to Parliament during the past four and a half years, what makes you think that it would happen in your next term?
It came to Parliament but when did we ever see a Prime Minister being questioned in a Sri Lankan parliament. It had never happened before. I was in the opposition from 2010-2015. This is a complete reversal of how things used to happen. Do you think anybody in the previous regime could ever have been questioned? There has been an absolute change. Legal action has been taken on various people, others have resigned, some are being hounded down and justice will be served in time to come. Parliament has become much stronger than how it used to be.
I have taken for myself, Sri Lanka’s first temperature and humidity control facility to be established in Dambulla. It will have six chambers to accommodate 5,000 metric tonnes so that farmers don’t have to throw their produce to elephants but could engage in Good Agricultural Practices.
Q Your government failed us on April 21. Do you think you deserve to be in power again?
I’m not going to run away from that criticism. We take collective responsibility and everybody has to share part of that blame. I’m sorry that so many lives were lost. I pray for those people and families. Whatever we did from rebuilding churches to taking care of orphaned children or paying compensation will not bring those lives back. As a government we took collective responsibility. How or where did it go wrong? What mechanisms failed? I was at an Avurudu function at my electorate in Kotte when I got a call from the Director General of the National Hospital who said that there has been an incident and all ambulances were at work. When I arrived at the Shangri-la, I saw what happened. I saw that there was a failure in intelligence. It wasn’t a problem of gathering information but using it to implement an effective security programme. We have gone through multiple investigations and commissions and now there’s a better security mechanism which will be under the authority of the President so that these incidents will never repeat.
Q How can you justify another term of governance for UNF when you have already failed to fulfil many promises that you made in 2015?
They can ask this from me and nothing is going to happen to that person who posed this question. Remember that if this was Lasantha it wouldn’t have been possible. I remember him, he was a friend of mine. No hard questions were ever allowed if there had been something we had done. We have given people the ability to speak their mind, say what they want to say, believe in whatever faith they wish to and likewise we have opened the black boxes of governance. For instance we brought in the Right to Information law, so that people are free to search for information. We came with a promise of a better governance so in that context if you ask to what extent we have succeeded, the answer would vary depending on whom you ask. We have had some wins as well as some losses.
Q The UNP constantly speaks of existence of white vans, disappearances of journalists, lack of media freedom during the previous government. But if we look back at the early ‘90s, government-sponsored death squads were responsible for the extrajudicial killings and waves of enforced disappearances that took place. Of course not forgetting the killings of journalists such as Richard De Soysa. How can you guarantee that a second member of the same family would govern in a different manner?
I don’t want to get personal and I don’t practice mud politics. If you ask about a son of a man who is different from that man, you’re not your father. You may have similarities and differences. I don’t know to what extent you share the same taste, etc. People are different. In one instance you have made accusations about the father and in other instance you ask whether the son would do the same. You’re talking about the same man where allegations have been made against him for mass murders, etc. But are you the same as your parents? Haven’t we taken New Year resolutions? But the fundamental DNA is the same.
Q What do you say to the young people who are frustrated with this government? What hope can you give them?
I can give hope to the young people in this way. This is our country and I’m a father of two children. I have a son who is 20+ and a daughter 15+, who are still schooling. I have seen them grow up and I love them throughout and will continue to do so as long as I’m alive. I have seen their pain, frustrations and enjoyed their moments of happiness. As a father I know what they want. I want a place where my children would like to come back to grow up and live. That’s why I’m doing this. I’m a professional and I have other things to do. I have been a successful businessman and an entrepreneur. I bring to the table a lot of experience and as a father of two children I want to create an environment to enjoy this nation. Together we can change. We need to give our young people to take advantage of the changing technology in the world. We got to get our children to compete with children of Hong Kong, Israel, Ireland and Los Angeles. I don’t compare my children with those in Bangladesh or Vietnam. What is lacking? We give them a decent education and we need to give them opportunities. We have given alternative opportunities to them. They also need to be given an opportunity at the table. I have always given opportunities to young people and would be able to do better next time when I have real power.
Q Can we expect free WiFi and tabs in the next term?
Free WiFi is everywhere and it’s nothing new. There’s a school in Kotte called Sri Jayawardenapura Vidyalaya which started in 1822 and this is where the first smart classroom actually started. We have started a CSR project called Cloud Smart Classroom done by Dr. Harsha Subasinghe of CodeGen. Now we have three entire grades and if you go there you can see how we have changed the mechanism of teaching. It’s entirely student-centred. I was able to send these teachers to Australia to observe how they teach children in Sydney. They came back and made changes. Children who were never interested in a book come to school everyday. That has become the lab and everyone is coming from other schools to learn from Jayawardenapura Vidyalaya. I’m not advocating 100% tabs, there has to be a combination of both.
