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Protect Sri Lanka’s tradition of selecting Administrators objectively by competitive examination

Mar 30, 2011 11:14:02 PM- transcurrents.com

by Tissa Devendra

It is with some nervousness that I venture to address today’s audience of experts in foreign affairs and their students as I have absolutely no knowledge of this subject, having spent most of my career as an officer in District Kachcheries. However, I concluded that you may pick up something useful about how our country – our "outstations" as they were snobbishly called – were administered not so many years ago.


British High Commissioner H.E. Dr. Peter Hayes and Mr. Philip Barton visited Vavuniya IDP camps to assess the prevailing conditions there . Vavuniya Government Agent Mrs. P.S.M. Charles, Governor of Northern Province Mr. Dixson Dala accompany the delegation in the IDP camp area (March 2009) ~ pic: UKinSriLanka

Let me explain the rather curious title of my talk. First and foremost, I am not a linguistic purist and this title is no diatribe against the "achcharu bhasa" used by TV presenters of Sinhala pop music programmes. I adapted the title from Christopher Caudwell’s "Studies in a Dying Culture" – a mordant attack on the societies of pre-WW II Europe. ‘Caudwell’ was the nom-de-plume of a brilliant young English Communist who died fighting against Franco’s Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The initial question mark is a Spanish device to indicate a question to come. The last explains itself. In this context I do not refer to the subjects allocated to the Ministry of Cultural Affairs but, rather, to our entire ‘way of life’ in Sri Lanka. Rest assured this is not going to be a socio-anthropological study. Mine will be a scatter-shot approach by an eighty year old who should be forgiven his prejudices and enthusiasms.

It all begins with History – a subject with which many of you younger people were deprived when it was erased from the school syllabus almost forty years ago. It is ironic that during my boyhood, "Ceylon and World History" was a subject taught to schoolchildren nine years old and onward. What is significant is this was when ‘Ceylon’ was yet a British Colony. Inexplicably the 1972 Declaration of a Republican Constitution was followed soon after by abolishing the subject of History from the syllabus. What is bitterly ironic is that the educational panjandrum responsible for this crime now occupies one of the highest positions in a national institution of higher studies!

The bedrock of international studies must be knowledge of our nation’s history. How else can we understand the workings of other countries unless we can measure them against our own experience? And this means knowing our History. This does not mean cursory visits to our ruined cities and museums. I am sure the learned faculty of this Centre and its excellent library will provide you with the historical background so essential for your studies. Many studies have now been published of the regional dimensions of the foreign policy of our ancient kings. Buddhism, trade and war -governed our relations with India and the Eastern Kingdoms. Foreign matrimonial alliances played a great part in local history right down to the Kandyan period and one royal dynasty in far away Korea traced its origins to a Sinhala princess of ancient times

Loyalty to one’s own motherland is a cardinal virtue and has to be much more practised by our diplomats, as some of you young people are bound to become. Assignment to a prosperous, glamorous Western country is much desired. Extended stay in such stations, unfortunately, tends to infect the weak minded with contempt for poor old ‘godayatik’ Sri Lanka. I am sad to say that a sizable number of our diplomats, including Heads of Missions, have fallen victim to the siren songs of the ‘golden West’. An inordinate number of them have slipped back, into the obscurity they deserve, in Britain, the USA, Canada and Australia. One wonders which country they ever served when they were Sri Lanka’s ambassadors. The situation has been exacerbated by our own governments making the suicidal mistake of appointing as our Ambassadors, not sons and daughters of the soil as you, but expats of Sri Lankan origin and dubious citizenship - who creep back into their former obscurity, in their country of chosen exile, once their assignments conclude The only country that beats us hollow at this game is the Philippines where every Filipinos spiritual home seems to be the US. It is doubtful whether any single retired Filipino diplomat can be found back in his homeland.

I will skirt the vices of nepotism and cronyism as they are all too well known. Nepotism seems to be so well entrenched in the culture of South Asia that I have little hope for its elimination. Political dynasties seem to have been accepted as a necessary evil by the voters of our SAARC countries- except for Bhutan and the Maldives. Cronyism, however, is universal and I have a mug an American friend gave me carrying the cartoon caption "Success is easy, all you need is the good old American you-know-who". The composition of every American President’s Cabinet makes this obvious.

