Mar 09, 2017

Krishantha’s frank take on governance and biz

Both a political activist and a corporate and media personality, Krishantha Prasad Cooray is not known to mince words and is quite forthright. Wearing multiple hats as Chairman of Hotel Developers (Lanka) Plc, which owns Hilton Colombo and Independent Non-Executive Director at DFCC Bank as well as a Working Committee member of the ruling coalition party UNP. The Daily FT sat with Krishantha to get a frank personal assessment of the country’s current status of governance and the political economy as well as business. Here are excerpts:

Q: The IMF has urged the Government to embark on privatising State enterprises. Among the institutions mentioned in news reports is Hilton Colombo. Are there moves to sell Hilton Colombo?
A: Decisions around the ownership of State enterprises are policy matters for the Government. The Board and I are focused on making sure that the institution under our purview does well. My priority is to do justice to a global brand, and build on an excellent reputation and track-record. We support and coordinate with the management company to keep motivating an excellent staff to maintain and improve standards of service, and taking cognisance of realities and meeting challenges with innovative strategies.

If the prospect of selling Hilton does arise, these efforts will enable the Government to fetch an excellent price. I must be clear that State institutions are not by definition inefficient or unprofitable. There DFT-15-5have been instances where privatisation has been beneficial, such as the Distilleries Corporation (DCSL). The key is to entrust management of an enterprise, whether public or private, in the hands of people who have the skill, capacity, stature, leadership, courage, determination and business acumen to achieve the goals of the organisation. It’s all about taking ownership and prudent management. There’s nothing to say that such qualities cannot deliver when it comes to State enterprises. The very same Harry Jayawardena who acquired DCSL also did wonders at SriLankan Airlines.

It is ultimately up to the Government to take stock of all the institutions, assess potentials and the possibility of turning things around with better management and the right personnel running things. Once this is done, priority should be given to the sale or shutdown of loss-making entities. Those which are delivering profits to the public should be left alone until such liabilities have been dealt with.

Q: Isn’t it known that Government institutions are reputed to be burdened by red tape, slow decision-making, etc., whereas hotels operate in a dynamic environment where such things can impede success?
A: This is a common refrain, but I have to stress what I said earlier about proper management. Dynamism is not the preserve of the private sector. They too have procedures. They don’t take shortcuts. If there are managerial practices in place that have been designed keeping in mind the realities of a particular industry, if there are processes that are fine-tuned to suit the dynamic nature of the industry, then there’s no reason why a State-run institution cannot be successful by following the same blueprint.

Since we are talking about the hotel industry and Hilton Colombo in particular, we should consider our performance since this Government came into power. The net profit before tax for 2016 is Rs. 153 million and after tax its Rs. 138 million. Profit before tax in the previous year was just Rs. 77 million. The new management doubled the profitably of Hilton Colombo year-on-year despite an environment of fierce competition and the obvious challenges of a comprehensive refurbishing exercise, not to mention the fact that there are frequent protests just outside our front yard.

Q: It’s good you spoke about these protests. You are known to have played an important role in bringing this Government to power. There were a lot of expectations that things would be different in terms of improvements in the law and order situation, economic prosperity, development, constitutional reform, etc. People seem to have become disillusioned very fast. What do you make of these protests?
A: With respect to expectations, this Government was brought to power by a nationwide wave of disillusionment and fear of dictatorship. The disillusionment now is largely because the Government prioritises top-level reforms over micromanagement and totalitarianism. One of the most important achievements by this Government was the restoration of freedom of speech. People are free to criticise this Government without fearing death squads and white vans. They are free to protest without fear of the authorities opening fire on the crowd. While this freedom came overnight after the elections because of the decency of our leaders, more nuanced reforms take time in any democracy.

