‘System Change’ requires community-centric attitudes


At present, the need for a ‘system change’ has attracted the attention of many parties including the politicians, professionals, media, and the clergy in our country. A ‘system change’ is a complex process as several sub-systems exist within a society in a very complex way. Therefore, a ‘system change’ does not happen just by temporarily changing the legal regulations, tax policy or the prices of certain commodities. In a system change, a considerable number of complexes, interrelated factors and forces would change. Among them, the most important factor is the attitudes of people who are most affected by the ‘system change’ on which, the acceptance or rejection of the change, and the success or failure of the change would be determined.

So, how should this change happen? For that, our attitudes should be community-centric. If community-centric attitudes are formed within us, the system change we dream of, becomes easy. First, we need to clarify what community-centric attitudes are. Community-centric attitudes are the attitudes that; see the whole,understand the whole, and relate to the whole community. We often have person-centric attitudes. From the day a child is born, we are used to thinking that it would be good, if our child gets a good school, it would be good, if our child passed the grade five scholarship examination, it would be good, if our child passed the ordinary level and advanced level examinations and enter the university. We are in a big competition until we come to the community-centric attitude that thinks, it is good if everyone’s children get a good school, if everyone’s children study well, if everyone’s children get a good education, a good job and a good life.

Some people who have individualistic attitudes join and form different sub-groups. It may spread in different directions as a group of one political ideology, one religious ideology or professional ideology. In community-centric attitudes, ‘I’ is replaced by ‘Us’. Recently, we saw that there was a group of people who had the attitude that “if I have fuel, that’s enough”. There were also people who thought, “If I bring home some rice and vegetables; if I take some medicine; if I go on my way – that’s enough.” We cannot have a system change from this point of view. That’s why we should go for a community-centric attitude. There are some good examples of this, from the world. In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, China was severely affected. At the time of the crisis, the attitude that China promoted among people was to behave ‘not to be a carrier of Covid-19’ to others.

It is a very strong attitude that has promoted China among the people. ‘I am careful so that I will not get affected’ is correct but it is person-centred. It seems that the second attitude of ‘not being a carrier of Covid-19 to others’ has been built at a much greater level. Indeed, such strong community-centric attitudes are needed in a ‘system change’.

Examples of this can also be found in Cuba. After Fidel Castro became the leader of Cuba, he spoke to the ‘heart of the people’ to change attitudes. He said:“if you don’t know, learn from someone who knows, and if you know, teach someone who doesn’t”. From the attitude of ‘everyone should learn, and everyone should teach’, Fidel was able to change the country by bringing literacy to a very high level and by enriching education and changing attitudes. All these were built through community-centric attitudes. Also, in the development of Malaysia, the rulers including Dr. Mahathir Mohamad told the people that “we have first-class infrastructure, resources and technology, but if the people have third-class attitudes, we will gain no outcome.” To have first-class, community-centric attitudes, the rulers provided ideals and the people followed them.

There should be ideals for building community-centric attitudes. Civic responsibility sinks into our hearts when the media, clergy, and professionals provide ideals. Reading a book or using the internet alone, do not change people’s attitudes. Mahathir Mohamad and other leaders changed the attitudes of their people by providing ideals. A best example that could be provided for that is, when he was planning to go to another country for medical treatment when he fell ill, he said, “If I had not developed the country’s health system to such an extent that I could not get medicine from a hospital in my country, what kind of development would have happened?” He developed an advanced health system that could take care of the entire people of the country,including himself. He showed by example, that it is not ethically right for a true leader to run away to another country and seek medical treatment, which the public cannot afford. In Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew also began by auditing the wealth of the rulers, including himself. In providing such ideals, it is natural that we motivate the people to fulfil their civic responsibility and build community-centric attitudes.

We had an attitude that ‘If I earn, I will eat, I don’t care about the others.’ A situation has now arisen where I cannot eat even if I earn. Even if I earn and consume, behind each product, there is a contribution of many people. For example, to eat a mouthful of rice, a country-full of labour is required. Various professionals are involved in it. Because of this, it is difficult to change the existing system if there are person-centric attitudes such as ‘If I earn, I will eat’. So, first the attitude must change and that’s where the real struggle lies.

There are also people who think that ‘to get a better life, we have to leave Sri Lanka’. Whatever is right and wrong about it, it is also a person-centric attitude. Can’t I stay and rebuild the country too? If it is possible to think likewise and look for alternatives, it might be a community-centric attitude. Some farmers who produce vegetables and fruits by adding poisonous chemicals while simultaneously grow vegetables and fruits in a separate section of their farm sans using such fertilisers for their family’s consumption. In such a person-centric attitude, ‘the whole’ is not seen. Even if they only think about the safe and healthy food of their household, they do not see how they are being poisoned by other means without realising it. There are no countries in the world that have progressed based on person-centric attitudes. We must move towards community-centric attitudes, seeing the whole and representing the whole.

Another important point to be emphasised here is that some officials do not fulfil their ‘professional responsibility’ properly. Politicians filled public institutions by giving jobs to their political henchmen to fulfil their mere political promises. They later said, public service is a burden to the country, and ultimately people must do the heavy lifting of it. In the past few days, the media pointed out that there are excess employees in some public sector organisations and because they do not have specific duties, they play carrom during the working hours or engage in part-time jobs or wait in fuel queues. But they get their timely salary from the government. Also, because they are not qualified enough to carry out essential technical functions, they sub-contract them to the private sector and spend a substantial amount to get that work done. It is quite disappointing to see a collapsing economy and a rising cost of living in various spheres because of one organisation, one group of people who work according to individual-centric attitudes.

In some public sector organisations, which were running at a loss, we have seen how employees fought for bonuses and overtime. Despite the work, it was also revealed that several committees of another public sector institution had refreshments worth 10 lakhs in one month. This kind of situation is caused by working away from community-centric attitudes. Therefore, in a system change, each professional has a specific responsibility, where they must play their ‘own part’ properly. Everyone has their part to play in their career. If that part is completed properly, community-centric attitudes are easily formed in others.

Countries like Singapore and Japan, which provided ideals of community-centric attitudes to the people, changed effectively. When Japan was caught up in the World War II, the cities of Hiroshima, Nagasaki were destroyed, and the economy collapsed; they all worked together for even eighteen hours in certain industries. Work inspired them and they worked tirelessly. Even today, the Japanese are working for the country according to the most efficient management systems. They worked in industries, bequeathing to the world ‘a system of Japanese management’.

The Prime Minister of Switzerland once mentioned that he travels in the third class of the train because there is no fourth class. It is such actions that provide ideals. Former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was once asked by a journalist, “Why do you wear the same clothes over and over again?” She stated that since she is not a model, the existing clothes are enough, and she will buy new clothes after the existing ones are outdated. She provided ideals by performing her other personal activities like other people in the country.

All these analyses show that it is important to build community-centric attitudes in both the rulers and the public to manage the current crises and instability in our country. Only then, can the country be built instead of ‘character building’ by allowing arbitrary power. We do not remember the names of the former Prime Ministers of Japan. But we remember Japan well. They built not characters but the country. They have done a real ‘system change’. To go to a ‘system change’ that we are currently looking for, the entire society must move away from person-centric attitudes and enter ‘community-centric attitudes’. Essentially, ideals should be presented, to follow.

Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe

(Senior Lecturer, Department of Human Resource Management, University of Kelaniya)

By Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe