Albert Einstein irrevocably changed the face of physics. One of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, he achieved fame not only as a physicist, but also as a philosopher and a humanitarian. Among many things we can learn from this great man, is his definition of insanity, which unfortunately is very relevant to Sri Lanka today. Einstein defined INSANITY thus – “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome”. At this critical juncture, on the eve of an election, the result of which can be a paradigm shift, every Sri Lankan should pause to think before voting for established parties, “Am I insane by Einstein’s definition”. For 70 years, we were doing the same thing – voting for blue and green while the country moved steadily on a downward trajectory except for Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka and his generals’ military victory over terrorism.
"Political institutions in the pre-1978 constitution protected economic institutions that fostered domestic agricultural and industrial production, bringing an unprecedented prosperity to rural Sri Lanka"
Key institutions of the country have collapsed almost completely. Integrity of the judiciary is no more. Intelligence apparatus is not functioning as seen by the Easter Sunday massacre. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister has accepted responsibility for national security. Corruption and enrichment of the ruling elites has risen to new levels in the past 20 years. Central Bank has been raped for years by both parties. As a country, Sri Lanka lives beyond its means, importing twice more than it exports, using remittances of its citizens working abroad. Almost 40% of its GDP is from the service sector, a luxury not affordable for a Third World country. Even the tax system is not suited for a developing country. Indirect taxes are increasing while direct income taxes are decreasing. Soon after independence, Sri Lanka’s per capita income was $89, only a dollar less than Japan. Singapore was at the bottom with a PCI of $39. Today Singapore is way ahead of Sri Lanka. After being an economic powerhouse and a creditor nation in 1950s how did Sri Lanka degenerate to this level today?
Why Nations Fail?
I found part of the answer in a book, “Why Nations Fail – The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, written by two professors, Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT and James Robinson, Professor of Government at Harvard University. They wrote “Each society functions with a set of economic and political rules created and enforced by the state and the citizens collectively. Economic institutions shape economic incentives: the incentives to become educated, to save and invest, to innovate and adopt new technologies and so on. However, it is the political process that determines what economic institutions people live under, and it is the political institutions that determines how the process works. For example, it is the political institutions of a nation that determine the citizens’ ability to control politicians and influence how they behave. This in turn determines whether politicians are agents of the citizens, albeit imperfect, or are able to abuse power entrusted to them, or that they have usurped, or amass their own fortunes and to pursue their own agendas, ones detrimental to those of the citizens.” Reading these lines, you may wonder if the authors wrote with Sri Lanka in mind.
"Among many things we can learn from this great man, is his definition of insanity, which unfortunately is very relevant to Sri Lanka today"
The 1978 constitution changed Sri Lanka’s political institutions in an unprecedented way, destroying separation of powers by concentrating legislative, executive and even some judicial powers in presidency. Its electoral system of electing peoples’ representatives district- wise made them less accountable to the electors and enhanced the role of money in getting elected. It also vastly increased compensations and privileges of elected leaders thus attracting people who wanted to get rich rather than to serve. When cost of getting elected and the compensations of the elected officials rise, corruption and decline follows like a shadow. These two changes alone created an institutional framework which diluted the quality of leadership. Ethics and integrity fell on the wayside. When it was installed, political institutions of the worst kind professors Acemoglu and Robinson describe were born. Seeds of destruction thus planted were obfuscated by the so called open economy which destroyed domestic industry and agriculture, yet gave an aura of abundance thanks to free flowing imports.
