Presidential hopeful Sajith Premadasa (right) answers questions during the interview
Following are the questions asked from New Democratic Front’s (NDF) Presidential aspirant Sajith Premadasa and the answers given by him to the interviewer Lewie Diasz at a youth forum themed “Transforming Youth – Empowering the future” and held in Colombo recently. Here, he spoke about several items in his manifesto and how he aspires to make a change under his leadership.
Q It seems that the majority of your political work has been in rural areas, donating houses and doling out welfare. We need a transformation of this country. What’s your vision for the presidency of this beautiful island nation?
If one interprets the housing programmes that I have enunciated and implemented as welfare programmes, I think it’s unfair and inaccurate. When I assumed office our ministry did not have an iota of statistics with regard to the housing problem in our country. So the first one and a half years was spent on gathering statistics. So we embarked on reinventing the model village programme and focused on families, despite them being citizens of this country not having their own houses or plots of land. They were the silent majority of Sri Lanka who were assetless. So the housing programme is a programme that empowers those who are assetless to become people with capital strength. We have embarked on this programme through participatory house building. This entails provision of land at the expense of the state and providing loans, grants and at times mixtures of loans and grants for the land recipients to help them to build their own houses. Most people who follow news items only see a marginal snippet of what we do. In fact this is a programme which inculcates self-reliance, self-help, and the ability of the people in communities to stand up for their rights. I think it’s an immoral responsibility bestowed on our Government. So the housing programme cannot be termed as a typical welfare initiative.
Q In the light of the recent events, national security is of highest priority to citizens and tourists of this country. Should you be elected, what national security policy would you map out and could you elaborate on it?
I sincerely believe that the subject of national security should be looked at from a broad perspective. From the details I have ascertained as a student of international relations and through my experience of interning with the US senate for two and a half years and working with the foreign relations, senate intelligence committee I would look at national security from a broad perspective. If you look at the various interpretations and connotations we deal with today a lot of people in the political arena try to restrict national security into a singular area of Military Security Interest. MSI is one of the main priorities, but surely there are other aspects. You need to focus on economic, political and social security as well. As far as national security is concerned and particularly military security I think we have to focus on a speedy modernisation process for our armed forces, provide them with the most appropriate training in order to face the challenge of modern day terrorism including cyber security issues. It is of great importance that we ensure that the morale of the armed forces is kept at a higher level. We have to have a motivated security force that would be capable of facing the security insurgencies that we would face in the modern, globalised world. We have to ask whether our country is divided and whether extremism, xenophobia and discrimination are perpetuated. Is that in the interest of national security? If certain sections in our society feel unsafe, if they feel insecure, if their insecurity is filtered down to national insecurity I think there is a major problem as far as the national security strategy is concerned. Social harmony, togetherness, eradicating xenophobia, extremism and dogmatism would certainly enhance the national security of our country.
"I sincerely believe that the subject of national security should be looked at from a broad perspective. From the details I have ascertained as a student of international relations and through my experience of interning with the US senate I would look at national security from a broad perspective"
Q Some say Sri Lanka needs a dictator. Is Sajith Premadasa a dictator? Or do you consider yourself to be a populist leader or a transformational leader?
I think if there is a majority of people in our country who is keen on having a dictatorship it is misguided and absolutely and totally detrimental to the interests of our motherland and people of our country. Most importantly I would like that if the country is yearning for a dictator, why have a presidential election? Dictatorship is synonymous with destroying democracy. Having said that I think we should have decisiveness, strength in resolve, determination, capacity to innovate, formulate moral innovative strategies and have out of the box approaches to cater to problems that are yet to be resolved. I firstly would like to categorise myself as a democrat with strength and purpose. A democrat with a vision, who is extremely keen on achieving and embarking on a path-breaking policy programme that would ensure that our country goes through the next steps of modernisation and that prosperity is dawned on all people living in our country.
Q We have seen a lack of implementation in policies especially in women’s rights and empowerment of participation in women. How would you implement broader policies for women to be inclusive and participative in the democratic process?
In terms of political participation our present administration has done much, especially in the local government level. I think we need to move on to the provincial and Central Government level with far reaching reforms that enable women to play a major role in politics and political decision making. I will do so with great vigour and interest. In the economic arena I think modern innovative policy tools and instruments should be formulated and implemented to encourage women’s empowerment in the economic sector. I think when we talk of women through positive gender mainstreaming we would be able to achieve much. We have to promote entrepreneurship and gender equality among women and would strive to do so vehemently through legislation and other forms of regulations and establishments of rules. When we talk of women in society we have to ensure that gender-based violence, sexual violence, discrimination in the workplace and public spaces are all issues we have to look at in a serious manner if we are to promote the rights and needs of women in our society. I as the President of Sri Lanka will embark on a very proactive programme, engage with women in all segments of society, listen to them, their proposals and grievances.
Q You made a claim that you wouldn’t live in the president’s house. This promise has been made by various other presidents in the past. Why should the public believe you? Would you practice it or is it another election promise?
I practice what I preach.
- "Most people who follow news only see a marginal snippet of what we do
- housing programme cannot be termed as a typical welfare initiative "
Q We were very disturbed last week when seven jumbos were killed and because over 300 elephants die every year in Sri Lanka. The Human elephant conflict continues to grow and forest cover has reduced drastically. As a wildlife enthusiast, how do you plan to counter these issues concerning our natural environment?
