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Saving the Sri Lankan Foreign Service: Wrestlers, County Cricketers, and Pac-Boat riders to Hard...

Mar 17, 2011 6:57:33 AM- transcurrents.com

by Bandu de Silva

The first three named in the subtitle indicate the type of persons who were recruited to the Foreign Service in the era of Prime Minister S.W.R.D Bandaranailke, and the Hardware merchant was one who contacted me to ask if he should accept the diplomatic post offered to him in Singapore under President Kumaratunga government and the Nadagam Mudalalis are in the current list.

I did not enter the recent media discussion on recruitment to the Foreign Service though I had a lot to say on it as a former Director of the Overseas Administration Division of the then Ministry of Defence and External Affairs who was personally selected for that post by Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike , not on any political considerations but because she had had reports from the Treasury about me as an administrator and her Permanent Secretary, Arthur Ratnavale who was the former head of the O&M Division of the Treasury had advised her to appoint me as he himself was familiar with my work from the days in Beijing and Australia.

It was a little discussion with an old friend from London last night who was a very senior public servant in Sri Lanka under Mrs. Bandaranaike, that prompted me to write now. He said it was a good thing that my youngest daughter, whom Dr.V.L.B.Mendis described as the person with most and varied qualifications to ever show interest in joining the Foreign Service in 2003 (more of that later) was not given an opportunity to join the Foreign Service by the very person who is said to be advising the Foreign Ministry now (Mr.Pathiraja according to The Sunday Leader, March,13,2011) on an anarchic process of recruitment outside the approved scheme. My friend’s point was that my daughter was far better off outside the Foreign Ministry now, intellectually speaking- a point that which seemed to be contained in Prof.Rajiv Wijesinghe’s recent comment when he wrote about the absence of an ‘Advisory mechanism’ to support the external Affairs Minister. My friend said that my daughter has had the opportunity to follow academic pursuits as she had demonstrated by her gaining a LLM at Cambridge within nine months; an MBA at Monash and now proceeding with her PhD researching on post-war reconstruction in Sri Lanka. My friend even thought that it was a good thing from academic perspective that the Presidential Secretariat rejected her request for a financial grant to cover travel etc. on the ground it had no scheme to support research at foreign Universities. That, he said, not because it points to the disinterest in Sri Lanka, despite all the claims about the big discussions about post-war re-building, but because it leaves her to make independent assessment without obligation to the funder. The way Presidential Funds have been disbursed is public knowledge throughout and I do not wish to comment here. In Paris where I was Ambassador, even a former French teacher, was given a travel grant to visit his old College at Kandana!

Presidential intervention

It is just as well the President had seen how the External Affairs Ministry’s ill-advised scheme of direct recruitment could not only affect the morale of the Service and destroy even the little professionalism in it if people were selected to the permanent establishment that way and sent abroad without even the basic training, but it would raise serious contradictions about Mahinda Chintanya as it did with Mr. Bandaranaike’s “small man’s era” when he changed the scheme of recruitment and made it an elite club of Shire Cricketers in England, Harvard wrestlers and a Pac-Boat rider who failed to pass the degree exam even after three tries and stopped the proposed recruitment .(The Island, March15). What resulted from the ”foreign experience” criteria (more on that later) of Prime Minister Bandaranaike should stand as a Lesson to be Learnt.

I was also attracted by an interview given by Presidential Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge, to Indrajit Bhadwari of the “GFiles” recently where he spoke of the need to gear the country’s Administrative Service to serve the immediate post-war development goals. He spoke of the need for “management skills” (MBAs perhaps as universally recognized now), and mastery of English. However, he said, this cannot be done by a stroke of the pen. Despite the urgency to complete the basic programme of development by the end of this year, it remains to be seen how the enthronement of English could be effected so soon without keeping the Sinhala and Tamil medium educated public servants and candidates out. The introduction of English as a compulsory subject at the “A” level examination without English teachers in our village schools is surely going to put the villagers at a disadvantage. That means there will be no candidates like me or my old friend Somapala Gunadheera who were hundred per cent products of village schools who beat all public school candidates in the Civil Service Examination conducted in English, in my case even in the Overseas Service Examination

Professionalism in the Foreign Service

The reason for my appointment as Director of the overseas Administration by Mrs.Bandaanaile was for far more important reasons than the reports she had received from the Treasury of my performance in the Administrative area from her own Permanent Secretary Arthur Ratnavale who was earlier the Head of the O&M Division of the Treasury and the former Secretary, Ambassador Herbert Tennakoon under whom I worked in Tokyo. Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike was keen to make the Foreign Service, strong so as to help her to achieve her foreign policy goals. That was not the first time that the importance of the Foreign Service was realized. It was a Universally accepted idea which was encapsulated in US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s address to a batch of new recruits to the American Foreign Service and quoted ever since.

