( Full Text of Dr P R Anthonis Memorial Oration Delivered at Sasakawa Hall by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha on January 22nd, 2018)
“Teach us to care and not to care,Teach us to sit still” (T.S.Eliot)
T. S. Eliot’s exhortation in ‘Ash Wednesday’ seems particularly appropriate when we consider the life of Dr. Anthonis, whom we celebrate today (Jan. 22). At the time of his death, less than eight years ago, he was 98, he had the stature of an icon. He had retired nearly 40 years earlier but was still thought of as one of the country’s most distinguished doctors.
He was well known for social service and as a dedicated family man, but he was in no sense a conformist. He did what he wanted to do, and saw no reason to limit his own sense of freedom, except when it came into conflict with the freedoms of others. In that sense he was a true liberal, though it is important in this day and age, when neo-liberalism is rampant, to register the difference between that selfish and destructive creed and liberalism.
The latter believes in freedom, but also affirms the need for social support, to facilitate all people having better opportunities to exercise their freedoms. The former, in denying the duties of the state with regard to economic and social rights, allows for a free-for-all in which the weakest are driven to the wall. For Dr Anthonis, born in the same year as our great liberal leader, Dudley Senanayake, the philosophy now many elements in government follow— fortunately not all—would have been anathema.
Is that why I was given the honour of delivering this oration in his memory? The gentleman who asked me obviously wanted a political dimension to my reflections, for he gave me a title on which to speak, and noted that Dr. Anthonis ‘often lamented the lack of a strong leadership in our political hierarchy’. I feel I should take up this challenge, but I will try to do so in terms of some principles, linked to the quotation with which I began. I should note though that I will not refrain from discussing personalities too, where appropriate, because this country has suffered more than most from the pursuit of personal agendas rather than national ones.
And perhaps we should begin with the cardinal error of the two most admired politicians this country had, namely D S Senanayake and his son Dudley. My admiration for them is enormous, but it is necessary to register that the rot perhaps set in here when the former decided that he wanted his son to succeed him. I recall my aunt Ena de Silva telling me that, when she went to the older Senanayake’s funeral house, her aunt Molly, as she called her, urged her to tell Dudley to take up the position. It took my aunt some time to understand what our first Prime Minister’s widow was talking about. It was, of course, the succession, and sadly Dudley succumbed despite qualms only to resign a couple of years later. But the bitterness that move engendered has stuck with us, and has set precedents that several of our leaders have succumbed to. Incidentally, one should note the role wives of leaders and mothers of potential leaders have played in this game, beginning with Molly, and running through Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Nalini Wickremesinghe and Shiranthi Rajapaksa, to say nothing of others and their progeny, the phenomenon made worse by our appalling electoral system.
‘Teach us to care, and not to care.’ What T S Eliot meant was that we should care about people and situations that need care. We should not care about our own aggrandizement. This does not mean that parents should not care about children, families upon dependents, politicians about their constituents. But they should not exercise that care at the expense of other people and other institutions more deserving of attention in particular contexts.
Unfortunately, our political system has entrenched what I would describe as that negative concept of care, indulgence to one’s own at the expense of the state. We begin with the lunacy of the private offices of Ministers being packed with their relations – who may be there only to give them an occupation, but they themselves do not accept their limitations and see themselves rather as decision makers.
I still recall my shock, in dealing with Kabir Hashim when he occupied the position I did later – but had a less interfering Minister than he proved to be – to find that I had to go through his sister-in-law. She was a charming woman, and straightforward – and revealed to me why the government in 2002 was so indulgent to the LTTE – but putting her in that position was not what I would have expected of Kabir Hashim. Later I found though that this was the rule, and indeed she at least was intelligent, which is more than can be said of some of those who wield authority on behalf of ministers.
But that is just the surface of the problem. More insidious is the assumption that the purpose of ministerial office is the continuation in office of the minister. As a result, jobs are given to individuals from the Minister’s constituency, as I found for instance when visiting the university at Oluvil, way back in the nineties, to find the security guards were all from Galle. Richard Pathirana had put them there, but they said in defence that the Galle port was packed with Ashraff’s men from the Kalmunai area. And, now, I find that Nipunatha Piyasa is packed with people from Galle, given the long tenure of the Vocational Training Ministry by Piyasena Gamage. I should note that I had a comparatively decent Minister, who assures people that he does not put in people from Kalutara. But this does not prevent his underlings from trying to influence decisions as to appointments. And the same is true with regard to the current Minister, though he too is comparatively speaking less ruthless about self interest than most Ministers.
