BY PANCHAMEE HEWAVISSENTI-2017-07-09
In a tete-a-tete with Ceylon Today the Minister of Finance and Media, Mangala Samaraweera said despite his busy schedule he still can allocate time to listen to his favourite music and to read books while engaging in other activities that interest him. He also said President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have kept faith in him that he would execute the assigned responsibilities in an adroit manner and he is steadfast in achieving the goals.
In response to the inquiry of the draft bill to set up an independent council for news media standards Minister Samaraweera assured that media freedom will not be restricted. He further added that the latest fad in the media is to give more prominence to news pertaining to the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa than that of President Maithripala. “So, we make use of State media to make the public aware of accurate facts,” Samaraweera said.
He further said the proposed Inland Revenue Act will help the country achieve more equitable economy. “For the next three years I have set a target to raise direct taxes from 20 per cent to 40 per cent and bring down the indirect taxes from 80 per cent to 60 per cent.”
?You were assigned the Ministry of Finance and the Media during the recent Cabinet reshuffle in a swap of portfolios between two ministries. Although you have been praised for diplomatically handling foreign affairs, many view that the Ministry of Finance would be a challenging to you. Do you think you will be able to handle the affairs pertaining to finance equally well?
A: As politicians we are obliged to do whatever responsibilities our party leaders assign to us.
Ever since I was elected to Parliament, I have executed my responsibilities as a Member of Parliament, member of the Opposition and as a minister. I have neither asked for portfolios nor have I expressed my unwillingness to accept any particular ministry. I have instead endeavoured to deliver what is expected of the portfolio skilfully.
I am confident that I would successfully overcome the challenges that come in my way while fulfilling my duties.
?The two ministries, Media and Finance, albeit not related, require attention and dedication in large measures. Do you find this state of affairs challenging?
A: Yes. As you said this is highly challenging and I am required to shoulder the responsibilities of two different ministries which are equally profound in responsibilities.
Challenges are not new to me. I am used to accept challenges and work under pressure. When I was given the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs right after the government was elected, it was highly challenging as the international community had a bad image of Sri Lanka. Many international constraints were imposed on Sri Lanka and the leadership of the country was internationally unpopular.
In fact the leaders of the country were smitten by the fear for execution with “electric chair” by an international judiciary. The economy of the country was burdened by massive foreign loans. So, the Head of the State was aware that the country was in a dismal plight and wanted to hold an election to elongate his term. When we opposed enforced injustice, my house came under attack by the cohorts of the previous regime.
Providentially, we could change the regime and since then we were encountering many challenges in our journey of rectifying the mistakes.
?Isn‘t it unjust to attribute the present crises to the previous government saying that the current regime was compelled to inherit them from the previous government?
A: We are facing the repercussions of the previous regime’s acts. If you carefully inspect the present crises such as the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) and Uma Oya project, you may see their roots in the previous regime. Rajapaksa regime should be held accountable for the Meethotamulla garbage crisis. They dumped garbage collected from Colombo at Meethotamulla and created a landfill which was eventually exploded and caused many deaths. They hid the garbage at Meethotamulla under the pretext of beautifying Colombo.
SAITM was instituted during the previous regime and Dinesh Gunawardena presented the gazette to Parliament. The so-called doctors, I do not mind calling them “hooligans” did not oppose SAITM at the time of its inception during the previous regime. The doctors and medical students behave like vandals today.
So, we are compelled to deal with the disasters that we inherited from the previous government. We do not evade these crises for they were induced by the mismanagement of the previous regime. We attempt to provide the best solution to the public.
The government is geared to rebuild the country that has fallen apart and is to kick-start the second phase of development after 1977.
?You were put in charge of two ministries that are not related. Moreover, some of the major institutions that came under the purview of the Ministry of Finance such as the National Lotteries Board, Development Lotteries Board, Mahapola Scholarship Trust Fund and SriLankan Airlines have been taken out. Do you agree with the rationale?
