Minister of Public Management Reforms Navin Dissanayake, spoke to the Daily Mirror on his father’s legacy, the public administration system of the country and the weaknesses of the UNP.
Inefficient Public Service
Q: What changes do you intend to make as the Minister of State Management reforms?
It is a very difficult position, because the public service has been heading towards a single trajectory and we have to reorient it, make it less corrupt and more people-friendly. For this we have to retune and rewire the public servants. We are having a lot of training with regard to ethics, leadership skills and efficiency skills. I also feel that the structural organisation of these systems have to be reformed, to stop the duplication of services—the provincial councils and the central government duplicating activities. It is not something that can be done overnight, but I believe that in the next few years we can change the system, I already see a change in the younger lot—they are more professional in their approach and they perceive that merely receiving a remuneration is insufficient, but they too have to serve.
Q: What you say about attitude is all to do with recruitment into the public service. However many consider that the recruitment process is a very politicized and corrupt system. How will you change this?
I think that is a very sensitive point. The public service today, I would say that 90 per-cent of the public service recruitment is done through competitive exams. I know this is happening, because people who I have recommended cannot get in, because despite my thinking that they are competent they have not been able to get through the exam.
On the other hand, the labourers and others on that grade are employed through political connections, but I don’t think that has such a corrosive effect on the system.
If you take the recent graduates that were taken in, I think there was a level of politics in it. All those who were taken in were graduates, but they did not have to sit for an exam—they were taken in on the eligibity of an interview done by the District Secretary and given points. We as politicians had a leeway on it.
Q: That is an extremely subjective process, especially if there was no examination held prior to the interview.
Examinations were not held because the President felt that we should recruit them immediately—it happened within a month. He made a promise in March and by the end of May the recruitment process was completed. I do agree with you, that we should have had an exam before the interview process—but that was a presidential directive.
Q: Do you agree with that policy? That recruitment should be rushed and inefficient due to a promise made by the President?
No I don’t agree with that, but the discretion of a president is also important and as the Finance Minister he should have a say.
Q: About something that is going to outlast his term and affect the public service for years to come?
No one is questioning their incompetence, may be if you look at two individuals one may be better than the other but that does not mean that the other one is not competent.
It is also a social issue, when graduates are not given employment there are two ways to look at it. The laissez-faire economy, which developed countries follow—where the government does not intervene in finding graduates jobs. However we follow a different model, we give employment to graduates, even the UNP has done that, it is part and parcel of our ethos. I feel that it is a social issue. We give jobs to 34,000 graduates, who have not been employed even five years after they left university—the government has provided them that opportunity.
Q: How does this help to change the mentality and the attitude of those in the public service; if those employed in the public sector were merely employed to solve the issues of unemployment without considerating thier eligibility?
Recruiting people in such manner was done even during the time of President Chandrika Bandaranaike where 40,000 jobs were given in one shot.
Q: And today we talk of an inefficient public service.
It is up to us, our duty is to ensure that these recruited public servants are properly trained. The training process is important, here we have put up a bar and told them very clearly that they will get their appointment letters if they go through 1.5 years of training and prove themselves.
We are putting them through a tough process, out in the field—just because they are graduates, it does not mean that they can sit in an office from 9-5, be made permanent and collect a salary. Therefore we are committed to turn the public service into an ethos that is performing.
Politics in Sri Lanka is everywhere; the police department, the education system, it is all over the place. The UNP has contributed to that and the SLFP has contributed to that. It does not mean that the political process has to die, we have to accept that there are certain socio-economic conditions that are present in our country and any government will cater to that.
Q: Health Minister Maithreepala Sirisena recently brought up the accusation that the current leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe leaked information to the SLFP of the time with regards to the details of your father’s campaign. What is your response to these accusations?
My father was assassinated in 1994, it has been 18 long years, and all these stories are not going to bring my father back. What I am sorry about is the fact that after his death, there has not been any proper investigation into his death, although we know who the culprits were, there was no closure on it. As a son I feel very sad about that. However in India when Rajiv Gandhi was assasinated they were very quick to apprehend the suspects. We as a family would have liked some closure, but that is over now.