And the situation is of course much worse now, given that all Ministers have to cater to massive catchment areas, given our appalling electoral system. The situation was bad enough in the old days, but they could affirm limits and their constituents had to accept these. Now no one will take no for an answer because there are other parliamentarians in the District to go behind. Since Ministers are in competition with those in their party too, they cannot afford to alienate anyone. The trough at which people feed then is massive, and you can stick your snout in at different places.
The President recently announced that the electoral system leads to massive corruption, a statement to which another of the sharp tongued aunts I had would have said, ‘Columbus has discovered….’ The phrase was used of the obvious, which someone suddenly asserted as though it were new. What is doubly sad about the President saying this is that three years ago he had an opportunity to change things, and indeed promised faithfully that he would implement that pledge in his manifesto too, before dissolving Parliament.
I do not think he was lying, but he did not keep his promise. His staff later suggested that he was dragooned into a premature dissolution by Western envoys anxious to keep their chosen Prime Minister in office. With the COPE report pending, the then Opposition was rearing to stick the knife in, since Arjuna Mahendran said he had acted on advice, which the Prime Minister had confirmed. I told the opposition leaders then that, if they wanted to move a motion of No Confidence on the Prime Minister, they should assure the President that he could appoint someone else he wanted, and they would not insist on the post going to someone of their choice.
But, as Vasudeva Nanayakkara foolishly admitted afterwards, they thought they had a majority and could appoint whom they wanted. As I have noted elsewhere, there is no one as devoted to the Westminster system as the old Left, and Vasudeva had forgotten that at that time we were subject to a constitution that allowed the President to dissolve Parliament straight away.
‘Teach us to care, and not to care.’ The Opposition then was concerned only about its own agenda, and did not for a moment think that they needed also to appreciate the President’s position, and not frighten him into an early dissolution. But in the heightened emotions of that period, there was no effort to consider not simply what one wanted, but also what the other person did not want. That basic principle of negotiation, not to try to win everything, but to ensure that no one loses too much, has never figured high in our political consciousness.
That of course is what has prevented a swift resolution to what is termed the National Question. Negotiations have been conducted in terms of keeping the gallery satisfied, as indeed I found when I was briefly appointed to the government team to talk to the TNA, way back in 2011. We had to put up with endless grandstanding from both G L Peiris and Mr Sambandhan, and worse, on the government side there were no minutes and no prior preparation. I am proud to say that we achieved consensus only with regard to issues that I took up (with some difficulty because G L did not want me to introduce anything new), and indeed Mr Sumanthiran and I produced a draft with regard to police and land powers that I think would have been mutually acceptable.
The proof of this is that the President called me on the morning we were due to present our draft, and said that I should not give too much away, obviously having been briefed by Sajin Vas Goonewardene, who had taken to calling me the TNA representative on the government side. Conversely Mr Sumanthiran told me as we were going in that he had been upbraided by their lawyer representative, Mr Kanag-Ishvaran, for having given too much away. Unfortunately, perhaps because we were getting too close to consensus, Sajin stopped telling me after that about meetings, and soon enough the discussions ceased The government instead decided to go for a Committee in Parliament as to which it let down the TNA with regard to prerequisites, so that in the end no one attended that Committee.
Indeed, not even its members bothered. Vasantha Senanayake and I did put up proposals to the committee, but there were just a few members to discuss them when, separately, we appeared before them. And sadly they did not bother to issue an interim report, even though Nimal Siripala de Silva, who chaired the committee, was quite capable of producing a document that would have addressed at least some major concerns. But he too is an outstanding example of a man who cares too much about safety rather than principle, which is why despite his great capacity he is stuck in a permanent secondary role that declines in importance with the years. Had he, as he was inclined to, taken the risk of supporting the present President way back in 2014, the country would not now be in the sad situation in which it finds itself, with no development, no investment, and threats looming on all sides.
I should of course expand on that statement since it may seem odd coming from someone who decisively supported the candidature of the current President. I have been asked recently if I regret that decision, which has been a difficult question to answer. I think on balance my answer is no because, as I have indicated above, the decision making process under the last government had been hijacked by individuals with neither capacity nor commitment. That is why the enormous promise of May 2009 was so sadly betrayed. But I must admit that the enormous promise of January 2015 has been even more sadly betrayed, and the consequences are very worrying.
This however is the place to return to the issues of principles, since to dwell on personalities, interesting and relevant as they are to the mess we are in, would be unproductive. Rather we should look at how the sterling commitments in the President’s manifesto that would have stopped this March of Folly have been so comprehensively ignored.
