Image Courtesy: Times of Addu
I was born in 1990, a time when Sri Lanka was still going through its 30-year civil war which ultimately ended in 2009. I lived in greater Colombo, and I went to an International School in Colombo. I lived in my own privileged bubble. The only time I felt the effects of war was when there was a bomb blast in Colombo, and everything was closed and shut down for the next days. I grew up seeing people beg in the streets, however I was immune to it. It was my everyday normal, so I failed to truly see through the vast and constantly growing income disparity the country was facing. My parents did their best to shelter me from what was happening in the country, to ensure I had a splendid childhood. Hence, I grew up in my own privileged bubble. Although that was not the case for millions of children in this supposedly paradise island, we call home.
Through my higher studies, I fell in love with a Norwegian. I fell in love with how he perceived the world, the completely different points of view and his open mindedness. Eventually, I permanently moved to Norway with him almost five years ago. Of course, there was an adjustment period. There were vast differences in culture, climate, cuisine, and everyday life in a Scandinavian country such as Norway compared to a tropical South Asian country. But what shocked me most was the economic development and how well Norway took care of its own citizens and its immigrants. The more I learnt about Norway and their economic and social policies, the more I questioned, “Why doesn’t Sri Lanka have any of this?”. Most would say, “You cannot compare a wealthy nation like Norway to a developing country like Sri Lanka”. I have heard this numerous times. It is true, Norway is a developed and wealthy country that made their fortune since their discovery of oil in 1969. However, it was the policies that their political representatives put in place that impressed me. They ensured that all their citizens benefit from the wealth of their nation. This was my wake up call.
I realized that my privileged sheltered childhood did not depict what majority of our nation was experiencing every day.
While living in Norway and missing Sri Lanka at the same time, I started to take great interest in politics and the economic climate in Sri Lanka. And the more I read and educated myself, the more disappointing it was.
I could write pages about the mismanagement of economic and monetary policies of Sri Lanka over the years. As much blame can be directed at our largely uneducated and unqualified politicians and corruption that runs in the veins of our system, I would like to focus this article more on the people aspect of things. It was one of my friends that recently said, “Who we vote into power is a great representation of the people in the country.” So, what does this mean for Sri Lanka? Travel is known to lend new perspectives to people. It makes you realize how much more is available past your own backyard and comfort zone. I believe that is what I experienced, and that is how I started to see Sri Lanka through a whole different lens in comparison to the one I grew up in. Once you start seeing things through, there are key aspects of our society that I could not ignore anymore.
The Me First mentality
Our Buddhist identity as a nation boasts a rich cultural heritage, warm hospitality, and a culture of always lending a hand to help those in need. The concept of dansal where people give out free food as an act of merit is a fine example. However, what contradicts these generous qualities about us is the Me First mentality. This mentality reeks in every corner of our country whether it’s navigating through traffic, waiting to get in and out of an elevator, the absence of courtesy when standing in a queue, or in politics. Today, with just a few years of living in Norway, I cannot unsee this behaviour anymore. Sri Lanka embraces a collectivist culture compared to Norway which has a more individualistic culture. However, this does not reflect when navigating everyday Sri Lankan life. Whether it is the impatience to get into the lift even before the people inside get out, or drive selfishly on the road, or enter politics for self-serving reasons (rather than to take care of the citizens of the country and implement policies that would leave positive ripple effects on future generations) – there is no reflection of a wider community caring culture.
So, what happened here? How can we be selfless and selfish at the same time? This mentality drives everyday life in Sri Lanka and sadly, it is prominently evident in the political culture as well. Funnily enough, Sri Lankans who migrate overseas conform well to the local way of life. Our generosity and warm hospitality as a community shines through. Sri Lankans abide by the law, are hardworking and especially in Norway, where Sri Lankans are one of the top migrants that contribute to Norwegian society. It is clear we have the potential to change, and to be better. However, while in Sri Lanka, we clearly lack the direction and discipline that could effect this change as a society.
Quality of education
Herd mentality and blind loyalty are extremely damaging to any civilization or community. Sadly, this is prominently evident in Sri Lanka. It could possibly be blamed on the Sri Lankan education system that encourages memorising or parrot learning while hindering creativity and independent thinking. The school curriculum is outdated, and the freedom to question is suppressed. Questioning is seen as rebellious and goes against a culture of training to uphold conformity. This kills innovative thinking and creativity. It can also be blamed on how dependent we raise our young. Children are spoon fed since the day they are born. They are told what to do, and what not to do. Obedience is given prominence over the need to adventure out, to learn to think and reason for themselves. Therefore, many children grow up lacking self confidence and the ability to be independent in their thinking. Concepts of herd mentality and blind loyalty thrive in such suppressed communities. People are blindly loyal to political figures based on their image, their popularity, their “powerful” family names, or the colour of the political party they represent, rather than understand the policies they aim to implement vs. what they have ultimately achieved. Our society lacks strategic thinking. This could be due to our evolutionary lifestyle of survival being easier in a tropical fertile island compared to harsher Nordic climates. Yet today, we find this same lack of strategic thinking evident in government policies and goals; with most decision making driven by short term gains of an election win.
