Leader of the Opposition Hon .Sajith Premadasa
The main objective of this write up is to publicize my personal observations of Hon. Sajith Premadasa during my close association with him during the past 06 months
There is a thick carapace of insensibility and a sense of hopelessness that has grown over the collective psyche of the nation due to poor decision making and poor management at the highest level of governance. To induce the necessary catharsis to this situation is the prime responsibility of any socially relevant individual or a democratic political group that is made of such individuals. Unless it is so done these frustrations might gush out and erupt in socially harmful ways.
Dr. Rohantha Athukorala in his article titled “Does Sri Lanka have a Government” (Daily FT, 13th May 2021) aptly describe with numerous examples the poor nature especially the ad hoc and inconsistent nature of the recent decisions made by the present Government. Hence I shall avoid a repetition by not embarking on the same direction. I shall rather focus on the best options available to pull ourselves out of the present morass and especially the leadership traits that the person who would lead us ought to possess.
Getting to the bottom of the issue
According to the latest Central Bank Report we are a USD 82 Billion economy. Our per capita is around USD 4000. At the present exchange rate this per capita translates into an individual annual income of LKR 800,000/=. Which means an income of around LKR 66,666/= per mensem. Hence a household of four will have a monthly income of around LKR 266,000/=. This I believe is sufficient for a decent living. But why isn’t it so reflected and apparent in our society? There is a worrying income distribution disparity in the society.
Out of the 5.2 million households in Sri Lanka the main income of 2.1 million households is from agriculture. Approximately 8.4 million people dwell in these 2.1 million households. 45% of our landmass is used for agriculture. But the contribution by the agriculture sector to the economy is less than 8%. That translates into around USD5.5 billion. In other words using almost half of our landmass and one third of our population we produce a value of USD 5.5 billion only. 70% of the people in the agriculture sector have studied only up to Ordinary Level or less. Having a ministry of agriculture and agri service centres island wide only 1.7% of the farmers have gone through some kind of formal training on agriculture and this also is for a period of less than a month. Hence in fixing the Sri Lankan economy this need serious attention and a radical approach to redress the grievances associated with this. A gradual structural change to the economy is imperative. Social Democratic policies I believe is the best way to approach this overarching issue; especially in addressing the income distribution disparity. When I offered Myself to stand for Presidency in 2019 this is the rationale for me to have based my policies on Social Democratic Principles.
On the 24th of December 2020, I received an honourable invitation from the Leader of the Opposition Hon .Sajith Premadasa to join his and his parties endeavor in pursuing a path which will provide many an innovative solutions to the plethora of issues the country is faced with. I Myself being the Leader of the Social Democratic Party of Sri Lanka was elated when Hon. Sajith Premadasa pronounced that he has embraced Social Democratic Policies as means of addressing the serious issue of income distribution disparity. This statement pulled a string that resonated with my Social Democratic Policy inclinations. Since then not only have I accepted the honourable invitation but also occupy a seat in the working committee of the SJB, a brand new political party that has proved by it’s conduct that it has allocated space to accommodate warriors such as Myself who otherwise would have remained comfortable with the alternative political platform as against the mainstream political platform.
The main objective of this write up is to publicize my personal observations of Hon. Sajith Premadasa during my close association with him during the past 06 months. This in turn I believe shall assist many an individual to look beyond the rhetoric in making an informed decision through mature deliberations as to who should lead our country next.
Can Sajith Deliver?
I have seen first hand how passionate he is about addressing and redressing the grievances of the poor. His will to serve the masses especially to pull the people at the bottom of the pyramid out of abject poverty is enormous. This I believe stems from the DNA from his father, President Ranasingha Premadasa who championed many a poverty alleviation programmes in Sri Lanka successfully. Hence Sajith’s inclination towards Social Democratic Policies in addressing the income distribution disparity in Sri Lanka is not only sincere but I have fathomed that he has the iron political will to implement what he has conceived. I have discussed with him extensively the indispensable structural changes to the economy to break ourselves from the vicious cycle of poverty. By now Sajith is a seasoned politician and is well aware of the inner play of the mechanism involved in policy formulation and it’s implementation. He has recognized the time lag in moving through various institutional mechanisms that kills the essence of timely and effective policy intervention. He has the grasp of it. Hence is determined not to succumb to such time lags in institutional mechanisms in policy implementation. As the old adage goes “if there is a will there is a way”. I am more than confident of the iron will of this man and the fact that this man has what it takes to walk the talk.
Capacity to comprehend
The Intellectual capacity to grasp the crux of an issue is a prerequisite of a successful leader. Having spoken at length on several national issues I was amazed of Sajith’s power to comprehend and the special knack in getting into the bottom of the matter swiftly especially by asking all the right questions. Rightly so with his association with the worlds top ranked London School of Economics from 1986 to1991 where he majored in “Economics and International Relations” (B.Sc). During his tenure at the LSE he had the privilege of associating intellectual heavyweights such as Prof. Fred Halliday, Prof. Rosalyn Higgins (Former President of the International Court of Justice), Prof. Philip Windsor, Prof. Christopher Coker(a former NATO fellow) and Prof. Michael Leifer just to name a few.