The reason of course is that those who now make decisions have their own agendas, and none of them is concerned with the structural changes that are essential if history is not to continue to repeat itself, with more corruption, more inefficiency, more waste. Not many, but a significant number, are primarily concerned with retribution, retribution for leaders of the last government, retribution for our armed forces who did a fantastic job in dealing with terrorism, with none of the advantages that the brutal powers that dominate the international arena possess (and who have only succeeded in provoking more insidious forms of terrorism so that their poor civilians are now going through the horrors we experienced for a quarter of a century, when we did not know where death would strike next). In passing I cannot help noting the sanctimoniousness with which one of those pompous asses who condemned us declared after the attack on the Commons that this should never happen again. It obviously never occurred to him to think of what he meant, to recognize the means required to ensure that those who work through terror – and who refuse to negotiate – cannot continue with the mayhem they perpetrate. When I remonstrated he noted that he had not supported many of the appalling unilateral attacks of his compatriots, and that is true, but he did not consider that his objections meant nothing, and the coalitions that perpetrate destructive regime change charged on. Conversely his objections to what we did have contributed to terrorism trying again to raise its head in this land, with the support from more complacent countries that did very little to help us in that awful period.
Despite this there are those amongst us who want to punish our forces. And there are those amongst us who wish, as much for political advantage as for revenge, to punish the past political leadership. And this is what obsesses them, not the changes our polity needs to prevent excesses in the future.
This is emphatically true with regard to the issue on which indeed action is needed, namely corruption. But as I pointed out early in 2015, it is not possible to prove corruption through the courts, given the range of defensive and dilatory stratagems available. Rather what I recommended was pro-active use of Freedom of Information, by publishing the Assets Declarations of all those in authority. These could be challenged, and investigated, with provision for all those who could not satisfactorily explain what seemed unusual wealth to be allowed to return it. They would in exchange be given immunity from prosecution but a limited moratorium on participation in public life. Interestingly I was told recently that one of those who milked the country ruthlessly under the last government had had some property repossessed by the leasing company, and that seems to me adequate punishment without wasting time and energy on prosecutions that will never happen.
Tellingly, the Global Forum on Asset Recovery seemed last month to come to the conclusion I had sketched out nearly three years ago, in that it has come up with what are termed ‘innovative’ tools …. ‘to address corruption and to recover stolen assets. One of them is to divert stolen assets to building new permanent assets for public good. The legal mechanism for this is the ‘non-conviction based forfeiture’ of stolen assets. An even more radical innovation is the ‘reversal of the burden of proof’ – i.e. putting the onus on the embezzler to prove that his wealth, or portion of it, is not ill-gotten.’ To facilitate this they are also trying it seems ‘to facilitate international co-ordination and to enable banks (famously, the Swiss banks) to break with the tradition of protecting the privacy of their depositors and to co-operate with governments and asset recovery agencies to provide information and to turn over ill-gotten deposits to respective governments.’
But obviously I was foolish to expect concern about this issue in 2015, given the record of the current government, which embarked within a few weeks of taking office on more ruthless plundering of the country than any of its predecessors. What happened at the Central Bank is horrifying, and what is more horrifying were the efforts of the Prime Minister to draw red herrings, the failure of the President to get rid of the Governor immediately, and the pressure on him to dissolve so that crooks who put the money makers of the previous administration in the shade could get off the hook.
And so we find that the Right to Information Act, which it was pledged would be passed early in 2015, was delayed, and has emerged in a watered down version. I sent the Prime Minister comments on the draft that was circulated then, but got no response, and it was clear he was determined to put it off – as with the Audit Act – until he had precipitated dissolution and felt more in control. And now it is clear that government is determined to obfuscate, and those who try to invoke the Right to Information are obstructed at every turn. In such a context there is no hope of dealing with corruption, no hope of the people finding out what is happening with their money. And sadly those who claimed they were concerned about this seem to have been satisfied when they could benefit from government appointments, and so forgot the ideals they expressed.
The worst betrayal of all, apart from the continuation of the current expensive and violence prone election system (intra-party even more than inter-party), was the failure to limit the size of the Cabinet. This has been mooted for years, and it was sad, when the JVP had a chance to entrench a limit, that they concentrated on the Constitutional Council. They failed to also insist that a constitutional amendment to limit the size of the Cabinet be a condition for their support for what was termed a Probationary Government.
