Tuesday, 05 March 2024
'Maintaining cohesion & cooperation, biggest challenge of Govt.'

'Maintaining cohesion & cooperation, biggest challenge of Govt.'

Top economist Indrajit Coomaraswamy was appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena as the new governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

The following is an interview with Coomaraswamy by Anusha David done last year for life.lk.


Indrajit Coomaraswamy, who hails from one of the country’s most respected Tamil families and the son of the iconic diplomat ‘ Roving Raju’, is one of Sri Lanka’s best known and most respected economists.

He was also a dashing sportsman having captained the Sri Lanka and CR & FC rugby teams. In addition, he captained the Harrow School and Emmanuel College, Cambridge cricket XIs. He also played cricket for the Tamil Union C & AC and confesses that of the many hats he has donned, the sportsman’s is what lies closest to his heart. Married to Tara de Fonseka, his two sons Imran and Arjun though not quite chips off the old block, nevertheless have done their parents proud.

Dr. Coomaraswamy lived upto tradition and followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the civil service. Joining the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in 1973 he served in the Economic Research, Statistics and Bank Supervision Divisions as a staff officer till 1989. From 1981 to 1989 he was seconded to the Ministry of Finance and Planning. Thereafter he worked for the Commonwealth Secretariat from 1990–2008, holding the posts of Director, Economic Affairs Division and Deputy-Director, Secretary-General's Office and was brought back to the Commonwealth Secretariat to head the Social Transformation Programme Division, as Interim Director.

Dr. Coomaraswamy is currently an independent non-executive director of JKH and Tokyo Cement. He is also associated with several think tanks.

As a cosmopolitan Tamil and one who comes from one of Sri Lanka’s most prominent families, do you think the former government lost the peace despite winning the war?
The end of the war offered an excellent opportunity for building a pluralist society which valued diversity. Progress has been made in terms of re-settling IDPs, rehabilitating child soldiers and LTTE cadres, de-mining, reconstructing infrastructure and holding elections in the North and East. However, not enough was done to win hearts and minds in order to promote reconciliation. This may be attributed to a preoccupation with security and consolidating the Sinhala electoral base. As a result, not enough progress was made in terms of transition to civilian rule; and addressing the issues of land, detainees and missing persons. It was also a pity that there was not greater commitment to implementing the recommendations of the LLRC. One has to conclude that much more could have been accomplished to take advantage of the wonderful opportunity which came with the end of the conflict.

The Coalition Government has undertaken some measures and adopted a new approach, both at home and abroad, which is encouraging. The Tamil leadership must think afresh and develop a forward looking and realistic agenda which takes into account the concerns of the majority community. The Sinhala polity, for its part, needs to create the conditions for all minorities to live with dignity as equal citizens of this country.

Would you say development and corruption go hand-in-hand in developing countries?
The first thing to say is that corruption is an implicit tax on investment. There are 170 or 180 emerging and frontier market countries in the world. All of them are competing for a share of the global pool of investment. This means that the higher the level of corruption, the greater the deterrent to investment, with adverse consequences for development. Predatory corruption, which results in public money being diverted abroad, is the most destructive form of corruption. There are those who say that retail corruption at the level of officialdom is part and parcel of oiling the system for it to work better. While this is the reality in many countries, being complacent about it can result in the whole system becoming corroded to the point that it seriously undermines development outcomes. The poor and vulnerable are often most at risk. High level corruption rapidly infects whole institutions.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for President Mathripala Sirisena’s government?
The greatest challenge is probably maintaining cohesion and cooperation. The governance, rule of law and electoral reforms it has embarked upon are extremely welcome. The 100-day deadline has the merit of focusing minds though it is very ambitious. It is important that the government is given necessary support from all stakeholders to carry out these reforms. It is also important that we have an outcome which sets aside the worst aspects of the adversarial politics that have held Sri Lanka back so much. We need constructive and cooperative politics on the part of all sides to address the important issues of the day: promoting good governance; strengthening national unity and building a Sri Lankan identity; and implementing tough economic reforms which are unavoidable as we cannot afford to continue borrowing to live beyond our means.

We have got away with it for decades as we were a donor darling, as a country with a liberal polity and economy. As a lower- middle- income country, we are no longer eligible for large amounts of very concessional foreign aid and are now exposed to the discipline of rating agencies and international capital markets. As a result, we need to shift from a culture of hand-outs and giveaways to a much greater focus on productivity and competitiveness. All this needs to be done sooner rather than later. The cooperative politics, which the President and Prime Minister have called for, offers us the best way forward.

How do you view Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Sri Lanka?
Mr. Modi’s visit offers an opportunity to consolidate the efforts being made to re-set Indo – Lanka relations. Geopolitical realities make it axiomatic that good relations with India have to be at the top of our foreign policy priorities. However, sound diplomacy can make it possible for us to re-set our relations with India while maintaining close links with China so as to take advantage of the considerable commercial advantages which Sino – Lankan relations offer.