We have to have a multi-pronged approach to address the issues you just mentioned. It is imperative that we embark on a heavy tree planting programme that enhances the forest cover of our country. This has to be done with purpose and strength. There are so many disparate government agencies, bureaucracies and several institutions in the non-governmental sector that have a sole objective of improving forest cover. I think it’s important to have a national programme and strategy where we bring together all of these interested parties under one umbrella and have a determined, target oriented, time tasked progamme to ensure that forest cover in our country is improved over the next few decades. You mentioned an important and crucial issue that is mostly prevalent in rural Sri Lanka, primarily in the wildlife buffer zones. Both elephants and human beings have suffered from fatalities due to this persistent conflict and attrition that’s taking place.
The proven method that ensures wildlife conservation is the people participatory conservation progamme. Ensure that buffer zone communities have a stake in the preservation of flora and fauna and wildlife species. I’m alarmed to say that this is yet to be practised in a persistent and consistent manner in our country. So I would promote people participatory wildlife conservation programmes. I would also promote the inclusion of wildlife conservation and environmental studies in our education syllabuses. I would love to have it as a subject which children would study from a small age. Therefore from the inception they will be taught how to engage in wildlife and how to protect our environment and how to ensure that the protection of wildlife is a national priority and that all citizens in this country are duty bound to do so.
- "Any non-utilised funds went back to the treasury
- We have not misallocated scarce resources or the taxpayers’ funds when we were in governance"
Q We see a lack of implementation in policy measuring performance especially of the governance of each ministry. How do you plan to eliminate bureaucracy, levels of corruption and improve productivity, effectiveness and efficiency of our public sector and the government?
First and foremost in the past four and a half years I believe that I have proven to many that I’m a person of action. So no one has to worry about the implementation part of Government policies and programmes. However I fervently believe that in Government we have to set standards and standards of excellence. The performance of each ministry and minister should be evaluated. Are the funds allocated to particular ministries utilised to the fullest? During 2015, 2016, 2017, the fund utilisation in my ministry was close to 99%. So the resources and the taxpayers’ rupees which were allocated to my ministry were spent with a zero budgeting concept. Any non-utilised funds went back to the treasury. Of course in 2018 with the 52-day debacle the utilisation dropped to 85%. Basically that will show you that my implementation techniques have achieved success. We have not misallocated scarce resources or the taxpayers’ funds when we were in governance. We will not have a multiplication of ministries, but will have a number of ministries that are needed for the functioning and development of the government and the motherland. I shall ensure that those ministries and ministers will adhere to the highest standards of efficiency, morality and ethics. In terms of anticorruption, time has come to ensure that anticorruption processes are modernised and depoliticised. I can assure you that rules, regulations, legal enactments, legislation will be formulated to promote the objective of eradicating corruption and have corrupt-free governance in our country.
Q Our education system is prescribed to be a bit archaic. Nothing much has changed in the past 25-30 years. How do we ensure that every youth that comes out from school, even if they are unable to do their A/Ls, can be re-skilled and ensure that they are partakers in the economic prosperity of Sri Lanka?
In this regard I would suggest to look at what’s happening beyond our borders. With their excellent IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) and IIM (Indian Institute of Medicine) concept, they produce youth and citizens with great capability and acumen. For them unemployment is not an issue because there’s a readily available market for those who are capable and rich in talent. But they have to go through a modern up-to-date curriculum. The necessary skills are bestowed upon the students that are in line with current labour market expectations and demands. When we talk of education, it has to be of very high standards when it comes to teaching and appropriateness. I take these IITs and IIMs as excellent programmes and if replicated in our country, would be one of the major programmes that would address educational needs of the children and youth of our country.
"I think it’s important to have a national programme and strategy where we bring together all of these interested parties under one umbrella and have a determined, target oriented, time tasked progamme"
Q We have law, but we don’t have order. How would you establish order?
The first thing that I would do is a complete, universal de-politicisation programme whereby those institutions that are bestowed, designated with the responsibility of promoting law and order continue to function independently, devoid of political influence and interferences. This I believe is the crux of the matter. Security force personnel, the police and others who are tasked with the task of promoting law and order have to be better trained. They have to be motivated, rewarded when they are performed. Performance based rewards would be a major part of my manifesto in the entire public policy and decision-making arena. More importantly i think politicians and decision makers should follow a hands-off policy when it comes to law and order institutions. We should allow the relevant officers to conduct their duties and responsibilities in an un-prejudicial and impartial manner. Once the political influence and interferences stop most of the problems we are facing in terms of law and order would be resolved.
Q Is there something wrong with the doctors and the healthcare system in Sri Lanka that most VIPs go to Singapore for treatment?
I think our healthcare system is quite healthy. I have always used the healthcare system that exists in our country. However the allocation of resources as a percentage and a proportion of Gross National Product for the health sector have to be enhanced. I think greater resources have to be allocated to the preventive curative sector. There are large shortcomings and drawbacks, anomalies in the rural prevent healthcare system and structure. There is a great need for the establishment of public health midwives buildings. They are crucial to ensure that the nutritional levels of mothers and children are kept at a high level through various intervention programmes that are implemented through the multiplicity of Ministry of Health offices established in the country. This is one aspect of resource scarcity that had had a detrimental impact on the government. However as a government we have in the past few years allocated a significant amount of resources and we have achieved the lowering of prices of drugs, medical instruments. As a government we have disentangled the drug mafia of the country that has resulted in the reduction of prices in medicinal equipment. A greater allocation of resources is an indispensable requirement to ensure the health and well-being of people in our country.