‘I hope Mangala breaks my record’ | Sunday Observer

‘I hope Mangala breaks my record’

Former Minister of Finance and Planning Ronnie de Mel who championed the cause of economic liberalisation on the ‘Open Economy’ and presented eleven national Budgets during his tenure as Minister of Finance made his comments on ‘Budget 2019’ in an interview with the ‘Resa’ , a Lake House publication:

Q : How do you spend your time ?

A: I am in retirement now. I watch cricket matches during my leisure and spend a lot of time reading books and managing my estates.

Q : Looking back, are you satisfied with the role you played as Finance Minister or do you have any regrets?

A: I am one hundred percent happy with not only my performance as Minister of Finance, but also with my achievements in my personal life. Most importantly I am happy that I bade farewell to politics at the right time.

Q: You’ve set a ground-breaking record by presenting budgets for eleven years consecutively. What are your thoughts on this?

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A: A cricketer will bat boundaries or sixes not aiming at centuries but to score more marks for his team. That is how I also played. When I was appointed Minister of Finance I never thought I could formulate even a single budget in view of the economic decay that prevailed at that time. The country was almost bankrupt, but I was determined and thought I should try to win the confidence of the international community and bring in funds to the country.

Q: What if another Finance Minister breaks your record?

A: ‘Records’ are not stone-inscriptions. I set a record presenting eleven Budgets. Mahinda Rajapaksa came close, but he could not equal or break my record. Perhaps Mangala Samaraweera or maybe another future minister might set a new record. I sincerely wish Mangala breaks mine as he like me hails from Matara.

Q: Were your Budget speeches much longer than his?

A: Yes, of course, Budget speeches in India, America and England were much longer those days. Nowadays, it is comparatively shorter, limited to one or two hours. When the world changes, everything needs to undergo some sort of change.

Q: Why did you choose your estate bungalow to prepare the Budget during your time?

A: Neither my Ministry nor my residence was suitable because those places were always inundated with my voters and those near and dear to me.

Since I had to patiently listen to their grievances there was no peace of mind to concentrate on making a good Budget. Consequently, having delegated the power of attending to the needs of my voters to my wife Mallika and my Secretaries, I quietly retired to our Geekiyanakanda estate bungalow at Bulathsinhala so that I could fully occupy myself in the task of making my eleven Budgets.

Q: What made you choose Geekiyanakanda for this important task?

A: The bungalow is at an idyllic setting in a wooded surrounding with no outsiders criss-crossing, and the soothing sounds of nature. However, the basic work on the Budget was done at the Finance Ministry.

Q: Could Sri Lanka be the next Singapore?

A: If the economy is well managed we can even go beyond Singapore, if corruption, fraud and all other vices are swept away.

Singapore’s economic miracle is not based on its sound economic policies alone. It was due mainly to Prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s fierce crusade against corruption, fraud and such social evils.

Q: Do some sections of our people still have reservations about a liberalised economy?

A: There is no basis for such reservations. Without any fear, I would say rather than ruin the country, the liberalised economy developed the economy. Thanks to the liberalised economy, not only our industries, agriculture exports and manufacturing enterprises but also the living conditions of our people were made better. If not for the liberalised economy we would have seen our people queuing at cooperatives for rice, chillies and sugar. Our country could have been another Venezuela. Sri Lanka is what it is today due to the liberalised economy. As its architect, I am very proud, yet with a sense of humility.

Q: There is an allegation that the liberalised economy sounded the death knell to all indigenous industries.

A: That is not true. Had those indigenous industries continued nobody would have bought their products. However, there are certain manufacturing industries that evolved with value addition to cater to the changing needs of society and continue to function well. Those industries that failed to accept the challenge died a natural death.

Q: Do you observe any cultural erosion as a result of the liberalised economic experiment?

A: We cannot right through stick to diehard views and develop a country. The culture that was here about one or two hundred years ago would be a total misfit in a developed society such as what we have today. We ought to keep pace with the developing world, lest we would flounder helplessly. Consequently, changes in cultural patterns become inevitable. In fact, there is economic, social and cultural advancement today but people take notice of only the social explosion.

Q: Criticism is levelled by some sections, that there is hardly any proposal in Budget 2019 to uplift the national economy.

A: Such criticisms are baseless. There are a good number of proposals in Budget 2019 to create a new business community including youth entrepreneurs. ‘Enterprise Sri Lanka’ is one of such proposal.

Q: Has not the liberalised economy further aggravated class differences?

A: As Minister of Finance I had equally apportioned the budgeted funds among the then Ministers - Premadasa to implement his housing projects, Lalith to launch the Port as well as upgrade Education. The Accelerated Mahaweli Project got as much as it deserved and Ranjith Atapattu his share to develop the Health sector. The then Ministers treated their voters and the country, at large, on an equal basis.

My Budgets presented constructive proposals favourable to investors, industrialists and the man in the street. Of course, there were shortcomings, which we have to admit. There has been no perfect Government anywhere in the world. Dividends on all investment industries and development need to trickle down to the people. In fact, so long as there are income anomalies, no country could prosper.

Q: How do you assess Budget 2019?

A: The Finance Minister’s efforts to balance investment, development and social welfare need to be appreciated. As I see, another significant feature of Budget 2019 is, that it has provided the opportunity for all to enjoy the positive results it will produce.

Q: What are the other proposals worthy of emulation according to you?

A: Actually the best course of action for a country such as Sri Lanka is to promote its exports and reduce the balance of trade.

Budget 2019 appears to have realised this norm. While we are developing our industrial base, it is important to produce the raw materials necessary as inputs. If raw materials are imported then it becomes less advantageous. The budget proposal to encourage local manufacture of latex is another salient feature. There was also a similar progressive move to develop the cinnamon industry. The proposal to provide the opportunity for students who distinguished themselves in studies to pursue their university education at top universities in the world, is worthwhile to say the least. Budget proposals such as doubling the tea and rubber replanting subsidy, which is much beneficial to tea and rubber planters, low-interest loans for fishermen to purchase multi-day fishing craft, and housing loans at six percent low interest for expatriate workers are very significant. It is noteworthy that special attention has been focused on development of rural areas in the country.

Q: Will the people be able to enjoy the benefits of Budget 2019 as provided for?

A: However much a budget is progressive, shortcomings and oversights are inevitable. Consequently, it pays for the Finance Minister, State Finance Minister, Ministry Secretary and other officials to keep a vigilant eye on the implementation of the budget’s proposals.

I believe in follow-up action and monitoring of this important task and also to ensure better results; the services of educated, intelligent and competent young parliamentarians need to be utilised. I feel the leadership of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his dedication, and implementation of plans and monitoring are of utmost importance in this context.

Q: Are there any negative features in Budget 2019 according to you?

A: As I see, the agriculture sector has not received sufficient attention. It is the responsibility of those who should have focused special attention on such shortcomings to have taken corrective action. Amidst various difficulties it is heartening to note that public servants’ salaries have been increased again. The public service needs to be further tapped to develop the country. I wish the Finance Minister all success to render a better service to the people in the face of numerous challenges.

Translated by K.D.M. Kittanpahuwa.