A confederacy of confidence tricksters

By Rajpal Abeynayake

(April 19, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Among the Babel of voices in national newspapers, the muted voice of one Uawatte-Arachchi writing in a local journal, probably was the most penetrative in recent times. Mr. Uawatte-Arachchi claimed that most political projects such as rebellions and putsches for power etc., are at bottom, motivated by the desire of the protagonists to secure a slice of a country’s limited resources.

How true. John Kenneth Galbraith said the same almost as colourfully in one of his books — claiming that when anybody says he wants to emancipate the masses or to rebel on their behalf, it means that he or she is really interested in grabbing a share of the national loot.

Uswatte-Arachchi goes on to say that in rich countries young people would resolve to launch business enterprises with a view to being filthy-rich and owning yachts and sports cars etc., by the time they are 35 years of age or so. (I am not sure he said yachts or filthy-rich, but he used words conveying the basic idea...)

In many developing countries such as ours, such business opportunities are limited, he says, which is why most young people resolve to be politicians so they could appropriate state funds for themselves and become filthy-rich by the time they are in their thirties.

Professor Carlo Fonseka put it more colourfully once when he wrote quoting somebody — I forget who now — that one of the best things that can be done in life is to “take a small country and rob it of all its money.’’ That’s’ what many African despots have done with their countries — taken them, and appropriated all the resources, diamonds, gold, tin, what have you, for their personal aggrandizement.

Heli - pad

Let’s face it, in Sri Lanka many young and not as young people have got themselves elected to parliament this last week, for the exclusive purpose of apportioning for themselves as much of the country’s resources as they can get their hands on.

I know of one young man who raised so much money from one of his previous political campaigns that it is widely known among his party leadership as well as those others in the know, that most of the money raised for the ‘campaign’ was used to build a luxury house for himself. (He was heard to say in private recently that he has only one regret; he didn’t think of a heli-pad on the roof!)

We also know we have reached the nadir when we begin to rationalize all of this with views such as “but what goes to these people’s pockets is after all a minute slice of the national budget’’, “there would be corruption anyway when a country develops’’ and “its easier to make these people rich and have a massive cabinet, than have political instability which would cost a lot more.”

Persons who articulate such points of view are thinking in terms of the material loot, and some go to the extent of saying that “in the end we are all jealous of these people making money unlawfully, because we cannot do so ourselves.”(!)
Such well articulated gems I am sure are signs that people have already given up on the fact that any of this loot could be recovered or one day accounted for.

Of course they have taken corruption for granted, and in a philosophical way rationalized perhaps that the people who amass obscene wealth on the public kitty may not in the end be happy after all — which may be true, as it is certain that having a yacht or two is not going to buy a person extra happiness, after certain basic human needs have been met ... but yet that’s a matter for philosophy and not political science.

People who rationalize in this way may be envious that they are not successful in being corrupt at least at the national scale. They may be corrupt in their own backyard or ghetto environments, siphoning off an unearned rupee or a lakh of rupees here and there, but they are not at the top of the corruption pyramid, which vantage, as Uswatte-arachchi points out, is in this country, occupied by the politicos.

But there may also be some good people who have genuinely taken corruption for granted because they think that loot does not buy happiness and what is siphoned off is a negligible percentage after all of the national wealth.

Fatally flawed

It’s a self-comforting fatally flawed idea because (a) I do not think the loot measured on a national scale is negligible always, particularly if one were to remember Carlo Fonsekas’s reference about taking a country and stripping it of all its wealth.

But the most important point people who so argue seem to miss - - and I do not know how they miss it - - is that it’s not the loot that’s the issue when the corrupt run the country.

The stolen loot is the least of the problems when we consider the quality of the people who acquire that loot, and what damage they do to the system.

If a man’s whole intention would be to acquire yachts on the public purse when he is 35, such a man would undoubtedly not hesitate to barter future generations for his personal ambition, and sabotage and stymie public institutions for his own benefit.
This is why we have a culture of speeding Prados that run over kids, and an obscene national ethos that has taken for granted bribery for the smallest personal task, such as acquiring a driver’s license.

Expecting the corrupt to usher in good governance and solve ethnic tensions for instance, would be akin to expecting your neighborhood drug pusher to run your resident’s welfare society and provide for a neighborhood library.

Today, we are certain than 70 per cent at the least of those who he got into parliament this last week are waiting to get their hands in the till, and this includes some (though not all) of those who say they already have money and do not need to rob, and some who claim to be corruption busters.

We may be a middle income country now but the fact remains that income distribution is abysmal, which is why there is chronic poverty and a continuing need for Samurdhi-type poverty alleviation programs.

The only way that a country can progress from middle income to newly-developed is to bolster confidence in institutions while simultaneously growing the economy.
Take the case of South Korea which was in the 1970s classed as one of the most corrupt nations of the world.

But as South Korea progressed to developed nation status, we see that the country’s (TI) corruption perception index climbed to 39, out of some 176 nations.

That country’s image as a corrupt nation in which a bribe is needed for anything, has been to a very great extent at least, licked.

It’s easy to realize, looking at the South Korean example that development comes in tandem with pro-active attacks on bribery and corruption.

We need to get rid of those persons who get into politics instead of business, to buy yachts.

They can buy all the yachts they want if they have made their money on their own and not by dipping their hands in the public kitty.

But it doesn’t look as if we are getting to that state of accountability with this parliament with its entire substantial mafia of wheeler dealers and big spenders — which is why the press should be eternally vigilant, along with all of you vigilante citizens.