In an article we run in today's issue of this newspaper, Mr. K. Godage, a career diplomat who retired as Additional Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, faults his former employer for maintaining a stony silence over what he has called ``scurrilous'' attacks on members of the country's foreign service serving as heads of mission. The writer has pointed out that being public officers, the victims are prevented by provisions of the Administrative Regulations (AR) and the Establishment Code to respond personally. It is therefore up to the ministry to set the record straight. But this it had failed to do giving the impression that it has nothing to say, thus implying that the wild allegations that have been made are true. To say the least, this is a totally unacceptable state of affairs. It is up to the ministry to defend its diplomats against allegations it knows are untrue and unfair. Making commiserating noises in private and maintaining a public silence will not do.
It is fairly well known that the foreign minister and the secretary to the ministry do not enjoy a cordial relationship. Obviously such a situation does not redound to the benefit of the national interest, but nothing whatever has been done to correct it. It is the president who appoints the ministers and the secretaries to the ministries and it is his responsibility to ensure that key officials do not clash with each other either covertly or overtly. But this has not happened and the responsible authority has been content to let things remain as they are, possibly in hope that the problem will eventually blow over. While it is true that many administrative problems settle themselves in the course of time, it does not mean that expecting such a favourable outcome entitles those who must ensure that the wheels of government roll smoothly to ignore inconvenient and unpleasant realities.
All governments have been guilty of making unsuitable appointments to the country's overseas mission at ambassadorial and lower levels. These positions have been coveted and heads of government, from the time of Prime Minister D.S. Senananayake, have made diplomatic appointments either to reward loyalists for services rendered or to get rid of personalities of consequence proving troublesome at home. While independent Ceylon, as we were then, had an elite Civil Service and an Overseas Service recruited on merit on the basis of a competitive examination, in the fullness of time all kinds of questionable appointments of friends, relatives and `catchers,' many of them past the age of retirement applicable to the public service, were made. The situation today is truly pathetic with our foreign missions loaded with passengers who not only cost the taxpayer a pretty penny but also engage with impunity in destabilizing the very missions they have been assigned to.
We have in these columns have previously had occasion to comment on the number of overseas missions Sri Lanka runs in many parts of the world. For a country of our size and resources, many of these are indefensible extravagances that we cannot afford. Instead of getting on with the urgently needed task of conducting realistic cost-benefit assessments of seemingly redundant embassies, high commissions and consulates and closing down those that do not earn their keep, true to our clean-suit-empty-pocket ethos, we indulge in opening new missions with gay abandon. What is needed is a lean and mean overseas operation and the maximization of the financial and human resources we command. Instead, like an octopus, we put out tentacles to places where we are least needed and do not adequately fund vital missions that have important work to do. We have allowed valuable government-owned properties abroad to run down for want of maintenance and after the damage is done, big bucks are spent on restitution. We are represented in many countries that do not see the need for reciprocal representation in Colombo. While it is true that interest differ and economic and political considerations may dictate our physical presence in some countries without a resident mission here, it is certainly not true in too many instances as even a superficial look at the facts will amply demonstrate.
It can be fairly argued that the state of our overseas missions is no more than a microcosm of what happens back home in Sri Lanka itself. The public service is a bloated monster guzzling tax rupee of a people hard-pressed to make ends meet in the face of galloping inflation. Yet we add to the numbers on the payroll for blatant political reasons without ensuring that those already on board are productively employed. No wonder then that the country's salary and pension bill consumes a disproportionate share of GDP without adequate productive returns. While a downsizing the pubic service is an urgent necessity, what is happening is the reverse. We have not come to grips with the urgent need properly balance social and economic realities and our universities, at great cost, continue to produce unemployable graduates who in the fullness of time create other problems.
Much of the late Mr. Lakshman Kadirgamar's efforts to fashion a more effective overseas service has been frittered away since his death. It must be conceded that politicians, like the rest of us, have debts to pay and friends to look after. Nevertheless, there is a limit to personal favours extended at taxpayers' cost. This, unfortunately, is what patronage dispensers forget and even though bell, book and candle can all be thrown back at them, it is incumbent that the parliamentary opposition focuses on these matters. That, after all, is what they are paid to do. While the UNP's hands are no cleaner than those of the present administration with regard to bad appointments, the JVP that had only a brief presence in government is better placed to bring these matters to national attention. It must be said to the credit of that party that it has in some measure performing this function. What we have said here is self-evident and our leaders are very well aware of the facts. The tragedy is that they find it more convenient to pander to their friends than to do what is right. No wonder, because for too long they have been permitted to get away with it.