Vasantha Senanayake and I tried during the tenure of the last government to introduce an amendment to specify a limit, but he was strong armed into putting off the bill, and handed it over to the JVP, which promptly forgot about it. I could not then introduce it myself, though I did introduce other amendments including a Bill of Rights But of course these then get buried by government – the previous government as well as the government under President Sirisena – since there is no proper provision in our Standing Orders for private member bills to be taken up if government wants to block them. Needless to say my effort to change the Standing Orders in this respect as in others, to give more teeth to Parliamentary Committees, was also sabotaged. I did get consensus on many matters in June 2015, but then Parliament was suddenly dissolved, contrary to the President’s pledge to the Leader of the Opposition that that would not happen.
With regard to a limit on the size of the cabinet, this was introduced in the 19th amendment, but the other part of the manifesto commitment was traduced. The manifesto said that ‘The Cabinet will be reduced to 25 and with Ministries established on rational criteria. In order to promote efficiency and convenience of the public, subjects that require coordination will be combined’. Science and rationality went by the board and, though a limit was introduced, the amendment also provided for an exception in the case of what was termed a National Government after the next election. The Opposition then added to the disaster by saying that such a special provision was inappropriate, so now you can have a larger Cabinet anytime, provided you say you are forming a National Government.
Since no definition was included as to what a National Government is, and there is no likelihood of the Courts declaring what this really means, the gravy train will continue for ever. Ironically, we now have a government from which the parties that represent a majority of the Sinhalese and also a majority of the Tamils are excluded. But it continues on its merry way, with no regard for efficiency or the convenience of the public.
For, to put it bluntly, Cabinets now exist for the convenience of politicians, not for the public. Politicians are appointed to the executive not because they are able but because they are senior politicians. And whereas this also happens in other countries that follow the Westminster system, where some senior members of Parliament, however foolish, cannot be left out of office for ever, in such countries there are safeguards. As illustrated graphically in ‘Yes, Minister’, they have able civil servants to do the job.
In Sri Lanka however we have also politicized the Civil Service. The President’s manifesto pledged to restore its independence, but it has singularly failed to do this, and still keeps the appointment of Ministry Secretaries the prerogative of the President. It also has all Secretaries give up office when the government changes, which makes a mockery of the concept of Permanent Secretary, destroys continuity, and increases their vulnerability. I tried to change this, and indeed moved a constitutional amendment to this effect, but I found that even the President, whose instincts I had thought sound, did not understand the problem.
He claimed that it was necessary to keep the provision because of an appalling appointment to a Ministry which he mentioned, oblivious to the fact that it was precisely the current provisions that had made such an appointment possible. The Prime Minister meanwhile claimed that it had always been possible to bring in outsiders and cited the case of Ananda Tissa de Alwis way back in 1965. I knew of that case, when a new Ministry had been set up, and of course such exceptions are always possible, but the norm should be internal appointments through the Public Service, with security of tenure. There can of course always be exceptions, subject to a formal mechanism, instead of making all Secretaries vulnerable as a matter of course.
The fact that no one claiming to be a proponent of good governance bothered about this made it again clear to me that they were simply interested in their own agendas and predilections, and unconcerned with structural change, provided their desires, positive and negative, were fulfilled. So it was not surprising to find characters such as Upul Jayasuriya and J C Weliamuna also immediately feeding from the trough, and with nothing much for the nation to show for the emoluments they received.
Recently I was asked by the National Human Resources Development Council, which recognizes the problem, to chair a committee on devising new ways of working in the public sector (the report of which will appear as an appendix to the printed version of this talk). With sterling support from individuals representing agencies such as the Public Service Commission and the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, with excellent input too from senior Civil Servants of the past, we produced a report, but evidently neither the President nor the Prime Minister is interested. And the Chairman of the NHRDC is fearful of having a press conference to put the proposals on the table, without a go ahead from the Prime Minister – who will do nothing since he is perfectly happy with a ridiculous situation inasmuch as it permits him to indulge his passion for micro-managing everything he can lay his hands on. Indeed his contempt for systems is apparent from his failure to have a Secretary appointed to his Ministry for nearly six months, the chief executive of what is supposed to be the most influential Ministry in the land (with the Central Bank tucked under its armpit too) being until the beginning of this month a youngster who had been acting in the position since August.
What lies behind this reluctance to change the system, even though its adverse consequences are clear to all? There is no doubt that much money is spent on perks, much money is wasted on the appointment, to permanent pensionable jobs as well as support positions, of hangers on who contribute little to benefit the country or the Ministry. And all these appointees hanker after unsolicited projects from which many of them derive personal benefits – and the Prime Minister accordingly, after introducing a paper to ban unsolicited projects, promptly sought approval for one from the Cabinet.