And also it is little known that Sajith Premadasa has apprenticed under US Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota for almost two years (1992-1993). This opportunity gave Sajith inter alia first hand experience of the policy formulation process in the US. He said that whenever there was a policy debate he was assigned to read extensively and submit relevant research findings to Senator Pressler within a given time frame. This gave him access to the vast congress library and observed that almost all Senators were engrossed in reading at the library prior to a policy debate. Perhaps it is this experience that prompted Sajith to actively encourage his Parliamentary group to pursue further studies in their chosen fields. Today a majority of Sajith’s Parliamentary group are engaged in knowledge enhancing exercises.
With a Major from London School of Economics and an apprenticeship with a US Senator coupled with his vast experience in working with the grassroots and now as the Leader of the Opposition makes Sajith Premadasa the only viable option as the next leader of this country. Or rather the only person with the right mix of experience to navigate us to a safe haven.
Philosophers as Leaders
Plato, the Greek philosopher was dissatisfied with rulers who lacked knowledge and moral strength to act according to the common good. In other words, rulers motivated by self-interest were not strong leaders. Plato proposes instead that States should be governed by philosophers that venerate wisdom. Only philosophers are morally and intellectually suited to govern and lead. Morally because they are interested in and have a passion for truth and learning, while showing no interest in the temptations of gaining power for the sake of power.
Intellectually because they are able to attain knowledge on the ideal forms of virtue, beauty and the good.
The proof of the sincerity and seriousness of a leader is uncompromising emphasis on integrity of character says Peter Drucker, the great management philosopher. This above all has to be symbolized in a leader’s decisions. For it is character through which leadership is exercised; it is the character that sets the example. Character is not something one can fool people about. The people who associate closely with the Leader knows in a few weeks whether he has integrity or not. People may forgive a great deal for any in competencies or ignorance of a leader. But they will not forgive a lack of integrity in the leader.
Throughout his parliamentary career Sajith has refused to avail himself of a super luxury vehicle at the expense of taxpayers money. Even during the pandemic he has shown his character by refusing to receive the Covid vaccination until the last person in Sri Lanka is vaccinated. All the while not only many politicians rushed to get themselves vaccinated but ensured that their immediate and not so immediate families received the jab. The ordinary citizens that elected them to power have to wait indefinitely exposing themselves to a great risk until they receive the vaccination.
I too am a victim of the State vaccination programme failure. I received the first dose of the Covishield on the 27th of February this year at my village temple. But to date the second dose has not been administered. The due dates for the second dose has long lapsed. I was told by many to use my influence for me and my family to receive the second jab. But I have refused to do so. I couldn’t bring Myself to agree with such undue favour that bypassed the legitimate process. This is the very corrupt system that I stood against when I stood for Presidency of Sri Lanka. To have deviated from my convictions for a personal favour would have killed me out of guilt. It would be much worse than having to succumb to the Corona virus.
Kindness and Compassion
Compassion is a virtue that one acquire when he attain a higher level of consciousness. To have refused luxury vehicles at public expense and to be vaccinated prior to the ordinary citizen stems from a deep sense of compassion that a leader develops towards the people that come under the purview of his influence. This is a virtue that is definitely expected of a true leader that can provide the necessary catharsis to an otherwise hopeless nation. Spirit of a nation is created from the top. If a nation is great in spirit, it is because the top Leadership is great. If it decays, it does so because the top rots.
Abilities and not Disabilities
It’s the abilities, not the disabilities, that count. President Franklin D Roosevelt’s confidential adviser during World War 2 was Harry Hopkins, almost a dead man for whom every step was torment. He could work only few hours every other day or so. This forced him to cut out everything but truly vital matters. He did not lose effectiveness thereby. Hopkins accomplished more than anyone else in wartime Washington. Roosevelt broke every rule in the book to enable the dying Harry Hopkins to make his unique contribution. A Leader must thus have a special knack in figuring out the strengths of individuals and develop them to perform better.
Liz Wiseman in her Wall Street Journal bestseller “MULTIPLIERS” mention that there are two dramatically different types of Leaders that we all have experienced. The first type drain intelligence, energy and capability from the people around them. These are the idea killers, the energy sappers, the diminishers of talent and commitment. On the other side of the spectrum are Leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. When these Leaders walk into a room people are energized, ideas flow and problems get solved. These are the Leaders who inspire people to stretch themselves to deliver results that surpass expectations. These are the Multipliers and the world needs more of them. Especially Sri Lanka is in need of one.