A: The Head of the State is vested with the authority by the Constitution to allocate institutions and ministries to ministers as he wishes. The President has made use of his authority vested in him by the Constitution and allocated some of the institutions that belonged to the Ministry of Finance to another ministry which is neither unlawful nor unethical. For the sake of taking out the institutions that were previously under the purview of the Ministry of Finance, the functioning of the ministry cannot be hamstrung.
As the Foreign Minister, I was personally content with my approach in resolving certain matters. I gratefully remember the assistance rendered to me by the President, Prime Minister and officials in the ministry.
Changing of portfolios is inevitable when working with a government. We should not brood over them or become tensed. We should instead execute our responsibilities in a satisfying manner. The President and the Prime Minister have given me the authority over highly responsible ministries. My responsibility is to assure their trust and carry out my duties to the benefit of the public.
I also believe that it is my responsibility to let the public know via the media of the developments of the government.
?Some people are of the view that the ministries were allocated in a most unscientific and irrelevant manner. Do you agree?
A: We will run out of our precious time if we allocate time to respond to the imbeciles. In a sardonic style I can say that if we are to pelt stones at each and every dog that bark at us on our way, we would be unable to complete our journey. So, we have decided to continue our journey without responding to those who pose irrelevant and often silly questions. We let the public to decide if the trend of the government is right or wrong.
?You have held responsible ministries under three Presidents. Who do you think has provided you with an opportunity to unleash your potential to the maximum?
A: I have executed my duties in keeping with my potential. Whoever may be the President, if that person has faith in me that I am capable in achieving certain goals, I am ever prepared to unleash my potential and prove my competence.
?How do you compare and contrast the governments you worked in?
A: My maiden portfolio as a minister was in the Cabinet of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s regime. I was appointed as the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. At the time of taking over the government, the country was in a vulnerable state. That was one of the most taxing periods in history. Terrorism was raging in the North and East while a riot of the youths erupted in the South two years prior to the formation of the government was still haunting the socio-economic stability of the country. The scenario is akin to the prevailing conditions at the time of Yahapalana Government taking over the country.
Although some politicians claim that they should be praised for eradicating terrorism, it was during the time of President Chandrika Kumaratunga that Jaffna peninsula was set free. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was subsequently restricted to the jungles in Mullaitivu and the initiatives of the Kumaratunga government greatly assisted in eradicating terrorism at a later stage.
President Kumaratunga successfully brought forward the open economy that was introduced by President J.R. Jayewardene. The best privatization venture was accomplished in my ministry during that time.
People had least access to telephones in the past and then we spearheaded in changing that trend. Purchasing a mobile phone is an easy task at present and that occurred as a result of our initiatives during President Kumaratunga’s government. Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Company became a major shareholder in this endeavour and two mobile service providing companies came into existence as a result of it.
Yet, unfortunately, the country’s development was reversed after 2005. The country had a good reputation in the international arena.
It is unfortunate that the country became isolated and became a battle ground.
By 2014 the country became heavily burdened with debts. The present government came to power when the country was facing enormous challenges. The government is geared to drive the country in the development trajectory.
?Do you agree that all the governments have failed in implementing a successful economic plan for the country?
A: A number of reasons caused the downfall of the country’s economy and development. If the country was able to make a progress in the ‘open economy’ path introduced in 1977 and if certain perilous events never took place in the country, this would have been a developed country like Singapore and Korea by now. The war waged against terrorism in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, youth riots, religious fanaticism and racism have deviated the country from the development trajectory.
Next year we are celebrating our 70th anniversary of independence. At the time of gaining independence in 1948, we were not a backward nation and second only to Japan in respect of development. When we gained independence, newspapers in England wrote editorials predicting Sri Lanka to be the next Switzerland in Asia.
When Prime Minister Lee Quan Yu presented the budget in Parliament in 1965, he said he wanted Singapore to become like Sri Lanka in five years. The underdeveloped countries such as Singapore and Korea have developed today. Having all the potential to become a developed country, Sri Lanka could not achieve that status yet.