The argument is that the government has to keep parliamentarians happy, else they will topple the government. In the present case, the odd couple, realizing that neither component would go down well in the country on its own, thought the solution was ensuring protracted union. This has meant keeping even larger numbers happy, though sadly in the case of the SLFP this means the less capable members of the younger lot, who contribute nothing whatsoever to governance.
In passing I should note that it is certainly something the President should consider, that all the bright and capable youngsters in the SLFP are firmly with the opposition. This does not bode well for that party if it takes over the reins of government under the President – though that is not likely to happen, since it requires him to put the interests of his party first and engage in sensible negotiations, based on the principle I noted above, not a determination to have his own way, or the way of his less salubrious hangers on, in everything.
With regard to the need for structural change, it is true there will be unhappiness if some are Ministers and others not. But the answer is to have a constitutional bar to excessive numbers so that those who decide on the Cabinet can explain clearly the need to be selective. At the same time, more authority could, and indeed should, be given to all members of parliament, with regard to contributing to development in their own areas. Such contributions should not be simply through financial subventions, but should be based on sustainable projects, with careful study of what would benefit constituents. Now however parliamentarians are not even expected to engage in analysis of what would help the people, and the support they have to do their work is quite ridiculous. Symptomatic of what is intended through salaries for staff was the provision to pay this through the MP if required, which allows as I have noted for hiring of family members.
I am deeply sorry then that the President has done nothing about most elements in his manifesto. I should note that I do not think he was hypocritical when he made all these pledges, but he simply has not bothered from that time to this to work towards fulfilling his promises.
But surely he must realize that, in the short term too, but certainly in the long term, if he fulfils this pledge as well as the one about electoral reform (which he does seem to have thought about more), he would do much more to set the country on the right path. This would make more sense than engaging in the witch hunts which those who pressurize him want him to concentrate on. After nearly three years of working with admittedly a more sophisticated crooked crew, he must realize that corruption is general and the best way of dealing with it is reducing opportunities.
This can be done by
a) Reducing the numbers of those who have opportunities for plunder, by implementing the manifesto promise. This will also make it possible for Ministers to set clear work targets in their areas of responsibility, without the difficulties of coordination that we now have. And more able Ministers can be chosen, who will try to concentrate on outcomes rather than incomes.
b) Reduce the need for Members of Parliament to make lots of money, by implementing the manifesto promise about changing the electoral system. If electioneering is confined to electorates, and against a limited number of opponents, expenditure will necessarily be much less. That the President should have failed to work on this, despite his evident interest in the subject, suggests that he needs more effective staff to take forward his own agenda.
c) Strengthen Parliament oversight systems by giving actual powers to Committee chairs who should not be part of the executive. But for this to be effective there should be senior and able people outside the executive on the government side too, since these committees need moral as well as theoretical authority. And the Freedom of Information Act should be properly implemented, without permitting underlings such as the Secretary to the Prime Minister to create the impression that the government is not serious about basic principles of good governance.
I have looked thus far at what might be termed the more obvious betrayals, the areas we all know about in which reform was urgently needed, was pledged, and was then forgotten. But there are other important fields in which changes are also needed if we are to cease being, as the Economist once described us, an under-developed country that continues to under develop.
First and foremost we need to halt the rot that set in in education when the visionary reforms of C W W Kannangara were sabotaged by the elite. For this purpose we need to understand exactly what happened, and to dismiss the myth that compulsory mother tongue education was imposed by Mr Bandaranaike as part of his 1956 Official Languages Act. That was a bad move, though it must be remembered that the 1956 election was called early by the UNP to get a mandate to introduce Sinhala only. This had been decided on at its January 1956 sessions in Kelaniya when Sir John Kotelawala’s pledge to have Tamil also was repudiated by his party.
But the abolition of English medium education, the straitjacketing of the vast majority of our children in monolingualism, had happened over a decade earlier, when J R Jayewardene in one fell swoop destroyed the egalitarianism in education that Kannangara had initiated through his Central schools.
Before Kannangara there were a few elite schools, in the big towns, that taught in English, while all others studied in what were termed vernacular schools. Those elite schools had initially been Christian ones, apart from the government flagship, Royal College. But early on intelligent adherents of other religions realized the value of good English medium education, and set up Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim schools of similar quality. The regard in which Olcott and Navalar and Marikar (who was supported incidentally by Orabi Pasha to found Zahira College) are held testifies to the importance of their contribution to providing a level playing field for adherents of other religions.
