Welcome winds of change | Daily News

Welcome winds of change

 How does the President’s appointment of a Deregulation Commission appear in the eyes of those who say that with the allegedly ‘excessively militarized’ administration ushered in by him, regulation and authority is the order of the day? The ‘militarization’ bogey has been peddled by social commentators and political activists, but have they stopped to think about how little their dire warnings are affecting these who keep the wheels of economy and society turning?

 Cynics may say that deregulation of bureaucratic red tape involving commerce has nothing to do with regulation and authority in general. But this would be a mere excuse for being unable to confront the fact that their ‘theory’ on authoritarianism does not hold water.

 Deregulation of the business environment is such a dire necessity that it should have been the first matter to be addressed before the previous regime focused on a new Constitution and good governance concerns. But the latter issues were seen as being politically expedient.

 Improving the Ease of Doing Business was the least of their concerns. Sri Lankans have the skill and the mindset to innovate, but the roadblocks are the problem. Perhaps this is why there are so many locals doing so well in other countries, resulting in Sri Lankans being in various honours lists abroad.

 To unlock the potential of Sri Lankans here, an environment and business culture should be created that would encourage and not squelch creativity. The critics will maintain their usual litany of complaints about ‘militarization’ but the laissez-faire once established in business will liberate the entrepreneur – and the people.

 Why wasn’t deregulation possible in the past? It was partially due to the fact that the political processes were ‘regulated’ by the compulsion for conventional thinking – a different kind of regulation, or a certain regimentation of mindsets. It is an irony that the Government that the cynics are trying so hard to label as ‘too militarized’ is the one that is breaking away from the regimented thinking of the past.

 Most roadblocks that have to be deregulated are entrenched practices that date back decades.

Registration of businesses, excessive financial regulations, etc., are some of these barriers that trace back to a one-track minded past that was more concerned with keeping entrepreneurship under check than keeping it useful.

 Other obstacles such as the difficulty doing e-commerce in Sri Lanka have stemmed from several factors, some of them hardly within our control. The size of our market segment for instance, has prevented some electronic payment portals from opening up businesses here to the extent that domestic entrepreneurs – especially small business – would like. It is a complicated subject, but these areas have to be looked into by the experts.

 The perennial variety of roadblocks stemming from bureaucrats’ love for red tape can be addressed in a more straightforward manner, but it is not an easy task to change the entrenched mindsets of regulators. There is also the longstanding problem of corruption. Some individuals in the business of regulation have deduced, unfortunately, that the more they regulate the more chances they stand of demanding bribes and favours in return for getting past bureaucratic barriers.

 For these reasons, deregulating the business environment may be tougher than anybody expects, but there is much to be gained if it is properly planned and executed.  The country has to progress in the global Ease of Doing Business Index in which Sri Lanka does not enjoy an enviable rank. However, we can boast of the level of literacy, etc., that could make most of the contemplated changes realistic. Once the streamlining apparatus is in place, there are people who understand what to do and what not to do in order to keep the pace of transformation at the desirable level so that the new initiatives do not end up dead on arrival.

 Meanwhile, the country could do well with a little less chatter from some of the commentators over how they think society is having ‘too much of a military input’. Either way, this narrative is bound to become meaningless after the effects of transformation begin to have an impact. People who feel they are less constrained in getting about their business are bound to feel free and liberated, rather than more regimented or controlled – and they have learnt from the past too. For instance, though there were complaints about authoritarian methods, people are much more liberated and free to do whatever they like after the war ended. They are privy to that positive experience and are much less inclined to be misled by the incessant noise that is the stock in trade of those who complain without any real evidence.

There have been deregulation efforts in the past which were a mere eyewash. It is different this time because these contemplated changes are coming in tandem with many other transformations of consequence. 

The economy needs to resurge quickly and doing business as usual will not help in the new circumstances. The changes are coming well in time for domestic innovators to be optimistic.