What can we do for our country? | Sunday Observer

What can we do for our country?

23 August, 2020

“Ask not what your country can do for you.....ask what you can do for your country.” - John F. Kennedy

This is arguably the most famous statement a leader of a country has ever made to date. Though it was meant for the citizens of the United State of America (USA), conveyed by John F. Kennedy (JFK), the 35th president, during his inaugural address in 1961, any country can certainly improve itself if the citizens of that country are willing and able to live according to that philosophy.

Throughout the history of this country Sri Lankans have clearly shown the world that we are capable of doing that. Fortunately, this noble quality of our citizens has always surfaced when there was a threat to national security by any type of aggression, foreign or domestic, against the sovereignty of the nation. The most recent example is the selfless volunteerism of our young men and women, lining up to join the Security Forces to defend the unity of the country against the divisive terrorism of the LTTE.

It is also important to recognise that there may have been some youngsters who felt they were putting the country before self when they joined the LTTE. The problem was that the country they were dreaming of was not the whole of Sri Lanka. Not only members of the Security Forces and their families, but the political leadership, those who contributed through other supporting services including the people who rushed to blood banks every time there was a call, were all thinking what they could do for the country at that time. Unfortunately, those are probably the only occasions when this noble quality of putting the country before self have been displayed.

When JFK made that statement, he was not referring to only national security but a general concept to live by. If we can adhere to this concept always, during war time as well as peace time, thinking first what we can do for the country, we will certainly be able to see a highly developed Sri Lanka in a very short period of time. If we assumed that, just for a moment perhaps as a fantasy, at least, all or most of our citizens are capable of putting the country first, then most of our politicians and government officials will be coming from that group. That would certainly minimise corruption since such people will not even think of misappropriating public money and other resources for any personal gain.

Their decisions will not be based on the size of the commission or the gifts they get when they approve government contracts but on the benefits to the country. Farmers will not use harmful chemicals to protect their crop because they know that it is their own countrymen who are going to be ill by eating them.

Owners and administrators of industries will not pollute the waterways and airways as they will put the health of the citizens of the country before their bottom-line. Some might think that this sounds too good to be true. It can happen only in our dreams or that there is no country on this planet with citizens like that. Well, perhaps there is no country that has achieved all these to the fullest. But, there certainly are countries that have achieved such measures to a much greater extent than we have and that is why most of our citizens are trying to go and live in such countries.

If one doesn’t want to put one’s own country first and thinks that one would be better off in a different country, it would be hard to imagine that such a person would consider serving that second country before he serves his own self interests.

That is one of the reasons why some of those countries with higher living standards and liberal immigration policies have started to cut down on their immigrant intake and are tightening their borders. Most of these countries with higher living standards, better education and healthcare systems, with citizens who do not hesitate to ask what they can do for their country, have governing systems that can be described as ‘Social Democracies’. Sri Lanka, which used to be known as ‘Ceylon’, declared that the name of the country will be ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’ after it became totally independent from the colonisers of the West in 1972.

That attempt of establishing a social democracy was ignored by the government that came to power after the elections of 1977, and the Constitution was re-written in 1978 since the government had the mandate to do it and the rest, as they say, is history. Therefore, our system of government after 1978 does not seem to be living up to the expectations one would build by looking at the official name of the country, Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

If we try to find why a majority of Sri Lankan citizens are reluctant to ask what they can do for their country before they ask what the country can do for them, we may see that their selfishness is the most compelling reason. This would even be better explained if we label it, ‘shortsighted selfishness.’

These very same people who put themselves before the country would even say that they have to do it because they want to provide a better life for their children. Their children of course would want their children’s lives to be better than others’ and so on. If we project this thought of having a better life for children into just four future generations that would at least be about a hundred years from now. If one looks at the acceleration of the rate at which the resources have depleted and the environment destroyed during the last hundred years, it would not be difficult to predict the availability of resources and the condition of the environment a hundred years from now, if we continue to live the selfish lives that we do now. What that means is, if one’s selfishness can include his own grandchildren, great-grandchildren and even great-great-grandchildren then it certainly is in one’s own self-interest to do everything one can for sustainability of resources and protection of the environment of one’s country and of the planet in general, since the smaller unit can survive only if the bigger unit does.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an Academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]