President’s address to the Economic Summit, Colombo

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I am glad about the efforts taken by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, to contribute to the national development of the country by conducting this Economic Summit to discuss highly relevant and timely topics in this era. Let me at the outset thank everyone for inviting me to this event.

The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce is an institution which has a broad responsibility towards the economy of the country. On one side, they have a responsibility to strengthen the works done by the Government as well as the non-state sector institutions for the well-being of the country. As all of us know, according to the political as well as economic trends, strategies and viewpoints in today’s world, the division between state and private sectors is minimal. More than four decades ago, there were divisions among the international community. The world was divided politically and economically. Socialist countries were grossly one-sided and the liberal countries too were one-sided. There were rivalries between these two power blocs in the world.

I have seen this competition between these two power blocs as a blessing for small countries like us. The world’s leading superpowers always needed the support of the other countries in the world at international fora, in making internationally affecting decisions and concluding agreements at the UN. During that era, there was a high demand for our vote at the UN.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world moved to a market economy. At present, although we cannot see a division between the international community, the Cold War still exists. In that context, as a government we carry out our duties with a responsibility to strengthen the future of our country, well being of the people, democracy, freedom, human rights in the country and fundamental rights of the people.

I am well aware what the general public of this country, including the public servants, entrepreneurs like you’ll expected from me by electing me as your President on January 08, with an average of 82% voter turnout, for the first time in Sri Lanka’s election history. My objective is to take forward the transformation that began on January 8. I believe a suitable government will come into power, when within the next two weeks at the general election to take forward that vision.

We set our export target at US$ 50 billion in the future. When considering this with the present situation we have to increase our export revenue by 5 fold to meet this target. I believe when you fulfill your duties and responsibilities to achieve this important optimistic economic goal you will utilize the fruitful knowledge gained through this Summit.

I believe when you will step out from this Summit, you will not be the same person who was before, I think you have gained knowledge and experience that enriched you as a person.

As you know, when achieving development goals of the country we have to consider several primary facts such as the economic situation of the country, economic theories as well as the social and economic issues of the country. The trust, full cooperation and the consensus between the State and the Private sector is more important when developing a country.

The trust, full cooperation and the consensus of the small and medium scale industries as well as mega corporations and companies is very important for the Government to enhance cooperation in the field of business. I believe, in order to achieve this objective, the main responsibility lies with the Government. From the President to the Prime Minister and to the Ministers and to the all people’s representatives have a responsibility to work with commitment in a transparent manner when they fulfill their duties towards the society.

Persons with political power must use and manage their power for the betterment, development and well-being of the country. In this context, the Government should create an environment where entrepreneurs could do their business activities freely and independently.

The real question before all of us, is whether the every entrepreneur from high level businessmen to the rambutan seller in the street had the freedom to do their business activities during the past era. We received information about the problems faced by everybody during that period. Because of that, our Government will clearly assure the freedom to every entrepreneur in the country. Through that freedom we can win confidence for the forward march of the country.

It is not suitable for politicians to interfere in business activities or to control Businessmen. People brought about a transformation on January 08 to change the then existing situation. The word Freedom has a broad interpretation and it can be freedom to hear cases for a Judge, freedom for a public servant to carry out his duties, freedom to the Police to act freely to enforce law, the freedom given to people and the freedom for the entrepreneur to carry out their business activities without any interference.

We may have to rectify certain mistakes we have committed. The country’s exports had dwindled from 30% of GDP to 13-14 % of GDP, while our contribution into the international market is at around 1%, but in developed countries a significant amount of their GDP is covered by the revenue from exports.

All the sectors must be prepared to increase the export revenue. This is not something that you or the private sector alone can do. To achieve this target state institutions and private institutions must work closely with each other. We have to encourage state institutions to work with the private sector. This will include measures to improve the efficiency of the institutions, creating awareness among the general public who involve in the field of business.

Mr. Lee Kuan Yew who passed away recently did not inaugurate huge projects to develop Singapore when he took the power there in 1960. He also didn’t commence development with establishing of infrastructure facilities. First of all he recruited every citizen of the country to the divisions of armed forces on volunteer basis. Then he gave them three-four months training of a disciplined force to all the citizens. With that he made the suitable background for them to perform as civil citizens. Even today every citizen of Singapore is a volunteer of the forces. If we take a doctor, engineer or an accountant in Singapore they are volunteer officers of armed forces.

On the other hand, when the governments change in our country economic policies and development plans also change. When new ministers are elected they change the actions of the ministry according to their personal desires. But the countries closed to ours; India and China do not change their national policies and plans when the governments change. Therefore, it is essential that national plans and policies should be clear and steady as a country. The steadiness of national policies and plans is more important than political stability in achieving the development goals. That is why we introduced a national government to build national conformity on the required policies and plans to develop the country. Therefore, it is important to protect that concept.

Garments and plantation industry products are prominent in our export market. Improving the other sectors is as important as developing of the above two sectors. We are the only country which doesn’t utilize the ocean resource to strengthen the economy.

With the progress of the technology of fishing industry, the developed countries have increased their development in the field. It is not wrong if I say that we are in zero compared to them.