In working closely with Hon. SajithPremadasa for the past six months I am convinced that he is a multiplier of talent. He doesn’t feel threatened or inferior in nurturing talent which is a very rare quality for a local politician.
Above Petty Politics
There was pressure from a section of Sajith’s party ranks not to patronize the Independence Day Celebrations on the 04th of February this year, especially in the light that one of its MP’s were behind bars. But Sajith had the gut to elect to act rationally. He said that Independence Day Celebration was an event of national importance and that it was an event of the State and not the Government. Hence boycotting an event of national importance in protest was a very narrow approach to the issue at hand. Amidst pressure he participated at the Independence Day Celebration and set a new precedence for all politicians to rise above narrow and petty politics when facing issues of national importance. I personally know the pressure and opposition that Sajith had to face within his party ranks on this occasion. But I truly admire his ability to think and act rationally even under tremendous pressure and in extremely adverse conditions. Even when the Muslim community faced the burial/cremation issue Sajith stood firm for what was right. Here too I personally know that he was strongly advised to refrain from being vociferous about the issue faced by the Muslim community. He was advised that if he elected to do so he will run the risk of alienating himself from the Sinhala Buddhist majority. But Sajith did not fear the political backlash he may have to face in standing up for what in his view was forensically and scientifically correct. He selected the “scientific truth” over politics very well knowing that it was politically disadvantageous to him. He is a man that has the courage and the conviction to rise above petty and vindictive politics of recent Sri Lanka. He is the man who can usher a whole new political culture that you and I crave to create.
Politics is about either holding onto power or aspiring to gain power. Leadership is about doing the right thing, telling the truth and admitting the inconvenient truth.
The response to the pandemic should not be shaped by political rhetoric. But it is. That is unfortunate. When Honourable Sajith Premadasa raised issue in Parliament regarding the readiness of the government in facing the pandemic, he was ridiculed by the government ranks especially by the Chief Government Whip. But had the government taken Sajith seriously we wouldn’t have been in the present predicament. Parliamentary Hansard reports bear testimony to this. Had the government conceded to Sajith’s suggestions Sri Lanka would have been a Covid free country by availing the full advantage of being an Island.
I wouldn’t call Sajith a Charismatic Leader. My observations are that he is a strong and a simple person with proven competence.
Peter Drucker in his book “The New Realities” mentions that the desire for charisma in Political Leadership is a death wish. Twentieth Century has seen more Leaders with Charisma; Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler; all these Leaders have done great damage to the world. The constructive achievements of the twentieth century were the work of completely uncharismatic people. The two military men who guided the allies to victory in World War 2 were Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall. Both were highly disciplined, highly competent and deadly dull.
Advances in technology and Communications have made life and work easier, more exciting yet more complicated. Change is occurring simultaneously in multiple arenas. It is also happening at an unprecedented pace, requiring people to be alert to new data and agile enough to respond to it quickly and effectively. These are new challenges for leaders. Leading as we did in the past will not be effective in this era of global change. “Command and control” method of leadership has become obsolete. The new leadership must inspire people to respond to ever demanding challenges with speed, optimism and ingenuity. Today we need leaders who inspire passion and excitement, leaders who create strong possible relationships while guiding the energy, emotion, behaviour and even the culture of a country. Sajith certainly is a modern leader with enormous competence.
Human nature prompts us to believe that role models of 21 St Century Leadership will mirror those of the past. Most likely they won’t, because conditions and circumstances conspire to pose new challenges. Those challenges in turn will breed a new generation of Leadership.
Integrating to the World
The poet and preacher John Donne in his 1624 “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions” famously reminded us that “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.
I have had the privilege of being part of the delegation when the Honourable Leader of the Opposition met many a Diplomatic Envoy assigned to Sri Lanka. Hence I have seen first hand as to how the Leader of the Opposition carries himself in the presence of the Diplomatic community. And his eloquence especially of the English language enables him to establish an immediate rapport with such envoys. This is of paramount importance in integrating Sri Lanka to the world.
Once a certain envoy enquired as to what the international community ought to do in order to bring the present government to comply with international accountability. The Opposition Leader’s answer was firm and swift; I will never ever collude with any international organization to pressurize a democratically elected government of my country”. This answer speaks volumes of the man behind the man. And true patriotism is integrating Sri Lanka into the world so that we will be perceived as a friendly nation. This in turn will guarantee national security from any external threat.
I have penned my observations in my close association with Honourable Sajith Premadasa during the past six months. I am not an almighty judge to pass any judgement. These are only my humble observations least tainted by any biases. Soon Sri Lanka will search for the next leader. I trust this write up will be assisting material for the reader to look beyond the rhetoric (a rhetoric created by a media with vested interests) in arriving at the decision as to who should it be next.
(The writer is the Leader of the Social Democratic Party of Sri Lanka. A world reknown entrepreneur, who contested the Sri Lankan Presidential Election 2019. He can be contacted on email@example.com)