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We choose to be poor, only way to get out is by better management: Amunugama

Speech delivered by Dr. Sarath Amunugama, minister of Special Assignments at the inauguration of the certified professional managers (CPM) regional management conference held at BMICH recently. Minister Amunugama was the chief guest at the conference. Venerable Sir, distinguished participants, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am most grateful to the organisers of this meeting for inviting me here and requesting me to say a few words. I have a special interest in administration, because I was a member of the now defunct Ceylon Civil Service and also had the opportunity of serving as Minister of Public Administration, Minister of Industries, Minister of Finance etc., which all dealt with the area of administration. I would like to make a special word of welcome to our distinguished visitors. I am very happy to hear that many of them who had come back to Sri Lanka after sometime have found that we are progressing very fast, the skyline of Colombo is changing and our economy is now on a growth trajectory.
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Of course our growth was impeded for about 30 years by an internecine war. We were able to comprehensively defeat terrorism six or seven years ago and since then Sri Lanka has become one of the safest places in the whole globe.
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Today the safety of people wherever it may be is a big issue. And I am happy to say that as far as Sri Lanka is concerned we are enjoying a long period of peace and ethnic reconciliation and as Prof. Lakshman Watawala said we have qualified very fast to be a hub in South Asia. The meeting today is basically of institutions in the South Asian or the SAARC region. We are bound together by the SAARC Charter and I think advances in one country is always advance for other countries in the SAARC area as well. So we are mutually joined and any improvement in the SAARC region is I think of great interest to all the members which constitute this regional organization. Now we also have a lot of common problems.
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We are one of the largest gatherings of population, India has now more than a billion people, Bangladesh and Pakistan particularly also have large populations. So we represent more than one quarter of the world’s population. And, how we manage our affairs, how we get on to the growth trajectory, is a matter of importance - I would say even survival- not only for the countries in the SAARC region but for the other economies and other institutions in the whole wide world. When we have tensions today they are tensions of global proportions. We are a region which has nuclear power - nuclear capacity. Possibilities of nuclear warfare are there in our region. So it is very important that we work together and particularly to make sure that all of us come out of this poverty trap. Though we are large in numbers, though there are many unfavourable indications as far as our region is concerned, almost all our countries are on a growth path. For example Bangladesh, today is an example of economic growth for many of us in the region. So we are progressing. But it is very important when compared to the other regional groupings and other leading countries in the world that we get our act together and certainly improve our administration and performance because time is running out. I would like to say that, as far as my thinking goes, in South East Asia or South Asia we all choose to be poor.
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If we look at our countries, our history and our decision making, we refrain from taking those decisions which can help our countries to be much better -, to be richer. We have not taken those decisions that were necessary particularly in the area of administration and as a result we are today where we are. We have to admit that we can do much better. We can be much more responsible to the poorer people of our societies and to some extent we can say that several generations have in a sense let down these large numbers of poor people in our countries. And, at the heart of that crisis is the question of management. Are we managing our resources properly? Are the people of our countries getting a return that they have every right to expect from their natural resources, their human resources and from new technology? I think all of us will have to look into this matter and I feel that much more can be done. Now what is common in our region is that we have, except for one or two countries, emerged from a colonial past. One feature of the colonial past is the omnipresent State. The colonial State had to do everything. It had to run railways, it had to do businesses, it had to run schools, it had to run hospitals and it had to run the administration. Everything was done by the colonial State. Actually the colonial State is very much like a Communist State because they both think that the State is invincible - that the State must do everything. But in the modern world we know that it is a fallacy.

