This simple ceremony which has been organized for the 1st time by Business Today is a tribute to excellence in the private sector of Sri Lanka.
Business Today has identified 10 companies listed in the Colombo Stock Exchange for their performance during the last year. These companies have been chosen on the basis of such criteria as turnover, profitability, and the degree and quality of the expansion of their commercial activities. These 10 companies which have been identified embody, they encapsulate, creativity, vision, commitment, hard work, perseverance. These are among the attributes which account for the success of these companies. The private sector of our country has done Sri Lanka proud. The private sector accounts for 75% of investment in this country. Their excellence manifests itself not only locally but on a global or international scale. Our companies are known for the opening of hotels in the Maldives, financial services which are now being provided in Bangladesh sports goods which are being exported to Australia and New Zealand, carbon related industries in South Africa, agricultural undertakings in India, computer software in the Arabian Gulf and so on.
I would like to share with you some brief thoughts about some other current problems in this country. Things which are very topical today and I would kike very tentatively to suggest to you some pragmatic approached to the solution of these problems and the participation I think is urgently required on the part of the private sector.
You would have read in the newspapers during the last couple of days about a very distressing phenomenon which is beginning to emerge again in the our country. As somebody who has been closely associated with the University system, as somebody who has served that system for more than a quarter of a century, I am perennially conscious of the strains that are experienced by the youth of our land.
We now see some unmistakable signs of the resurgence of those problems in the university system. They are now beginning to attract attention again. They were always dormant. They had never disappeared from the body politic of this country. But they are now obtruding themselves on the public conscience in a very evident manner.
I think the future of our country depends to a large extent on the degree of success that we all achieve in containing these tensions in finding sensible, mundane, practical solutions to those problems. I do not think that this can be done by the government acting alone. There is a very vigorous part played by civil society is the private sector which has demonstrated by sheer dint of performance the quality of success that it can realistically aspire to.
Now I think it is very necessary for the private sector to have a social conscience. The representative of the Ceylinco Group said that private profit has not been the sole motivating force of the Ceylinco Group of companies. It is involved in a range of activities which are designed to bring a better life within reach of the people of our country.
I think the social conscience of the private sector is something that is of urgent practical importance today. I would suggest to you that the social conscience must receive expression in the context of conditions prevailing in our country in the present time.
Primarily in respect of certain fields and first and foremost among those fields, I would suggest to you for your kind consideration the training of youth with a view to ensuring their employability in this country.
Sri Lanka is justly proud of its human resources. Among all the countries of South Asia we have invested a very large proportion of our GDP in our human resources, health and education in particular. But we must remember that when we educate people we raise levels of expectation and if we fail to deliver, if the products of our university system are not able to find the kind of employment which they think is commensurate with the dignity they are entitled to, then you have the beginnings of a social holocaust. That is exactly what this country witnesses on two horrendous occasions during the last two decades. Now I want to emphasize to you that it is not a thing of the past. It is not a closed chapter. It is very much there in our midst and what you have read in the newspapers today and yesterday bring that out. Turmoil, vicissitudes, upheavals which are again quite apparent in the university system of our country.
Rienzie Wijetilleke speaking for Hatton National Bank spoke of the bankable poor. He said until recently banks looked only at the affluent sections of the community. The poor were regarded as not worthy of credit. They could not be relied upon.
If you look at the report produced by Dr Vignaraja for the SAARC Poverty Alleviation Commission you will see that standards of integrity and honesty have been most remarkable among the least affluent sections of the people of the SAARC countries. There are no defaulters among them. There are certain social pressures not legal institutions, not legal sanctions, certain social pressures which combine to product that result.
Now I want to suggest to you by parity of reasoning, drawing on what was said by Rienzie Wijetilleke that you need to adopt a similar attitude to the products of the local educational system. You need to involve yourselves much more in training programs which are intended to secure employment for these young people. I do not think that there is any sense a real problem with regard to excellence in our educational system anymore than there is any problem with regard to excellence in the private sector. However, there is a very acute problem with regard to relevance, utility, practicality, in respect of the courses of instruction that are provided in institutions providing tertiary education in our country. You need to do your part to infuse into those educational programs certain elements which will ensure that those who are produced by the system can look forward to employment in the kinds of institutions over which you now have this stewardship. You must be ready to draw these people into employment so that they can live with a sense of dignity in their country.
It is no longer possible for the private sector to operate on the assumption that the basis of a viable recruitment policy is to write to the principals, the wardens, the heads of leading schools in this country, ask them to send lists of people who have qualified at the Advance Level and then recruit people from the elitist section of society. That simply will not work. That is a recipe for social disaster.
Today the products of the educational system in our country need help from you. That was not the case when I was a student. University students generally came from the kind of social background which enabled them to have access to those who were in a position to offer them employment. That is no longer the case today. You have to build bridges, linkages between the university system, the education system and the private sector which undoubtedly will be the main source of employment in the future.
You also need to involve yourselves much more in programs for self-employment. Inculcate in the products of our educational system certain values, certain habits, ways of thinking which will enable them to earn their living honestly and with integrity by embarking upon viable programs of self-employment.
If you neglect those duties, then it is not just a question of moral duties of ethical obligation, if you neglect these aspects of the community in which you live and work then it will be impossible for you to prosper in the future because the social fabric itself will crumble. So I think that is something that you need to bear in mind. We are working indefatigably between the government on the one hand, the university system secondly, and the private sector thirdly. To pool the resources of all these different institutions to establish integration, coordination with regard to training programs in order to render the educated youth in our country gainfully employable.
