”So much is spoken about this speech and much was written about it. This article attempts briefly to discuss seven governance points worth elaborating in the backdrop of the contemporary governance realities of the country.”
By JC Weliamuna
The former Cricket captain Kumar Sangakkara, in his great Sir Colin Cowdrey speech at Lord’s, spoke of a shared fanatical fashion and collective joy and ambition of the Sri Lankans, when he found something in common in the form of cricket. He spoke of diversity of our society and how cricket brought together a divided nation during 1996 world cup victory. Nobody disputes the fact that Sangakkara played a celebrated captain’s inning at a crucial juncture of Sri Lanka at the Lord’s lecture.
Firstly, the message was very clear and strong. Sangakkara referred to the decay of the Cricket Board and the individuals who run it, directly or by proxy. He says “to consolidate and perpetuate their power, they open their doors to of the administration to partisan cronies that would lead to corruption wanton waste of Cricket Board finances and resources”. This is the stark reality of our administration in general in all public establishments. I cannot think of a single public institution, including regulatory bodies, public corporations, defense authorities, sports administrations, diplomatic positions and state media institutions, which escaped this harsh truth. All those institutions have lost credibility and integrity due to cronies so appointed. Ultimately, the public and the country as a whole have to pay. Who is guilty? I believe both the appointer as well as the appointee – because both have vested interest in such ill appointments. The Cricket Board too suffers from the same governance problem. For a country to progress, public institutions need autonomy and independence form unfair and unwarranted interferences, particularly from partisan political interests.
Secondly, a sportsman can be a great whistleblower of a corrupt administration, not only on the sport where he/she is engaged but also beyond. Sangakkara’s exposure of vested political and partisan interests and lack of transparency of cricket administration is not unknown. But when he says it from within, it becomes an exposure in the caliber of whistle blowing, warranting actions both to address the issues and to protect the whistleblower himself. World over, the whistleblowers are given special protection by law in order to protect the institutional integrity, because not all individuals have capacity or courage to raise issues of corruption. The gravity of this must be viewed with the Sports Minister’s response. The Minister is moving to inquire into Sanga’s speech, which seems to have embarrassed him. The Minister’s proposed action is not at all surprising to me. This shows intolerance, indiscipline and quality of the Ministers himself. If you closely analyze the backgrounds of most of the politicians, their criminal background is swept under the carpet thanks to the impunity exists today. But, they do not tolerate a speck of criticism and this is the general attitude from top to bottom in the political hierarchy. Some of the whistleblowers have disappeared, some lost their positions/employments and some have ended up in trouble. This reminds us of the need to have a whistle blower protection in our legal system.
Thirdly, the fact that the government in general was not at all happy with the speech is quite expected for many reasons. Beyond all, our politicians from top to bottom of the day suffer from a kind of megalomania. They do believe that they have the monopoly of good ideas. They believe that it is they who will bring in reputation to the country and they want to be thanked for all achievements, including the sports achievements. Sanga did not thank the any politician (the President or the Minister) except former Minister Gamini Dissanayaka for his contribution to achieve Test status for the country. More than anything else, this would certainly have been the issue for them to get annoyed. The politicians have not begun to think this way overnight. For many decades, Sri Lankan politicians were given much more recognition – far more than they deserve, in every aspect of life. Media dominates politicians; they become chief guests in all events in the country. Without them there cannot be even a petty school event, a public or religious gathering. They in fact demand their presence to exhibit their leadership and power. They have lost the basic value of being a representative or the servant of the voter; rather they manipulated the system to be the masters. Naturally they are upset when a great speaker does not thank the political masters of the day. For the establishment of governance in this country, it is imperative that the politicians are recognized only to the extent they deserve and nothing more.
