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Sunday, May 29, 2011

The King And The Monkeys

The Sunday Leader, 29/05/2011, By Sisira Pinnawala

The proverbial monkey that killed the king it loved so much because it did not want even a mosquito harming him is a story that we all have enjoyed as children. It told us what harm can misplaced loyalty do to a person and what danger awaits a person who trusts his life with the wrong kind even if it displays extreme loyalty. In everyday life such situations are commonplace and that is why the story is so. In everyday life when such things happen the repercussions are not felt much, since the affected are in a limited circle. In politics however as with the king in the story, it is the leader who is put in harm’s way and the whole country suffers the consequences. In the politics of this country this act has been played many times over in the past with a slightly different storyline every time but with similar results. In the story it is one monkey but in politics it is a troop of monkeys that is responsible for the mischief when it happens. In the story the loyal advisors to the king killed the monkey so that there would not be another such tragedy. In the politics of this country, the king gets killed and the monkeys go scot free to kill another king. The recent trade union action by the university academics has brought the act back on stage again.
In the modern political drama there are three groups that play the monkey in the life of the political leadership of this country. They to a certain degree are creations of the political leadership itself; at least two of them are direct products of political decisions of the past. The other has evolved into shape through its own actions to a large extent but also supported by actions of the rulers who discovered the benefit in promoting this group. These three groups are representative of three influential segments of the country, namely, the top public servants, the law makers, academics and professionals. Their importance in the drama may not be necessarily in that order but their historical emergence is. Furthermore, there is one thing that they all share and keep them together; their survival.
The Top Public Servants
Politicisation of public service has a relatively long history in this country. The first formal attempt to control the public service administration can be traced back to the workers committees in the mid 60s. Though this was done with good intentions of making the public sector accountable it opened the doors for politicians to interfere with the system. The abolition of both the Public Service Commission and the Judicial Service Commission by the 1972 Constitution eliminated all remaining safeguards. Today the interference of the political leadership in the public service has expanded much further and the entire public service is under political control. The provisions that were used sparingly and under very special circumstances with proper consultation in the old days, are used regularly today to get friends, relations and cronies to high positions so that political masters feel comfortable.
The unfortunate result of this is the second or third best becoming decision makers in the public service. Their existence and survival rest with politicians who install them there. This has created a dependency relationship between public servants and politicians. The link to politicians gives these men power that is beyond their position, and perks and benefits too to go with it. Politicians in return get a servile public service that bends over backwards and a little more to fulfill their whims and fancies.
In this master-servant relationship the public servant has become a mere messenger boy of the political master. The greater the dependency, the greater the power of the bureaucrat and it is a vicious circle one cannot get out of. The top public servant who is caught in this can no longer serve the public and is not bound by the rules, norms and traditions of the service. The sole aim of his/her existence is to serve the master. What is important is the immediate perks, and if retirement is nearing perhaps an extension of service or even a diplomatic posting after retirement (to be with the child who was sent abroad with the public servant’s pay of course). It therefore is not surprising for top public servants to play the role they play and not mind the consequences except those that personally affect them.
The Law Makers
The law makers in this country today are no longer the people’s representatives they used to be in the old days. They are servants of the top political leadership. The creator of this monkey is the government that came into power in 1977. To survive under the system one has not only to toe the line of the leader but also be servile. Though one could argue that the situation relaxed somewhat during the latter part of President Chandrika Bandarabaike’s regime due to the dual leadership situation, it was however a temporary deviation and the fundamentals of this second form of political master-servant relationship remains unchanged.
Theoretically the law makers of this country are “elected” by the people but practically to be elected they need to be “selected” first. This is a rule that leads to an unswerving yet bizarre and very warped form of loyalty binding people’s representatives and their leader, especially when the leader is the leader of the party in power. Invariably the result, as we see today, is a master-servant relationship connecting a hierarchically organised group of “yes-men” (read politicians).
There are two ways of demonstrating loyalty of the law makers to their leader. The first is to be the mouth piece of the leader and utter in public every word the leader says. There is therefore nothing of their own in the public speeches of our law makers. ‘As my leader says’ is the beginning of practically every sentence they utter in public. The second is to be seen with the leader wherever he is present both in public and in private life. Their priority is not their electorate but the electorate of the leader or that of somebody who they think is close to the leader. The public often gets a ringside view of this type of shameless display of “loyalty” during elections.
Advisors To The Government
This is the most unusual group in the modern day version of the monkey story and one that is to a large extent its own creation. Though there have been academics and professionals in active politics before, the evolution of this particular species began during the run up to the 1994 Presidential election. The political involvement of professionals and academics before that, in a very peculiar way, was apolitical; even when they were members of political parties they on the whole maintained their professional integrity and independence. They were certainly no political valets of the leader like the ones there are today. The year 1994 was a watershed, for not only did it bring a very large number of academics and professionals onto the public political stage but also through that created a unique group of “political yes-men academics/professionals.” Today the majority of academics/professionals who advise the government are mere foot soldiers to politicians and not in the class of the ones that used to guide politicians in the good old days. Of course one could argue that in the good old days it was a different class of politicians too.
Today we have a new breed of academics and professionals who compete for top positions in the administration and government. These often are a self serving group of people who use their political connections to hide their intellectual deficiencies and academic inadequacies. Their political masters in turn benefit from them as their whims and fancies can be legitimised by claiming they have the support of the intelligentsia of the country, a truly beneficial relationship though pathetic. The unfortunate thing about this is that the majority of these advisors know little of the subjects they are supposed to know and even less of the politics they are playing. The path to a position normally begins with the elections when they are taken in groups and herded into meetings for “discussions and dialogues.” Today it is a must for politicians in this country to publish in the papers a list of names of academics and professionals asking the public to vote for “their candidate” and even get some of them on their campaign trail. This list is the one that is consulted later when appointing advisors.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil And Talk No Evil (But Do All Evil)
Like the proverbial monkey the three groups encircle the top political leadership and have nothing but praise for their master. They do not dare to contradict the leader for that could lead to loss of position and perks. There is always another who would be waiting to take the place of the one who gets into the bad books of the leader. The leadership naturally is now used to being praised and does not want to hear anything bad about it. It is a see no evil, hear no evil and talk no evil situation for the leader and the monkeys.
The only way to put an end to this scourge is by dismantling the system that nurtures it. It can only happen if politicians become true representatives of the people and the public service is allowed to be independent. Academics and professionals also need to re-establish their dignity and worth. Stopping the monkeys will be good for not only the country but also the political leadership. Any attempt to break this system will create a minor crisis but if the present situation is allowed to continue the resultant crises will be of extraordinary proportions. The better and the less painful option is for the politicians to take the lead and dismantle this system at least for their own sake. After all, working for their own sake is nothing new to them.
Sisira Pinnawala
University of Peradeniya