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Respect: An Open Letter

31 August 2020 06:08 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


A teenager’s worldview … 


I was brought up being told by my parents that respect is never obligatory, but must be earned everyday - even by them as too must I - and it is a principle I live by, and will continue unapologetically to do so. Respect, as I have learned, is only earned through being accountable, moral, and being a respectable person. I realise that this, in a society which values and makes unquestioning respect for elders compulsory above all else, may not be received too well. However, as radical as it may sound, this deeply ingrained social construct and culture of compliance has been the cause of much of our troubles in Sri Lanka. Voicing an opinion that even mildly contradicts that of an adult or person in authority is wrongly and unfairly perceived to reflect utter disrespect and poor upbringing - rather than an expression of personal belief. Friction is shied away from in this largely genial and “homely” country, with many people preferring to remain silent than “make a scene” or “cause a fuss”. This cultural norm has allowed many atrocities and wrongdoings committed by those in authority to continue unabated and unquestioned, and has given rise to an apathetic society that would rather whine and gripe than speak up.   

With that in mind, here is my open letter to those in authority - those whose actions, words and policies deeply influence and impact the youth of today, and of the future.   
Today marks 57 years since Martin Luther King’s infamous (and grossly over-quoted) speech “I have a dream”. As cliche as it may sound, his dream and all its implications still hold true today. In the words of John F. Kennedy, I envision a future in which those in authority “ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country”. The present, however, is far from that.   

"We often look to heroes - such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa for strength and direction in times of turbulence and need for change"

But why is this so? What prevents Sri Lanka from reaching this idyllic future? What holds us back? Is it the impunity granted to those in power - where laws that apply to us “ordinary folk” seem not to apply to them? Is it the lack of gender representation with there being a pitiful 3.77% representing a 52.01% majority? Is it the miscarriage of justice which allows even the pardoning of murderers at a president’s behest, the painfully archaic systems of education, the unwillingness to act on climate change? Is it the unrelenting corruption that pervades every aspect of daily life, the excessive red tape that allows for this corruption, the inefficiency of government institutions, the burdensome bureaucracy that weighs us down? Is it the prioritisation of nepotism over meritocracy? Is it the flagrant wallowing in luxury funded by public money, stolen from children and families left to struggle, failed by the very systems that are meant to protect them? Is it unnecessary and unchecked pitting of religious and racial groups against one another? Or is it a bitter and toxic cocktail of all of the above - a cocktail of failure and failings that leaves us hopeless, almost?   

And there doesn’t appear to be any hope for change. So rife with bribery, corruption, and amoralism is the public sector and government that those who should be in power - those with morals, intelligence, and pragmatism - wish not to sully their hands in government, because the system is such that one simply cannot get into a position to change anything without being enmeshed in the very things they wish to change ...   
And so we go on, languishing in mediocrity and sunk costs, continuing to fill our Parliament with reprobates - even murderers - not out of choice, but because the system is “weaponised” against good people. Is this truly democracy? Is coerced choice really a choice at all?   

The answer, unequivocally, is NO; and as a youth in the process of inheriting this nation, OUR wonderful, multicultural, multilingual land rich in history and even richer in culture, I am lost and confused. Seeing my country’s ‘guardians’ acting the way they do - callously, and with no exemplar qualities - I, and many others are left wondering who and where is our moral compass? Growing up we are taught that lying and stealing is categorically wrong, and yet who are we supposed to emulate if the very people who lead this country lay waste to this most fundamental principle? Students are turned away from universities and base-level jobs because they missed the requirement by a single aggregate mark, only to learn that 42% of parliamentarians in 2017 did not have even Ordinary Level qualifications! Girls who wish to and have the ambition and potential to lead see only men in positions of power, while at school our history books boast that the first female Prime Minister in the world was Sri Lankan. Great strides taken in the past do not excuse retrogression and stagnation. Paltry placations with an election result from 60 years ago simply aren’t enough for 52% of the population - and especially not at a time where ornamental fish have a ministry devoted to them, while the Ministry for Women and Children’s Affairs has been absorbed into a State Ministry - a significant demotion - run by a man. We the youth watched helplessly as in a single day last year, our country was torn asunder by ethno-religious terror while people in authority who had the power to prevent the deaths of hundreds played politics with security, and subsequently spent more time blaming one another showing no shame or remorse.   

"Where ornamental fish have a ministry devoted to them, the Ministry for Women and Children’s Affairs has been absorbed into a State Ministry - a significant demotion - run by a man!"

As a youth, the status quo disheartens me more than I can express. We often look to heroes such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa for strength and direction in times of turbulence and need for change. We saw their motivations to commit acts that furthered the common good of humanity. We saw this reflected in our own leaders such as C.W.W. Kannangara whose ground breaking and progressive reform of the education system is celebrated to this day. But there are no such heroes in my parents’ generation, and it seems much like the burning want - nay, need - to fix our broken systems skipped that generation altogether, as they merely looked on as others of their age committed atrocities and disheartening acts of callousness. The heroes of my era are not adults, the mantle instead having been taken up by young people such as Greta Thunberg, MalalaYusufzai or Emma Gonzalez - none of whom are above the age of 23! It’s not to say that older generations aren’t doing heroic deeds every day, however the fact remains that the names that first come to mind when talking about heroes of this era are those of the youth. This is a disconcerting reflection of those generations’ apathy and complacency.   

With new leadership and a parliament in place, I can only hope that this will be a new beginning as well. It is encouraging to see a President arrive to take oaths without the customary bells and whistles whose symbolism is obsolete in this age; and to hear of those in power being more open to progressive ideas such as sex education for children, and increasing the minimum age for marriage. Yet it is hard to remain optimistic when these small steps of progress are wildly negated by the fact that there are more members allegedly involved in murders (one has in fact been convicted!) elected to parliament than there are women appointed to the Cabinet. While this new leadership which still has time to prove that it is deserving of our respect and trust, this certainly is a very ambivalent start …   

My generation has been accused of being entitled and spoilt. Of being unaware and selfish. But are we not entitled to a better future? Are we spoilt for asking - begging - the people who affect our future to spare a thought for us, and act outside of their own self-interest and greed? Are we unaware and selfish for being some of the most socially involved citizens, and for driving change that should ideally have come from adults? I think not, and I should hope those in authority start to feel an iota of shame and accountability, and work with us for a better future, and finally, finally EARN our respect.

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