Critical legislation has already been enacted including the Right to Information Act and laws to protect victims and witnesses of crime against reprisals. Regulations were brought in to limit nepotism by drawing permanent secretaries to most ministries from within the public service. These initiatives and others highlight a common thread between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Both are leaders who govern primarily by putting in place a culture for others to follow. For example, even when he was Prime Minister from 2002 to 2004, it was Ranil Wickremesinghe who had the courage to abolish criminal defamation from the statute books and liberated the press from lawsuits, knowing well that his own Government would have to face the music. When President Sirisena began his campaign to reduce tobacco use as Minister of Health in 2010, he focused on spreading awareness among the public of the dangers of smoking rather than on imposing restrictions by force.

Q: If this is such a virtuous style of government as you claim, why are we yet to see more in terms of results?
A: This style of leadership does not generate overnight results, but puts the foundations in place for a stable, transparent and democratic government to deliver results in the long term. There’s more to be done. On the other hand, Sri Lanka went overnight from no freedom to absolute freedom when it comes to speech and liberty. The Government is trying to undo 10 years of erosion and corruption across the public service.

Freedom is a non-negotiable precondition for the development of a country. I cannot fault the Government for prioritising democracy over development, even though democracy is being leveraged to impede development. The Rajapaksa clan’s hand is obvious in most of these protests. Several groups with legitimate grievances are getting hijacked by forces that are really not interested in addressing their issues, but only on reclaiming political power.

Obviously the Government will not ignore these protests. Any issues need to be addressed swiftly by finding long-term solutions that are right for the country. At the same time, the people must have a better sense of both rights and obligations because if their legitimate agitation is being hijacked, they gain nothing and moreover the entire country loses because of halted development.

Q: So you support protests, but not those inspired by political opposition?
A: The Opposition is clearly trying to goad the Government into a firm response that will quickly get out of hand and create the kind of anarchy that will further alienate the investor community and wreck initiatives to bootstrap the economy and proceed with a development agenda.

It is a tough situation, but it requires firmness, a judicious assessment of potential fallout and a more effective communications strategy to keep the public informed about pernicious designs to lift the country back out of a dark era where the people had to keep their mouths shut and feign applause when their democratic rights were extinguished.

I believe that the people of this country have for too long been used as pawns and cannon fodder by politicians. In January 2015 they stood up and spoke with their own voices and I think they should continue to prevent politicians speaking for them. I support the right and freedom to peaceful protest, but urge responsible citizens who have genuine grievances and just demands not to look to politicians or political parties to hijack their causes.

Q: Since all this touches on rule of law, let’s discuss the issue of crime and punishment. Many who supported this Government alleged grand larceny, abduction, torture and murder. Why are we yet to see anyone being sentenced?
A: That’s not true. It is wrong to say that no one has been sentenced. Both DIG Vaas Gunawardena and Duminda Silva, two people who were extremely close to the former regime, have been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Indictments have been filed against several former public officials. It is up to the Government to support the Police and prosecutors to file charges with enough evidence that they will be convicted by an independent Judiciary, and that the convictions will be upheld by an independent Supreme Court.

I never expected a Government which came to power promising ‘good governance’ to resort to the name-and-hang tactics of their predecessors. If people expected the sort of overnight arrests, kangaroo trials and arbitrary imprisonments that followed the Rajapaksa victory against Sarath Fonseka in 2010, then they have elected the wrong government. We value due process. It is exactly the abandoning of such cardinal tenets that gave us decade of white vans and extrajudicial killings. So yes, it is slow, but that’s the price of seeking justice according to the letter of the law and the constitution. Now, at least we know with certainty that those who are innocent are not getting jailed or killed arbitrarily.

Q: How would you describe this Government’s approach to bringing the alleged wrongdoers to justice?
A: This Government seeks justice by empowering the Police, Judiciary and the Attorney General’s Department with the autonomy and independence they have long lacked, and trusting in those institutions to bring the culprits to book according to the letter of the law. Gone are the days where a minister or First Family member can order “justice” with a phone call or a snap of their fingers.

