Conceding that politics and business were closely aligned by necessity, Access Group Founder and Chairman Sumal Perera, Hirdaramani Group Director and former Chairman Janak Hirdaramani, Vallibel One Group Founder, Chairman and Managing Director Dhammika Perera, Stassen Group Chairman and Managing Director Harry Jayawardena, MJF Group Founder and Chairman Merrill J. Fernando, and Softlogic Holdings Plc Founder, Chairman and CEO Ashok Pathirage spoke at length of the challenges they had faced in their respective careers during a special ‘Fireside Chat’.
The Fireside Chat was organised by the International Chamber of Commerce Sri Lanka (ICCSL) in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) Sri Lanka Division and Daily FT.
Responding to questions, the corporate heavyweights were largely in agreement on the need for policy consistency, improvement in the business environment and minimising corruption to foster private sector opportunities to drive growth.
“I think you need policy patronage. We can’t work in isolation. We cannot work in a lab. Policy is handled by politicians, so whoever handles policy, we need their patronage. It can be a politician, it can be an administrator, or it can be a bureaucrat. Any person who handles policy, we have to interact and we need their understanding and to know we are on the same page. For example, right now we are in the middle of a lot of frustrations because we are not on the same page,” said Access Group Chairman Sumal Perera responding to a question on whether businesses required political patronage.
His response was backed by Softlogic Holdings Founder and Chairman Ashok Pathirage who pointed out that a stable policy environment was critical for investment and expansion as well as job creation.
“We are not inclined towards any political party. What we want to do is business. We obviously require the Government’s support for that and the right policies to continue. What usually happens is our policies change and that is a very big problem and that is one reason why we are not getting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) because even when the Board of Investment (BOI) gives concessions, a new government comes in and the concessions are gone. So who would come and invest in this country? These are the problems,” he noted.
“I don’t think we are being selfish because we have achieved certain things as business people; we also would love to see this country prosper. I’m sure everyone would endorse that. Given the chance we would all spend time with the Government, with policymakers. If they invite us and they want to listen to us, I’m sure we would want to spend that time. But execution is a problem. That is what we see. That is what people talk about. We see nice plans but we don’t see implementation,” Pathirage added.
Pathirage went on to warn that if the private sector continued to feel bottlenecked it would struggle to push forward development. He pointed out that high interest rates had dimmed expansion plans of many companies and called for interest rates to be slashed below 10%.
He also argued that if inflation was in the mid-single digits and growth was also below 4%, then the economy could not be termed as posting significant growth. The multiple challenges of fiscal consolidation, limited foreign investment, high debt and a depreciating rupee were hemming in the private sector from multiple sides, he stressed.
“If the opportunities are not there for the corporates to grow, it will worry the private sector. The economy needs to prosper first. We need strong leadership to bring in discipline. We want good policies and for good policies to continue. Execution of policies is a problem in this country.”
Despite largely agreeing with his compatriots, Vallibel One Group Founder Chairman and Managing Director Dhammika Perera had a slightly different view, offering to provide extensive expertise to the Government to assist policymakers to understand a range of issues from flood mitigation to debt management.
His lengthy explanations were received with multiple rounds of enthusiastic applause and Perera even included sage advice to participants on not becoming depressed over the country’s current political and economic situation. Instead he advocated for professionals to focus on their work, assuring that Sri Lanka’s economic woes were not as serious as they appeared. His insightful analysis delivered with a sprinkling of humorous comments delighted all participants.
“Any government asks for technical assistance and I’m happy to put my time because it is my passion. Even today you can ask how to restructure 40 ministries and I can answer. You can ask me how to restructure total debt, I can answer; I have solutions. I have done the research as part of my business and because I’m not involved in day-to-day operations I have enough time to do the analysis. It is because I have this knowledge that politicians sometimes seek my assistance and I can put my time into any government. I have no issue. But implementation is the biggest problem.”
Perera also offered to present a policy document with all his recommendations and policy proposals to the Government.
The discussion also included views on corruption and how important minimising it was to create a level playing field for the private sector.
“Corruption has become a way of life from top to bottom in this country now. We can’t even take a dead body out of the mortuary if we don’t bribe. It must start from the top; the politicians need to set the example. In other countries, when something goes wrong, people resign. So it must start from the top,” said Stassen Group Chairman and Managing Director Harry Jayawardena.
Hirdaramani Group Director and former Chairman Janak Hirdaramani advocated for greater liberalisation of the economy, pointing out that it was Sri Lanka’s best chance to attract multinational companies that would use the island as a springboard to other markets. He also insisted that this would be an effective tool against corruption.
“Total liberalisation of our total economy is a good solution in reforming. The country will be much better off. We will also have substantial foreign investments coming in. So I think that would be positive,” he said.
Pathirage backed increasing salaries for important segments of the public sector, including police and politicians, pointing out that unless they were paid decently, it would be difficult to remove the incentive to participate in bribery and corruption.