Q Your government promised to improve the public debt which stood at 76% but it now stands at 79%. The economy has not improved and the currency has been further devalued. Corruption has been worse than how it used to be in your government. So why should we have faith in this government?
If you look at our GDP per capita and divide it by the number of people living in this island, it is about USD 4,000. But you can’t compare that with a person who earns the same amount. How do you adjust the purchasing power of the money you have? The Purchasing power parity adjusted by the GDP is about USD 10,000 – 12,000 here in Sri Lanka. We have graduated to what is called a higher middle income country so we have continued to progress. The debt story is also true because we have funded through large loans in mega projects that are not bringing in any revenue. For instance airports with no planes, ports with no ships so we have to lay back those loans. So to pay back loans on projects that don’t bring any revenue will put us in further trouble. Our country is stuck in producing simple products. Instead of being stuck in simple products we need to produce complex products. That is how we need to jump from where we are to where we want to go. This is how we will deal with debt problem, create jobs with high paying salaries for young people who come out of universities.
Q When is UNF going to do some actual work and stop bashing the previous regime?
The UNF is not about mud politics. During this entire discussion did I bash anyone? I don’t think so. As the UNF that’s not our policy.
Q In reference to the PM’s statement on the national carrier stating that it’s not necessary to be managed by the government, what are your thoughts and what are the plans in that case in the long run?
He’s pretty much right, when we run such losses, it impacts on everyone’s life. A poor person from Kilinochchi who has never come to an airport has to pay for these losses. Billions of dollars of losses. Why is that? State-owned enterprises if at all they exist around the world - some doing well, some not so well and some hopelessly bad. One should study their models and see how they are successful. It has a lot to do with the management. When you politically interfere with state-owned enterprises, when you appoint your kith and kin to these enterprises, they fail. You have to have people who are professionally qualified, have the ability and honesty to run these organizations. Subsidies must be provided for those who need subsidies, not state-owned enterprises. This is a major reform that we need to do. Welfare politics is the root cause for all these complications we had for the past 70 years.
Q Will Sajith finally build the Volkswagen factory?
I don’t think he’ll build that factory because they moved away from it. Many people hit me with this story. I’m honest to myself. When I said it was going to be built it was because they had signed an agreement with BOI. I don’t lie to people. It was a company decision because the company went bust. There was an emission scam.
I never got to be a Cabinet minister. I didn’t get that opportunity to make these decisions. I have a great vision in my mind which I think I could deliver but I have to have the opportunity to deliver
We have a trillion rupees of salaries that need to be paid. I don’t agree giving away jobs to everyone who comes out of college. It’s not the right thing to do. We need to create jobs
We need to make sure that we build an inclusive society, that everybody has their rights and privileges. I happen to be a Sinhala and Buddhist
Q What is the solution you have for the ethnic problem?
In school, every morning at assembly time we would listen to religious quotes from all four religions. Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims were classmates. We grew up in school treating everyone as brothers and sisters who came from different mothers. We need to make sure that we build an inclusive society, that everybody has their rights and privileges. I happen to be a Sinhala and Buddhist. In my religion I could be born as a snake, cockroach or anybody in my next birth. I may be born a Muslim person. If I’m Nizam Ahamed, does that make me any less a Sri Lankan than Ginige Mahendra Harsha De Silva? That is my philosophy. To me this island belongs to all of us and Sajith under a new presidency, we should be able to devolve power to the maximum within a unitary state.
Q Will these rights be extended to the largely marginalized LGBT community as well?
Absolutely. What’s wrong with our society? Who dictates LGBTIQ? It was a different era when people were discriminated based on gender. We are a modern society and it should be able to include everyone. It’s an inclusive society that we are trying to build. Nobody needs to be marginalized.
Q Then why didn’t your government take steps to decriminalize homosexuality during the past four and a half years?
Before decriminalizing it we wanted to make one amendment to the law. We were discussing this under our 2020 Human Rights Agenda. When we tried to do that there were massive protests from Buddhist and Catholic clergy. But slowly and surely we need to move towards an inclusive society.
Q There’s a widely shared picture of you with your daughter at the Book Fair. Were you trying to send a message to the rest of your colleagues?
