Photo courtesy ICASL

On the 8th of February 2018, the induction ceremony of Mr. Jagath Perera as the 24th President of Chartered Accountants Sri Lanka (ICASL) was held at the Hilton Grand Ballroom. As a fellow member of the Institute, I decided to attend the event, partly because I knew him personally arising out of our professional interactions over the years.

This is an important event for the Institute, because it serves as an occasion for the incoming President to be introduced to the general membership, key stakeholders from the public sector and representatives of other professional accounting bodies. It is also an opportunity to bid farewell to the outgoing President. A live webcast of the event had also been arranged, especially for those residing outside the country. Over a thousand Chartered Accountants attended the event as a gesture of professional solidarity and also to congratulate and wish the new President well as he takes on the onerous responsibility of guiding and giving direction to an institution that would be celebrating its 60th anniversary next year.

My initial disconcert arose when the invitation mentioned that the Prime Minister would be the chief guest. (My personal view was that with the election just two days away and a cooling period in force under the instructions of the Elections Commissioner, it was preferable that he had not been invited). Yet, despite my misgivings I did not attach any ulterior motive to the decision. I put it down to the new President wanting to go one better than his predecessor, in getting the 2nd highest in the land to be the chief guest at his induction!

Getting back to the ceremony, the PM who arrived a bit late, was led in by a bevy of dancers, to the base of the dais. The compere then announced that these dancers were going to form themselves into a human structure for the lighting of the lamp. She then read out the names of those invited to light the lamp and lo and behold, to the incredulity of many in the audience, Ravi Karunanayake, the former Finance Minister was among the names called. Many wishfully thought that he had not come as he was not visible in the dimly lit hall, but then we saw him as he turned rather sheepishly towards the audience. My initial reaction was one of disgust and outrage. I even heard a lady behind me contemptuously exclaiming “shik”. I did not wish to remain there even a second more and left the hall and went back home feeling shamed and degraded by my Institute whose code of ethics and professionalism I have always endeavoured to abide by.

In my opinion the decision to invite Ravi Karunanayake and give him pride of place at this important event, constituted a false start for the induction of the 24th President of ICASL. This opinion is derived from what the ICASL stands for, its role in society and the role of its Associate and Fellow members. Established in 1959 by an Act of Parliament, ICASL is the only accredited authority that formulates Accounting and Auditing Standards in Sri Lanka. In its website it boasts of a membership of nearly 6000 professionals trained to provide “financial knowledge and guidance based on the highest professional, technical and ethical standards..” Its vision is “to demonstrate and be known for exemplifying the highest standards in business and society”.  That it is one of the largest tertiary education providers outside the university system with a student base of over 44,000 is reflective that its mission “to be the most sought after qualification for business leaders” is being realized.

Therefore it is clear that this responsibility of training finance professionals, and its standard setting and certification role, vested with and played by ICASL, enhances the accountability of public, corporate, and social institutions across the country. Therefore it is imperative for ICASL and its members to be beyond reproach. In its Annual Report of 2013, the President and the council at the time seem to have understood this perfectly when it is emphasized on page 25 of the report under the section Society and Environment, that “Maintaining reputational stability lies at the core of our profession.”

Seen in this light how does one vindicate the decision to invite Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ravi Karunanayake to this event? What kind of message does it convey and what kind of perceptions does it create? The PCoI report that was released just a week or two earlier, had recommended that necessary action be taken against Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake under Bribery and Corruption Act alluding to the allegation against him regarding the payment of rent for the super luxury penthouse apartment belonging  to the Aloysius Family and their Walt and Rowe Company. It also recommended that further legal action should be taken against Mr. Karunanayake under the penal code for giving false evidence at the Commission.

Is this the message the ICASL and its President wants to give its membership, its student body and the public at large? Isn’t it a disrespect to the findings of a Presidential commission. The perception that follows from this message is that the ICASL is seeking to launder a soiled politician, using as detergent the credibility of the Institution. Yet the degree of dirtiness was so great that it has ended up contaminating not only to the Institution but also its members, hence my anger and outrage.

Now this also brings me to the role of the PM in this. It was only a week before that the UNP issued a statement, signed by its Chairman recommending that Ravi Karunanayake step down as Deputy Leader until these allegations had been investigated and resolved.  In that backdrop, that the leader of the party should be seen collaboratively lighting a lamp at the induction of a President of ICASL, could be perceived not as a coincidence, but as a subtle act of reputation laundering. That this should have been orchestrated before the election makes it even more suspect.

This not the first time that the ICASL has been hijacked by vested political interests. A previous President of the Institute who became a powerful figure in the previous government, used the Institute as a platform for similar laundering and propaganda purposes. It became customary for a member of the ruling family of the time to be invited to almost all events of the Institute. It was indeed a sad period where the ICASL lost a great deal of credibility.

The President who came in next, Mr. Arjuna Herath, had the challenging job of restoring the integrity of the ICASL and help it take its rightful place as a leading professional institution in the country. He did an excellent job and I remember when the current immediate Past President, Mr. Lasantha Wickremesinghe was inducted, I personally went upto Arjuna (the outgoing President) and thanked him.  It was commendable to note that his successor, Lasantha, maintained those good traditions and during his two year tenure, tried hard to protect the ICASL from vested political interests.

While it is clear that this false start doesn’t augur well for the future direction of ICASL, I would like to appeal to the new President and Council to bring in policy changes to the Institute that would prevent the Institute from being used for political purposes.

I wish right thinking members in our profession will bring the necessary pressure to achieve this. I am sure most of you are going to receive this article in the mail, and therefore if you are in agreement with what I have said (especially those who were present at the event) please register your displeasure in some form and make representations for change.