The health of the private sector in Sri Lanka

Nov 11, 2013 (LBO) I was in Fiji a few weeks back. Opening the morning paper, I was struck by a news story which said that the productivity of the Suva and Lautoka container terminals had increased by 35 percent, even before the new shore cranes had arrived.

Good

The cause: Sri Lanka’s Aitken Spence PLC, which had won the contract to operate the ports.

I was in Samoa a few months back and was impressed that the Platinum Sponsor of the reception I was invited to was Informatics, a Sri Lankan company. I bumped into Tony Weerasinghe, the founder of Millennium IT (now a part of the London Stock Exchange), in Port Louis, Mauritius. He was in town talking to the Mauritius Stock Exchange, which uses MIT software.

In Bangladesh, a leading bank favored by the elite is the Commercial Bank of Ceylon. In India, marketing peopletold me that MAS Holdings’ Amante was one of the most successful brand launches in recent times.

From these random examples, one could conclude that the Lankan private sector is doing very well. They are battling it out beyond our shores, and winning.

Bad

But perhaps, that may not be the explanation. Perhaps, things are so rough in the home country that our companies have been compelled to venture abroad. This is one narrative in play about the increasing tendency for Indian companies to venture abroad.

The bleakest thing I can think of is the Underperforming Enterprises Act of 2011 that saw the expropriation of a significant number of specified enterprises, including those belonging to a major entrepreneur who also happened to be an opposition politician. I proposed the government should suspend the legislation and use it to compel the owners of the underperforming enterprises to remove the blockages to development (http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/sri-lankas-expropriation-bill-as-batna/).

Sadly, this was akin to serenading a deaf elephant, to translate a colorful Sinhala aphorism.
Or, the favoritism toward government-owned or controlled companies. SLT getting the contract to build the national fiber optic backhaul network even after the World Bank pulled out the cheap money they had offered. The military running golf courses, restaurants, hotels and private medical colleges.

Or the blatant unfairness of Rathupaswala. The factory that makes most of the latex gloves shipped out of the country ordered to be closed down by Presidential Fiat even when the scientific evidence refutes the allegations leveled against it. If this is how a crown jewel of Sri Lanka’s value-added export agriculture is treated, what hope for others?

What can be done?

Rathupaswala was educative on another dimension. A few experts spoke up in its defense. But where were the Chambers? Where was the voice of the small business man or woman who should have found it easy to empathize with Hayleys?

I was shocked by the lack of solidarity in the Sri Lankan private sector.

As I showed in a column written in the midst of the crisis, 72 percent of all the rubber exported from Sri Lanka goes out value-added (http://www.lankabusinessonline.com/sri-lankas-anti-corporate-band-wagon/). This is a massive private- sectorachievement.

But how little gratitude was shown for this contribution to the national good?

Why?

It seems that the private sector has not communicated its contributions effectively.It seems the country is still in the thrall of the socialist rhetoric of my youth, rife with rapacious companies and pristine villages ravaged by industry. Thirty five years after we were released from the socialist straightjacket, our thinking is still in its clutches.

Why are the captains of industry, so good at marketing their wares, unable to market the virtues of private enterprise and decentralized innovation? Why are they unable, at least, to build solidarity among their own?

Why not?

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the ‘Choices’ category.