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Lucky Lankan ministers

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Tuesday 18th July, 2023

Much is being talked about the need to eliminate bribery and corruption in Sri Lanka, where these twin evils have become institutionalised. The government and the Opposition are vowing to get tough with the corrupt as if their own members were paragons of virtue! They are making some anti-corruption laws on the anvil out to be a cure-all, but nothing will help usher in good governance unless the rule of law is restored and the existing culture of impunity done away with.

The success of any anti-corruption campaign hinges on the ability of a country to ensure that everyone is equal before the law. The news of the arrest of Singapore’s Transport Minister S. Iswaran in connection with a top-level corruption probe could not have come at a better time where Sri Lanka is concerned.

It has been reported that Singapore’s national anti-graft body, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB), obtained Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s permission to arrest Minister Iswaran and question him. PM Loong has reportedly asked Iswaran, who has been released on bail, to take leave of absence. He has emulated his late father Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), who would not have been able to achieve his dream of developing Singapore to the present level but for his successful war on bribery and corruption.

One is reminded of what LKY said about ministers and officials in this part of the world. In his widely read book, From Third World to First, LKY has said: “The higher they are, the bigger their homes and more numerous their wives, concubines, or mistresses, all bedecked in jewelry appropriate to the power and position of their men. Singaporeans who do business in these countries have to take care not to bring home such practices.” When one sees Sri Lankan politicians and bureaucrats enriching themselves and living the life of Riley, one remembers LKY’s memorable words.

All Singaporean politicians who did not heed LKY’s aforesaid warning were severely dealt with. The fate that befell Teh Cheang Wan, the Minister for National Development, is a case in point. When the CPIB launched a probe into an allegation of bribery against him in the mid-1980s, he sought to meet LKY, who refused to see him until the investigation was over.

Wan took his life, and his suicide note said, inter alia, “As an honourable oriental gentleman I feel it is only right that I should pay the highest penalty for my mistake.” If the Sri Lankan ministers had received from their leaders the same treatment as Wan, most of them would have been pushing up the daisies by now, and the vital sectors such as health, education, finance, agriculture and trade and commerce would have been free from corruption, and most of all, substandard drugs and equipment would not have snuffed out so many lives in the state-run hospitals.

The ongoing anti-graft probe against the Transport Minister of Singapore and the exemplary manner in which PM Loong has handled the situation remind us of how Sri Lankan leaders act when allegations of corruption are made against their Ministers. They promptly appoint committees, which invariably clear the ruling party politicians of all charges.

As a result, many men and women of humble origins who did not own even bicycles when they entered politics are living in clover; obviously, they have amassed huge amounts of ill-gotten wealth at the expense of the public, and their corrupt deals are one of the main causes of the country’s bankruptcy. Sri Lankans elect such political dregs and keep wondering why their country is still poor and Singapore has achieved progress! Not for nothing is it said that the people get the government they deserve.

Now that Singapore has set an example to other countries by allowing its anti-graft body to probe one of its ministers and even cause him to be arrested, will it facilitate the extradition of Arjuna Mahendran, one of its citizens, to Sri Lanka, and thereby ensure that he stands trial for his involvement in a mega Treasury bond scam, in 2015, when he was the Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka?

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