Fourthly, what is the role of the Minister of Sports? All decent constitutional democracies recognize that the Minister is only involved in policy issues and not in administration. To the contrary, we see, for several decades, the Ministers getting involved in every phase of the activities of a ministry, from policy to administration & contracting, recruitment to disciplinary matters. Why do the Ministers get involved in administration? My conclusion is that direct administration is where they get opportunities, directly or indirectly, to come within reach of the coffer. This is where they could use their power over the voter and the officials and to demand public respect, without earning them. The purported argument of many politicians is that the Minister is responsible to Parliament and thus he/she should have control over everything. This statement is not accurate in Sri Lanka. Unlike many other democracies, the Ministers are not called upon before the finance committees such as the Committee of Public Enterprises or the Public Accounts Committee. It is the Secretary to the Ministry, who is called upon before the committees, in his/her capacity as the Chief Accounting Officer of the Ministry. Unlike the Sangakkara’s view on collective passion, a collective joy or ambition to mark a foot print in cricketing history, there is no collective passion on the part of the Cabinet (or even parliamentarians for that matter) to be more accountable, transparent or discipline, let alone being intolerant of criticism.
Fifthly, the power of the Minister to dissolve the Cricket Board has always been abused in Sri Lanka, like many other powers vested in Ministers and the President. Sports Law No. 25 of 1973 was introduced during a period where the politicians wanted to control everything including the judiciary. Sports became yet another victim of this capture. There is no independent body, which cannot be manipulated by the government in power, through the minister. We have seen in the past the best players in different games were dropped arbitrarily. School teams were changed due to interference and talented players gave up their passionate sports. All governments have abused the law to such an extent that elected bodies were all dissolved and handpicked henchmen were then appointed to interim committees by the Minister under Section 33 of the Law. Everyone knows how elections are conducted for the sports bodies. As Sangakkara described, “vote buying, rigging, brandishing of weapons and ugly fist fights have characterized Cricket Board elections”. In my view, this is possible only if this is the acceptable norm at main elections in the country. Certainly, almost all our elections for many years have been marred by violence, malpractices and abuses of state resources. Whether it is Parliamentary Elections, Presidential Elections, cooperative society elections or sports body elections, we have lost integrity of electoral process. Abuse of power is the core issue here. In governance terminology, when power is abused for personal gain (or for their group, party or clan) it becomes corruption. Sports Law to all laws governing elections and how the law is put in practice perpetuated this corrupt business.
Sixthly, as Sangakkara points out, there is uniqueness of Sri Lankan cricket and in its achievements. It was introduced from the West but had its success after we found our own identity. This extremely vital observation speaks volumes of many other values. Parliamentary Democracy, English language, modern technology are among few diverse values that were introduced from the West. There is a blend of our own with them later, for the benefit of the public. An organized judicial system and a legal system to protect public resources were also introduced by the West, though it was modified later form time to time. The point I am making is that despite the modifications, the core values of the game did not change. Like the game of cricket, in the guise of changes, we did not make “an out” a “not out” or did not get rid of umpires. We brought additional values to uplift the spirit of the game. Sanga has correctly suggested that, though we have the strength to find the answers ourselves, the International Cricket Council (ICC) should take action to “suspend member boards with any direct detrimental political interference and allegations of corruption and mismanagement.”. A practical suggestion, which is not contrary to democratic values or the spirit of the game. It is time now to reflect on this reality for many other areas such as governance, democracy and human rights. In a democracy, we have a collective duty to protect the essence of those values and uplift them rather than introducing self-saving changes to undermine the core values of those principles. In every working democracy changes to a system come not to benefit the rulers (or their advisers) but to the public, in whose benefit the power is vested in the rulers. Sanga spoke about the need to have transparency in sports administration; despite the government’s opposition to right to information, the core values of the democracy demands recognition of transparency in administration in general.
Finally, Sangakkara displayed his vision for the game and beyond; leaving before us unquestionable truth that a person of captain material can be a self-made great visionary. This country is full of self- proclaim pseudo-visionaries, due to their political power, connection to a family or securing an electoral victory. For a country to progress, in sports and in all other fields, we need more and more free thinkers. After all Sanga’s speech has enough and more for the young and uncorrupt to learn and improve their thinking – because he “spoke”. Free speech is a core principle in a democracy, which we have unfortunately failed to protect up to its expectations in recent times. The speech is the seed for thinking and change that this country needs to re-establish even the right to speak. It is a basic tool to fight corruption and establish good governance. It is now for others to speak up to make it a signal for the masses to achieve shared fashion of democracy, even at great personal risks. By this, the country can think of a collective joy and ambition – a representative society and true democracy.