The realization of the need for professionalism in Foreign Service goes back to the very beginning of independence and was structured into a set of instructions issued by the first Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake which remained the handbook on diplomacy for Sri Lankan diplomats. Non career heads of mission may not have been privy to it as was demonstrated by Tissa Wijeyeratne who had been Ambassador to France when I showed it to him at the Ministry when he assumed duties in 1974 as Additional Secretary. The idea of building up a professional service continued.

The SWRD Bandaranaike reforms

They were not really reforms but an ad hoc move as presently proposed by the External Affairs Minister, G.L.Peiris. Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, on assuming duties even interviewed the batch of recruits to the Service including myself (heading the list) but he was not satisfied with the process of recruitment which was the open competitive examination which included a written examination and two interviews. He wanted persons with “foreign experience” taken into the service. (SEE HANSARD, August 1956). None in the Service then would have qualified as they were all local educated and had not left the shores even in a fishing boat to Katchchativu or Batala gunduva off Chilaw. On the face of it, the SWRDB idea was to make the service elitist which idea clashed with his declared slogan of “The small man’s era”. My friend H.S.S.Nissanka made a mistake in identifying me, a hundred per cent product of the village, including village schools as Bandaranaike’s first product under the “small man’s” era. No. I was recruited under the J.L. Kotalawala era examination scheme. The point that Nissanka wanted to really stress was that a Farmer’s grandson, a Gamarala to be exact,- he knew my background as we were both teachers at Dharmaraja College, Kandy - entered the Foreign Service. The other real farmer to enter the Foreign Service came from Kalmunai but not through a competitive examination but with his Harvard wrestler qualifications.

The Overseas Administration Division

How far this important Division has been downgraded can be seen from the fact the Ministry has no officer with administrative experience and perception of the long term needs of the Service to meet the foreign policy demands and objectives of the country. It has had to bring back a retired promoted clerical officer who once served under me as a clerk with no notable distinction or personal qualities except trying to impress me with his family’s connection with the UNP and that Foreign Minister ACS Hamid having selected him to the Paris mission. Later, as D/OAD, he was noted for the mismanagement of the recruitment procedure in 2003 along with the then Additional Secretary who was an Administrative Service officer. How could a strong Foreign Service be built up with this type of lackadaisical arrangements?

In contrast, what was stressed by Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike was that a strong Overseas Administration Department was needed to take care of the more important aspects of recruitment policy, management, training and placement. So, in addition to my appointment, I was provided with the services of two very senior Foreign Service Officers, the late Rodney Vandergert, later Chairman of the PSC after his retirement and C. Mahendran, later Ambassador to Japan and the UN, as my Deputies. Even the recruitment procedure of Clerical officers to overseas Missions then was revamped through a rigorous selection procedure through the holding a public competitive exam and two interviews presided by me and assisted by (Dr) Sarath Amunugama, (present Minister) then Director of Establishment in the Ministry of Public Administration and Gamani Seneviratne another senior Foreign Service officer with wide administrative experience. I was given complete freedom of action and my position then was one which was secured from creeping political interference. The Prime Minister herself had assured me the security from political interference so much so that no Minister or other politician, or members of Prime Ministers family ever interfered in my decisions because of the confidence I enjoyed with the P.M.

That arrangement lasted until the ‘Janawegaya’ group of Kumar Rupasinghe appeared around the end of 1974 with Rupasinghe and Tissa Wijeyeratne leading and Chandrika Bandaranaike and to a lesser degree Sunetra Rupasinghe interfering, not only in the Administration of the Ministry and Missions but in the entire foreign policy decisions. The time was a critical moment for the Prime Minister. I left the scene as I did not want to be led by these people. Permanent Secretary W.T.Jayasinghe too abdicated his responsibilities over the foreign Affairs Division and Overseas Administration leaving it to Additional Secretary, Tissa Wijeyeratne.

By that time a section affiliated to them was moving to dispose of the government’s real estate assets in London. The valuable real estate property of the Ceylon student Centre was disposed of. And they were aiming to dispose of the equally valuable Hyde Park Corner High Commission property. Secretary Jayasinghe and I had to use every bit of ingenuity to stop this from realization.

After, the Prime Minister took control of the situation, she got in touch with me in Paris and later in Colombo during a visit to Colombo and accused me for abandoning her . She said I should have opposed the intrusion by her children in the affairs of the Foreign Office. How could I do it when the Permanent Secretary Jayasinghe himself had abdicated his responsibilities over the Foreign Relations Division of the Ministry and concentrated only on the Defence Division?