Nanga loves to read. If you go to her room, she has lots of books. It’s an annual pilgrimage to the Book Fair. Usually my wife goes along with me but she’s at Dambadiva. Therefore I had to take my daughter, we bought some popcorn and all the benches were full. So we were seated on the ledge. I wasn’t trying to send any message to anyone.
Q Would Sajith Premadasa promise to recover all funds robbed from tax payers and can he promise to eradicate and reform the five-year pension scheme for parliamentarians?
People who rob should be dealt with. I stand firm on that. Politicians must be transparent and that under their watch, untoward transactions don’t take place. I have seen how certain politicians and public officials work and it disgusts me that these kinds of things take place. There’s no colour for criminals. How do you reduce corruption? Take away discretion, bring in automation, give authority to individual people and bring the law down hard on them. Arrest them and send them to jail for what they have done. We are yet to see big fish going in. We are in the process of moving towards a paradigm shift.
Q Will he guarantee to uplift the Sri Lankan farmer and reduce the import of rice to a bare minimum?
Agriculture is hugely important in this country. People don’t necessarily know how these hardworking farmers are desperately trying to make ends meet. I spend a lot of time with Farmers in the agricultural community. My Shakthi Rice programme is a huge success. We broke the oligopoly and today you can buy Shakthi rice with a QR code nonetheless. So you can see which farm the rice came from. I believe in the rice and paddy farmer in this country. We are trying to test driers for these farmers. You may have seen paddy being dried on the road but they have never been given driers. You have seen vegetables in Dambulla being thrown away to elephants at Digampathana. Did a single person ever attempt to build a climate-controlled warehouse for vegetables in Sri Lanka? Within this authority I have taken for myself, Sri Lanka’s first temperature and humidity control facility to be established in Dambulla. It will have six chambers to accommodate 5,000 metric tonnes so that farmers don’t have to throw their produce to elephants but could engage in Good Agricultural Practices. Give farmers the technology to make them better equipped and make some money for themselves. So we don’t have to import but export it.
Q Let’s talk about the UNP election manifesto. The public are of the opinion that not much regard is paid to policies and a plan for the country. The standard practice during an election is to dish out a wishlist without any reasonable implementation plan and very little effort is put out in formulating election manifestos and as a result it ends up as a list of promises and fairy tales. The end result is usually disappointing. So what can we expect from the 2019 UNF election manifesto?
We have started working on it for sometime. We are seriously putting into place the conditions we think are necessary to create social justice and market competition. How do you create that? We will be quite simple and say these are the things we want to do and have an implementation mechanism attached and see to what extent we end up achieving these promises we give. Beyond the economics of social justice and market competition, it’s about creating a fair society. How do we treat women and children? We have a problem about not wanting to discuss issues such as violence against women, corporal punishment on children and so on. We have to create a society that is not so violent. Look at all that ragging, the sexual assaults on children that is happening. We have to change those factors as well. Where are our ethics? Is this what we want to be? Why do you want to throw garbage on the road. We need to change. Political parties can put out manifestos but if I want to change society, then I have to change.
Q The Ministry of Finance seems to be on a short-term vote-buying spree. Yesterday the Ministry announced that there would be an increase in state sector salaries from January 2020. Measures such as these that do get implemented are a burden on the economy in the long run in the absence of a proper economic plan. Why is the government resorting to such measures during election season?
Government has nothing to do with this. There was a presidential commission on salaries and they looked at public sector salaries and said that these changes will have to happen over a five year period between 2015-2020. So this is a programme that will be implemented over a five-year plan. People’s salaries have gone up by 107%. When we came to office, a graduate teacher was earning something like Rs.17,000 a month. Can you imagine that? Do you think that is what they are worth? With these revisions they will get around Rs.35,000 a month which is still low. They need to be paid more than doctors. But whether we could afford it is the question. So we need to prioritize. We need teachers, doctors, accountants, engineers and all these people. We have a trillion rupees of salaries that need to be paid. I don’t agree giving away jobs to everyone who comes out of college. It’s not the right thing to do. We need to create jobs. If you’re talking about starting to make complex products, where do we fit in? Attitudinal change needs to happen in this land.
Q Will you and the government introduce anti-cartel, anti-monopoly and anti-competition laws in Sri Lanka?
Absolutely. This is something that I believe in totally. We need competition laws. We can’t let four people control the rice market in this country. Breaking cartels and regulating markets is the job of the government. Market competition ensures that anybody who goes out there with big dreams would be able to achieve it. They shouldn’t be put down by cartels, oligopolies and monopolies. So I’m fully in creating greater competition in the marketplace.