"Key institutions of the country have collapsed almost completely. Integrity of the judiciary is no more"
How these institutions affected the quality of leadership can best be observed by comparing four families in leadership for two generations -- Bandaranaike, Gunawardena, Premadasa and Rajapaksa. First generation of these families operated within Westminster constitutions, from independence to 1978. The next generation functioned within the political institutions created by the 1978 Constitution. If we compare leadership and integrity of the first generation with those of their children who are active in politics today it is hard to ignore the glaring difference. Erosion of leadership quality, ethical conduct and level of integrity can only be attributed to the political institutions brought to life by the 1978 constitution. In tandem, with the decline in leadership quality, economy also declined as seen by two economic indicators, exchange rate and national debt. When the 1978 Constitution was installed, debt was negligible and a US dollar was worth less than ten rupees compared to today’s debt of Rs.13 trillion and rupee-dollar parity at 180. No more proof is needed to show the disastrous economic consequences of political institutions introduced by this constitution. Such a destructive system would never have survived 40 years if not for the fact that for 30 of those years, the country was engulfed by uprisings of Tamil youth in the North and Sinhala youth in the South. Political institutions in the pre-1978 constitution protected economic institutions that fostered domestic agricultural and industrial production, bringing an unprecedented prosperity to rural Sri Lanka. These were destroyed by post 1978 economic institutions such as “Open Economy”, which in turn fueled youth unrest that consumed the country for three decades. Corrosive effects of these political institutions on morals, ethics and decency of the society are so ubiquitous, CHANGE is now an economic and moral imperative.
Why Nations Rise?
They decide to CHANGE. Collectively, people of those nations decide to jettison flawed political institutions and create new ones to breed higher quality leaders and economic institutions conducive to growth, prosperity and individual freedom. Is CHANGE easy? Of course not. It involves hard work, commitment and devotion of millions of citizens working together setting aside party loyalties, religious affiliations and racial sentiments. For a society to rise to this level is not easy. Many ideas are floating on how to CHANGE and what to CHANGE. May I add some thoughts on how to change now and what to change later.
"When you go to vote to elect the President, identify a Movement with a clear plan for changing this disastrous system. Do not depend on a person from an established party to do it for you"
First the vehicle of CHANGE. It should be a movement. Not a person. Person can be the face but not the soul. We in USA realized this when we elected Barak Obama as the President. Millions of people hungry for change were mesmerized by his oratory. Once elected to office he continued President G.W. Bush’s policies with only nominal changes which did not help those who elected him. Disappointment of the people who voted Obama to power was so profound, in next seven years, Democratic party lost 938 legislative seats and governorships throughout the country. In successful countries, people react and pursue change despite setbacks. Many countries abandoned established parties and chose a third party in recent years. Mexico voted for a third party led by Sanchez Obrador, Pakistan voted for a third party led by Imran Khan, Malaysia brought back 90-year-old Mahathir Mohammed, Hungarians voted a third party to power, Ukraine elected a young comedian, Britian voted for Brexit, while USA elected as President, Donald Trump, a non-politician, a billionaire businessman, a man with no political party, no ideology, not known for truthfulness but a strong desire to put America and her people on top.
Sri Lanka can learn from this experience. In 2015 people elected Mr. Sirisena. He failed. Voters also failed. Yahapaalanaya was a vague statement. Not a manifesto for change. When you go to vote to elect the President, identify a Movement with a clear plan for changing this disastrous system. Do not depend on a person from an established party to do it for you. They didn’t do it for 40 years. They won’t do it now. Think of Einstein’s definition of INSANITY. Rejecting the corrupt and failed status quo is easy. when over 75% of the country’s earnings are needed to service its debt. At the very least, they will hear your protest. You will earn their respect. At the end of the day, you can feel good, for you have done something to make the country a better place for your children and grandchildren to live and prosper.
"Disappointment of the people who voted Obama to power was so profound, in next seven years, Democratic party lost 938 legislative seats and governorships throughout the country. In successful countries, people react and pursue change despite setbacks"
Will the voter fail again? Odds are stacked against him. Two mainstream candidates are loaded with resources, party organizations, and overwhelming backing of broadcast media. Don’t be discouraged. In 2016 we in USA were in the same situation. Champion of the establishment and vested interests was Hillary Clinton. Similar to Sri Lanka today, she had more financial resources and backing of over 75% of media, both printed and broadcast and strong party organization. These advantages were no match for voters’ passion to change. Clinton lost. Are you willing to walk the extra mile for the sake of next generations? If yes, time is now. As the song goes “it’s now or never...” Lord Acton wrote,” leaders of a society are what it deserves”.