Saturday, October 08, 2011

Human resources – The Investment Sri Lanka needs most in its post-war era.

A small event, but indicative, I believe, of a larger whole, motivated this reflection. After spending a week in Sri Lanka, my return flight to Singapore was delayed by seven hours due to “delay in the arrival of the aircraft.” Fortunately I had purchased a business class ticket, mostly because on one occasion economy class check-in was so crowded and disorganized that I almost missed my flight. Since airport-check in required at 3:30 AM wake-up call for a scheduled 7 AM departure, I was able secure a small cubicle with a comfortable recliner, normally used by passengers with long late-night or early morning stopovers. Among the cubicle’s fittings was an elaborate combined fan and reading lamp, the latter with two adjustable dimmers. Alas, the reading lamp had no bulbs in it.

This vignette, unimportant in itself, illustrates a problem that I have observed in Sri Lanka and that may become more apparent as, under the driving leadership of its charismatic president, Mahinda Rajapakse, the nation redirects its energies from ending the war to development and purchases new technologies to help speed the development process. The country lacks a sufficient pool of talented, creative, highly intelligent, high-energy human resources to manage the complex technologies and institutions necessary to effect a transformation (to quote the title of Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography) “from third world to first.” Interestingly, Lee Kuan Yew’s latest book, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, places an even greater emphasis on talented leaders, carefully selected, as the key to Singapore’s success.

The availability of talented Sri Lankans, with the ability and skills to transform their island nation “from third world to first” is not a problem. There may be no nation, of comparable size, that has produced a comparable number, per-capita, of professionals, researcher-scholars, managers and entrepreneurs. However all but a very few of the most able do not live in Sri Lanka. Their energy and skills are contributing to development in Canada, Australia, England, the United States and, to a lesser degree, non-English speaking nations such as France and Germany. This is not because Sri Lankans don’t love their country. They do. It is because they see so few opportunities there for themselves and, especially for their children.

The exodus of talented Sri Lankans began in response to the official language policies of the 1950s. It accelerated in response to the demonstrably pro-Sinhalese policies codified in the Republican constitution of 1971 and then, massively, in response to the black July riots of 1983. As conflict became protracted, with devastating economic impact, the migrants included many talented Sinhalese as well as Tamils. “All my children are living abroad” is the sad refrain I hear from many Sri Lankan friends of my generation. I mean to cast no aspersion on courageous, talented, patriotic Sri Lankans who have remained when I observe that those who have migrated were, in preponderant instances, those who could. They had the talent, drive, and resources to create opportunities for themselves elsewhere.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visionary, broad spectrum manifesto for Sri Lanka’s future, The Mahinda Chintana (“Sayings of Mahinda”) highlights creating an environment that will draw migrants back to Sri Lanka as a major priority. I believe this should be the most important priority, because it speaks to the human resources that will be necessary to realize other priorities. Talented human resources will be essential if Sri Lanka, like Singapore before it, is to be transformed “from Third World to First.” When migrants begin flooding back to this beautiful land, as they have begin flooding back to India and China, President Rajapakse will know Sri Lanka is on the right path to realizing his vision. When newly installed capital investments, from new high-speed rail links to state of the art reading lamps in the Bandaranaike Airport Business Class Lounge are maintained at peak efficiency that, too, will be an indicator.

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