People or politicians grow the economy?

by Rajpal Abeynayake

(January 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian)Never have more sanguine predictions been made about the Sri Lankan economy. All the talk about quadrupling per capita income etc., have been treated with either derisive scoffing or grunts of admiration considering the audacity of these claims.

If the government is able to deliver, the Sri Lankan economy - it is predicted - would be akin to that of Singapore, or any of the dragon economies of the Far East. Sounds fantastic, but is there any real chance that the government can deliver as it did deliver on the war?

People in general harbour a healthy dose of skepticism on this issue. Well, one reason is that there have been several false dawns before, but the other more important consideration is that people have an inherent sense that the war and the economy are two separate things, and that delivering on one certainly does not guarantee delivering on the other, the economy having been the one issue that brought down several promising rulers both regionally and globally, almost before one could utter the word hubris.

My personal take on this is that it is moot whether state policy alone could graduate a middle-income economy to high performer, akin to the Singaporean or Malaysian model?

I know it is a discordant note, but many would wager that Sri Lankans do not have simply what it takes to catapult our economy to Dragon status.

For example, we have what are called work ethic issues. Despite the accelerated tourism drive for instance not the slightest effort has been made to clean up our beaches. The operational industry paradigm is that the tourists would 10-2simply roll in if we increase the number of rooms in the country.

Beach-pollution etc., can all be seen essentially as service centered issues that at the end of the day could be traced to issues of a work ethic, (or to be more precise a lack of one.)

The assumption that the end of the war would necessarily send the economy on overdrive until it reaches astronomical heights reached only by the Far Eastern Dragons, can be a fallacious one, particularly considering certain other economies which have atrophied in spite of the fact that there has been no violence, or significant disruptions of civilian life in those countries.

Take the Philippine economy which has always been poor compared to the competing economies of say Vietnam or even Indonesia for instance.

There have been no significant disruptions of the Philippine economy, certainly not in the order of the Tamil Tiger violence that disrupted the Sri Lankan economy for more than two decades. It is true that the Filipinos have seen more political upheaval in terms of changes of government etc. what with the famed Filipino people power movements of the 80s and all.

But even after a relative measure of political stability settled in, the Philippine economy has remained largely static, and the fact that it has lagged behind those of Indonesia and Vietnam leave alone those of Singapore and South Korea, has been a considerable source of heartache to the elite leadership and the economic planners of that country.

Though the Filipinos are by and large a so-called “Mongoloid’ race despite the admixtures of Polynesian and Spanish lineage in the Filipino gene pool, the country has not displayed any of the aspects of the famed Confucian work ethic that most of the so-called ethnicities coming under the Mongoloid description are known for.

I know this comment is bordering on the racist, but perhaps the contamination of the Polynesian and the Spanish element destroyed the work ethic aspect in the Filipino Mongoloid gene pool, considering that a largely Mongoloid race would have normally been expected to have elements of the fabled Confucian work ethic written into the gene as it were!

My point is, issues such as work ethic matter and there can be no assumption that the Sri Lankan economy would automatically reach a plateau merely because the war is over and the current ruling dispensation has staked everything on economic development, and is willing-it to happen by their own troth as it were.

Work ethic mind you is not something that can be laid exclusively at the door of the large mass of people as it is observably a top-down phenomenon; i.e.: if the people are not known for an assiduous work ethic, the politicians who rule over them are invariably cut from the same cloth.

Who is guilty of keeping the beaches unclean even as stupendous tourism target figures are being released by the government?

One could say the people continue to pollute the beaches; but a government which does not have rudimentary plans to deal with long ingrained habits and clean up the national act with regard to tourism, cannot be doing very well in the work ethic department, can it?

From a strictly development and economy centered standpoint work ethic is probably more important than probably the issue of effectively tackling corruption, for instance. This is not to say that I consider corruption to be an unimportant factor.

Rampant corruption can have a deleterious effect on investment and economy and that goes without saying. However, considering for instance that South Korea was one of the most corrupt nations on earth at the time her economy grew, almost at an exponential rate, it can be safely surmised that no nation can grow without a work ethic, even though it can power its way to exponential development if work ethic and attitude prevails, despite there being certain levels of corruption observable in the bureaucratic landscape.

In the final analysis, in Sri Lanka, this writer identifies the work ethic issue as the main stumbling block against reaching the developmental levels of Singapore and Malaysia, while hoping fervently that his pessimism on that score is undue.

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