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The US Open and Sri Lankan policy

Sep 19, 2011 2:30:47 PM - www.ft.lk

Last week I received an invite for an ‘Inventors Day Celebration’ in one of the leading schools in the country and the master in charge shared a thought that I felt was a cutting edge idea.
Apparently, every one of us is an inventor in some part of our daily life. The issue is that some of us know about it and have commercialised it, whilst some have kept it such a secret that even they are not aware of it.

He went on to explain that whilst we focus on our career, if we do not invest some time on this area of ‘invention,’ we will just become part of the herd, which will result in our brain not expanding and developing.
Let me practice the concept of ‘invention’ on this hobby that I pursue weekly. I have themed it ‘The US Open and Sri Lankan Policy’. Hope you will enjoy it, as much I enjoyed presenting it to you.
Federer disaster
The best match of the US Open Tennis Tournament 2011 was the semi final match between six times Wimbledon champion/five times US open men’s winner Roger Federer and the reigning Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic.
Federer was at the helm in the fifth set leading 5-3 and 40/15. At one point he was at a double match point and serving for the match when Djokovic replied with a swashbuckling backhand return that stunned the crowd, which led to pin-drop silence.
Djokovic then gestured to the crowd jokingly as to why applause wasn’t extended and followed with a smile whilst the stadium erupted with a clap of hands. This broke the concentration of the great Federer and Djokovic went on to make it 5-4 and thereafter to secure the match. He became the US Open Men’s Champion of 2011 and added to list of securing the third grand slam championship this year.
Parallel 1: On Sri Lanka’s policy a parallel perspective that can be made is the rank of 52 by the Global Economic Forum on the competitiveness of countries for 2011. It is an outstanding achievement given that we were ranked 79 two years back to be in the top 50 now, but the fact of the matter is unless the critical policy changes are made on the ‘process efficiency’ aspect, Sri Lanka will not be able to garner the full potential as country post the war.
For instance on the area of FDIs we attracted into the country in the first half of 2011, the performance is at $ 0.43 billion, which is quite low. May be the ‘Doing Business’ score can throw more light on the conducive policies that are required for the country power ahead.
Going back to the US Open, in the women’s circuit the world’s top tennis player is Caroline Wozniacki, who is trained by her very own father Piotr Wozniacki, who is incidentally not a professional coach. This same trend was seen at Wimbledon when four of the top ladies tennis players in the tournament were coached by their own dads. To be specific, semi finalist Sabine Lasicki, Belarus number one Victoria Azarenka and Autrian star Tamira Paszek.
The rationale for this trend being the 24 hour training schedule that is required if one needs to compete at the highest level of the sport. Piotr also highlighted the importance of the emotional bonding between a coach and player to instil a behavioural change.
Parallel 2: To me the parallel to Sri Lankan policy is in the area of its iconic tea industry. Politicians who are close to the trade unions have brought about policy changes that have led to the near fall of the industry. If I am to share the nuts and bolts, the recent wage hike agreed at the last Collective Agreement was as high as at Rs. 515 plus. This has led to the Cost of Production almost at tipping point against the net Sales Value.
This situation is further aggravated due to the Middle Eastern uprising causing a demand drop at the auctions based on the principle of demand and supply, which means that the COP is sometimes higher than the NSA.
My view is that personal bonding is good, provided that decisions are made with facts and data. I guess on the above issue, a better option would have been to decentralise the decision-making similar to any other private sector company, by which the salary hikes are determined on the financial model of the company. Who knows, some RPCs might be able to afford a higher wage rate especially if it’s skewed to growing of rubber.
Serena diamonds
This time’s ‘US Open’ was memorable with some athletes launching into new ranges of lifestyle merchandise. If I may take you back, tennis players of the past like Anna Kurnikova have earned more money off the court with sponsorships and endorsements than on the tennis court. Serena Williams took centre stage this year with her branded diamond earrings and necklace range, which sure gave glitter to the game.
Parallel 3: The parallel to Sri Lankan policy is the tourism industry of Sri Lanka. Whilst the optimism is high with a 40% plus odd growth reported in the first half of 2011, last week’s chamber head of the hospitality industry in press conference stated that occupancy was as low as 35 per cent even with almost 200,000 stock of rooms under refurbishment.
I strongly feel that whilst the numbers look attractive on paper, the reality must be captured with some serious policy changes to tracking visitors at BIA. If not, when the glitter fades (just like in the case of Williams) the shock will be too much for the system to bear, especially with unconfirmed reports stating that only 29% visitors visit Pinnawela and a mere 5% visit the Yala National Park.
Hence it’s very important to have the right data for decision making so that for instance the strategies such as activating policy changes on increasing the Sri Lanka Tourism budget for promoting Sri Lanka can be pursued.
Murray’s exit
Andy Murray once again had to bite the dust to exit a tournament at semi final stage for the eighth time. Some questioned if he had what it takes to make it to a final given the entrenched competition that comes to play at that level of the game.