Q How can a Parliament be strong if the men in it don’t act civilized?
We saw people throwing the Bible at others in Parliament, throwing chairs at each other. I of course sat down and watched the manner in which some bunch of idiots were acting. You need decent people in Parliament.
Q There are so many students enrolling themselves in higher education in Melbourne. How do we give attention or articulate the student segment back with a better mindset after graduating in their goals?
We have to provide for opportunities and that’s part of governing a country. I want my children to stay back in this country. There’s nothing wrong in not coming back right away. You can go, get yourself an education, make some money.
Q How are we going to reverse the effect that Rishard Bathiudeen caused by cutting down so many trees under the yahapalanaya government?
It’s not only Rishard who cut trees. I don’t want to get to the politics. There were many people who were involved in cutting trees in areas adjacent to the Wilpattu National Park. Forests have been cleared in the South. We need to grow trees. Help others grow trees. This is the whole story of Greta as well. Some people say that we cannot cut trees but trees need to be cut. It’s not about not cutting trees it’s about replacing what you cut. Let’s take politics and race politics out of it. Many people are complicit in this crime.
Q If and when Sajith Premadasa is elected President, is the UNP going forward with the same set of ministers or will you throw out the rogues and give prominence to capable people?
Not if, but when Sajith Premadasa wins on November 17 and when the Parliamentary election follows and UNF comes back with a bigger majority, then we’ll change the Cabinet and we are hopeful that it will be a new look. And I hope to be somebody with real authority and power to make the kind of changes that I have been articulating during this interview.
Q If and when Sajith wins, who will be his Prime Minister? Will it be Ranil Wickremesinghe again?
When Sajith wins I doubt there’s going to be any change immediately. This government will continue till March. Then it will be a general election and let’s see what happens after that.
Q What are your strategic plans to attract FDIs to Sri Lanka within the next 10 years? So far we have not witnessed any progress under the so-called good governance regime as mentioned in the 2015 manifesto?
If you look at the data coming from BOI, you will see last year we had the highest FDI. If you say nothing has come in that’s factually incorrect. People say all kinds of nonsense and they get away. This is not good enough. We need to double and triple the investment we get in. Then we have to see what type of investments we are going to bring in. It depends on the policies of the government.
Q What’s the cost per day of running your 1190 ambulance service and how is it funded?
The cost per day would be about Rs.6 million and we currently take more than 1,000 People for emergency and critical care every day. I take great pride and it gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction. As the founder of this service this is the biggest I have delivered. Our response time is 12 minutes countrywide. It’s an amazing service and I must give credit to my partner Dumindra Ratnayake who is the Chairman of this project who is volunteering his time. I was able to convince Prime Minister Modi on his arrival in Sri Lanka and he gifted a grant of USD 7.5 million to pilot the project. It was a roaring success and I met Mr. Modi and told him of its success. Mr. Modi said he will continue to support it if the government takes it up and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was immediately on it. We then put a Cabinet paper and started funding it in the South and West and then Mr. Modi gave me another USD 15.2 million grant which is the second largest grant to start it. I think it is the most efficient government service.
Q Why are you getting the support of Rishard and Hakeem for this election? Have you forgotten April 21 already?
In Melbourne, minorities have equal opportunities. There are opportunities for Sri Lankans to be part of the Melbourne culture. So would you mistreat an entire community because of something that a certain group did? These people were terrorists. We should give maximum punishment to them and nobody should ever try it again. Does that mean a million voters be penalized? Isn’t Rishard, Rauff and the entire Muslim community a part of the Sri Lankan identity?
Q The Sri Lankan passport is one of the least respected passports in the world currently ranked 81st in the world. What measures will be taken in the future and why wasn’t anything done to change it during the past four years?
This is why I’m saying why we should look at reality for what it is. Do you recall what the narrative was before going into the election? It was the electric chair. They are going to take the sitting president of this country and execute him. What happened to that narrative? Is anyone talking about it today? What about international war crimes, blacklisting from European Union, ban on GSP+ etc? We had no status! People were looking down upon us and then everything changed. We changed the narrative. The Sri Lankan passport was not worth the paper it was printed on but today, the Sri Lankan passport has much more value. We are part of a respected community of countries. Yes, we have a long way to go but it is about brand Sri Lanka. Together we have to build it. That is why I question people who don’t think it is not worth to have a Sri Lankan passport. Can you tear your passport and flush it down the toilet? Then it will not make you Sri Lankan anymore. Let us together make the value of that passport better.
Transcribed by Kamanthi Wickramasinghe