We can use the ocean resource to strengthen our economy. We are not using our sea for our tourism industry. Therefore, our local and foreign investors should pay their attention on that, in increasing the income from exports.

Therefore, we should invite your members of the Chamber of Commerce as well as foreign investors to increase their participation to hundred times than this to increase the income from exports with strengthening the national economy from fishing industry and ocean resources.

We are sometimes happy and sometimes worried about the quality of our productions to match the standards of products in the international market. Our tea industry has been decreased due to some businessmen who think only about themselves and their one-time profits without caring for the country. You have experience about how badly they did their business during past decades.

It is essential that we set higher standards for the local products when targeting the international market. If we look at the respective sectors, the gem industry for instance, I don’t plan to revisit the dirty laundry of the past. Those in the Gem industry must have the freedom to continue their work within the legal framework and regulations provided in this country. However in the past the gem industry was extremely politicized and I’m sure you are all aware of this. I don’t think I need to speak further on that.

Another important factor in making sure that the development of the country is not merely controlled by political decisions, is making sure that both state and private sector investments are done justifiably and equally disbursed and in a socially-just manner. Without that, it’s impossible to stop national development from being dominated by political decisions.

I believe failure to identify priorities in national development is a crime against the nation. Identifying the priorities of national development is a crucial step in nation building. For instance, when you’re constructing a carpeted road, it is essential to identify if construction of that carpeted road is a necessity of that town or village? If it’s the construction of a factory, is that a necessity to that town or city, is it cost efficient or the result of mere political request? When an independent private corporation decided to invest in a project they make sure it is cost-efficient, profitable and have a positive effect on the economy. The private sector must have the freedom to make their business decisions independently without political interference. It has not been so in the past.

When we look forward to delivering our promises and responsibilities, we must keep in mind this sad reality that exists in our country today. We must understand the weaknesses of our export sector and the minimal nature of the international availability of our products. We must openly accept this situation and take steps to correct it. We must set our target in the international market and the state and private sectors must unite in making sure that target is met.

During the time of the war, many sectors were disrupted and were in bad shape. Then, the focus was not about meeting international standards, it was about making sure people could live safely in the country. However the situation changed after the end of the war. A completely different political and economic culture came into being. Like I said before regardless of what happened in the past, we must make sure that whether it’s the implementation of national development plans, the state sector, the private sector or even our setting up our own policies, it has to be done with social justice, and transparency in mind. If there were certain times when there were setbacks in meeting these goals, I’m sure you can understand the reasons as to why that had happened.

The maintenance of the rule of law has a direct effect on the business sector of a country. Lack of it can have substantial adverse effects. Transparency in state affairs is also a necessity and large part of maintaining rule of law. Also, our foreign policy plays an important role in making sure our targets in the international market are met. We can’t have alliances with one part of the world and isolate the other. Whether it’s the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the SAARC, the IMF or even the ADB we have to maintain a neutral policy. We can’t be more or less preferential towards one. We need to treat our friendships with all nations and international organizations equally well. For instance, the garment manufacturing industry of Sri Lanka mostly target Western markets like the USA. So it is absolutely crucial we maintain good relationships with these countries.

I must share with you that our government in the past six months have been able to maintain good relationships with every country in the world. No country that is a part of the United Nations is an enemy of ours. They are all our allies. We have been able to maintain a very good image amongst them. We have very clear and good intentions moving forward with national development. On the other hand we must improve investments in the export sector. We must understand how important it is to encourage investors to invest in our country.

I mentioned earlier the importance of the amicability of the state sector. I believe that in order to achieve our goals we must understand how crucial it is that we are amicable and approachable. With this understanding, I assure you as a government hope to sponsor not just large scale business projects but also small and medium businesses with a healthy atmosphere to continue their businesses freely.

On the other hand, it is also important to keep up with the latest innovation in your respective industries to make sure that our exports are attractive to the foreign markets. When we speak of leaving the traditional economy behind and seeking to aspire to an innovative-production based economy we must also aspire to develop a skilled human resource base. A graduate having to picket on the streets due unemployment must not be the reality in an innovation-based productive economy. When a student graduate the economic pattern created through skills development and market economy, the industry must be awaiting them in order for an innovation-based production economy to be successful.

In this setting it is crucial that bi-lateral and multi-lateral trade relationships are strengthened. In my visits to India, China, Pakistan, we were able to sign trade agreements. These agreements are crucial for developing nations. There should be similar agreements in the private sector too. We must also seek to improve the competitiveness of our local industries in order to improve the quality of our products.

With all of these things in mind, I assure you that our government will aspire to maintaining transparent and peaceful relationship with the private sector. So this summit organized with our goal of exceeding 50 million USD as the focal point is a positive step for our economy and the public. I appreciate your commitment and hard work to making this event possible. With the assurance that with the new government following the election, as the President, I hope to join you in making sure we meet these great economic goals with a collective effort from all of us, and thanking the Chairman, Board of Directors and Secretary General of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the organizers of the event for inviting me and all of you present here today, I conclude my speech.