The recent developments in several cases of attacks on the media shows that no stone is being left unturned to ensure that justice is done, that the accused are given due process and a fair trial, no matter the cost. That said, there is a widespread perception that the Government is going after the petty thieves and going easy on the big fish. This has a lot more to do with the complexities of investigation rather than accusations of political considerations.

The FCID is still in its infancy, and is dealing with several cases involving fraud, money laundering and theft of public property unlike the country has ever seen. Detectives who have the talent but no previous training or experience in financial crimes are learning on the job as they follow the trail of black money that the former regime left to tax havens around the world. At the end of the day this perhaps is where the Government can score most.

It is expected and easy to go after the wrongdoers of a regime that has been defeated. It is a bigger challenge but a far more important one to ensure that the same rules apply to those in the current Government as well. Making sure that they are not let off the hook will go a long way in restoring the confidence of the people in this Government. In the end this might be key to obtaining the political stability we need so badly at this point.

Q: Let’s talk about the Keith Noyahr abduction. It is widely held that Keith is alive today largely due to your involvement. How did you do it?
A: Let me correct you here. My role in this matter has been highly exaggerated. True, I was the CEO of Rivira Media Corporation Ltd. at the time when Keith was the Associate Editor of our English paper, ‘The Nation,’ and it is true that I was naturally in the thick of things. However, it was entirely a team effort and an amazing one at that.

I still remember how Keith’s daughter told me, ‘Uncle, bring my daddy home!’ It hit me and it hit everyone who was there. We were determined to bring Keith back to his family. That day we all told ourselves that one fine day the truth will be out and the culprits will be found. Every single member of the Rivira Media team played a role. More importantly the entire media community joined forces that day. We were all out there looking for Keith.

We all told the Police and everyone we talked to that the law has to be upheld. This was a time when people were scared to speak the truth but everyone rose to the occasion. It showed that when united and determined the media of this country can do wonders. We found where he had been taken.

In this, I must mention that two people played very important roles, the current Speaker of the House Karu Jayasuriya and my school mate Hans Wijayasuriya of Dialog. Their efforts went a long way in saving Keith’s life.

Q: So do you think justice will be done? I ask this because we have a political culture where those who get into hot water simply shift political loyalties, side with the regime, and get away.
A: Justice is not about halfway measures. I understand the perception that you mentioned, however I am confident this time the whole truth will come out. This is the time for everyone to come out and reveal what they know to the Police, and be on the right side of history. We will find out who was involved, who carried out the orders and who gave the orders. It is of utmost importance that Keith’s case is brought to a satisfactory close, not just for Keith but for all of us. Keith lived to tell his story. Many others did not. This is why I urge others to come forward, following Keith’s example. If they speak up and if the truth surfaces, it will be of immense benefit to the country, right now and well into the future. Once the conspirators are brought to book over eight years later, it will send a powerful deterrence message to any future government which resorts to the same tactic.

I firmly believe that nearly all members of our security forces are a highly disciplined and dedicated set of people. I respect the institutions and the personnel. Therefore, it is unconscionable for people to order troops to commit murder and other atrocities and then hide behind the medals of true heroes. When a hero commits, instigates or abets coldblooded murder, he or she is no longer a hero but a murderer. Such a person brings us all into disrepute.

The military is respected and revered in this country for protecting the people from terrorism, not for the abduction, torture and killings in non-combat situations committed by a handful. The way to restore the dignity of our security establishment and our heroes is to expose and expunge the murderers and criminals from their ranks. All those responsible regardless of their rank, regardless of their reputation and their political status, should be brought to book.

I sincerely believe that right now we have the best opportunity to secure justice, not just for Keith, but for the military, and the country. Lasantha Wickrematunge once said that when the free media are attacked, it is not their own right of expression is stifled most, but the country’s right to hear what they want to say.

