Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on Tuesday called for “bold” private sector leaders who could take on the challenge of creating a new equitable Sri Lanka instead of asking for favours or remaining uncompetitive.
The platform on which the Premier made this call as well as emphasised several strong positions and future plans of the Government was the function to celebrate the 65th anniversary of Associated Motorways Ltd., attended by top business leaders among others. Wickremesinghe said he, President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga were together in the belief that Sri Lanka needed “5 to 10 years of political and social harmony.”
“We have to have a generation of political leaders who will learn how to create a consensus on national policies. More importantly we need private sector leaders who are bold enough to take the challenge without looking at favours from the Government,” the Prime Minister emphasised.
Noting that Sri Lanka must become the most competitive economy not only in South Asia but also in Southeast Asia, the Prime Minister said the new Government would embark on next generation economic reforms.
“Some of the private sector may not like reforms because when you open up factor markets some may be affected but those are necessary to move ahead as a nation,” he said, adding that the Government would use Singapore as a benchmark.
“I am keen to see a high rate of growth for the next 20 years. We need to start the process if we are to create jobs and good income,” Wickremesinghe said.
Earlier on his address to the gathering, which included Ministers, Deputy Ministers, MPs, public officials, diplomats and top officials from UAE’s giant Al Futaim Group which owns AWM, the Prime Minister said the current regime was a “caretaker Government committed to implementing a 100-days program.”
“We are also committed to a much more ambitious program after the parliamentary election. A commitment to double the income of our people and create a million jobs within five years. Many think we can’t reach the goal. I am confident we can and will do it,” a confident Wickremesinghe emphasised.
It was in that context that he stressed the need for a sprucing up of competitiveness. In an apparent dig at some in the private sector, the Premier was blunt in saying to the audience, “Though you won’t agree with me, we have to move away from hot money and a concrete bubble economy.”
He said Sri Lanka needed to reach out to global markets as well as open up since the small population and domestic market could be enough. “Sri Lanka tried it in the past five or eight years and we haven’t succeeded,” Wickremesinghe said.
Emphasising that the Government was committed to forging ahead, the Premier listed several key initiatives. Among them were efforts to regain the EU GSP plus scheme by next year, a more favourable trade and investment agreement with India, greater trade access to the US as well as an FTA with China and Singapore. He said new or better market access alone would not be enough but the private sector needed to enhance value addition and be more competitive and not lag behind.
The need to pay higher wages was also stressed noting that Bangladesh and Myanmar as well as the northern states of India would remain low wage locations. “Higher wages means becoming more capital intensive, moving towards automation, using technology, becoming skill intensive. We have a good workforce that can be trained and there is a large disciplined base in the armed forces which can join the expanded private sector,” the Prime Minister said adding that high-end manufacturing would be promoted.
He also said that the Government would welcome direct foreign investments and an extra effort would be made to attract FDIs.
The packed and eminent audience at the AMW celebrations also heard some statements from Wickremesinghe which were quite similar to those from former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Without specifically referring to the Rajapaksa’s five-hub push, the Premier said that the new Government would look at expanding the financial sector and tourism and make Sri Lanka a logistics hub by developing its ports and airports. “This is what we are working on now. Not for myself, the UNP, not for the politicians but for the people. To do that we must also ensure all political parties in Parliament reach a consensus,” Wickremesinghe added.
Focusing on politics, the Premier recalled: “When we contested the election, you couldn’t think of another coalition that was different in policies. Not only have we hung on together but I think one of the greatest achievements of President Maithripala Sirisena has been to bring the SLFP to the Government.”
The need for reconciliation between the north and south, between Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims was also stressed. “This is the course we have to chart. I feel privileged together with President Sirisena who risked a lot to be the common candidate. We could achieve this not for personal gains. We are better off if we are not in politics. Now that we are in it we want to ensure the whole country is better off before both of us leave politics,” Premier Wickremesinghe quipped.