Stinking record under Minister A.C.S. Hamid

The Ministry next came under Foreign Minister Mr.A.C.S.Hamid when all rules were thrown to the wind. The administration was placed in charge of an expert in Gem appraising! I can substantiate it. Appointments to the Foreign Service over which many are lamenting today were done outside the scheme of recruitment. When either the President or the Prime Minister showed interest in a particular appointment on contract, the Foreign Minister saw to it that four of his nominees were included in the package submitted to the Cabinet for approval. That was routine norm, “ONE to FOUR” as it was called!

Kith and kin and friends of politicians were appointed to overseas posts without any training, including a Minister’s brother, a former Price Control Inspector, as a Director in the Foreign Office and later as Ambassador to Kuwait. So the public cannot blame this government but the issue is that voters did not elect this government to repeat the UNP’s unsavoury record. A classic case under Foreign Minister Hamid, was the appointment of a Muslim teacher from Harispattu as Second Secretary to assist me. The only work I could assign him was to organize the small Library of about 25 books and periodicals even which he failed to do. So he remained without other work for nearly a year as long as I was there. I heard that later he had found a job as a house cleaner and was taking French leave from the Embassy for that purpose. What a time it would have been with both Diplomatic officers being two former teacher without any training in administration or handling diplomacy. That is a typical example to which the one of our leading Embassies in Europe was turned into. That is a lesson to be learnt in the present context. Mr. Pathiraja may be privy to more information.

The issue at the bottom

I thought I should, for the benefit of the country record some of my thoughts on the issue at the bottom, which is really not the issue of appointments outside the scheme of recruitment, but the sad state of the administration of the Ministry of External Affairs which it reflects. This not to direct the finger at the present Minister or its administrative head, Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe but at their own level they should have seen the technical loopholes and the political repercussions that the project would result in. It is then not surprising that Prof. Rajiv Wijeinghe remarked recently, on the incapacity of the External Ministry provide an advisory mechanism for foreign policy.

The shocking revelation is the External Affairs Ministry’s naivety about administrative procedures – that is obviously the contribution of this retired expert – to think that the Treasury and Public Administration Ministry would give blanket approval to a scheme to recruit a dozen persons for the permanent service without holding a public competitive examination, but based on a process of recruitment on hearsay or subjective evaluation of the contributions of their fathers , despite any negative elements displayed by them in public and which reportedly did not indicate the qualifications of the person nominated nor the salary point on which he/she would be placed. This is the type of professional advice the Ministry is receiving now. The Treasury cannot be expected to blindly approve any foolish proposal which is silent about financial implications.

Mismanagement revealed: The issue of 97 vacancies

The reported filling of 11 vacancies in the Foreign Service on contract through Cabinet decision last week should not have come as a surprise. Provision existed in the original Overseas Service Minute for filling vacancies following three methods, namely, open competitive examination, personal selection and promotion [from other services] to the lowest grade. The last was generally meant for clerical grade promotions until I changed it a Director Overseas Administration in 1972 to include other services as well. But these stipulations may have since changed in favour of the open competitive examination. In practice, however, the provision for filling vacancies continued. Personal selection was the method used to fill heads of mission posts both from outside and within the career service.

The surprise, however, is the news (The Sunday Island Editorial, March 13,2011) that there are 97 vacancies in the total foreign Service Cadre of 237 unfilled for a long time. That is more than 1/3rd of the cadre positions remaining vacant. This is not a situation that could have arisen overnight but the result of years and perhaps, decade of accumulated folly on the part of the Ministry Administration, especially the Overseas Administration Division. I say this with a sense of responsibility as one who held the responsibility of Director Overseas Administration.

What that presents in administrative terminology is “total mismanagement” of the administration for a long period, perhaps, decades, including lack of insight into the needs of the Foreign Service taking a long term perspective, in relation to the country’s foreign policy needs. Foreign policy needs too have been growing since independence and is of varied dimension today. So it is not surprising that the cadre needs stand at 237 officers. That excludes head of mission, I suppose.

Financial Constraints

But mismanagement may not be the only cause. A vital factor could be the budgetary constraints which prevented a proportionate increase in expenditure under personal Emolument and Allowances under the Ministry and overseas missions. If that is so , then it is a blame that the whole government should share. It is a case of financial provision not meeting the expectations of the government and the country. In 1983/4 when the role of our missions had to be changed to meet the situation arising from internal compulsions and international responses to it, our missions and the foreign office was not ready for it. At the end of it the responsibility lies with the Ministry for not forcefully advocating the cause to obtain adequate financing. That could not have been expected from an old clerk who is used to push papers.