Q: People are hoping justice will be delivered. The entire process hinges in some way on the strength and continuity of the current political establishment. There’s a lot of uncertainty in this regard, don’t you think?
A: As I said, the targets and timelines we had may have been a little optimistic. Going from the point at which power changed hands to a thriving economy and vibrant democracy will ultimately yield stability. Uncertainty is a natural element in any coalition government anywhere in the world but these fears are often overstated. The President, Prime Minister, UNP and a significant portion of the SLFP are all key components of ‘Yahapalanaya,’ each serving as checks and balances on the other. There are several years left in the life of both this Parliament and the presidency. Those who stoke fears of instability are mostly the same people who enjoyed unchecked power or patronage under the previous regime.

Ironically, several of these people have now aligned themselves with either the President or the Premier and are seeking to cause instability by carrying tales about one to the other. I think there should be more coherence at the top or rather a greater synergy among the key partners in this Government. It is hard to obtain coherence or stability where there’s a weak conjunction of two centres of power. Both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena are seasoned and astute politicians, so I don’t believe for a moment that the people who are working from within to drive them apart have any chance of ultimately succeeding.

We have to keep in mind that this Government has been in power for just 18 months. That’s certainly not enough time to turn around a system so deeply infected with flaws, corruption and all kinds of incompetencies and inefficiencies. However, the Government has been in office long enough to know who can and cannot deliver. You can’t afford to persist with the incompetent, be they politicians or officials.

No one has travelled the road to success without crossing the streets of failure. Neither the President nor the Prime Minister promised us an easy journey. The Government only promised us a great destination. It’s too early to make a judgment. It’s the duty of everyone to support all the good initiatives of the Government. By 2020 the people can decide whether this Government deserves another term or not.

Q: You make it sound like nothing could be done differently. Do you believe that is the case?
A: That is never the case. The Government has to get the right people into the right positions. There are enough people who have made immense sacrifice for the larger good of the country, people who love this country and are ready to do their bit, people who have unintentionally been side-lined at the behest of friends and loyalists who lack commitment and are incapable of delivering. This has to change too.

We need to prioritise our core promises such as the development of a new constitution, and communicate unity around that goal. On this matter and others, the engagement of civil society activists remains essential. Their activism and sacrifice was essential to bringing this Government to power, and their voice remains crucial to helping this Government unlock its full potential to advance the country.

This is a country which retires people at 55. There are people of that age who are at their prime. While appreciating that there is a human resource problem in the country, that there are enough people out there who can do a better job than several currently holding office, top players in the private sector can be brought in to serve in an advisory capacity in key committees. They need to be attracted with adequate remuneration, but there can be a system where the private sector is made to pay their salaries, as they stand to benefit the most from proper policies and better implementation in a policy environment which sees the private sector as the engine of growth. Such radical decisions can and must be made.

Q: You mentioned a human resource problem and suggested that the best people out there should be brought into the equation. That seems like a stop-gap solution. How about the long term?
A: Yes, you are correct. That’s something that can be done immediately to arrest the situation. It must be complemented by a comprehensive plan to develop human resources.

We can take the example of cricket. It was not a question of lacking talent, but one of finding the talent or rather putting in place procedures that ensure that talent will be found and will have the opportunity to be developed. Gamini Dissanayake did just that. The game was already being played in the outstations. He took the administration and the personnel to the outstations and brought the best talent to the centre. How else would we have had a Sanath Jayasuriya or a Lasith Malinga?

Similarly, we need to create a talent factory, so to speak. We need to establish institutions and procedures that can identify young people with great potential, offer them the necessary training and thereafter deploy them so that they can be highly productive. In this the private sector can and should play a key role. I am sure that the private sector is more than willing to get involved since they stand to benefit the most. The Government should create the conditions necessary for them to get involved.

Once again it comes down to policy. Once again it is about coherence, about innovative thinking, about getting the right people in the decision-making seats who have the country’s interests at heart and have the skills, capacities, stature and the ability to take ownership of processes and make things work.

(By Nisthar Cassim -