In 1945, with utmost gratitude to Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara, Sri Lanka’s Free Education Policy came into effect. This policy ensured free education to every child between the age of five and sixteen in Sri Lanka. It is within the state’s responsibility to not just enrich this policy by investing more in education, but also to ensure that the benefits of a quality education help children living in the far most remote corners of this island to overcome the social hurdles we as a country are facing today. Moreover, whilst embracing our native language, rich history, and local culture, we must also open our curriculums to look outwards and learn to appreciate and understand other cultures and ways of life. It is that approach of looking outwards that enables innovative thinking and help adapt best practices. We need to encourage the questioning culture and teach our children to think on their feet. We need to invest in our youngest of ages. Based on data from OECD, it has been published that Norway tops the world list in allocating the highest amounts of annual public spending on early childhood care.
They believe and understand how important it is to invest in the youngest ages based on the science of childhood development. It is these young children that grow up bringing greater societal benefits to the community. The benefits of higher standards of primary and secondary education will most probably be reaped generations down the line, however, it must start today. Access to quality education would help bridge the widening gap of knowledge and perception between the city dwellers and the rural population of Sri Lanka. It will also possibly bring people out of the poverty trap that they are experiencing today. However, sadly, over the years, there has been only a decline in budgetary allocations for education in Sri Lanka.
Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and Elizabeth Davis and
Aaron Sojourner for the Hamilton Project.
Taking our island home for granted
Norwegian’s love and connect with nature starts from the day they are born. The Norwegian term “friluftsliv”, loosely translated to “open air living”, is a big part of Norwegian culture and heritage. In Norwegian society, it is encouraged to spend some of your free time outdoors. To enjoy nature is to be Norwegian. They also believe in a term which means “there is no such thing as bad weather, but only bad clothes”. My son who is 2 and a half years old, learns this everyday in kindergarten. Rain or shine, wind or snow, the toddlers are dressed in their outdoor play suits and sent out to enjoy the outdoors. Norway takes great pride in their country, their scenic landscapes, and their breath-taking nature. There are tedious protocols and approvals to follow before clearing land or cutting down trees for development – a startling contrast to how things are done in Sri Lanka. Today, we are all fooled by the illusion of development. Blinded by short term monetary gains, jogging tracks are built in every possible corner of the country, including the beach! Bribes and government connections get prominence over facts, research or risk assessment when implementing development projects. The result has been increased deforestation, loss of natural habitats, extensive damages to our beaches and marine life, increased threat to already endangered animal species, a sharp rise in human-elephant conflict, irreversible damage to ecosystems and the biodiversity of this paradise of an island.
The words of the great monk Mahinda Thera to King Devanampiyatissa bear relevance here, “you are only the guardian of this land for all the people and animals that reside here, not the owner of it”. Our history and heritage show great connect and conservation of nature. Sri Lanka has rich knowledge that could be shared with the world, from Ayurveda (alternative medicine), tropical architecture and ecological living. But sadly, when I talk about this with fellow Sri Lankans, as much as they agree to my notions, they always say “people have bigger issues to think about like putting food on the table”. The loss of connect and care to the environment and nature is greatly visible in our society.
With worsening political instability, dampening economic performance, rapidly increasing unmanageable debt and a frightening dependence on other foreign nations, Sri Lanka’s future looks bleak and unreliable. Amid the bleakness, the startling mentality and despite the lack of government support to take better care of our environment and our country, there is a growing hope among the youth of our country. They care, they are proactive, they are self-motivated, and they are determined to create more awareness and take better care of our island. Just one great example is how proactive, motivated and the extent of volunteerism that was witnessed in Sri Lanka soon after the X-Press Pearl disaster. I have hope in our youth and the next generations to come. That gives me a hope of a better future to come.
After a 30-year civil war, what I have learnt is that the Sri Lankan people are resilient and adaptable. They aim to strive to be better and wants the best for this country. With this article, what I aim for you as a reader is to think about our problems not through a political lens, but as a caring and responsible Sri Lankan citizen. If more of us can drop the politics, stop looking up to politicians to make a change or help ourselves, but rather look within us, and how we could show care and concern to the development of our country, eventually that would reflect on our choices and bring about the much-needed political change for our country. Our paradise island nation deserves much better than what it is experiencing today and I truly hope there will be light at the end of this long dark tunnel.