If Prof. Rajiv Wijesinghe complained about the absence of an advisory mechanism in foreign policy in the Foreign Office recently, these material factors inhibiting the process have to be taken in to account. Today all officers are equipped with IT and there is instant access to information in contrast to the days when the Senior Foreign Relations Counsellor, the Civil servant, Neville Jansz did not know about the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt soon after the nationalization of the Suez Canal which made Prime Minister S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike to burst out asking “Don’t you people even have a Radio set on your table?”

The Treasury has always remained a stumbling block against the expansion of the Foreign Service from the inception. The established cadre could not be increased to meet the needs for transfers. As a result, cross-station transfers was the norm then. In the early days, an officer had to be prepared for a minimum eight year spell of overseas stay at a stretch with cross-postings by which time he/he would have even lost touch with the country. The stock question that the Treasury asked was what are these people going to do back at home in the Ministry. Here the Treasury had become the decision maker. This mental attitude remained throughout and even Prime Minister Mrs.Bandaranaike could not influence the Treasury decisions.

It would now seem that the External Affairs Ministry is in a position to fill the vacancies in the Foreign Service as seen from annual examinations being held to fill a certain number of vacancies. That points to the relaxation of financial controls by the Treasury to an extent

2003 recruitment fiasco

The important point about recent filling of as many as a dozen vacancies on contract through direct recruitment is the claim that the examination process takes a long time. This is misleading. I conducted examinations and completed recruitment procedures in record time. The first batch recruited included my former colleague K.Godage and two others over whose selection Director General, Dr.V.L.B.Mendis congratulated me. The next batch included 12 others.

The record of 2003 shows that the Ministry decided to hold the open competitive examination without any consideration about the availability of an adequate recruitment base. In other words, it was not sensitive to the situation in the country. That year, a many complaints published in the media showed, the examination was held before University final result were out. The results were out a few days after the closing date of applications. Two to three years of back -log results were also expected. I had knowledge of the situation that the Senate would approve the results as my cousin was then the Registrar of the Colombo University. That persuaded me to write a letter to Secretary Lionel Fernando suggesting postponement of closing date by a few days. I did not even have a courtesy of a reply. How could the other members of the public then expect any responses to their complaints? In fairness to D/OAD, Mr.Pathiraja, I must say he came to me at a funeral house and whispered to me that my daughter could apply “Next time.” What display of efficiency? That mishandling deprived many prospective candidates with good credentials as I knew, including my youngest daughter, whom Dr.Vernon Mendis thought far over-qualified of the opportunity of submitting themselves for selection.

Perhaps, the likes of my daughter were not what the Foreign Ministry was interested in though both the Cambridge and Monash Universities grabbed the opportunity of having her as a post graduate student by offering her scholarships and now the Brisbane University in having her as a PhD candidate.

So the Ministry’s arguments about immediate needs in the Service having to be met are baseless and can fool only the uninitiated. Just as Mr.Bandaranaike used the interview with five of us new recruits as an alibi, as the grapevine revealed, to recruit into the Service, a few predetermined persons using the “foreign experience” criteria which qualified a County cricketer, a Wrestler, a Cargo Boat rider and another lady from Jaffna who made the short trip across-the –Palk Straits to visit old relatives, which her politician father had arranged, the present argument for the need for quick recruitment and immediate postings too points to a decision to take in certain pre-determined persons under the “Cultural and other definition,” irrespective of the negative aspects some of the fathers displayed even when holding public office like a head of mission, is a story god for the marines, as the saying goes ! The cultural orientation could, perhaps, be an after- thought that came after the Copacabana show organized on the National Day by the Consul General in Los Angeles. I can speak a lot on the cultural aspect because I was the only “cultural officer “ in the Ministry for long years. The idea is all humbug!

If culture be the criteria, one could ask what is wrong with the appointment as diplomatic representatives in our overseas missions of a kin of the Gurunnanse from Balapitiya who put Sarachchandra on the Nadagam circuit who has been completely forgotten by the country with the rise of Maname Mudalalis; or Ariyapala Gurunnanse’s son Bandu Wijesuriya from Ambalangoda who kept the audiences in Sydney enthralled with his drumming as a member of Chitrasena’s troupe though he too may be aging now,? Ambassador Wilmot Perera took a young Kandyan dancer to Beijing in 1957 and we had to find him employment in the Embassy at the level of a K.K.S. Even appointing a scion of my good friend, the late Chitrasena itself, would not be a bad idea.

They could drum, dance and sing, show some traditional acrobatics, a few rope tricks, charm a few snakes to appease audiences now demonstrating in front of our Embassies!