Jun 09

Until such time as the Elections Commission is empowered and obliged to demand more strict academic, professional and other relevant performance criteria to be met by those aspiring get on voting lists to contest for seats in Parliament and lesser elected bodies, we are going to be burdened with people’s representatives of whom the majority are unqualified to hold public office.  It is embarrassing for Sri Lankans to have to admit to the world at large that 94 of our MPs do not even have the General Certificate of Education at O-level, only about 68 MPs have passed the GCE O-level examination, about another 38 MPs have obtained GCE A-level passes, and there are barely 25 MPs who have a university degree.  Consequently, other than being blessed with an excessive capacity to indulge in trivial debating exercises – too often personal or crude or both – the majority of our MPs have not had the benefit of the basic mental training required to comprehend and contribute usefully to proceedings which deal with the countless complex issues that have to be evaluated and voted on by the Parliament.

Getting back to basics, it is no secret that advertisements that call for applications to fill vacancies of every imaginable kind insist upon some kind of academic qualification from Year 7 or so to PhD-plus, depending on the nature of vacancy to be filled.  It is only in the case of manual workers and Parliamentarians that there is no stipulation regarding the minimum academic or professional qualifications required.  Considering that Parliament is responsible for the collection of taxes of every kind from the people and the efficient disbursement of the funds so collected, both running into trillions of rupees, could there any excuse for allowing citizens without a good academic, professional and administrative background to decide on what and how this hard-earned wealth of the people is to be spent? Whether the proposed new Constitution is going to address this deficiency is still in doubt.  It is obvious that something positive should be done in the short term while we wait for the new Constitution.  In other words, it would be prudent for the present to find a way of dealing with the problem of making do with MPs that we have, especially those without O-level or A-level passes?

To digress for a moment, in the early days of learning to use table-top personal computers, one had recourse to a series of books titled “PCs for Dummies”, “Microsoft Word for Dummies”, “Lotus 1-2-3 for Dummies” and so on.  For those who could not find the time to go for computer classes, these books were a source of immense help to improve their computer skills.  However, as well-known computer programs were progressively made more and more comprehensive by software writers, their “Help” features began to be expanded and integrated into the main programs.  Thus, the need for books for “Dummies” diminished rapidly as most tasks could now be handled without recourse to external instructional media.

In current circumstances, it is surely a great pity that no book has been written at any time with the title “Governance for Dummies”, with Sri Lankan parliamentarians in mind, to enable them to understand the fundamentals of the more frequent subjects that come up for discussion or debate in the House.  Such a book could have been made recommended reading for our MPs with some incentive offered to encourage them to study and understand the contents.  This is not an exercise in sarcasm, which is generally considered to be the lowest form of humour, but a desperate effort to find a way out of the current mess.

Defenders of our insufficiently schooled politicians are known to argue that Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake had only completed Year 7 of his studies.  However, they do so without making any allowance for the superior quality of the Year 7 schooling of DSS’s era as compared to its present equivalent as well as the fact that he had the support of a high-powered cabinet of well-qualified and experienced men.  The aforesaid defenders also neglect to take into account the enormous changes that have occurred between the time Senanayake became Prime Minister and today – namely, the vast expansion in the scope and complexity of the issues that our governments have to deal with as compared to the much simpler national concerns of 60-70 years ago.

By now, Sri Lanka has almost completely run out of uncultivated but cultivable land to enable the authorities to allocate a few hectares each to landless farmers, as was usually done in the old days, to help increase food production to cater to its growing population.  Our cheap hydroelectric power sources have been almost fully exploited and we now rely hugely on coal and oil imports to help bridge the gap between power production and power consumption.  Alternative energy sources have, therefore, to be exploited wherever conditions are favourable.  The high rate of population growth has put unprecedented and unrelenting pressure on the housing, education, health and transport sectors.  There are previously un-encountered issues relating to nuclear power, global warming, space exploitation, terrorism, violent religious extremism, telecommunications, genetic engineering, computerisation, environmental pollution, solid waste disposal, gender discrimination and a hundred others that would clearly tax the intellectual and professional capabilities of even the best-qualified MPs.  It is self-evident that national problems that have to be faced currently are immeasurably more difficult to resolve than those that the Parliaments of six or seven decades ago had to face.  Hence, it is imperative that Sri Lanka should work out a methodology to ensure that, at least in the years to come, candidates for election as MPs would be sufficiently intelligent and academically disciplined so as to be in a position to contribute discriminating, scientific and pragmatic inputs to discussions and debates.

Patently, every MP cannot be well-informed on every subject that is discussed in Parliament.  Therefore, the major political parties should ideally divide their total strength in Parliament in such a way that, on any matter that comes up before the House, there will be at least four MPs from each of the major parties who would have enough knowledge to contribute in depth to the debate.  Taking all the parties in Parliament, there would then be a fair chance that there would be at least ten MPs who would be capable of grasping the import of whatever reports are received by Parliament from experts in the Ministries and outside, and who would be able to talk discriminatingly and constructively about whatever bill or other document is under discussion.

In addition to the above proposal being adopted, steps should be taken well before any important issue is to be debated in Parliament to get a reputed, independent research institution to prepare, say, a 10 to 20-page “executive summary” explaining, in simple language, the pros and cons pertaining to that issue.  Such a measure would go a long way to help all our MPs – especially the less mentally tutored ones – to grasp at least the basics  of the matters on which they would be required to vote on behalf of the people.  Such executive summaries would be almost certainly be greatly appreciated by the general public as well, if our newspapers could be strongly persuaded by the authorities to contribute sufficient space to publish them.

Dr A.C.Visvalingam
President, CIMOGG
email:  acvisva@gmail.com

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