In my own mind I have no doubt whatsoever that the training of young people is the need of the hour. Whatever else we do, if we neglect that obligation then there will be a hiatus, a lacuna, an enormous void, which would be impossible to fill in the years ahead. Now that void cannot be filled without a vigorous contribution by the private sector and I would earnestly appeal to you to give thought to those realities as you plan your priorities in the private sector for the future.
It is also necessary I think for that same reason for you to focus more on manufacturing, not only on training because it is by administering a fillip to the manufacturing sector that you will be able to provide opportunities for employment. Abundant incentives have now been made available to the private sector and it is for you now to respond creatively and imaginatively to those incentives as indeed you have done in the recent past.
There is just one other thought that I would like to share with you. This country is on the threshold of a great challenge. I think it is one of the historic epochs in the contemporary history of Sri Lanka. In the first few months of the new year 1998, you will see developments of a unique and unparalleled importance. We are engaged in an effort to restructure our political and our social institutions, the entire constitutional framework of the country, in order to alleviate tensions that exist in our midst. Do not forget I exalt you, that your achievements have been possible in an environment that is pervaded by the ferocity of a military conflict that is consuming all the energies of our country.
We are spending on military activity Rs 45,400 million approximately representing 30% of the country’s revenue and 20% of the country’s total expenditure. This amounts approximately to 6.7% of the country’s total expenditure. This cannot go on forever and you most of all will be the beneficiaries of a situation in which we are able to put these tensions behind us and look forward to the future with confidence.
Now I want to say something to you in a spirit of candor. I am not finding fault with anybody, I wish to say however that with a few exceptions on the whole, the private sector has been somewhat reluctant to involve itself in these issues. You will recall that before the present government embarked upon its constitutional initiative, I invited many of the leaders of the private sector for a frank discussion about what could have been done. Some of you have responded magnificently by offering us your ideas, your insights, your suggestions about what ought to be done.
I have however noticed a certain spirit of inhibition. In most quarters there has been a certain desire to distance yourselves from these issues. I think there are two reasons for this. One is the natural unwillingness of the private sector to get involved in what its seen as the ramifications of party politics. There is a feeling that the private sector must remain aloof, detached from party politics. Involvement in party politics is dangerous. It is not healthy, it is not desirable for the private sector. I would agree with that. I think party politics is not the business of the private sector.
However there is a core of national issues which transcend the thrust and parry of party politics. These are certain fundamental issues which concern the nation as a whole. It does not matter what is the complexion of the government in power. Blue or green. In either case these problems have to be sorted out if this country is to have a future.
Now if you are talking about that very limited category of problems which go to the very heart of the dilemma, the excruciatingly painful dilemma of Sri Lanka at the present time, then I would venture to suggest to you that there is no conceivable justification of a hands off policy on the ground that you are approaching the field of partisan politics. It is not partisan politics. It is in every sense a national endeavor, a response to a national challenge. There is also the feeling that the greater decentralization of power means that the private sector may find it more difficult to engage in its activities with success. More officials to go to, more palms to oil, more delays more red tape. Now these are some of the inhibitions in the minds of the private sector. These do not necessarily have to happen. You should remember that the devolution of power is today part and parcel of the body politic of Sri Lanka. It was established in 1987 by the 13th amendment. You had these structures in place. You have officials. They have their perks. There is a wide measure of discretion that is given to provincial officers. It is necessary to rationalize that system. You should not feel that this is a system that is going to be expensive and that you will have to pay for that system.
Today there are officials on the ground who are drawing salaries, whose expenses have to be paid for by the state. How much responsibility is allocated to them? Are they justifying their existence? It is not the fault of the officials. It is the fault of the system. Now these are matters which I think the private sector has to address in earnest. Not in terms of philanthropy but in order to engender a certain environment in which they can continue to prosper in this country as they have been doing in the past.
I think several innovative suggestions have emerged from some of the observations that were made. Chandra Wijenaike spoke of regional initiatives, people who have made good from the different parts of the country. He said every director of Central Finance was born and bred in Kandy. I think that is a very important reflection. One must not think that everything big, everything worthwhile emanates from Colombo.
The need for balanced regional development is one of the most important things in our country. I would also agree very strongly with the remarks made by Ranjit Fernando on behalf of the National Development Bank to the criteria that ought to be utilized in the future for the identification of the recipients of these awards.
This is the first occasion you are having this ceremony but no doubt will continue into the future on a regular basis. Now when you identify the people who are going to receive these honors in the years to come, I entirely agree with Ranjit Fernando that you must consider smaller people who may not have had the opportunities that are available to the large conglomerates, who may not have a history of 135 years but who have made good with fewer resources, amidst more difficult conditions and grappling with challenges of greater magnitude.
So this is, I think all in all a very worthwhile exercise. It is not a question of pandering to vanity. It is a recognition of merit not only to enthuse and encourage the companies that received these awards this evening. I don’t think that they need any encouragement of that sort but it is an attempt on the part of Business Today to hold up certain ideals to hold up standards to be emulated by other companies in the private sector in the years to come and it is from that point of view that the word exercise can be described as something of national value and national importance.
I am particularly happy to have had the opportunity of sharing these brief thoughts with you and of associating myself with the proceedings on this occasion. I would warmly congratulate all those who received awards this evening, I would thank you very warmly and sincerely for the contribution that you have made to the economy of our country. I wish you well in the years ahead. I have no doubt that the same attributes that have made possible your success during the last year will ensure your success in the years to come and I would humbly request you to give your thought to some of the observations that I have made about the current condition of Sri Lankan society and what you in your different ways would be able to do to alleviate and mitigate the tensions which I have referred to.