Sri Lanka is a country rich in its values and with a modern outlook. This small country has so much potential that global investors know our worth and are keen to step in due to the endless advantages we have to offer whether it be through our strategic location or the richness in our soil.
Today, in the 21st century, for any country to prosper, a strong youth generation has to be in place. When compared to youth 30 years ago, the aspirations of this generation has changed rapidly. For example, 30 years ago, if a youth was questioned on what his aspirations are, he would simply say he wants to read a good book. But today, the aspirations of our youth are vast as they are surrounded by upgrading technology and the world is just a click away. Their aspirations are different and dynamic keeping in line with worldy trends.
But despite the developing global trends, some aspirations between our past and present youth are common even to this day. The youth, which ever country they reside in, yearn for a good education, employment, a good quality of life, a good source of income, good governance, a strong democracy and anti corruption.
This week, I was invited to speak at the “Innovation Network of Asia 2019” in Jakarta, Indonesia where I was able to discuss about Sri Lanka and the aspirations of our youth and what need to be done to capitalize their potential.
After we gained Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka faced three major youth uprisings which costed us more than 300,000 lives. And during this time, over 4 million youth left our shores, some in fear and some in search of a better future.
Sri Lanka faced its first youth uprising in 1971 in the south followed by the northern youth uprising in 1983 which lasted for over 30 years. This uprising created one of the world’s most ruthless terrorist organizations. The government back then appointed a commission in 1989, to probe as to what went wrong for such an uprising to take place and this led to the stark reality that the governments back then had failed to meet the aspirations of the youth, hence the country had to face such deadly uprisings.
So what has Sri Lanka done as a country to address these issues and how have we learnt from our past mistakes? In 1947, our government back then decided families must be resettled in the dry zones for agricultural purposes providing irrigational skills which continued till the early 1990s. Since then, we created a youth ministry, a youth council, and many youth programs in order to address these issues.
In 2005, my father and present Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakasa, who was sworn in as the President back then, together with his government decided that terrorism must be eradicated from Sri Lanka as it was the youth who were being heavily scarred. His government managed to wipe out terrorism within four years after which a vigorous program of rehabilitation, reconciliation and resttlement was launched in the country. We started building all our sectors and started expanding our airports. We also began expanding our maritime sector by strenghtening the Colombo Port and by building the Hambantota Port. We also built highways aiming to connect the airports to the ports so that internal trans shipment can take place smoothly. And educational reforms were introduced along with vocational training and a rural economic transformation was launched during this period. We managed to achieve some goals through these initiatives.
Under Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka was able to achieve an economic growth of 7.2 percent and following the end of the war in 2009, we managed to double our per capita income and reduce the unemployment rate to less than 5 percent. Bank interest rates were reduced to encourage more youth to transform into entrepreneurs.
However, looking back, we know there is still a lot more Sri Lanka needs to do for its youth. From 2015 to 2019, Sri Lanka went through a severe political instability which affected our national security and our national economy was at a verge of collapse as a result.
However just last month, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected as the new President of Sri Lanka and we believe through his firm vision and the vision of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka will once again create political stability for the next five years. We as a government, and as a nation have realized we need to create more opportunities for our youth not only to be a part of our economic growth but also to be a part of the administration. We believe the new generation of youth have much to offer and they should play a stronger role in political activities and be a part of the governing process.
This is why Sri Lanka, two years ago, proposed a 25 percent youth representation in nominations for local council elections. Today in addition to a strong youth representation in the local councils, the new interim government also has an equal youth representation who are contributing to the new policies and agendas of the government.
At large, the new government, also strongly believes in implementing educational reforms in Sri Lanka that can cater to the demand that is out there in the world. We also propose to start a fund to support innovative startups and entrepreneurship. In addition to financing, this fund will also guide youth and mentor them for further business expansions and partnerships.
Countries like Indonesia has achieved so much just through innovative start ups. Countries like Estonia, who has a population of only 1.2 million also have four unicorn start ups. Taking these countries into consideration, there is much that Sri Lanka also can learn and implement.
There are barriers this new government will definitely have to face in the coming 5 years. But we are committed to creating a level playing field for all, so that every Sri Lankan can be a part of the country’s growth.
Sri Lanka also has an advantage as it offers free higher education which is very important for our youth and this must be safeguarded. But with changing trands, we will look at new educational partnerships and also look at establishing more vocational and skill development institutions. We will also look to expand universities and introduce new universities especially in ares such as maritime and aviation and also expand our tourism industry and introduce more technology in the agricultaral sector.
Today, Asia has 700 million youth but we are also faced with the dark reality that Asia faces the highest unemployment in the world. Also the epidemics and poverty are the challenges that Asia has to face. This is something regional leaders should understand.
There is much work that lies ahead of us but it is never too late to start. Sri Lanka has a firm vision and we will soon be an example to the world of a country which rose from terrorism and hardships, to transforming into a leading nation with the backing of our youth generation. Our work has begun.