Our leaders have committed mistakes in the past by submitting to the will of the racist minority. Since independence, Sri Lankans were divided by race, religion, caste and various other criteria. That has deterred the development of the country.
In this context we formed the new government and in fact the development of the country has lagged behind for about 40 years.
?One of the popular pledges of the Yahapalana Government was to apprehend corrupt politicians of the previous regime and punish them, but the government has failed to do so. Do you have any comments?
A: Aren’t you aware of the developments? I do not know if some media institutions are unwilling to publish them. We have initiated the hearing of journalist Keith Noyahr and Lasantha Wickrematunga’s cases. Corruptions of the previous regime are coming to light gradually.
Investigations are continuing. People should remember that corruptions cannot be probed promptly. The judiciary will deal with them and deliver the verdict. The government does not interfere with the judiciary.
Under the Yahapalana Government corruptions are probed and punishments meted out in a systematic way.
?The government has been accused of entering into certain ‘deals‘ to safeguard corrupt politicians. Do you agree with such allegations?
A: Those who are accused of corruption are pointing their fingers at the government. They are dreaming of dodging punishment. The government will not allow the corrupt to go unpunished for their misdeeds.
The government is still two years old and is still in the first half of its tenure. We cannot expect all the issues to be solved in a headlong rush.
?The government came to power with a pledge of eliminating corruption and punishing the corrupt. There is a rumour that the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) is to be closed down. Does it not affect the monetary discipline of the country detrimentally?
A: There may be such rumours, but I am not aware of a decision to close down the FCID. Both the FCID and Police are doing their duties.
I suspect that those charged with corruption are attempting to influence the closing down of such institutions.
?Is it true that you suggested to have the bars open on Poya Days?
A: I did not make such a suggestion. I only made a passing remark at the time of presenting the Excise Bill to Parliament. I questioned whether we can derive any results by sticking to age-old regulations with regard to the sale of liquor in the country.
According to statistics, over 60 per cent of the population in Sri Lanka consumes illicit liquor or kasippu. This is an alarming situation.
Bars are expected to close on Poya Days and certain other days as well. Shutting of bars on special days including Poya pave the way for people to consume illicit liquor. If you ask bar owners, they will say that liquor sales go up on the days prior to Poya and other special days when bars are closed.
Those who are addicted to liquor stock it beforehand. Some bar owners sell liquor even on Poya Days in a clandestine way. They also make it a point to sell liquor at higher rates on such days. In the meantime, illicit distilleries also thrive on such occasions.
The United States and India also experimented with banning liquor on certain days. However, whenever a ban is imposed the consumption of illicit liquor went up. Underworld gangs also emerged as a result of the proliferation of illicit distilleries.
People should be prevented from imbibing illicit liquor. One way of doing this is to encourage them to consume wine or beer.
I reiterate that I have never suggested keeping the bars open on Poya Days. I personally believe that we should not create opportunities for illicit liquor distilleries.
?Your predecessor was accused of giving massive tax concessions to certain distilleries. Do you hope to rectify that error?
A: As long as I remain the Minister of Finance, I will not grant any concessions for distilleries. I do not abuse my portfolio to console comrades. My lofty intention is to launch a programme to eliminate favouritism and facilitate justice for all the citizens in the country.
?When can we expect the Inland Revenue Act to come into force and how much increased revenue can be expected? Do you think that Sri Lanka‘s tax composition that comprises 20 per cent direct tax and 80 per cent indirect tax can be brought to an equitable composition of 40 per cent of direct tax payment and 60 per cent of indirect tax payment?
A: The tax composition in Sri Lanka comprises 20 per cent of direct and 80 per cent of indirect taxes. This has to be brought to the status of 40 per cent of direct and 60 per cent of indirect tax in order to maintain a more equitable economy.
