(Speech of Ranil Wickremesinghe, Leader of the Opposition at the Business Today TOP TWENTY FIVE awards ceremony)
Venerable members of the Sangha, Honourable Basil Rajapaksa, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Ministers, Honourable Deputy Minister, Members of Parliament, the Mayor, members of the business community and friends.
I think we politicians have got fixed by Parthipan. Generally, it’s two of us speaking and the rest of you listen. But this time you got to listen to 25 businessmen and just two politicians speaking. Is it that you want to make us feel what it is like when you sit at the functions and have to listen to all the long winded speeches that we make? Anyway, you have got your message across. For some reason I found that I have been invited for the second time, which I’m generally not. But I must first say that ‘Business Today’ should be commended for this ceremony, to recognise and reward all those who have done well in the corporate sector; by something given by the private sector to the private sector. I saw you at work this time with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. That was a job well done, especially the street party afterwards. Many of the delegates went back regretting that they couldn't stay longer but then the Treasury was thankful that they didn’t wait any longer because our deficits would have gone much further. I have listened today to the reports and the performances of the companies. Hari Selvanathan did make a good point when he said why don’t you have something for the Government. Sometime back it would have been very difficult. There wouldn’t have been 25 ministries. But now it is a100, I think it’s worth giving it a try.
For those who have performed, some of you have gone through difficult times; some have known what life was like before 1977 when we had to go into a market economy. Some of you have contributed to building it up. As Pandithage said through the difficult years; and sometimes you had to close the door and do business from the side. And we had to go through this whole episode of renaming ‘Bombay Onions’ ‘Big Onions’. We have got over all that.
While commending you all for all that you have done I have one or two issues that I would like to raise. I was reading through Business Today and I have no problem with the criteria you have selected; but I looked at how that criteria has changed over the years; not only in Sri Lanka but also abroad, which is a reflection of how the global economy and the market economy has changed. Even capitalism has changed, as we all call the ‘Market Economy’. A few days back I was reading an article on what is called Modern Capitalism. It was very good; it dealt with American Capitalism. What it is today; it is unique. I don’t think it can be duplicated anywhere else in the world. How democratic socialism went out of vogue and what we have in the last ten years. Firstly, socialism with Chinese characteristics. This is the biggest form of capitalism you have today and is state capitalism. Then the Social market economy. Where the financial markets dominates is called stock market capitalism. These seem to be the three. It dealt with how the countries in Asia, the smaller countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America developed; how modern capitalism came first through European money which brought in the plantation sector. Then the export sector, either with the local money or with foreign money. And now where do we go? We have gone to one extreme – fortunately we are not there and I hope we don’t get there – of the economies which rely on drug money, hot money and black money. Where are we? Well we have I feel excessive dependence on the financial market. We read in the newspapers and the media a lot on the stock exchange and the public borrowings. Well, to me our stock exchange is very much a casino with a laundry attached. That’s where the black money from Malaysia and India is turned into white. And this year we’ve also added an altar because twice a year we sacrificed the chairpersons there.
We have some things which have been concerning me and I thought I should mention it to you all. It is something seen in the other economies also in Sri Lanka. Many of you did mention how much of credit is available for the Small and Medium Sector. But I find this development in Sri Lanka like elsewhere, where the banks are with the big corporates and the capital requirement of the Small and Medium Sector has suffered. I’ve gone through many towns, many cities met with those who run the high street, they are the people who matter and they are complaining of their lack of access to capital. That’s something you have to recognise. Because in today’s society it’s the Small and Medium Enterprises that provide the jobs; whether it be in manufacturing, whether it be tourism or in trade. They are the job creators and that goes from the United States to Japan to other parts of the world. And that’s where we’re having a problem. Excuse me for saying so, because I believe that is where not enough money is going. If all that money that was given out by the banks to margin trading was instead given out to the Small and Medium economy all of us would be better off today. There’ll be more money in the pockets of the average persons in the country.
Second is look at the composition of government expenditure, which is alarming to me. In 1990 when we were running the economy; the biggest expenditure was the categories of what we call goods services transfers and subsidies. Second came interest payment and third came salaries. In the last two years it has changed. First is interest payments, second is salaries and third is the rest. And today you have come to a situation where goods services transfers and subsidies are just about half of interest payments. What does this mean? It basically means two things. One is the social sector expenditure is going down; we have seen the crisis we’ve had of the university teachers, the Minister had to handle that. We have seen the problem of health expenditure; this composition of government expenditure is going to get worse. And we are a country that has depended on free education and free health. Unless you change the composition of government expenditure you spend more on these sectors it’s going to be downhill for the majority of the people. How do you change it? This itself is the problem, because you have this big public debt.