Both the communist fallacy and the colonial fallacy have clearly revealed the reality that a much more complex approach, a much more diversified approach to growth, is the way of the future. So how does administration fit in to this transition, this transformation. That is very necessary. Look at all those large institutions, the corporations that we are running in our countries. Look at the provision of education, health, electricity, power and water. Today, anything that you want, they are still run on the idea of the invincible state. But can you deliver the goods ? Can that sort of state work where managers come as public servants. Where is the role of the private sector?
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If you read every single budget speech from the time of Independence, there is a small paragraph, sometimes in small type, saying that we consider the private sector to be the motor of all-the engine of growth. But if you look at the financial allocations, if you look at the policy prescriptions, that pledge is hardly maintained in real life. So we have a big job to do. How do we transform this economy? As one of our distinguished delegates mentioned quite rightly, our numbers are mounting. Population is mounting. And people are now not confined to their territories, because there are so many pressures making them to cross over to other more affluent areas and social tensions exist some of them in my opinion unnecessary and certainly not very helpful to our region and our esteem. So that is why I say we are deliberately choosing to be poor - because we are not addressing the proper issues. We are not taking the correct decisions to transform our economy. Now if you look at our neighbour, and another billion population country- China, one would have thought that they would have never transformed themselves. I think most of us in our youth were great admirers of that State and that model of development.
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But along came Mr. Deng Xiaoping. He changed all this. He said in this way we cannot develop this vast mass of the Chinese people, we cannot achieve those goals. We cannot achieve that standard of living that they are entitled to have if we are hide bound and linked to that very old way of running the country and running our businesses. So I think you have a very big role to play. One item that comes to mind is the writings of leaders about themselves. Today most leaders - political leaders, business leaders, social leaders - everybody writes a book. What is common in all that writing? I think you would have seen several things. First, is their reception to new ideas and technology. I think we cannot think of a real leader today who is not sensitive to global technological change. And that I think is exactly the point where most of our regional leaders score minus marks. They score minus marks because they are not interested in what is happening throughout the new technological world. That is number one. The second, which most of these books tell us is that you must be the right person at the right place, at the right time. Then you become a leader. But that doesn’t happen automatically. You must have that passion. I think all transformative agents have had a passion for what they do. I was listening recently to a very interesting interview with Mr.

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Dhammika Perera who is the leading business magnate in Sri Lanka. And what comes through as he explains step by step? I was fascinated by that interview. I think every single person who is doing management in Sri Lanka should listen to that half an hour or one hour interview given by Mr. Dhammika Perera. He says how he started out and what place he puts on information. Even as a school child when he was in his class room he was the only guy interested in new technology. Others all read about history, geography, civics, sanitation, all those things. But he was interested in technology.
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Then the second thing is the passion he brings to his work and that information is linked to a passion to do something. And he quite rightly says that it is not money, Money is of course important. Nobody would believe anybody who says that they don’t want money. Money is important but that is not the only thing. There must be a passion, a happiness in what you do. And the third thing, which the Asians hate to do but I am sure all of you professors must be explaining but is never happening, is failure to delegate. All the big businessmen, have delegated their responsibilities at the proper time. If the boss tries to handle everything from opening the daily mail to counting the clips and the pencils in his organization, that organization is not going very far. I may save the paper clips, but I will lose millions of rupees, by not taking the proper decisions. So these are some of the matters -I think very practical matters - that I have had the fortune to encounter first as a public servant and then as a Minister. So I come back to the main point that we choose to be poor and the only way we can get out of that syndrome is by bringing in better management. And managers must look on their position not just as a comfortable cushy job but as something - as you have rightly said in your title – transformative.
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You must change your associates and you must change your society. So that is a very wonderful prospect.
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I will end up with a story. They were building a huge religious edifice and there were these two guys tinkering around.

One fellow asked the other “What are you doing?” The other said “I am putting brick on brick. That’s my job. I get paid for it. It’s a cushy job. I come at 8.00 o’clock I leave at 4.30 I put brick on brick.” Then he asked the other guy “What are you doing?
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” That guy was also putting brick on brick. But he replied “I am building a Cathedral - I am building a monument” So whom do you choose to be. Are you going to be a brick layer or are you going to create a monument to your profession, to your country.
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