President Barack Obama had much cause for satisfaction in his State of the Union address earlier this week. His opening lines showed some of the elements of the success that he presented to US citizens; in what will be the final two years of his presidency. He began the address to the joint meeting of the Congress stating: "We are fifteen years into this new century. Fifteen years that dawned with terror touching our shores; that unfolded with a new generation fighting two long and costly wars; that saw a vicious recession spread across our nation and the world. It has been, and still is, a hard time for many.
"But tonight, we turn the page.
"Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis. More of our kids are graduating than ever before; more of our people are insured than ever before; we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we've been in almost 30 years."
The US President could well have cause to be pleased with what he sees as the progress made by the US. His address will remain the subject of much debate and discussion in the US in the coming weeks, with the Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress, and the relief that Obama offered to the middle class in the US
In Sri Lanka, unlike the satisfaction that the US President could have expressed in his State of the Union address, the past two weeks have exposed more and more of a State of Disorder, Disarray and Disturbance that prevailed here for nearly a decade. President Maithripala Sirisena has had to address this State of Disorder from the time he took office on January 9, taking the initiative in introducing the move towards Good Governance that will hopefully bring to an end the corruption, nepotism and authoritarianism that has so far prevailed. It is a breakthrough period to restore democracy to its glory.
One of the key problems the country faces, that of a public service that has lost its image of service and replaced by sycophancy, fawning and stooging to the powerful forces in politics, was clearly addressed by President Maithripala Sirisena in his address to the public servants of the country, when the new secretaries to ministries were appointed. His strong advise to the top public servants was to set an example to restore the ruined image of the Public Service that was heavily eroded in recent years.
President Sirisena said it is the responsibility of the new secretaries to ensure the pledge of good governance of the new administration is implemented in full. He said the Public Service is a commitment to serve the people, and it remains the duty of those in the service to ensure that the people visiting the government offices receive a proper hearing and a speedy service. If the public is not satisfied and people will have to go to government offices several times to get their work done, it is not a public service. It is your responsibility to ensure that this would not happen in your ministries, he said.
He was clearly speaking with knowledge of how the Public Service had declined in keeping up its image of being an institution to serve the people, and instead become an instrument to serve political masters, both petty and powerful; now being unraveled in the many allegations of corruption, bribery and authoritarian practices revealed by a public, that was the victim of the worst aspects of a highly politicized and clearly very corrupt administration. He, therefore, urged the secretaries to take effective steps to end corrupt practices and malpractices in the Public Sector and asked them to use their knowledge and experience to serve the government and the people.
When looking at the allegations being made to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, one sees well the massive extent of corruption, and departure from service to the public and the cause of national development that has prevailed among those who were appointed, assigned or elected to serve the interests of the country, the economy and society. The allegations that have been made show the bona fide of those making them, the concern for public interest in making the allegations, and also a very high degree of prima facie cause for action on the charges being made.
The sums involved go into many millions and even billions, the assets mentioned include helicopters and other aircraft, elephants, the control of profitable TV broadcasting rights diverted to private channels from the State media, and a clear impression of the involvement of a family network of political power that grew in its arrogance through its contempt for the basic principles of good governance.
It was no surprise that President Sirisena emphasized the imperative need to reduce unnecessary public expenditure and waste. He went down to the basics on wasteful expenditure in stating that: "The newspapers are full of advertisements by different ministries. That should be stopped. It is not necessary to spend public funds to promote personalities. Furthermore, I believe that over exposure is bad for a good image. Over promotion of a valuable product will result in the decline of its value," he said.
While political advertising is not outside the systems of democracy, this had grown into largely ugly phenomenon in the past few years. It became truly humongous in the recent campaign for the presidency, when such advertising by and for those who wielded power and office, sought to stun the people by sheer size and repetition into believing a message that was clearly untruthful on the record of governance. The defeat of this huge advertising effort gave the truth to President Sirisena's observation that "over exposure is bad for a good image". This was underlined by how much votes were cut-off by the massive and hideous display of cut outs.
Media and advertising
It is possible that sections of the media that depends very much on advertising revenue for their sustenance and profitability, may not like this restriction called for by President Sirisena. However, those who seriously believe in the Freedom of Expression and the Freedom of the Media, especially journalists, are generally opposed to the manner in which large advertisers, whether political or otherwise, can make media institutions to abandon public interest in favour of advertiser interest.
This will certainly be a good subject for consideration on the role of the media in the task of Good Governance, which must be part of the new debate that will take place with the introduction of the proposed Bill for the Right to Information; as well as aspects of the media's contribution to the advance of democracy, with the necessity to protect the Freedom of Expression and a genuinely Free Media.
It will also be necessary to get the full figures of the cost of advertising by those in power at the time of the recent poll campaign, and how much of it has in fact been paid to the State media institutions involved, and to the other major media house that is not State owned, but is manipulated to act as if it is so. This could well be another huge case of corruption.
The fight ahead
What President Maithripala Sirisena seeks to do is to bring about a change in the very nature of the State in Sri Lanka, with greater adherence to the principles of democracy. It is a task that needs much courage and determination to carry forward, considering the vested interests that remain active to prevent the proper growth and functioning of democracy and good governance in this country. They would try their best to restore the authority of a family and cronies, with a commitment to authoritarianism, in place of the move towards implementing the mandate for good governance given by the people.
Success in these efforts for a societal change towards the spirit of Good Governance will be when President Sirisena will be able to give his own State of the Union address in Sri Lanka, with the message of a pervading victory of the people.