Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 19 Feb 2012
‘To get rich is glorious!’
These words are widely attributed to the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, the man who opened up China’s closed economy in 1979, and allowed the communist state to cautiously embrace market economics.
There is some debate whether Deng actually uttered these words, but they sum up the remarkable economic transition that China has made in a single generation. It is today’s the world’s second largest economy — and has been growing at an average of 10% a year for three decades.
A visitor to China can see the results of that massive social experiment. The Chinese people, at least in the cities and towns, have more money in their pockets — and are spending it. Listening to how the Chinese media, officials and citizens talk eagerly about private enterprise, property ownership and making money, it’s easy to forget that China remains a Communist state.
Let’s not debate about capitalism vs. socialism/communism. What is remarkable is how the Chinese have managed to keep their commerce separate from their politics. At least for now…
In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, we seem to be pursuing market economics a bit half-heartedly, even grudgingly. We were never a communist state, and only flirted with socialism periodically (especially from 1970 to 77). Despite that, some among us are redder than Marx, Lenin or Mao!
Why else would we, as a society, remain deeply suspicious and disdainful of the legitimate pursuit of wealth? Why does our society caricaturise — and even demonise — entrepreneurs?
More than three decades after Sri Lanka officially embraced liberalised economic policies in 1977, some are still not convinced whether it was the right thing to have done.
Sure, we hear platitudes about the private sector being the engine of growth and the need to create an ‘enabling environment’ for competitive enterprise. Various award schemes fête small, medium and large scale entrepreneurs. There are various schemes to encourage self-employment and expand overseas markets.
But try doing any kind of business and you have to cope with not only the formidable bureaucracy at central, provincial and local government levels, but also with a society that frowns upon anyone trying to make an honest buck.
One of my uncles was a ‘civil’ servant in the pre-77 era of command and control economics. He enjoyed the vast discretionary powers vested in the likes of him to approve what citizens did with their own money, time and energy. Indians called it the License Raj (they didn’t give it up till 1990).
Babus on both sides of the Palk Strait resented their loss of control. And despite every successive government endorsing the same economic policies, Lanka’s ‘rulers of routine’ find new ways of stifling the culture of innovation and enterprise promoted by their political masters.
The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking is a composite indicator of the business regulatory environment. It is based on 10 factors. Sri Lanka’s latest (2012) ranking is 89 out of 183 economies (the top three are Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand). While the island’s overall rank has gone up a bit, five factors have actually become slightly worse. Details at: www.doingbusiness.org/data/exploreeconomies/sri-lanka/
Laws and regulations are not the only challenges that Lankan entrepreneurs face. Our society’s perception of a trader or entrepreneur is an unkind one.
Examples of this are found in the real world (e.g. childhood aspirations; or the marriage market) as well as the imagined (in literary fiction and movies, trader characters are often ruthless). Remember the Seri Wanija jataka story?
The public harbours many prejudices about businesses irrespective of the line of trade. There is a pervasive notion that businesses and industries are intrinsically damaging, exploitative and even sinister.
I wonder if this is due to some ‘residual socialism’: we have plenty of frustrated socialists who are ideologically stuck in the 1970s (or earlier). Do they know the Soviet Union crumbled?
Successful entrepreneur and business mentor Deepal Sooriyaarachchi thinks it runs deeper. He says: “We are primarily an agricultural and rural nation. In the village, all share the same fate from weather when they cultivate — there are no major winners or superstars. That’s why in villages until you really break up the links and rise above, there is no real support but efforts to pull you down.”
He adds: “Doing business is one area where individual success comes. Hence businessperson was often the subject of jealousy in the village. I think we continue to harbour the same thinking even today.”
Hmm. Our cities are teeming with rural minds transplanted in urban jungles. Many journalists, artistes and officials — knowingly or otherwise – perpetuate the anti-biz attitude.
For example, look at how local language media often portrays entrepreneurs as corrupt or untrustworthy. Take any Sinhala daily and study it for about a week. You will find headlines or news reports using the phrase kotipathi viyaparikaya (multi-millionaire businessman), who is often linked to a Roomath kanthawa (pretty woman) — suggesting some scandal.
In the simplistic world of Sinhala language journalists, every businessman is a multi-millionaire, presumed guilty until proven innocent!
As Deepal asks: “How often do (Sinhala) media take the initiative to appreciate or promote the best practices of a business? All this contributes to why people think it’s bad to be in business!”
Even cartoonists caricaturise businessmen as pot-bellied kalu kada mudalalis (black market hoarders) or bulging old men in black suits (and dark glasses) all with a wicked smile. These suggest business is the last resort of the scoundrel.
Surrounded by all this bureaucracy, lampooning and maligning, who wants to get into business in Sri Lanka?