Kannangara took this further by setting up centres of English medium excellence in other areas. There is some confusion in the narratives we have about education in that sometimes Central schools are associated with the reforms that happened in the mid-forties. But the website, for instance, of Bandaranayake Central College in Veyangoda, one of the first central schools which started in 1941, stated the position clearly. Its Wikipedia entry notes that ‘The main medium of education had been English, however with Sinhala becoming the official language. Since 2002 English has been reintroduced as a medium of education at the College. Students may select one of the two mediums to conduct their studies in.’
I should note however that the claim is neither grammatical nor true. English medium was abolished, not when Sinhala became the official language, but in the forties when J R Jayewardene introduced a bill to make Sinhala the compulsory medium of education in all schools. His seniors upbraided him for leaving out Tamil, at which point he accepted Tamil as an alternative, and memorably claimed in his speech on his proposal that in Sri Lanka there were ‘two different nations; one nation learning Sinhalese and Tamil and speaking in Sinhalese and Tamil, and the other speaking and learning English.’
His motion was defeated but it was accepted that at primary level the medium of instruction should be compulsorily Sinhala or Tamil. Inevitably, within a decade, when Eddie Nugawela was Minister of Education, this was extended to secondary level, not through legislation but through a Ministry circular. As a result, those rural children who had been receiving an English medium education and been able to compete equally with the elite lost out, and as we know have had difficulty since in competing for jobs which require wider knowledge of the world.
When I first found out what had happened, I thought Jayewardene’s proposal had been part of his effort to establish a nationalist identity for himself, on a par with his abandoning Christianity and western attire. But I now suspect that there were more sinister motives, namely a desire to restrict entry into the charmed circle. That alone can explain the opposition the present Prime Minister too evinced towards English medium when Tara de Mel and I reintroduced it in government schools in 2001, as the Bandaranayake MMV account notes. He told Karunasena Kodituwakku not to go ahead with the project, and even wanted it stopped after a couple of years, though fortunately the Minister had more sense and promoted its expansion into even more schools than we had started with initially in the January of 2002.
But all this should have been accompanied by better teacher training, and by more professional production of materials. All that was allowed to lapse. There has been no effort to produce more and better English teachers, even though all studies suggest that English is one of the principal requirements for both lucrative and productive employment.
A recent ILO report put it graphically – ‘Going by recent sector-wide skills assessments, it appears that Sri Lanka’s general education system is failing to develop the cognitive skills of large numbers of its graduates. It has also failed to impart several urgently needed technical skills such as the ability to write and communicate clearly in even the mother tongue, let alone English. Therefore as a first step, the general education system needs to be overhauled in such a way that it shifts out of the business of imparting facts and moves into building the skills necessary to process and analyse facts, make connections and see the big picture, and then communicate the analysis clearly and succinctly through presentations and report writing.’ But I suspect no one in the Ministry of Education has read the report, let alone thought about it. And if any further evidence were needed about a lack of care for the country at large, we need only consider the inadequacies of the current Minister of Education.
We also have a complete misfit as Minister of Higher Education, a portfolio now for the second time combined with Highways as though to make quite clear its secondary nature. So instead of efforts to reach consensus on the principles on which our educational policy should be based, we have relentless confrontation, combined with even more blatant efforts to influence appointments than we ever saw in the past.
Fortunately we had and still have a Minister of Vocational Training who does study his briefs and tries to effect at least some reforms. But it is difficult to take these forward without the coordination the President pledged in his manifesto. So for instance we have now developed teacher training programmes, both for Technology and for English, but the Ministry of Education has not taken advantage of these (though I should note that the imaginative Secretary to the Ministry is trying to introduce some of the concepts we had developed through a course in Working Mathematically and Education).
Interestingly enough, it is only a couple of Provincial Ministries, obviously the North given its professional commitment to education, but also the Central Province, which have shown an interest in an initiative that will rapidly solve the problem of teacher shortages in areas essential for a proper education, if we are to work on the shortcomings the ILO report notes. And I should also note that the YMBA is trying to develop a programme to use our trainees to try in a few places to plug one of the most appalling gaps in our system. I refer here to the interruption to education at one of the best stages in life to learn, the nearly half year after the Ordinary Level Examination. I should note that I cannot understand why people are not indignant about this, a preposterous arrangement that I do not think obtains in any other country in the world.
There is certainly need of quick action, based on coherent plans, if we are not to slide further backward. The Asian Development Bank was scathing about the apology for reforms that the Prime Minister’s office had put together (without any consultation of experts in the field or statutory bodies such as the National Education Commission). But, far from responding to the suggestions they made, the Pied Piper continues on his merry way, when he can spare time from attending to everything else that, emulating Basil Rajapaksa, he has taken under his wing.
