The witticisms were fired with machinegun rapidity at a recent media seminar I was invited to as moderator.  The topic was: ‘Since when did our politicians become so corrupt?’ We got a lot of laughs from a wisecracking panel and audience that had the auditorium convulsed with mirth. Such type of amusement is certain to ensure the success of even the most serious discussion.

Some of our favourite answers included: “Since the dawn of time,” or “Since they came out of the womb,” and “Since when have they ever not been corrupt?” Naturally, the discussion got off to a rollicking start.  Many made the point of the good old days of politics. Some went back in time to mention certain dear departed legislators by name as the perfect role models for the present-day denizens of the Diywanna Assembly. The debate became livelier as certain participants proffered divergent views on the subject.
One feisty young female in the audience won my admiration with the forthright question she fired with hair-trigger velocity. She said: “It seems there’s not a politician out there who’s above the muck of moral lapses and fraud. But is the problem one that is new to politics, or do we just hear about it more?”

But one aspect they all were in accord with was that Sri Lanka wasn’t always as corrupt as it is today. There was a time, they contended, when the politicians we put in office did in fact put the general public before their own wealth and prosperity.Parliament from the good old days has been transformed from an estimable institution that made it a distinguished body to the decay and disrepair in moral and social values as evidenced today.

But it was a different era then with very different values, with its members exuding the kind of class and courtesy rarely found among the present political fraternity. Parliament then symbolized a caste of veritable patriots. They believed they owed their voters and the nation one thing above all else – accountability, with their sights always on the larger horizon and perhaps the next election. It does seem that political figureheads have lost their way in recent years.

Corruption has become a major issue in political and economic significance in recent years in our nation. Political leaders and public officials disregard the necessity and relevance of public morality and rake in the filthy lucre often with impunity. There’s no denying the truism that now, more than ever, we have been hearing stories about corruption and ethical misconduct in our legislature.  Take for instance the stance taken by President Maithripala Sirisena on the issue.

Sirisena who was considered among the few prudent heads in the former Rajapaksa Cabinet had sounded worried warnings about the corruption and reprehensible behaviour of some of his erstwhile colleagues. As the Sri Lanka Freedom Party General Secretary and Health Minister he had over and  again denounced some of his own Cabinet colleagues as being corrupt to the core and lamented that they were getting completely out of hand.

Although he stopped short of mentioning any such offenders by name then, it appears evident that he is being reluctantly pressured to let them off the hook. And worse still, to hold some of them to his bosom for the sake of political survival. This clearly endorses how ethics are thrown to the wind when  political exigencies take precedence. Sirisena who castigated his own erstwhile cabinet colleagues, more than perhaps any other, must surely be aware of their transgressions and be able to name them from memory.
But most everyone is aware that in our political neighbourhood amnesic wool-gathering can set in when convenience and survival become the watchword. Still, as Head of State he must perceive that providing even temporary immunity to such rascals will set his mish-mash coalition on a sure course to electoral annihilation. It would also be accurate to mention that some of the Cabinet appointments are being discerned with circumspection by the voting public.

Ominous dark clouds of suspicion hover over the heads of some of them regarding certain alleged past shady dealings. Quite apart from anything else, there is sufficient reason to believe that there is a cold and calculating streak of opportunism among nearly all our politicians, particularly when it comes to striking accord while voting themselves increased allowances and outrageous perquisites to indulge in their free-loading style of splendid living.

But now, the message being preached by the Government is one of drastic and urgent reform. Any administration in power should have realized by now that the entrepreneurial sector can never achieve its potential without a full-scale battle against corruption. Besides, big foreign investment will not pour in without a major improvement in central governance.

There has to be enormous cost-cutting in public spending and a complete clean up and overhaul of the totally mismanaged state sector enterprises which are labouring under a mountain of bad debt. Slashing government spending and ending the incalculable waste will help decrease criminally profligate state expenditure to a remarkable degree.
In a nation where poverty and inequality remain disapprovingly far-reaching, perhaps nothing is more ruinous of public trust in a democracy than the belief that parasitic politicians feeding off the public purse hardly feel the pinch. And worse still, is the certainty that corruption which they derided, will continue to thrive.

Philanthropists Andrew Carnegie once said that to die rich is a disgrace because “you cannot take it with you” in death. Contemporary psychology has accustomed human beings to the fact that there is more to themselves than possessions or earthly riches. Money is not everything and does not necessarily bring happiness. That is what most of our right-minded citizens perceive. But many of our elected clowns subscribe to their own crooked philosophy that happiness can’t ever buy money!