Any ‘System Change’ must occur at the grassroots level – By Aubrey Joachim
The resounding cry coming out of the Aragalaya is the need for a ‘system change’. This resonating cry which emanated from social media groups as well as the youth at the Gogotagama protest sites has also permeated the chamber of parliament. Various lawmakers are throwing the phrase helter skelter on the floor of the house in an effort to gain political advantage. But what really is the ‘system change’ that is expected? It is almost certain that each of various groups clamouring for such a change have in their minds a different understanding of the outcome and most likely a narrow version which suits their own narrative and perspective.
The most likely perception of the aragalaya proponents is a change in the system of politics and governance that has seemingly led to the worst political and economic crisis the country has faced post-independence. Admittedly there is much to be criticised in the political system and governance that has been set in place since the tried and tested Westminster system was abolished when Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972. Successive Presidents have pushed the envelope further to gain more and more control almost to the point of dictatorship.
There are various governance models being suggested by individuals and groups. There are calls for age, academic and character-based criteria to be set for politicians, restriction on the number of ministers and even members of parliament. Whatever the expectation of those screaming themselves hoarse it must be remembered that such changes must be enacted through the existing parliamentary processes and by the current set of 225. It will be akin to turkeys voting for Christmas!
However, besides the changes to the political system alone there are other aspects that are just as bad and related to politics and hopefully included in the loud cries for change. The most obvious is the malady of corruption and malpractice that is deeply rooted not only at the political level but cascades down the various levels of government and the public service. This is perhaps the most terrible curse that has strangled the country like a parasite sucking the nutrients and killing the tree. It is widely known that a major cause of the current economic and financial problems of the country have been caused by the missing and unexplained wealth and debt borrowings that now burden the country. Corruption is front and centre of this issue.
The culture of divisiveness is perhaps the one British lesson that has remained firmly embedded in the Sri Lankan political psyche. Language, ethnicity, caste and creed have been effectively used by leadership aspirants to gain competitive advantage. With three languages, four ethnic groups and at least four major religions in a country of 22 million the permutations are gleefully exploited for political outcomes. This culture must also be on the change list.
The other required trait that must be discarded is the dynastic and inter-connected family ties that seem to still exist in Asian politics as is seen in countries such as Philippines where a majority of current politicians are children of previous law makers or to a lesser extent Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. India and Pakistan seem to be veering away from this trend after the Gandhi and Bhuto family involvement has faded. Ever since independence Sri Lankan politics has been dominated by a few dynasties and inter-connected families that have resulted in de facto fiefdoms. This culture has created an almost feudal system where the continuing line of succession results in powerful rulers and subservient subjects who treat such rulers as demi-gods. The fate of the subjects is as decided by the ‘masters’. The western world has long moved on from this medieval social philosophy.
Therefore, while the country can claim to be one of the oldest and long standing democracies on the planet it is a very convoluted form of democracy that feeds off underlying corruption, coercion, divisiveness, feudalism, blind loyalty, fear and ignorance.
How then should change be achieved? While the megaphones blare out the call for change no clear path, process or initiatives seem to have been laid out by any group and hence no progress to change is being achieved. An uncouth phrase describes it best – ‘peeing in the wind’. Perhaps the protagonists at the centre of the ruck need to look inwards. Should they be examining what the masses could do in order to bring about the change rather than expecting the politicians to make the move?? Then the people themselves can force the system change they are looking for.
Fundamentally the national mindset must be changed and actions must be taken at a personal and grassroots level.
The most pervasive issue that is the root cause of most problems in the country is corruption. This trait cuts across the whole of the society and has existed for a long time. Most of society revels in the malpractice either as beneficiaries or as subscribers. It is almost accepted practice that bribes are offered for almost any outcome – avoiding a traffic fine, getting a job, having a building permit approved, obtaining a medical specialist appointment, obtaining a passport and so on to the highest levels of government such as being awarded over-priced contracts where the consideration is in the billions of dollars. In fact, the malpractice occurs from the early years of many Lankans – a teacher being offered gifts for favours, offers of inducement to get into a school’s sports team and many such instances. Parents gladly participate in such practices. Young minds are warped and moral consciences blunted. It is almost a badge of honour to be able to gain a competitive advantage by waving a wad of notes. A relatively recent Sri Lankan migrant to Australia who could not get an early appointment with a medical specialist bragged that in Sri Lanka he was able to get at the best specialists due to his position and wealth. Therefore, if graft and corruption is to be eliminated at the top it must start at the bottom. Malpractice must cease on the part of the giver and the receiver – at all levels.
Sri Lankans also love to worship those with wealth irrespective how ill-gotten such wealth may be. Those who flaunt the notes are given places of honour in social circles, old school associations and even in church and temple groups. Those who drive around in the flashy automobiles unaffordable by most are placed on high branches – the ‘murunga aththa’ syndrome. Even ordinary children hero-worship the children of the wealthy and shape their young minds to one day achieving such heights – irrespective of the means. It is time for a change. Such known persons of notoriety must be ostracised by the rest of society, they should be ignored and scorned upon, expelled by their old school associations and other groups. The notorious Columbian drug baron Pablo Escobar’s young children were treated with disdain – ignored by other children, not admitted to schools etc. irrespective of huge inducements made by their father. Today that once ostracised child is a decent young man. Thus society itself can bring about this change.
Political dynasties have been the bane of the country. But who creates them? The people. Should the change in mindset be to break such dynastic as well as family-tied cycles? This can very well be done at the ballot box. This is how such change has been achieved in other countries. The next generation must see that this happens and never create such fiefdoms ever again. And while on that point a failed politician should never again be elected by the electorate. In fact in Australia if the incumbent Prime Minster or MP loses he or she fades into oblivion. Same in Britain and other intellectually advanced countries. Why cannot Sri Lankans ascend to this level? If they did Sri Lanka would never now have a 5 times failed PM!
So the 225 are below par – or most of them. Who gave them passage into the halls of power? The Argalaya claims that such lawmakers – or most of them – are old, uneducated, lack substance and morals. What alternatives are offered to the electorate? Do the young, educated, honest and visionary individuals put their hands up? Countries in the developed world are seeing Prime Ministers and Ministers in their early 30’s. So rather than continuing their megaphone call for system change the Aragala boys and girls should actually offer themselves for public office. Once again a grass roots initiative.
A well-known Biblical saying is that “a nation divided against itself is brought to desolation.” Sri Lanka was perhaps in mind when Jesus said this! After all is it not the people who are divided? Aren’t they of different ethnicities and religions and language speakers? But fundamentally are they not all equally human? No community can be fractured unless they themselves want to be. Once again from an early age toddlers’ minds must be shaped along these lines. In Australian early childhood centres inclusiveness is paramount irrespective of differences thereby shaping a future unified society. This is once again something that can be instigated at the grassroots.
Finally, the grassroots change that can make a difference is to change people’s political affiliations and votes from personalities to policies, from financial, rice packet and alcoholic inducements to the future betterment of the country. This is how intellectually advanced nations choose their leadership.
Therefore, system change need not be delegated to the 225+1. The most effective way is to change the social and political DNA of Sri Lankans at the grassroots!