Parallel 4: My pick up to a Sri Lankan policy parallel is that we as a nation post war must move towards strategic partnerships rather than just deals which normally exist during times of high risk. But this can happen only when transparency exists.
The best case in point is the recent World Economic Forum report highlighting that in the attribute of ‘Public Trust in Politicians’, ‘Irregular Payments’ and ‘Independence of the Judiciary,’ the score had declined to an overall ranking of 113 from the earlier rank of 39. This sure communicates a strong signal for the reform required if we are to play the game at the highest level.
Djokovic attitude
The golden boy of the tournament was the Serbian athlete Novak Djokovic who demonstrated to the crowd how a winning attitude can change the game even at the highest level. The epic turnaround at the Semi Finals with Federer and then destroying Nadal in all ends by slowing the games sure brought out the spirit of the games. After many matches he was seen dancing on the courts to entertain the crowd, which I saw last was almost five years back when Andre Agassi was playing ATP and before that Jimmy Connors.
Parallel 5: The parallel I can pick up for Sri Lankan policy is on international diplomacy. We have not yet mastered the art of winning the audience on our post war achievements. I feel the top hierarchy of the private sector needs to play a greater role in this agenda but what is more important is a coherent strategy at play.
If we do not do this as a matter of urgency, even with all the achievements we can be on the losing side. We have to understand that the world is powerful and shapes the destiny of nations. The Arab Spring and the anti corruption chant in India that even moved the most powerful democracy gave us a vibe of how things can change overnight in today’s world.
Sri Lanka must be sensitive that whilst China and India are high growth economies, in the short and medium term our export business will come from the US and EU and hence international diplomacy must be pursued.
After 38 years
Serena Williams went out to the Arthur Ashe stadium as the fancied player to win the women’s crown at the coveted US Open 2011. The victor was Sam Stasur from Australia who took back the prized trophy after a lapse of 38 years beating the younger William with some crafty ground play.
Parallel 6: The parallel to my mind is the apparel industry of Sri Lanka which is the blue-eyed foreign exchange earner for the country. May be its time we move away from the ethical tag and work on diversifying the business to the BRIC. A model country that can be benchmarked is Turkey. This will require to some extent policy reforms which I guess will have to be activated even if it’s painful.
Fined $ 2,000
The ugly side of sportsmanship emerged when multiple Wimbledon champion Serena Williams lashed out at a line judge for foot faulting her. Serena burst out that even if she were to meet her in the hallway, she should look away as she did not like her. Serena was hit out with a US$ 2,000 dollar fine but a point that needs to be highlighted is that she is already within a two-year probation period for behaviour control and she can be handed down a ban if not corrected.
Parallel 7: The parallel to me is that we must find out why the private sector has 168 billion as at end March 2011 in the kitties of the 227 listed companies in the stock exchange. Is it that there are no opportunities to invest or that policy is not right for internal investment?
The fact is that Rs. 168 billion is way above the FDI target set for 2011 which is 1.5 billion dollars. Just like Serena Williams shouted for the line judge to look away whilst walking down the corridor, it cannot be done. Everyone is important if we are serious about inclusive growth in the post war development agenda.
Make time
A surprise at the US Open 2011 was the celebrities on show. From the First Lady and two girls and singer Enrique Iglesias with his multimillion dollar wife, former tennis star Anna Kournikova.
Parallel 8: The parallel is that we must also attract ‘the audience’ to the country so that we can dilute the international reputation that Sri Lanka is dished out by the super power. This will require a global brand building strategy that must be powered by a budget of US$ 30-40 million. If not, we might have our own victories back home but no one will know. This is especially true given the advertising muscle of brands like Malaysia and Thailand or for that matter the Maldives. Separately from an investment perspective Vietnam, Indonesia, Maritius and South India are being very friendly to investments.
Concluding thoughts
I recall my coach once saying that even though tennis stars are photogenic, the real beauty can be seen in them only when they remove their shoes. The logic being that the feet of the rich and famous are rugged, black near their feet and sometimes split in two, due the extensive training they undergo.
I guess the public view of an athlete or businessman is only a glimpse of life that gets attention to one tenth of one’s life and we must learn to know the balance 90 per cent before making a judgement.
From a Sri Lankan policy perspective, unless someone has worked in the public sector hands-on, you will never know how hard it is to bring in reform in a political economy like Sri Lanka, just like any other South Asian country, which means one must have maturity and patience in this drive to making Sri Lanka a top 30 country globally
(The author is an award winning marketer and business personality who has a double degree in Marketing, MBA and currently reading for a doctoral degree in business. He is an alumni of Harvard University. The thoughts expressed are his own and not the views of any organisation he serves in Sri Lanka or internationally.)

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