Re-setting Indo – Lanka relations opens up opportunities to take advantage of proximity to increase trade, investment, tourism, technology transfer and education and training. Improving infrastructure on both sides also reduces transaction costs and enhances the potential benefits of proximity. In this connection, priority should be attached to further improving connectivity. In addition, if PM Modi’s Make-in-India strategy is successful, it should open up opportunities for Sri Lanka to plug into the supply chains of local and foreign companies operating in India. This was how the countries of East and South East Asia benefited from the rise of first Japan and then China.

The late Lakshman Kadirgamar said that Indo – Lanka relations should be one of irreversible excellence. PM Modi’s visit, the first by an Indian PM for 28 years, offers an opportunity to make significant progress towards achieving this. We need to overcome our insecurities and see India as an opportunity rather than a threat. This will be an important determinant of Sri Lanka’s future economic prosperity.

India, for its part, needs to understand the insecurities and aspirations of the different communities in Sri Lanka. India has re-set its relations with its neighbours as it pursues its ambitions as a rising global power. It does not want to get distracted by instability in the region. Sri Lanka needs to take advantage of this.

What is your candid view of the BBS?
It has been my good fortune to live in three different countries. My work has also given me the opportunity to travel extensively. As a result, I greatly appreciate diversity and attach a very high premium to tolerance. So I find extremism of any sort extremely disconcerting. Extremism breeds division. Division often leads to destructive violence as we saw in Aluthgama and Beruwela last year..

Of the many hats you have donned – cricketer, ruggerite, academic, economist, international businessman – which one did you find most fulfilling?
Playing high level competitive sport gives an adrenaline boost which is difficult to match.

As the son of ‘Roving Raju’ to what extent did your father influence your choice of career?
I should start by saying that it was my mother who was most involved in the day-to-day lives of my sister, Radhika, and me. Both of us owe her a great deal. Having said that, my father was a great role model and he provided us with the means to have a safe and comfortable upbringing and, above all, outstanding opportunities in education. While he never indicated any preferences in terms of a career for me, I was undoubtedly influenced by his own life in making my choices. He was a member of the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) and then was an international civil servant with the UN. I should also say that my paternal grandfather and my father-in-law were also members of the CCS. My father-in-law also worked for the FAO. So public service was very much a part of my family tradition. As a result, I expect it is not very surprising that I ended up working for the Central Bank and then the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Do you like being referred to as ‘Arjun’s dad’?
I would be a liar if I said I was overjoyed when Arjun announced he wanted to leave his job at Unilever to pursue a fulltime career in music. However, he has got some traction with his fusion of Bollywood songs and R&B. He has had over 75 million Youtube hits and is performing in various parts of the world. It is a whole new world for me. I am totally amusical but Tara, my wife, is extremely talented. Arjun gets his musical talent from her and she is a great source of support for him. I am happy to be simply known as Arjun’s father.

What advice did your parents give you that you best remember?
“Do unto others as you would want others to do unto you” was something that my father often said. My mother’s constant refrain was “you’re not studying hard enough; playing sport will get you nowhere”.

What were your goals as a parent?
To provide our two sons with an education which was as good as the one my parents provided for my sister and me. In this respect, it is pleasing that our elder son, Imran, was able to get a doctorate from Cambridge and is a talented sportsman captaining his College in both cricket and badminton. Arjun is also a Cambridge graduate but he has chosen to pursue his passion for music.

What’s your most cherished family tradition?
A cherished family tradition was spending our holidays with my paternal grandparents in Jaffna with all my cousins: my uncle Sathi’s daughters, Priya, Shyamala and Anushya as well as my aunt Sundari Pathmanathan’s children Gajan, Wiji, Dai and Dharshi.

How does your wife Tara inspire you?
She has been the greatest influence in my life since I was 19. From day one, I have had to work very hard to impress her. As a result, she has been instrumental in encouraging me to improve myself. I suspect she would say, with some justification, that I have had limited success! She does her best to ensure that my feet are firmly on the ground. Our elder son, during his wedding speech, spoke very movingly about her massive role in the lives of her three boys: our two sons and myself.

What’s the best compliment you ever received?
What I have appreciated most has been when people who have worked with me have said that they have benefited from the experience.

What’s the happiest or proudest moment in your life?
Can’t think of a single event. Mostly things to do with our children. Being given the honour of captaining the Sri Lankan Rugby team was also a very special time.

Describe your most embarrassing moment.
Getting a golden duck, being out first ball, at Lords during the Eton – Harrow cricket match. It is a very long distance from the dressing room to the pitch and one has to walk through the Long Room full of distinguished old boys of the two schools. Walking back after facing just one ball was excruciatingly embarrassing, particularly as I was only 16 at the time.

What is your single greatest regret in life?
I can’t think of any particular episode. Though there are many things I could have done better.

What did you want to be when you grew up?
I was keen on being a public servant from early on.

Who were your heroes or role models when you were a child?
Sari Sylva as a rugby player and Sir Garfield Sobers as a cricketer.

What are your hobbies and special interests apart from sports?
I am a keen follower of international affairs. Tara complains that I do not have enough hobbies and struggle to relax. However, I get my relaxation by watching sport on tv.


Last modified on Monday, 04 July 2016 13:05