Refreshing simplicity of the new administration


President Maithripala Sirisena with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Hyderabad House, in New Delhi.

It was really good to see on TV our President, with his wife and a few of the relevant Ministers in India recently. There was a happy mix of foreign relations being cemented, a couple of bridges high-handedly broken by the last regime mended, the apparent good relations and mutual respect when our President and the Indian Prime Minister were together and the fact it was the first foreign visit of our newly elected Head of State to our closest neighbour. The happy mix also because the President took the opportunity to visit Buddha Gaya and a Hindu kovil. We hope Jayanthi Pushpa Kumari Sirisena was able to squeeze in some shopping. She seems to be very simple and thus sweet and undemanding but any woman wants to shop when in the shopping paradise of New Delhi. No action was seen on TV by the protesters of Tamil Nadu, nor read about.

First foreign visit sans grandeur

The main feature of the foreign trip was its simplicity, in such sharp and stark contrast to foreign visits of the former President. Mr Sirisena and his small group flew across on a scheduled commercial Sri Lankan flight to Delhi; no chartering of a plane with extras put in. Those who went were listed in the daily press. When our former Prez set forth, we never knew who really went so it was a case of looking sharp and searchingly to see who the lucky ones were - bestowed a luxury trip abroad. We often spied the first son, right up in the protocol line, and several ministers though the camera was extra shy and focused only on the Prez and his wife. The last time they went to India to a kovil, the usual huge number went along in a plane chartered for the joyride, including Sajin de Vass Gunewardena who had just emerged from the controversial incident where it was made out that our high commissioner in Britain had fallen off a stool in a home in New York. We spied Sashi Weerawansa and knew she did not go as lady-in-waiting to the First Lady but as an honored invitee. How come, we gasped!

India retains its simplicity in spite of its past glorious opulence and the ability to be opulent once again. Thus the sincerity of our president and the modest gentleness of his wife would have gone down well with the Indians who met them and dined them and conferred with the president and his ministers. Official meetings would have proceeded well with a total absence of overbearing self confidence. One marked feature, much approved of, is the manner President Sirisena observes pansil even in a very public gathering. His palms together rest on his forehead, the true position of worshipping hands when taking the refuges and five precepts.

World trend of simplicity

This welcome simplicity is evident all around us. It is fast replacing the showiness (a watch worth USD 9,000 among many others equally expensive); and overbearing arrogance and inexcusable profligacy. The feeling of welcome ordinariness has already trickled down so that smiles are exchanged between strangers met as one walks around. The genuine is coming up pushing aside the artificial, the put-on, the showiness. It seems to be a world trend too, starting with the utter simplicity of His Holiness the Pope (requested a small secondhand car for the ride from the airport to Colombo being just one gesture of his deliberate setting aside of pomp); leaders like Angela Merkel and even the Obamas. Michelle may be a fashion icon but she seems to stress elegance in her dresses and blouses and not mere style. In sharp contrast to the huge limousines that our political elite drove around in - when they were not helicoptering in luxury helis, the Indian leaders were always driven in Indian made cars. Merkel lives in a simple home with her scientist husband’s name - Prof Dr Sauer - on a brass plaque.

Spending Sprees in the Big Apple

We heard and read about and were duly shocked at the 70 persons taken to New York when President Rajapaksa addressed the General Assembly in 2014. Previous visits to the Big Apple were even larger in numbers. Accompanying him on a trip such as this was a thank you for loyalty shown. A full two floors of the very expensive Waldorf Astoria was reserved for his entourage, while the ‘Presidential suite ‘ cost US $ 24,000 per day it is reported! The cost of a meal is US$ 175.00. For six days, the expenditure was Rs. 20.4 million!! It is to be further noted, Heads of countries who reserved super luxury hotels like Astoria are those from most affluent countries: America, China, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. England and India book much cheaper.

In addition to this wasteful extravagance, 50 luxury limousines were reportedly hired for the traveling comfort of the entourage – most spreeing off on sightseeing or shopping. The hiring charges were US dollars 50 per hour, booked for 16 hours daily. The total expense for the 50 vehicles therefore per day was US $ 40,000. Hence for six days the full expenditure in SL currency was Rs. 31.2 million! All this for the Prez’s address which was scheduled for 7.00 pm with no important heads of state present. The sumptuous dinner hosted at a club on 60th Street too was very poorly attended. The worst is that this address of the Head of State is not mandatory. The first year of a presidency could be marked with this address to the General Assembly. Many country Heads are deputized for by their foreign ministers and permanent reps at the UN.

The worthy brought back

Apart from austerity emphasized by the new government is the wise re-hiring of experts in several fields. Jayantha Dhanapala with years of experience in diplomacy and UN Under- Secretary General –Disarmament and official candidate for position of UN SG until he withdrew his name, has been invited to advise the President on foreign relations; Mr Paskaralingam of the Finance Ministry of some years ago has been recalled. I have just heard from a person in the States that Peter Hill who was the CEO appointed by Emirates when Sri Lankan had a sharing agreement with them has been recalled to Sri Lankan. He got into trouble when President Rajapaksa, returning from Britain wanted 31 seats, I believe, for his entire entourage with no prior booking made. (This was when chartering an entire plane was not resorted to as easily as later). The offer of six seats for the immediate family and a couple of VIPs was refused. The Colombo flight was fully booked and off loading is just not done. The ex-Prez was infuriated and thus the dismissal of Peter Hill and breaking off with Emirates when Sri Lankan was showing profits. Since then our airline has gone downhill all the way with the brother-in-law in charge and Mihin Air piggy backing on it.

Sincerity, austerity, simplicity and placing the country much before self is evident now, so much praise and gratitude for that. These virtues trickle down too, just as profligacy and corruption at the top emboldened others and caused crimes to be committed with impunity. As most ordinary folk like you and I have vowed, we do not mind tightening our belts, managing with economic difficulties, giving up every luxury, if all suffer the same. What we cursed in the last 10 years, the curses getting more vicious towards the end of the last regime, was us having to suffer while the top persons outdid the Indian Maharajahs of old.

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