Education is an area where the need for reform is obvious. We know that delay, in expanding opportunities, in revising curricula to ensure competencies required for employment today, in developing thinking skills rather than rote learning, will compound the current disastrous situation. Reform, we have shown, is easy if there is concerted effort and careful monitoring. That there is little hope of change in the current situation is yet another symptom of what seems a protracted Nonagatha period.
The final area I wish to consider is however less familiar and I think that it was this President who first introduced the idea in a manifesto. In the section on ‘An Advanced and Responsible Public sector’, he pledged that ‘The Divisional Secretariat will be made the chief unit that performs the priority tasks of the area. It will coordinate all activities such as skills development and supply of resources pertaining to the development of the economic, social, industrial and cultural sectors of the area.’
This made a lot of sense in a context in which our Public Administration has simply not kept pace with social and economic changes. No study has been done for ages about the different requirements of the citizenry now as compared with fifty years ago or a hundred. That is why for instance Local Government legislation still talks in terms of a few limited activities to be performed by local authorities, whereas many of them – water for instance – have been almost completely centralized, while there are many more services where local responsibility would be more effective.
A century ago, at the time my grandfather became the first Ceylonese Government Agent, it made sense that the Province should be the principal interface between government and the people. Within half a century authority had passed to the District, and much had to be done by the Government Agent in charge of each District. True, the development of Local Government had led to a bifurcation of authority, but in general the two agencies responsible, the elected and the appointed, worked together in cohesion. And the other political authority, the MP, could also be readily consulted, given that in general there was just one such representative of the people for any catchment area.
The preposterous electoral system imposed on the country in the eighties changed all that, with the emergence of many individuals dressed in brief but geographically extensive authority. And then, when Pradeshiya Sabhas were given distinct responsibilities, no mechanism was developed to ensure coordination with the Divisional Secretary who shared authority for the same area. Indeed, Pradeshiya Sabhas were sometimes carved out for political reasons – this has been a common occurrence in the Eastern Province – which makes coordination even more difficult.
Some years back, when I was agitating for the appointment of Grama Niladharis, with regard to whom there were many long standing vacancies, the Minister in charge asked why I was so interested in Grama Niladharis. I said that that was because that was the first interface between government and people, so it was necessary that the people should have a representative of government whom they could go to with their problems. But I also noted at the time that the Divisional Secretariat was the first point of contact at which decisions could be made, which is why it was essential to consolidate its authority and ensure better coordination with regard to the different services government provided to the people.
Given population expansion, the District can no longer go into details with regard to problems, and provide solutions based on knowledge based planning. That is why it is desirable that the Division be given greater authority to take decisions, but on the basis of consultation of concerned agencies. As it is, several Ministries have officials based in each Division, but there is no provision for consultation, no provision for dividing up responsibilities geographically while ensuring that the attention of subject specialists is drawn to areas of concern.
I should add in this context that bestowing more decision making powers on smaller units, with clear provision for consultation, will also go far towards solving some of the problems that have given rise to demands for greater devolution. Unfortunately the devolution question continues to be looked at in terms of repositories of political power, whereas the question that should be addressed is that of political responsibility, with stress on the need to enhance administrative convenience.
When I mooted the question, during negotiations with the TNA, of more power to smaller units, what I might term the most extreme member of their team objected saying that could be no substitute for more devolution. But Mr Sambandhan noted that his party could not reject what Gandhi had proposed, and was willing to take the discussion further. That was another example of those I term the spoilers in the Rajapaksa entourage preventing progress, in part I think because they feared unpopularity with those who exercised influence with the President.
That however is a question that needs to be addressed in greater detail. I hope that will be done, though this is not the place to go into it. Here let me simply refer to my continuing efforts to take forward the pledge made by the President. Thus, recently, with the support of the ILO, we have tried, at the Ministry of Vocational Training, to improve coordination at Divisional secretariat level, so that those looking for employment get appropriate training, those who have been employed can obtain useful qualifications, those who are trained can find assistance to develop as entrepreneurs. But it would be much easier if government issued instructions on the lines the President promised.
UNDP had already prepared guidelines for such coordination, and it would be a simple matter to enforce these. But in a context in which public administration has been carved up so ruthlessly – with Ministries of Public Administration, of Home Affairs and also of Provincial Councils – there is little chance of the rationalization the President promised, the combining of subjects that require coordination.
