Sri Lanka should emulate Singapore’s commercial side – Expert
By Rathindra Kuruwita and Umesh Moramudali
Since the late 1970s Singapore has been cited by many as a model that Sri Lanka can emulate for its development. But there has been little discussion on what particular aspects that we can draw inspiration from. Ceylon Today sat down with Mahdev Mohan, a nominated member of the Parliament of Singapore and Assistant Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University, to discuss the similarities and differences between the two countries.
Following are excerpts:
? Sri Lankans tend to look up to Singapore as a model, for economic development, for reconciliation, for work ethic, etc... But how suitable is Singapore as a model for Sri Lanka because these are two very different countries?
A: I think it's suitable but we must unpack what we spoke about. As a model for reconciliation what you can learn from us is that we place a lot of emphasis on religious harmony. We also look back at the incidents we have been through in the '60s and '70s where we had racial riots, where there was a lot of sectarian violence, and try to learn. But the last time we had sectarian violence was in the 1970s, which is some time ago, so it's good to see what we have put in place, how we have tried to get various religious groups to work together, enhance the interaction between them but as some have pointed out when dealing with a post conflict situation Singapore might not be the best example for reconciliation. You should be looking at South Africa and Rwanda, because they went through strife and they implemented solutions much more recently. If you want to take us as a model for reconciliation, you should consider us as something you want Sri Lanka to be in another 15 years.
Where we would be useful is the commercial side because this is what Singapore has become known for. International economic agreements, trade, investments, thinking about dispute resolution, thinking about infrastructure projects, project finance, these are ideas and terms that even the average Singaporean knows about because it's a part of our conscience. So you should definitely look at us for inspiration about commercial aspects, especially on infrastructure development, for example when it comes to a port project. You can also learn a lot from how we resolve disputes.
? Singapore is known for its initiatives to promote inter-faith dialogue, which is something we lack in Sri Lanka. How important is this in terms of reconciliation?
A: In Singapore we have attempted to address this in several ways. Let me explain how we try to deal with this through our political process. For example, when you run for an election in Singapore, you can run as a member of a political party, as an independent or you are a part of a group representing a constituency. So if six people come together as one group, within that, at least two people must be of a different race. That way you are ensuing minority representation. So because there is minority representation in Parliament, these MPs are the ones who are put in charge of ensuring that there are these religious harmony type events or centres where people talk about issues that are problematic and how they can solve these.
Singapore is about 75% Chinese, the next large ethnic group is Malay Muslim and the next large ethnic group is Indians, which includes all others including Eurasians. So minority groups may sometimes feel marginalized and one of the ways to deal with this is having elected representatives in Parliament. Not only that, these MPs are encouraged to speak not only in English but one other mother tongue, so either you have to speak Hindi or Tamil or Malay or Chinese. And it's your obligation to arrange certain activities in your constituencies, so that's one way we try to do it. In addition, we have two ministers in charge of Muslim affairs and another in charge of the Indian community and others. So that way you know you can approach someone if there really is a problem. I think it's very important because it's good to know that your elected representatives will look after your interests.
? Singapore also has strict laws when it comes to regulating hate speech?
A: Yes we do have quite strict laws. For example, if you say something on social media, which is derogatory and defamatory about another community, it will be considered hate speech. So if someone makes this kind of speech will be approached by the Police and will be asked 'what's going on' and if there is no valid reason, the post will have to be removed, the person will have to pay a fine and if s/he does it more than once they are looking at jail time. So basically the laws are quite strict and they are evenly enforced. That's another way.
But I would say again, it can work in a small country. If it's a large country with 15 or 20 million it becomes much more difficult. In Singapore there are only 5.5 million people.
? Singapore is known for its free trade policies and Sri Lanka is also attempting to go down that road. Before opening ourselves for free trade what are the things we should put in place domestically? What were the rules and regulations Singapore had in place before you opened up?
A: In Singapore we deal with treaties in two ways. The first thing is when we sign a treaty we have to implement it in the country through the enabling legislations we pass. That's a reflection of the treaty you sign.
The second thing is there are a lot of laws we inherited from the British, just like in India or Sri Lanka. So we already have a framework, so our job is to improve, refine and amend what we already have. But our laws from the time we gained independence have a strict focus on the commercial side. So for example, one of the largest statutes and agencies is the Monetary Authority of Singapore which is like our Central Bank and deals with the fiscal policy. It has allowed us to have stable provisions and these are subjected to review each three years. During these reviews we determine whether a policy is working or are there any problems and if there are issues we quickly amend the policies.
Sri Lanka already has quite a few laws. So the first thing is enforcing these laws. Second is if you want to bring in new laws, you should study how other countries are doing regarding commercial laws. You can always look at the usual suspects; you can look at the provisions in Hong Kong, Dubai, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, etc. You can do a comparison and figure out what would work for you and you can put these in place. That's what we have done. If you look at our Companies Act, which is a very important law that deals with corporate governance, it's a mix of Companies Acts of Australia, New Zealand and the UK.
So my point is you take everything which is out there and tailor-make it for yourself. What's most important is those who are tailor-making these laws must be local. You can get advice from top international legal experts but people who are formulating them should be local because we need to know what can go wrong. I feel that if you are not someone familiar with the terrain you won't know what the problems could be.
? Sri Lanka is in the process of drafting a new trade policy. There is a lot of pressure internally to formulate a strong policy so that we will not be vulnerable when we enter trade agreements, for example the ETCA. What are the areas we should prioritize when we formulate a trade policy?
A: This is the basic trade law. So we must start thinking about trade and investment facilitation, how much we want our imports and exports in terms of goods and services, etc. Usually, when you try to sign a free trade agreement, the first thing you must think is what the other country can contribute to your economy.
Is that country a strong source of imports? For example, for Sri Lanka, the EU is a strong source where you get goods and services from. So when you want a free trade agreement with the EU, you would want to think about how much of your products they are taking. If there is parity, then we have equal bargaining power. But, if the answer is you are taking a lot of their products than them taking our products then they have a stronger bargaining power.
You have to also realize that things take time and during that period you must constantly attempt to strengthen your bargaining position. For example, Singapore had to discuss Singapore-EU Free Trade Agreement for six years and throughout this time both sides were trying to strengthen their bargaining power.
So how do you strengthen your bargaining power? You have to sit down with your investment and trade policy analysts and look at various sectors, for example manufacturing, goods and services, construction, infrastructure, and then you have a look at trends.
Another aspect of negotiations and discussions is having people with good interpersonal skills in your team and you need the same negotiators to be there consistently. This will allow them to get to know their counterparts. They will be able to say to their colleagues, 'it's good to see you again'. These relationships are important because it leads to an ease of doing business.
The final point is that there is always a chance of things going wrong. Let me take another example from the Singapore-EU Free Trade Agreement negotiations. After six years of negotiations, European Court of Justice looked at the free trade agreement and said EU can't decide on every issue and this should be sent back to national governments. All the work we have put in for six years had in a way come to naught. So you can always have something that won't go your way. So we need to think how can we renegotiate for example in Singapore, if something does not work out maybe we will spend one day thinking why it didn't work out, we set up a committee to study why it didn't work out and what we can do next and then you start focusing on how we can change. You really don't have the time to wallow in your sorrows.
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