Posted on April 29th, 2022


This series will not be a series of expert essays, discussing the economy of Sri Lanka.  That must be done by economists. This series brings before the public certain aspects of the economy which may be of public interest.

The initial favorable economic conditions that Sri Lanka inherited from its colonial past, provided the necessary resources to expand our welfare state including free health care, free education, and subsidies on essential consumer goods and services, said economist  Srimal Abeyratne. Sri Lanka was among the highest nations in Asia in all such areas, because we had this inheritance from the past.

It must be pointed out however,   that this was not a benefit of British rule. These welfare measures were initiated in the 1930s by the   Ceylonese councilors in the State Council. The credit must go to them. Sri Lanka has continued this policy in the post independence period.   Literacy was 92 % in 2018. Life expectancy is 77 years in 2022.

Therefore, continued Srimal, we surprised the world and achieved best standards among developing countries in terms of our health care, education, and human development  but it was without improving productive incomes and productive jobs of the country.

Throughout our development history, many other nations in Asia which were behind” Sri Lanka at that time have surpassed us not only in generating resources for people, but also in achieving better health care, education, and human development standards.

You might ask a question here: How was it possible for many of our neighboring countries to achieve what they have achieved today, even by eroding and surpassing Sri Lanka’s initial advantage?” My answer is very short: It is the vision and the integrity of those leaders. At times where the leaders failed in their vision and integrity, the progress of some of these nations slowed down too, concluded Srimal Abeyratne.

He is thinking of the   four East Asian Tiger economies, led by Park Chung Hee of South Korea, Li-Kwoh-ting of Taiwan, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Deng Xiaoping of China. They were the architects who transformed their countries to miracle economies by providing direction and stable political environments which ensured policy continuity. These leaders were pragmatic, decisive and willing to unlearn and learn when providing leadership to their countries.

The rapid economic development in these countries, took place under stable political environments said analysts. These four leaders ensured that their states had the political stability needed for economic success. However, this political stability was achieved through authoritarian rule.  ‘Political stability’ meant the same political party continued in power election after election. This, it appears, was essential for economic development. Analysts noted that Japan also had only one party in power throughout its high growth period.  

The population of all four Tiger countries was Chinese. (Korea is in the Chinese peninsula). This has to be a critical factor in the rise of these Tigers, though it is never discussed or mentioned. These Chinese, hardworking and bright, clearly have been amenable to authoritarian control. South Asians do not have that mentality.

Sri Lanka, unlike the Asian Tigers, never had such a leader. Sri Lanka never wanted such a leader, either. They wanted   a leader they could push around. They also wanted a periodic change of leaders. Not the same chap ruling forever. Sri Lanka’s political leaders therefore concentrated on getting and keeping political power. They had no economic vision whatsoever. Their minds were on other things.

Sri Lanka   was introduced to party politics when it was under British rule. The public had voted in three elections, before independence. They were the two State Council elections of 1931 and 1936 and the Parliamentary election of 1947. The electorate approached these elections with much enthusiasm and some thuggery.  I was given an entertaining description of the 1931 State Council election from my mother, who had electioneered for her relative Susanta de Fonseka who was a candidate for Panadura.  

Sri Lanka took to party politics and elections like a duck to water.  Sri Lanka liked the merry go round that went with it.  Sri Lanka’s focus was on the political party, not on its leader. The vote went to the party, not the candidate.    The public loved to say ‘apiyouanpee’ or ‘apiemeepee” or ‘apialasaspee’. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the only politician in recent times, who had a personal following and could get the vote to go where he went.

The public enjoyed the regular General Elections. There was no     voter apathy in Sri Lanka .The public liked listening to election speeches, and going to vote. The election results were exciting because there were sharp swings of power, with clear winners and losers.  The party in power usually lost, the opposition came in.

 The wining party and the defeated one went at each other once the election ended. Those who had been loyal to the previous government, were penalized by those in the new government .This was the main preoccupation of the winning party during the   first few months after taking over.

Sri Lanka never wanted ‘one party rule’ with one economic policy. The regular swing away from the ruling party to the opposition party meant a sharp change in economic policy as well. This also was welcomed, regardless of what it did to the country. A new economic policy meant that a new lot of voters would benefit and the old lot will be brought down. (Continued)

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