I fear then that the March of Folly will continue. Our politicians will continue to lead us down the road to disaster. But in looking at the reasons for this, I am not sure that the organizer of this lecture was right in drawing my attention to the fact that Dr Anthonis ‘often lamented the lack of a strong leadership in our Political Hierarchy’. Though now we are floundering, we have to recognize that our first and second and fifth Presidents were all strong leaders, but they have not left much to show for their pains, or indeed their undoubted abilities.
But that is perhaps too strong a verdict. Our first President, and the fifth, both achieved much in their first terms in office. J R Jayewardene did transform the economy and, though he gave too much leeway to crony capitalism rather than a genuine market economy, he released energies that earlier statist socialism had stifled. And no one should ignore Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tremendous achievement in ridding this country of the terrorism that had held us in thrall for so long. And he also, we should note, engaged in effective infrastructural development that outstrips even what Jayewardene achieved in his first term in office, through the Accelerated Mahaweli programme as well as the housing projects implemented with such coherent planning by Prime Minister Premadasa.
But both collapsed in their second terms, largely because they took to playing to a gallery of their own making. Jayewardene, having perverted democracy to ensure he won a second term easily, panicked when he realized that he was not so very popular, and ruthlessly suppressed democracy while trying to shore up his popularity through racism. Mahinda Rajapaksa, a much more popular figure, simply gave up trying to take things forward on the basis of consensus, and retreated to a comfort zone that, while it did include able technocrats, avoided the consultation of the wider populace that can alone ensure equitable development.
President Premadasa was different, and did much even though he came into office in difficult circumstances. And he suffered even more from the fact that the Colombo consensus blamed him for all earlier abuses such as the murder of Wijeyadasa Liyanaarachchi, the Batalanda torture camp, the torture and killing of students in Ratnapura. But he did his best and the country saw much development during his tenure, and in particular rural development, as well as productive educational initiatives. Unfortunately all his work was rapidly undone by his successor, whom he had handpicked it seemed for sheer incompetence. Such insecurity, which sadly President Rajapaksa also evinced, contributed to resentments that prevented him functioning at full throttle – and to electoral defeat in the latter case.
Strong leadership alone then is not enough, though I can understand people hankering after it in the present context. What is needed rather is self-confidence that will facilitate consultation, without fears of being challenged.
But I would also suggest another measure that will I think help immeasurably. That is limiting the term of office of the President to just six years, so that he or she can work without worrying about the prospects of re-election. And in one term, he or she will not be able to build up what I would call a straw successor, in the form of a family member, but would rather have to find someone able. And of course we need to change our mindset, so that we treat those who give up office with respect, and ensure that they are not insulted. Otherwise, as we now see is the case, no one retires, no one gives up office, not only because they want to continue in power but because they think they will be denigrated or at best forgotten when they give up.
Anyone going through the current Cabinet can pick at least a dozen individuals who should retire. But they will cling on for ever, even those with rapidly developing Alzheimer’s, because they have nowhere to go. The idea that, once your shelf life is over, you should go away gracefully is not common in Sri Lanka, but it seems to me that that will help us get over the major problem of incompetence that dogs the executive branch.
Dr Anthonis, it will be remembered, worked intensively when in government service, then worked intensively through private practice while also serving the state – most obviously as Colombo University Chancellor – and the people through his numerous social service activities. He was supported in this by Japan, a country with which he had excellent relations and which has done much for us, but which is sadly often left out of decision making processes because it does not blow its own trumpet.
I saw an obvious example of this back in 2007, when they were the only one of the Co-Chairs of the Peace Process not invited to meetings of the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance. The Norwegians and the Americans and the EU all came, but what they gave us in aid was only a shadow of what the Japanese were providing. I managed to change that, and the Japanese representatives at the time were absurdly grateful, whereas the gratitude should have been all ours given the manner in which they supported development without giving in to LTTE threats as the others seemed to do.
I was pleased then to find this commemoration taking place in the Sasakawa Hall, a monument to soft-spoken support without the grandstanding in which other representatives of the supposedly liberal backers of the current Sri Lankan government have engaged. The Japanese government too realizes how to care and not to care, and that I suspect is why Dr Anthonis found that country so congenial.
In his tribute to Dr Anthonis, Carlo Fonseka wrote ‘I figured out that during his 70 years as a doctor, he must have performed at least a hundred thousand surgical operations. The records show that no less than 38,000 of these have been done after his retirement from government service in 1971. With exemplary zeal and unrelenting dedication he has been performing for 70 years, what I consider to be the proper duty of a doctor, which is nothing more and nothing less than patient care and caring for patients.’
Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still.