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A gentlemanly retirement and other matters

In this country most people rarely come to terms with their retirement and bow out gracefully. They do their damnedest to stay put even if their services are no longer required, without giving two hoots about the chances of others down the line to improve their career prospects.

Some public officials are an embodiment of the so-called Peter Principle; they receive promotions mostly by licking political boots until they reach the level of incompetence where they spend the rest of their unproductive years sponging off the public.

Among such flotsam and jetsam, we are fortunate to have real gems of public officers who call it quits even though their productive years are not yet over, despite calls from on high for them to continue in their high posts.

Attorney General C. R. de Silva is such a thoroughbred state official. He has announced his decision to retire in a few days in spite of an extension in service that President Mahinda Rajapaksa has granted him in recognition of his outstanding service. It is believed that he has decided to shift from the official bar to the private bar in view of a controversy surrounding a move to vest in the President powers to determine the retirement age of the officials he appoints and a gazette notification to that effect.

The government move has been challenged in court. The Supreme Court has instructed the Attorney General's Department to withdraw the gazette at issue. Petitioners who moved the Supreme Court against the controversial gazette have argued that it amounts to an infringement of the fundamental right to equality and equal protection of the law. That, we believe, is a matter best left for the learned judges to determine. Instead, we wish to discuss some other issues concerning the retirement age and allied matters.

The concept of retirement age, to begin with, is said to have originated in the 19th and the 20th Centuries. Time was when everybody had no alternative but to go on working till he or she fell dead for want of social security. With the advancement of medical science and the resultant longevity with man being blessed with more productive years, there has been felt the need for reviewing the mandatory retirement age prescribed for certain categories of workers.

In this country where the public sector is guided by archaic laws and regulations, it is doubtful whether due consideration has been given to that need.

We have an ageing population and changes have to be effected to retirement age in keeping with the drastic changes in the country's demographics. We need to be equipped as a society to meet the challenges that an ageing population will give rise to such as social security, welfare, health care and geriatric facilities.

The EPF, the ETF and the State pension scheme are poorly equipped to cope with the situation we are heading for, as could be seen from the already manifest woes of their beneficiaries due to high inflationary rates.

Retirement age in countries like Japan already burdened with an ageing population have been raised and it is high time we learnt from their experience and emulated the methods they have adopted to tackle the problem. It is not only the public sector that will have to do so but the rapidly expanding private sector as well.

So, it may be seen that what is urgently needed is not so much vesting more powers in some political institution to determine the retirement age of State officials arbitrarily but the formulation of a national policy to avert a crisis resulting from, so to speak, the greying of Sri Lanka. In 2020-25, it is said, we will have an elderly population of over 20 per cent!

Why is it that there is a mandatory retirement age only for the public sector and private sector workers? It was only the other day that an age limit was imposed on banking chiefs in this country to prevent them from heading their banks as long as they wish. The reason given for that decision was that most of the money banks were handling belonged to the public and, therefore, steps had to be taken to ensure its safety. Banking heads let out a howl of protest and fought a legal battle, but in vain.

Surprisingly, Parliament also has fiduciary duties. It is, in fact, in charge of public finance. Former MP S. B. Dissanayake, while he was a key minister in the UNF government (2001-2004) which was at loggerheads with the executive president, boasted that by virtue of holding power in Parliament, his party was in a position to deny funds for his bête noire President Kumaratunga and make her leave the President's House. (His threat was replete with double entendre and risqué, which we wish to leave out.) Such are the powers that Parliament wields, especially when the prime minister and the president happen to come from two different political parties!

So, if banks that handle people's money have to retire their heads when they reach a certain age, how is it that the lawmakers who are responsible for public finance are free from such restrictions? On the other hand, unlike banking chiefs, most politicians are without any expertise in that field and, therefore, it is doubtful whether they know what they are doing.

Only the political institutions in this country seem to be geared to face the challenges of an ageing population!

Politicians can go on holding office until they fall dead in their seats. Political leaders rarely retire. They have to be retired––by the judiciary in some cases! We don't want to be told by cynics that the solution to the problem of population ageing is to expand political institutions so as to accommodate the elderly people in them. Some of them already resemble homes for the aged!

Are we to gather that politicians are some kind of super human beings on whom age does not tell so that they can go on making or breaking laws until they give up the ghost?

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