This is politics in Sri Lanka, whether Mr. Wickremesinghe leaked information or not I don’t know—there has not been any hard evidence of investigation into it. Within the SLFP there has always been this talk that information was leaked; as a cabinet colleague they have intimated to me that the information came from Mr. Wickremesinghe; so whether they are telling me the truth—I don’t not know.
All I can say is that as a son, I am a Buddhist and I believe that if you do wrong to someone it will always come back to you. Therefore I believe that if Mr. Wickremesinghe has done something wrong to my father, it will come back to him. Ultimately we have to answer our conscience.
Q: What was your father’s feeling, did he suspect this?
He felt that the UNP was not supporting him, very clearly and that there were moves against him. But he felt that with his dynamic personality he was able to handle it. Therefore he was able to overcome these little conspiracies.
Q: Did he directly suspect Mr. Wickremesinghe?
No, there was nothing like that. He had a couple of chats with Mr. Wickremesinghe. I remember very well that my father told him “I helped Premadasa despite having differences with him and I hope that you too will help me in the same way”.
After my father died I was a UNP organizer, together with my family, I backed him through two presidential elections all the way till 2007. We knew that we had to get over that era and back him—therefore it has to be recognized that we got over it, or else we would not have trusted him.
Q: You were naturally pressured into politics due to the expectations people had of your family. If you could have made this decision outside of all that pressure and expectation would you still have entered politics?
Soon after my father died, I was also passionate about politics and I thought of politics as an instrument to do good—I still feel that. I feel that my decision to enter politics on a personal level has been right for me. I think I have been able to do a lot for the people of Nuwara Eliya and they have given me a mandate on three occasions. I feel that I have been broadly accepted, not necessarily because of my name but because of the work that I have done.
Sometimes in my conscience I feel that may be I should have been a lawyer and I could have served the community more through law. But now, since I am in the game, I feel that it is the right decision that I made.
Q: You crossed over from the UNP in 2007, looking back at the years that you have been in the SLFP/UPFA do you think you made the right decision? Have you been given due recognition? Are you happy with your portfolio?
Well at that time I think there was a need for both parties to work together, the war had just started and the President needed our support. I felt in my mind and my body that our army could end the war and I felt that our crossing over contributed at least something to that effort. From that time on, it has been a flow. After that it was the Presidential election and I felt the opposition did not have a proper candidate. Certainly we respected Sarath Fonseka as an Army General but whether he had what it takes to be a political leader—I had my doubts and I think many others did as well.
I have no worries about the position, because if you remember the President offered me a Deputy Ministerial post but I refused it and I said I wanted to remain an MP in order to serve the people of Nuwara Eliya better. In the second round he offered me a Minister post, and this time I took it up.
Q: As a former UNPer how do you feel about the situation that the party is facing?
I still remember the day after the 2004 election, at the first parliamentary group meeting Sajith said that positions should be elected and I seconded that motion. Now they have a process of electing leaders and that is very good. Many people tell me that there is no opposition in this country. Journalists present us with more questions than the opposition. For instance let’s take the Malaka Silva issue, last week, was the parliamentary week. Was there any discussion of this matter and a critique by the opposition? No. As a government we wish to face a strong opposition.
The next presidential election will also be based on personality, grassroots level organization and a few policies—this is always the case. Sadly I say that the UNP my father died for, that fateful night, is no more. At that time the UNP had very effective grassroots level organizations, youth leadership, women’s leadership and Bikkhu leadership—that is not there now. I feel very sad that a very strong party is going through this.
Q: How do you view this recent incident with Mervyn Silva’s son and what followed with the court case?
Clearly the law must stand. I don’t know the factual situation of what really happened. Personally I condemn what happened if Malaka attacked the Major and Rehan was also there, Rehan is also a good friend of mine. I completely condemn this and believe that the law has to stand.