When the first signs appeared of the new Yahapalana government going astray some months ago, I tweeted: “Good governance must not only be done, but also be SEEN as done”.
Optics or appearances do matter. They are especially important in this social media age when every action of the government and its top leadership is closely monitored and commented upon by many citizens.
For reasons of governance and optics, President Maithripala Sirisena taking his son Daham Sirisena to UN General Assembly in New York is wrong. We presume that the young man’s travel and accommodation was paid for with public funds. Yet he has holds no public office; it was completely out of his league to be seated with the president, ministers and diplomats who had official reasons to be there.
It was not good that the officially released photos showed an all-male, mostly Sinhalese delegation seated at the main UN assembly hall.
It did not help matters when the President’s media director tried to explain that the son was a “member of the president’s personal staff”.
And it certainly was not helpful when Daham himself offered a feeble defence on his Facebook page (and giving us definitions of nepotism in the process).
As far as I know – and I have studied how the UN works – the UN Secretariat does not invite individuals to attend the General Assembly. It is the right of member states (which Sri Lanka has been since 1955) to determine who will be on its official delegation. This decision is typically made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in consultation with the President’s office.
And if the Sri Lanka delegation needed youth representation, there should have been an open process to select one or more suitable young men and women. There are very capable young people in Sri Lanka some of who have been participating in UN youth engagement activities locally and globally.
We have nothing against the eager young man (we wish Daham well). It is just that images of him at the UN remind us of the former regime taking planeloads of assorted supporters to New York ostensibly for official business. We are only belatedly finding out how they squandered public funds. We are reacting sharply because we don’t want even a teeny weeny repetition of that.
We are still recovering from what I call Sri Lanka’s Decade of Darkness (2005-2014) during which nepotism and cronyism were nauseatingly high. We voted for President Sirisena as Common Opposition Candidate to end that decadence and megalomania — and not to continue it in any reduced or milder form.
Yes, in the bigger scheme of things, a presidential brat tagging along to New York may not be such a big deal. But the optics of it can be quite damaging: it is as if the Yahapalana President is beginning to go down the same slippery slope.
The Daham@UN episode has shown up our mainstream media as well. None of them had the courage to comment on this matter, or at least report the widespread social media condemnation of it. For some, the first time they ever mentioned it was when they carried Daham’s ‘explanation’ on Facebook.
Is it because our media has been suppressed for too long that, even now, they cover the President, his family and other political leaders with too much deference? Why do most of our media treat the head of state as a feudal lord — when the incumbent has said he does not wish to be treated as such?
Is it that parrots who have been caged for a decade do not want to fly away when released, so they just hover around repeating what the former master/captor taught?