Mr. Dallas Alahapperuma said more than a mouthful the other day when he went on record saying that the public see politicians as rogues. The exceptions, sadly, are few and far between. Politics today has become a road to riches and, quite apart from the legitimate and ever-growing perks and privileges that elected officials enjoy, there’s a great deal of loot to be picked up. The result has been that all kinds of riff-raff scramble to get elected and political parties are not choosy about the people they nominate. The candidates need enormous resources to win elections and they find campaign contributors to top up their war chests. Such contributions are invariably investments from which the donors seek much more than market returns. If their horse wins, and jockeys himself to a position where opportunities abound, the returns are assured. The politicians, of course, much more than their funders, benefit from office and cartoonists never tire of depicting them as gross and fat cigar-chomping characters.
It is not only politicians that the public see as rogues. Officials in various departments, like the office of the Registrar of Motor Vehicles, where Alahapperuma made his speech, are also tainted in the public mind. The Customs Department is another place where the pickings, in the public perception, are very rich. When a traffic cop stops a motorist crashing a red light, the offender too often thinks ``can I slip him a bribe and get off?’’ because many policemen are bribe takers. That politicians and bureaucrats working for various government agencies where corruption is rife get stereotyped as rogues, is not fair to honourable people in such institutions. Sri Lanka is not extra special in the corruption league. It exists not only here but, in varying degrees, also almost everywhere in the world where corrupt politicians and officials are a fact of life. A senior customs officer, on a training course in Indonesia many years ago, used to enjoy relating an anecdote of being introduced to someone at a dinner party as a customs chief from Sri Lanka. ``Customs chief?’’ beamed the man warmly shaking his hand. ``You must be very rich.’’ He was not trying to be nasty but merely stating what he thought was a plain fact.
Corruption feeds on many factors, human nature not the least of them. Who does not like easy money? Bribes or other inducements are proffered by the smallest mudalalis and the biggest businessmen for advantages that the receiver, whether politician or official, can confer. It is a fact that many people believe that a bribe is money well spent if there is delivery. While people by spoken word and in their thought processes are all too willing to damn the ``rogues,’’ they don’t see the mote in their own eye –the bribe giver or advantage seeker is as guilty as the taker. What should concern everybody is that corruption has grown exponentially with public expenditure. That, perhaps, is inevitable. While there were more honest men and women in public life in the early post-Independence years than today, there were also some rogues among them even in those days when public expenditure was relatively modest. PWD overseers, for example, were then stereotyped as corrupt and were considered able to dower their daughters sufficiently to marry them off to civil servants! But if there were no corrupt engineers passing their work, how could the overseers be corrupt?
There were fewer MPs then than we have now, and fewer local councilors. There were fewer contractors and much less money being spent on public works than at present. We had no war and massive military expenditures opening new avenues of graft in procurement of all manner of hardware from ships and aircraft to bullets and artillery pieces. Thus both the scale of corruption, as well as the numbers of the corrupt, was smaller then than now. But we cannot console ourselves with such logic because something we had then in some measure than we greatly lack now is there was a greater will, both politically and socially, to stamp out such evil. By and large the attitude today is very much laissez faire, so much so that a politician can blithely say that their tribe is seen as rogues in the popular mind.
Those of practical bent will believe that delivery, even at the cost of some graft, is better than not getting a job done. That argument is not without some merit and many budgets for projects both big and small are made with an allowance for an element of corruption. That is how some exporters and importers write-in ``pre-shipment’’ or ``clearing’’ expenses into their books. Knowing the way of the game, such entries are accepted by auditors as well as the tax authority in the secure knowledge that this was money actually spent. Bosses are often willing to close their eyes to purchasing officers who are suspected of taking ``cuts’’ from suppliers as long as what they buy is not over-priced and is of acceptable quality. They are preferred to the scrupulously honest men whose delivery record is abysmally bad with required materials not available at the needed time because of quibbling over insignificant details.
But the hard reality today is that political and official corruption is costing this country plenty - much more than it can afford. It is too easily assumed that this is the way that things are done and it can’t be helped; that politicians (most of them, anyway) are rogues and that is the nature of the beast; that the Augean stables in the RMV, the customs and the police can be never cleaned. There is the lack of political will to do these things as eloquently demonstrated by the non-publication of the report on military procurement by a Commission of Inquiry conducted by an eminent judge. There is talk on parliamentary oversight of decisions of the yet to be appointed Constitutional Council – oversight by a parliament whose high posts committee has passed too many questionable appointments with more to come. So Mr. Minister, let’s stop talking about rogues in politics or in the RMV’s department and start doing something about them.