As Sri Lanka dreams wistfully of joining Asia s elite band of Miracle Economies , we are time and again reminded that we continue to lack those fundamentals which are essential for the longed-for take-off into affluence and material stability. What we are alluding to in this context is not the oft spoken of economic fundamentals , which are, no doubt, of crucial significance to those countries which are aspiring to reach the upper rungs of material accomplishment, but of the basic mental prerequisites that contribute in no small measure to the materialization of what are considered economic success stories.
Sri Lanka s well-known former diplomat and public servant of repute, Bernard Goonetilleke, is the latest among a few sage voices of local origin to alert Sri Lanka to the need to attach top priority to clear-headedness and perceptive thinking in the on-going effort to put into motion the long- delayed but torrentially spoken-of development process. He put his thoughts together very lucidly in an article which was carried in the Features section of this newspaper last week titled, Sri Lanka: No Small Miracle . We hope the article was carefully perused by all who matter in this country s efforts to reach material prosperity and development. Hopefully, the necessary inference would have been drawn by them that fuzzy-mindedness and poverty of thinking are as detrimental to a country s efforts at reaching her development goals as other requisites which are regarded as prime in this context.
Politicians no less than some public servants in tourism and allied fields have been waxing lyrical for quite some time now about an impending tourist influx of very significant proportions, but reading the above-mentioned article, one would tend to have reservations about the government s readiness and ability to effectively handle a situation of this kind. As the writer cogently argues, the slogan Sri Lanka: Small Miracle was a well thought out marketing tool which was insightfully fashioned by the tourism authorities about an year ago, to capture swelling, Asia-bound tourist traffic, but it took only a couple of our blundering, parish-pump politicians to reduce the project to a non-starter.
As explained by Bernard Goonetilleke, confused thinking reigned among the decision-makers on the full import of the slogan. It bore no relation to the prestige or image of Sri Lanka but was a catchy slogan aimed at drawing in the discerning leisure seeker who has an eye for only the homely and indigenous natural and human attractions of this country. In fact, most visitors to this country are interested in little else. But local wise-crack politicians thought otherwise and the marketing project which took months and millions to forge, was put into cold storage, hardly a month after it was brought to the notice of the authorities. As explained by the writer, Sri Lanka was no longer a small country, in the thinking of the politicians concerned, following the elimination of the LTTE, and needed to be seen as big and of commanding contours to boot. Success on the battle field had caused some local egos to grow elongatedly, but they did not possess the wits to see that this had nothing to do with tourism promotion.
The Bernard Goonetilleke article contains many more timely insights which tourism planners and public policy fashioners of this country need to take cognizance of and we hope that the lessons that need to be learnt would be inculcated in a spirit of humility, given the standing and knowledgeability of the writer.
The problems surfaced by the article, among other things, point to the need for rationality in public sector decision-making. We cannot see how development in the real sense could be ushered in, in the absence of clear-headedness and rationality. The political establishment needs to see that vast diversity characterizes the world. Sri Lanka is no island . It lives amid a welter of cultures and ways of life and this it needs to realize particularly in the context of forward planning in tourism.
If Sri Lanka is to tap to the fullest the vast economic potential in the tourism sector it should ensure a hassle-free stay here for all tourists. We, for instance, cannot be too finicky about serving alcoholic beverages in our hotels and other public places frequented by tourists, on public holidays and days of religious significance, if the best interests of tourists, are to guide public policy. This is not intended to be a criticism of current government policy on curbing the drinking habit among locals, but a reminder that rationality has to be the basis of public policy.
However, parochial-mindedness or narrow thinking in public policy making circles has grown to such lengths today that it has joined other wasting ills, such as corruption and mismanagement, as a number one blight of the country. Hopefully, the President would take full cognizance of these concerns and impress on his new team of ministers and officials, the need to make a fresh start in governance, bearing these issues in mind.
Given that the government is enjoying a stable majority in Parliament, it is in a strong position to do this. It would not be compelled, for instance, to wantonly distribute the spoils of office , in the form of ministerial posts and other positions of prestige, to keep the government intact. In fact, in the previous administration, blundering in the running of the public affairs was so rampant that we had no less than three Ministers of Tourism in as many months. The government would need to see an end to mismanagement of these proportions if development is to be a reality.
The country cannot also afford to lose persons of knowledge and skill who could assist in the development process. A policy decision must be taken to ensure that such persons are co-opted into think tanks and the like, so that their knowledge and experience could be fully utilized for the benefit of the country continuously. This thought struck us when we perused Bernard Goonetilleke s thoughts on tourism. He, for instance, is one of those who could continue to help out in public affairs. But there are many more persons of his calibre in this country who are lost to retirement and other bureaucratic regulations, while really being in the prime of their careers. This sorry trend must be reversed.