Speech made by Ajith Nivard Cabraal, State Minister of Money, Capital Markets and State Enterprise Reforms at the Trade and Investment Forum organised by the Pakistan High Commission on 24th February 2021.
Honourable Prime Minister Imran Khan, Honourable Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, Honourable Ministers, My dear friends.
First of all, I want to thank the organizers of this Pakistan-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Conference for inviting the Sri Lankans to commit their cooperation to you. As your Foreign Minister just mentioned, I believe this Forum would offer great opportunities for our two countries to co-operate effectively, and I am eagerly looking forward to that. At the same time, I think it’s a privilege to be able to speak at a Forum where two Prime Ministers represent their country’s economic spheres, which is also a very rare occasion.
Honourable Prime Ministers, our two countries have come a long way since we gained independence: you, in 1947, and we, in 1948. Over the last 73 odd years, we have broken free from many shackles of Colonialism. We are finally beginning to “think big” of our respective economies and focus on the next era of our respective countries. I have listened to speeches of the Pakistan Prime Minister as well as that of our own Prime Minister, and have seen a common trait. That is, they both talk about bringing the poverty levels down and making sure that the fruits of development reach every section of the country’s people. Those are very important outcomes that we all need to be focusing on.
Honourable Prime Ministers, by 1992, within 45 years of being independent, Pakistan was able to win the Cricket World Cup under your current Prime Minister, by beating England. We in Sri Lanka were very happy to watch him play Cricket, but when he played against us, we were not so happy! Nevertheless, we have been regularly delighted with the exploits of the Cricket team of Pakistan. Perhaps as a result of their successes, we also took a cue, and by 1997, 49 years since our own independence, we beat Australia to become the World Cricket champions. Since you had already beaten England to become champions by then, the two countries which started Cricket (England and Australia) were both beaten by two countries of the subcontinent, which then showed the world that we can do it!
Unfortunately, however, we have not done so well in other areas, such as cooperation in trade and investment. As your Foreign Minister just mentioned, the targets that we have set for ourselves in this sphere seem to be quite low. We should not be looking at 300 or 400 million dollars of trade and investment. We should really be looking at a lot more, given the relationships that we have, the friendships that we enjoy, and the way in which we have cooperated with each other. We should be talking about trade and investment between ourselves in the billions of dollars. Let’s therefore see whether today could be the day where we start on that target. Hopefully, today we will find ways and means by which we can co-operate to achieve those goals.
Honourable Prime Ministers, we all know that there is a resource gap in our countries, and that such resource gap has to be filled with investment. In the Colonial times, many of those countries that reached high per capita incomes, didn’t fill the resource gap with investment. They took the dubious step to conquer other countries and forcibly grab resources. By doing so, they were able to reach the prosperity levels that they are at today. But our two countries have not done it that way. We have accessed resources and investment legally and honourably. We invited and received investments. We took loans. We traded in a fair manner. We played by the rules. That is how our countries have progressed and developed.
So, let’s see how we can do even better. In my view, to do that successfully, we have to make sure that we invest in each other’s countries. I was a former Governor of the Central Bank, and my experience tells me that we have been mainly investing in the West for too long. We have invested in those countries based on the “credit ratings” given by various Western credit rating agencies. Then, we get about a 1 per cent return. But, when those countries’ investors invest in our economies, we pay about 7 per cent as interest, due to our supposedly “poor credit rating”. Have you also ever wondered as to why when we lend money to the West, it is called an “investment”, but, when they lend money to us it is a called a “loan”? Not only that. In accordance with that strange arrangement, we suffer from an interest differential of around 6 per cent on our reciprocal investments. On that basis, if we have forex reserves of 10 billion dollars and our market borrowings are higher than that, we will have a 6 per cent up-front negative carry on our total reserves. That works out to about six hundred million dollars, which is a lot of money!
Against this background, I think we need to think as to how we can co-operate with each other and in particular, as to where we can invest in each other’s economies and countries. Your State Bank of Pakistan and our Central Bank of Sri Lanka should now be looking at ways and means by which we can co-operate in our respective forex investments. These are the big tickets that can make an impact in our cooperation. That’s a very important part where we can make a significant difference in the way we do business and investment between our two countries in the future. In addition, we must also promote trade within our private sectors.
My dear friends, Prime Minister Imran Khan made a fervent plea recently for a Post-Covid moratorium to provide some real financial support to the countries that need to deal with the fall-out of the pandemic. Sadly, it has not yet been favourably responded to, by the global financial community. Our President also made a similar plea a few months ago. But unlike what happened immediately after the tsunami, the world monetary authorities have been very slow in responding to these calls. If an year’s grace was given to the emerging nations for the forex payments that had to be made in that year to the multilateral institutions, it would have made a huge difference to those nations which have had to grapple with the sudden drop in their foreign receipts as a result of the pandemic. Let’s therefore agree to work together to achieve that kind of a global outcome, which is essential for the continued growth of our countries.
Honourable Prime Ministers, Pakistan is a 300-billion-dollar economy. We are an 80-billion dollar economy. In that context, I think if we can work out a scheme where our two countries have trade relationship of at least a billion dollars very soon. That would be a great outcome for both our countries.
Let’s also make our respective countries preferred destinations. Let’s make Pakistan a preferred destination from Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka a preferred destination from Pakistan. Let’s visit each other’s countries frequently. Let’s play a little more cricket as well. Maybe some club teams, school teams, or over-50 cricket teams (I can also participate then!), women’s teams, can play each other. We can also have exchanges of students. We already have that happening. In fact, we have to be grateful to Pakistan for providing 1000 scholarships to our kids to study in their universities. Let’s make films together. Let’s organize exhibitions. Deepening our co-operation in various ways is essential if we are to make our relationship meaningful and profitable.
Honourable Prime Ministers, I welcome the Pakistan Foreign Minister’s suggestion that we should now move from geo-politics to geo-economics, and why not? I think that’s an excellent basis for future co-operation, when we are reshaping our respective economies. We must keep that in mind, because I think it would be an important factor when we push forward our own economies. In that regard, I must also proudly mention that Sri Lanka is today emerging from economic stagnation which dragged us down over the last five years. In fact, Sri Lanka has been able to go through the recent difficult period with the Covid pandemic, even while maintaining low interest rates and protecting the value of our Rupee.
Honourable Prime Ministers, going forward, a continuous pipeline of investments would be a priority for us in much the same way that it will be for you. So, come invest with us. In the same way, Sri Lankans could invest with you. We have the Port City which is an exciting value proposition. We have the Hambantota Industrial Zone. We would like you to consider making investments there too. I also know you have some great industries in Pakistan. You have the Pharma industry. In fact, I met some of them last night and had wonderful conversations. Let’s see whether we can develop some partnerships in that field, as well.
Let’s now promote a sustainable South-South dialogue and partnership. One of the best economists of our country in the 1980s, Dr. Gamani Corea who was the Secretary General of UNCTAD, was the man who first proposed the “South-South” cooperation. Unfortunately, that laudable concept didn’t get enough traction at that time, but today would be a good day for us to take that initiative forward. That would be a tribute to that great man as well.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, we deeply appreciate the time you have spent here in Sri Lanka and the fact that you have been the first visitor to Sri Lanka after the pandemic. We greatly value your visit and we hope that today’s event would be the fore-runner for a great partnership. You have been involved in great partnerships in the field of Cricket and I think you know very well about the value of good partnerships. Let’s hope that the great partnership we are starting today would be a truly winning partnership for both Sri Lanka and Pakistan.