ECONOMYNEXT – Minister Sarath Weerasekara, a former naval Rear Admiral, insists that all Sri Lankans – especially youth – need military training in camps to build a disciplined society. I am sure he intends well, but his rationale doesn’t hold up.
I am uncertain what his definition of discipline is, so let’s look to the Oxford dictionary. It defines“discipline”as training people to obey rules through punishment and controlling behavior as a result. Is this unquestioning compliance driven by fear what Sri Lanka needs as a priority to create social wellbeing and progress? Is this approach consistent with our values?
Minister Weerasekara had earlier referred to the high incidence of traffic accidents as an example of lack of discipline. However, his method of discipline is already at play in obtaining and using a driving license in Sri Lanka, founded upon training people to obey rules. Failure when learning and later for breaking the rules results in punishment. Hefty fines and more if caught breaking rules, and at the stage of learning, failure is high financial and emotional costs to trainees.
During the learning, too, the disciplinarian instructors would scream at you even if you mess up even a wee bit.
Ultimately, the drivers who went through this training and are aware of the punishment that awaits still cause accidents. So, what keeps going wrong?
There’s a practical, and then, a conceptual test of road rules. If you stop to think deep enough, you will spot the problems right there. Rules are just that, and they do not give a reason why you should invest in them. For instance,learners are taught what each sign means, but they aren’t encouraged to think about and understand for themselves the practical reasons why they should be obeyed.
Neither are they taught to develop their awareness, values, and empathy. Accidents often happen when the driver isn’t aware – due to fatigue, intoxication, or distractions. Driving reckless knowing the rules is a lack of empathy for oneself and others on the road. Lack of values – including respect for human life and people’s wellbeing is increasingly becoming a hallmark of our society and governance systems.
The flaws aren’t limited to driving licenses. Success in our education system is predicated on repetitive memorization and compliance as opposed to critical thinking, scientific exploration, creative expression, and the building of practical competencies. There’s evidence aplenty that this colonial approach could be linked to the nations’ lack of innovation, entrepreneurship, and drive for progress compared to more enlightened nations.
Sri Lanka has an ex-serviceman as the president, and Dr. Weerasekara and many decorated ex-military men are now in top positions. Yet, the country is struggling on many fronts – economically, socially, dealing with the pandemic, and governance.
You’d argue they would be disciplined in their approach, then, what gives?
The governments – today’s and recent past – have not been great at critical analysis, systems thinking, and learning from their and others’ successes and failures. Unfortunately for them and us, skills such as critical thinking, adaptability, and a learner’s attitude are far superior in solving problems than one-tracked and often misguided notions of discipline.
In tackling the pandemic and elsewhere, the Sri Lankan government has failed to walk its talk. For instance, despite its commitments to using and succeeding through information technology, Sri Lanka has failed to use widely available mobile technology for tracing cases, facilitating vaccinations, or treatments during the pandemic. I’ve tried two systems set up by the government to register for vaccines, and they’ve both crashed.
Despite proclamations to otherwise, widely available technology was not considered – for instance, usage of mobile phones for tracing. And, no, it’s not a problem of lack of connectivity either. Sri Lanka has more mobile connections than people. Half the population has internet access, including an overwhelming majority in the urban areas that were and still are the epicenters of the pandemic.
Sri Lanka has failed at systems thinking and adaptability. Another critical failure is competence – and It’s evident in the gap of the leaders’ talk and walks on IT, economy, and else. And this problem isn’t limited to the current government but also previous ones, some opposition leaders, and many corporate sector organizations. Rather than competence, determining values in claiming high-profile roles seem to bepolitical loyalty, unquestioning compliance, and nepotistic links.
On the pandemic,the man who oversaw health services when Sri Lanka successfully tackled the first wave, was “upgraded” and moved to a post which is not his expertise as a reward. Competence rejected.
Governance and the rule of law have failed, too, with justice eluding ordinary citizens. Still, others with suspected links to high places seem to have gotten away and often thrived despite convictions of murder, theft, rape, and else with impunity.
We could discuss many factors critical to the nation’s success than coercive discipline but let me highlight a couple that should hit home for Minister Weerasekara. Especially given that he has MA and M Phil degrees in Buddhist Philosophy, according to his Wikipedia page.
Mindfulness – a fundamental concept of Buddhism – has been absorbed into educational and professional development systems worldwide. For example, UK primary education system is coaching young children on some of the skills. Skills cultivated through mindfulness include awareness, scientific observation, empathy, equanimity, and compassion. In addition to being skills on their own, modern psychology has recognized these as essential ingredients of intelligence – especially emotional.
Buddha was quite big on critical thinking, too – questioning, seeking evidence, and cultivating a learner’s mind. Sri Lanka’s primary religion stands out as one of the few in the world that is not predicated on punitive discipline but by intrinsic regulation based on building intelligence and skills to reduce human suffering and promote the wellbeing of people and nations.
The humble scribe here attended – albeit decades later – the same alma mater as Minister Weerasekara. While there was some serious glorification of Buddhism and rituals and “discipline”, unfortunately, not a lot was invested in building those above and other skills that the religion prescribes.
Media has quoted Mr. Weerasekara saying,“any course or training that enhances personality, could gradually turn society into a disciplined body.”Even a little knowledge of psychology would tell you this categorically is false. Training can be used to cultivate positive and productive and negative and counterproductive habits, and Buddhism agrees with the scribe here. Any training provided must further wellbeing, agency, and skills.
How training is conducted is as important as what the theme is. If punishment is the motivator – then any habits learned are built on negative motivations, and fear of punishment is likely to invite negative mental states, including anxiety and depression. Avoidance, illegal shortcuts, and social stalemates are more likely results of such as opposed to progress and wellbeing.
Sri Lanka had a proud history and civilization. That Ptolemy made the tiny Island nation larger than life and central to his map says how remarkable our ancestors were. But, unfortunately, we can’t claim the same pride anymore. Today’s morals seem derived from colonial oppressors than those that were the foundation of that marveled civilization.
Militaristic discipline is an idea borrowed from our colonial overlords. The same can be argued for many of the operational values. They only serve to enable momentary and colonial-like supremacy for a select few and those up corrupt hierarchies, but not for the people.
The minister could do far better looking at Buddhist philosophy that he is quite well-versed in. Well, philosophy is just a fancy word, and the teachings are ethics and skills to be cultivated. Presently, Buddhism is relegated to ceremonial rituals, stories, and as a tool for controlling the masses.
A better starting point than military discipline for the honorable minister and his colleagues in the government would be enacting the Buddhist values that they and our constitution claim to give primacy to. I would implore them to start with his government, with Dasa Raja Dhamma, to improve how they govern and the nation’s well being.
About the author: Nipuna is a specialist in communicating for positive social, behaviour, and policy change having worked for over 15 years with local and international development agencies. The views herein are his own and not of any organization he is or has been affiliated to. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org