When I had a conference with the Minister of Finance of India, he stated that India could bring down the indirect tax composition to 50 per cent. For the next three years I have set a target to raise the direct taxes from 20 per cent to 40 per cent and bring down the indirect taxes from 80 per cent to 60 per cent. To achieve this we have to introduce a mechanism to increase the number of direct tax payers because we cannot always burden the indirect tax payers. The 80 per cent of indirect tax payers in the country inclusive of you and I have to pay taxes regardless of our income status.
Especially, medical doctors earn a thumping amount of money via their private channelling services, but they are not subject to taxes. The doctors who are employed in the hospitals in the morning, engage in private practices in the evening and earn a colossal amount of money. There is no proper mechanism to survey their income which makes them evade taxes. This is the case with attorneys- at-law as well. There are many other professionals who earn thumping amounts, but they are not taxed according to their income.
The professionals contribute the least to the development of the country although they appear to be chauvinists. Only the impoverished and the middle class people are often subjected to taxes.
We have to make taxpaying unpretentious and let it extend and penetrate into each and every layer of society.
I believe that every citizen of the country who is over 18 years of age should be given a tax number and a tax file regardless of the ability and eligibility to pay tax. Paying tax in accordance with the income is a system that is adopted by all the countries in the world. This is one of the recognized ways of developing a country.
So, we have to bring the Inland Revenue Act into force as early as possible.
?In order to achieve this, are you planning to introduce changes to the Inland Revenue Department?
A: Yes, of course. We are supposed to administer rules and regulation on the collection of income tax. I perceive that the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) should be revamped in order to execute this task in a more effective manner. I also believe that those who are employed at the IRD should be more concerned over the development of the country than they are today. Then only we can achieve our expected results.
?Let me switch the subject from finance to media. The state media had been misused by the previous governments to whitewash them and to blow their own trumpet. Does the present government too misuse the state media?
A: Every media institution, despite their personal beliefs and views, should expose the views that exist in the country. During the past regime, the State media was highly misused and even the private media institutions were under the influence of the government.
The Yahapalana Government has assured the media freedom, but media remain ungrateful. They give more overage for those who restricted the media freedom. Media highlight the events and news pertaining to the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, but the present President’s news is made insignificant. Media also allocate space for the views of racists. Although media now abuse their freedom, we do not apply repressive measures. When other media institutions highlight unhealthy news, we make use of the State media to convey the truth to the public.
We allow the views and expressions of the opposition. This is a new era of freedom of expression that we promised prior to coming to power. We cannot repress media institutions because social media have a great impact on society.
?The draft bill to set up an Independent Council for News Media Standards is said to be a menace to the media freedom. Don‘t you think those draconian laws will indirectly restrict the media freedom? Many view it as a diplomatic way of suppressing media freedom. Do you have any comments?
A: To be honest, I have not studied the draft bill in depth. Hence, I cannot give a satisfying answer to your question. I do not recommend introducing repressive measures or imposing restrictions on media freedom, but I ardently believe that media should follow certain standards and should work ethically. I agree that an authorized body should be set up to regulate certain activities of the media.
The authorized body should observe whether what is being printed, telecast or broadcast are morally acceptable.
That does not prevent the media from reporting the truth. We are not at all planning to embark on repressing the media freedom.
?Although many parties pessimistically comment that the government cannot make a lasting impact in the Sri Lankan political arena, you may precisely have a different view. What is it?
A: Please keep this recorded. The national government will last till 2025. In our journey ahead, we hope to herald in a new era of development and progress in the country. I believe that we should be united to lead the country forward.
?As a minister who is vested with heavy responsibilities of two ministries, I guess that you hardly can solicit leisure time to engage in your hobbies or activities that interest you. Am I correct?
A: I have to disappoint you by saying that you are wrong. Although I am inundated with work, I still can find time for activities that interest me such as reading books or listening to music. If you are really interested in doing something, you can find the time!
Pix by Gemunu Wellage