I was reading the Road Map on Public Debt Management and they are talking of reducing the deficit; the same thing the IMF says. You have to reduce it. You can’t cut the interest payments or debt servicing, you can’t cut the salaries bill, whether you think they are gainfully employed or not. Then the cuts come in the other sectors. That just is not going to work. They are saying cut the expenditure on the transfers to the corporations. But what are we doing? They are transferring that expenditure on to the people, instead of trying to make those corporations efficient and see how it’s been made viable, the easiest way, the IMF way now is to transfer that and the price increases. These are two of the problems we are facing, which means: firstly, not enough credit to the small and medium entrepreneur and secondly, the additional expenses. Then how do we repay the debt? That’s the big question. Today our revenue and our debt service is virtually the same. Actually we are rolling over the public debt. We are borrowing to repay, which is what we did with the last sovereign debt in July; of the billion Dollars 500 million has gone to repay the 2007 loans. This is a serious situation which we are in. And unless we find a way of moving out then the burden is going to be more on the people. We’ve seen what’s happened in Greece. We’ve seen what is happening in Spain, We’ve seen what’s happening in Portugal and many other countries. This is the big question that all of us have to face. And I thought I should mention something which all of us overlook, because we are all short termists now looking at the performance of one year and not how do we go beyond that. We are told to be more competitive and to earn more exports. Where do you earn the exports? The world market is a billion people in the western world whose incomes are coming down. What do we sell? How do we sell it? We can’t sell very much more to Europe. We’ve lost the GSP Plus facility. I got involved in trying to save it. Finally I fell foul both of the apparel sector and of G L Peiris. Nevertheless, there is very little that we can do there.
What are we going to do in the US market. I can’t see how we can enter that. India; the private sector has to decide whether they want to enter the Indian market or not. One half says very loudly no CEPA; we don’t want it. We don’t want the Indians coming in. The other half says silently no, we want CEPA. And everyone wants to see how we can make quick money out of the Indian black money that is being laundered here. We’ve got to decide because these are the markets that are available for us.
Just look at Myanmar, 2015, after the elections they will get concessional aid may be as much as US$ 10 billion. Once the elections are held fairly and squarely they can take the GSP+ facility, they get something in the US market and they will get into the Indian market. That’s what we are going to see from 2016 onwards. As some of the Europeans point out its useless getting into Myanmar now because they are not ready. They haven’t got the basics. They require two, three years. Then what are we going to do? Where are we going? That’s what we have to think. I for one am very skeptical about the IMF. As I said last year Bretton Woods institutions without Bretton Woods is of no use. What are they saying throughout the world? Cut your expenditure. Now we have come to the bone. As politicians can we cut into the bone? We can’t.
What can we get from the IMF? They can’t sort themselves out as to where the voting power should be. It’s dominated by the European voting power and is at the moment dependent on Asian money. That’s what we are. I would forget about them. I don’t think they can give any solutions. Unfortunately, we have the habit where everything said by an IMF representative here or by some IMF guy who comes here is highlighted in the media in the same manner in which Moses and the Ten Commandments were treated at that time. That’s unfortunately been a habit. I don’t think they know where they are going. And certainly they can’t tell us where we are going. We have to now innovate we’ve got to think out of the box. All countries are thinking out of the box. You’ll be surprised at the reports that are coming out of England. The Vickers Banking Report wanted ring-fencing of the banks. Then Paul Volcker the Former Chairman of the Reserve Bank of the USA said that’s not enough, you’ve got to separate them. Go back into an earlier system they had of separating investment banking and retail banking. You’ve got the Key commission report which says there shouldn’t be quarterly reporting on the stock market. You focus too much on the short term profits and you forget about the medium and the long term. That’s one country that is trying to work its way out. America is working its way out in a different manner, including fixing all the British banks whenever they can; they still keep the monopoly in banking. We’ve all got to think out of the box. Where are we going? How are we going to get there? Because I still feel that we have the capacity to innovate. We have innovators and we have entrepreneurs both here in this room and outside there; maybe in Nugegoda, maybe in Nittambuwa, maybe in Beliatta – I don’t know where the Minister belongs to whether in Nittambuwa or Beliatta or both – down in Madawachchiya which has been long quoted now in the parliamentary debates, who can make it. We’ve got to think what we are going to do. So I’m sorry that I had to sound the discord note here amongst all those who thought it will be better. But I was one of those who had faith in the market economy when many others didn’t. When we went through those dark years; we paid a price to get the market economy back. I want the market economy to benefit everyone. You can’t have two classes of people either here or in England or in America. That’s the big debate. We must have the market economy to benefit all. We cannot have people thinking our children can’t be educated here. We cannot have people come to the view that there are no health services here. We talk of shortage of labour. Then why on earth are people paying three or four hundred thousand rupees to go abroad? There is something wrong; either there is no job satisfaction. If all the Sri Lankans are back here we still have unemployment. Those are great skills that have to be brought back but can we pay the price? Do we go to a higher level of economic activity?
This is why I raised the questions. I don’t want to keep you all much longer. But just to thank you again for having invited me; and there’ll be many who will go along saying “what nonsense is this man is talking” but I hope there’ll be at least one who would think of what I said; because like Harry I believe we can make it. I may differ on how we make it, but we can make it if we can think straight.