A leader looking forward; a rarity in Asian politics | Sunday Observer

A leader looking forward; a rarity in Asian politics

“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a moulder of consensus” - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The Asian political landscape is one built on a foundation of populist rhetoric and handouts for the masses. In Sri Lanka, the political races have more often than not been won by those who were able to provide the voters with the largest handout.

Sustainability in the policies of the leaders of Asian states has been lacking since the middle of the 20th century. Sadly, you are able to count on a single hand the number of leaders that come from the region who have had the vision and the drive to take their nations forward. Having transitioned from feudalistic societies to colonies to new Democracies, much of Asia’s politics have evolved into representation based on the popularity of an individual.

In Sri Lanka, since Independence was earned in 1948, the country has seen much upheaval and turmoil. A civil war which lasted three decades, two separate insurrections led by student movements, several pogroms, and instability in the political arena has in many ways stalled the progress of the island nation.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the current Prime Minister of the country and leader of the United National Party (UNP), has borne witness to much of the previously mentioned incidences which has shaped the society we now live in.

Having started his career in politics as a member of the UNP in the early 1970s, he was part of the resurrection of the Grand Old Party which saw them emerge from the depths of having only 17 seats in Parliament to securing a 5/6 majority.

While Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political acumen was noticed early in his career, it was his ability to recognise the need of a situation and take steps to not only guide the ship through stormy waters, but to do so while ensuring an end result was achieved.

Having endured the first insurrection launched by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in 1971, which was fuelled by the students’ desire for an economically secure future, the then first time Member of Parliament and Minister (Wickremesinghe) took it upon himself to start developing a path for the students to achieve financial security.

Recognising that public sector jobs, financed by an economy weary from years of being closed off to the rest of the world, would not be a feasible option, he instead made use of his position as Minister of Youth Affairs and Employment. The highest priority was given to revitalising the National Youth Services Council (NYSC). Despite the country’s economy being placed on the path to a financial boom, following the opening up of the economy, the labour force was facing shortages in vital areas of employment.

One of the key aspects of the NYSC was the establishment of vocational training centres in all the districts in the country. The sole aim of these centres was to provide the youth with training in professional fields such as, the trades which had otherwise been ignored. Speaking at an event organised by the Institute of Personnel Management in 1980, Wickremesinghe said, “…in the next five years, 100,000 more skilled personnel would be needed for the construction industry and 10,000 more in the hotel industry. Today, it is not a question of a lack of material or money, but a lack of manpower, which might become a handicap.” Truer words could not have been spoken.

At a time when the country’s economy was opening up to the rest of the world, the efforts of the Minister of Youth Affairs to dissuade the youth from pursuing white collar jobs over blue collar jobs was unwelcome. However, Ranil Wickremesinghe identified that the recent economic successes would be short-lived if the forewarning of a labour shortage was not addressed.

In 2018, the Labour Demand Survey carried out the previous year, highlighted that the estimated labour demand stood at 497,300. The sector which boasted the highest demand was the industrial sector, made up of vocational jobs, which stood at 195,474 jobs. Nearly 40 years after first predicting a shortage, the country is now struggling to make up the lost ground.

The results of the shortage of labour in these essential jobs is now being seen with many investors forced to bring their own labour to the country.

Ranil Wickremesinghe has been a leader who has shied away from engaging with public opinion, choosing instead to rely on the results of his initiatives as a tool of response. For many politicians this is not a path chosen, and for politicos from the Asian sub-continent, this is unheard of. However, it was his vision and successes that saw him continue his climb up the ladder of both the Government ranks and the UNP.

His commitment towards creating a stable future for the youth of the country was quickly recognised and rewarded through his appointment as the Minister of Education in 1980. Tasked with ensuring that education was able to keep pace with the rest of the world, Wickremesinghe quickly moved to expand free education to Year 13.

Over 30 years after beginning a program as a Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s commitment to furthering that initiative as the Prime Minister of the country is testament to his desire to look beyond the populist measures.

Similar to 1977, Ranil Wickremesinghe is this time leading a Government which has once again taken over the reins of office following the defeat of a regime which drove an economy down after pursuing populist policies. Yet again, he has chosen to ignore the short-term remedies which may secure him a second term but would further damage the economy and in turn negatively impact the public. Instead, it is the long-term plans which will ensure a secure future that are being pursued.

Having endured a career punctured by political upheaval, the ability of Ranil Wickremesinghe to remain committed to his vision is all the more impressive. Unfortunately, as history has shown, the visions of this leader have been continually put on hiatus due to the political instability. As the elections draw near, supporters of Ranil Wickremesinghe will be hopeful that the public will finally recognise that perseverance with the Prime Minister will pay dividends. 

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