de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2006). Sri Lanka Becoming “UNASIAN’. LMD. July 2006. Page 136.Volume 12, Issue 12. ISSN 1391-135X.
Gehan is convinced that the majority in this country really need a mindset change if the island nation is to develop.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on the need to avoid xenophobia

‘Truly Asia’ is the brand promise of Malaysia. But it is a different kind of Asia for those like me who are very well acquainted with Asia or at least certain parts of it. Six of the world’s ten tallest buildings are in Asia. The world’s second strongest economy, Japan, is in Asia. Taiwan is highly developed, so is Malaysia and Singapore. By the year 2025, China and by 2050 India are forecast to match the GDP of the USA. So what is Asia? Is it the landscape, the people, the ancient cultural traditions? No doubt a complex matrix of several factors. But one thing we can be certain is that being an economic backwater cannot be seen as a characteristic of being Asian. Unfortunately, this means poor and backward Sri Lanka, once the envy of other Asian nations, has become rather un-Asian.

What has propelled other Asian nations on a path of economic progress and held us back is the mind set. The attitude, the way we approach things and our objectivity in making decisions. In April this year I spent nearly a week in Kuala Lumpur where I had the chance to witness a contrast in cultures. Twenty years ago when I first visited it, central KL was much akin to what Pettah in Colombo is today. Twenty years later, the change is dramatic. KL can compete with European metropolises for infrastructure.

My first demonstration of a different mind set came when I took a taxi to the Malaysian Nature Society. Barely two kilometers as the crow flies from central KL, we entered an area of leafy suburbs. The sidewalks were neatly manicured. But in between lanes, a strip of tropical growth was being allowed to flourish naturally. The suburbs had strips of rainforest running between residential avenues. Troops of Long-tailed Macaques patrolled the jungle corridors. A dozen species of birds could be seen or heard by pulling over to the side of the road. The taxi driver was intrigued by my interest in Malaysian natural history. He had to pause several time for me to look at a monkey or bird or butterfly, which I had seen. “Maybe you should come and live in Malaysia” he said after a while. “Malaysia might benefit from people like you”. He then went onto explain the immigration procedures. A foreigner should deposit one hundred and fifty thousand dollars into a fixed deposit and take the slip to the Immigration Department. They would then immediately give him or her permanent residency, he explained. I listened patiently but did not take too seriously that the process of obtaining permanent residency would be so simple. But perhaps there was some truth to it. I had heard a story from neighboring Singapore. I had met a Sri Lankan who had graduated in media studies from a Singaporean university. The government had identified this as a skill which was required. Soon after graduation, a letter arrived in the post. It asked her to fill out the enclosed application form and send it to the Department of Immigration, if she would like to receive permanent residency to live and work in Singapore. The form was duly submitted and within a few weeks she had received her permanent residency, all done by mail.

A few days later, I was browsing through some Malaysian tourism literature. Much to my surprise, on the inside back cover was a paragraph explaining the simplicities of obtaining permanent residency. The story told by the taxi driver was true. It went on to say that having obtained permanent residency, foreigners can acquire two houses to a specified limit without any formalities. An interesting contrast in attitudes. Malaysia is one of the most prosperous and upwardly mobile nations in Asia. It has the world’s tallest building, Formula One racing, petroleum reserves, manufactures its own cars and so on. Yet it keeps going out of its way to attract foreign capital, both intellectual and financial. Singapore is the same. A million foreigners work there, powering its economy.

In Sri Lanka, it is a different tale. There was this dilapidated, ramshackle fortress town in the south. The local residents could not afford to maintain some of the houses crumbling down. A shame, because they were steeped in history and style. No state agency could have undertaken a conservation project to stem the tide or to restore the buildings to their original grandeur. Enter the foreigners. They brought hard cash and a love for things that are good and long in style and elegance. They sympathetically restored the crumbling villas and other buildings into enclaves of chic. The southern Riviera of Sri Lanka was born. The investment in capital and tender loving care received a predictable Sri Lankan response. Hysteria about foreigners buying up Sri Lanka’s heritage filled the pages of the national press. A hundred per cent tax was introduced (once again) for the purchase of land by foreigners. Did Sri Lanka realize who it was punishing? Certainly not the foreigners who will find developed economies like Singapore and Malaysia eagerly welcoming them to invest their cash and know how. Sri Lanka is the loser. When we discourage foreign ownership, the country receives less money. There is less money circulating in the economy generating a chain of employment and investment. Everyone loses.

The Malaysians and the Singaporeans have realized this. Whether it is for tourism or technology, they value the know-how and the money which foreigners bring. The visitor center at the Petronas Tower has a short video documentary on the construction of the towers. The dialogue narrates that Malaysians learnt much from the foreign firms who worked on the project. A strong nation like Malaysia has no problem in admitting in public that it can learn from foreigners. Only Sri Lanka seems to act as if foreigners should be treated with suspicion and contempt. Over fifteen centuries ago, Anuradhapura had a Greek quarters. The thriving city knew the value of foreign investment. It is not enough to simply have a Board of Investment which courts Foreign Direct Investment through sweeteners such as free trade zones. We need a change of attitude at all levels to understand that the world is one village. We need a more receptive attitude to harness other peoples money, that of the foreigners, for our economy to grow. Their success and our success in inseparable.

Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.