Over the last few decades I have observed, with growing sadness, the emphasis on ‘boru shoke’ – to use that pithy Sinhala phrase. The most harmless of these phenomena is the tie now knotted round every staff officer’s throat. My first Government Agent was always in khaki shorts and ready for field inspections. So was my last G.A – the last Briton Manders. Today I find it a tragi-comic sight to see field officers trudging along ‘niyaras’ and jungle foot-paths togged up in ties like sales reps. This tie is a pathetic attempt, at least in the provinces, to show poor peasants and petitioners that these officers belong to a "higher caste" .In 1956 the great writer Martin Wickremasinghe applauded the Fall of the Brahmins. Somewhere in the 1980s President Premadasa, who should have known better, imposed this new sartorial protocol. Sensible and appropriate clothes are among lost virtues in administration.

Over the last few years governments have issued Vesak, New Year and X’mas cards, which are liberally dispensed by ministry officials to advertise their status, and save on personal postage.

Escort cars are another exhibition of status. A few days ago, Police officers ordered to perform escort duty to the IGP’s wife [!!] ran over and killed a hapless pedestrian. One cannot hark back to the peaceful old days when a single motor-bike policeman escorted the Governor General’s Rolls-Royce all the way to Nuwara Eliya. But, surely there has to be some modesty in visible security and a total ban on security escorts for officers’ wives to score social points.

The recent phenomenon of exhibiting "multi-religiosity" whenever a Minister assumes duties, on TV, of course, is obviously of dubious sincerity. Every Minister, we presume, adheres to his own faith. As such, I see no reason why he should entertain and listen to the incantations of clerics whose faith he does not share. Whom are they deceiving?

This "assumption of duties" before TV cameras is a recent phenomenon of doubtful value, especially so when bushels of them line up soon after a new government takes over – or there is a reshuffle. As a former GA, I shrank in shame when a new G.A was recently shown paying obeisance to "his" M.P on assuming duties. To strike a personal note – in 1970 when appointed G.A Matara I drove up myself to the Kachcheri and was greeted by the Arachchi, to whom I identified myself and who then escorted me to my seat. I did not have to kow-tow to the civilized MPs of the day – Dr.SA Wickremasinghe, Ronnie de Mel and Aelian Nanayakkara who expected service but not servility.

In 1978 when JR Jayewardene promulgated his Constitution there was some debate as to how he should be addressed. Was it to be "Mr. President" as in the egalitarian US or was it to be the almost Imperial "Your Excellency"? Needless to say JR opted for the latter form of address – now used even by Provincial Governors. I await with curiosity, how the yet-to-be-appointed Governor of Greater Colombo will be addressed.

The most illuminating example of ‘boru shoke’ can be seen from the change of designation that took place in the case of the Village Headman [VH], a Colonial designation. The populist ‘revolution" of 1956, opposed by most conservative Headmen [VH], led to a demand to cut these VH down to size. The new "progressive" regime now re-designated the VH as ‘Grama Sevaka’ or Village Worker. These gentlemen smarted under this designation as a ‘worker’. As time passed they agitated and won the designation ‘Grama Seva Niladhari’ Village Services Officer .The virus of ‘boru shoke’ prevailed and these gents/ladies are today designated ‘Grama Niladhari’ Village Officer The concept of Service is no longer referred to.

I have written elsewhere about the plague of ‘Generals’ that has now infected the Public Service. Till the 1980s or so the only Civil List officials whose designation included ‘Genera’ were the Surveyor General, Postmaster General the Auditor General, the Attorney General and the Inspector General of Police’. Over the last few years the designation ‘General’ has been tagged on to every Head of Department. All Directors and Commissioners are now Director General or Commissioner General and their Deputies and Assistants are now Dy DGs or Asst DGs.

But their job description remains the same as it always was.

I wonder how many of you know that there are no longer any ‘clerks’ in the public service? These basic level officers now revel in the inflated designation "Management Assistants." I wonder what other in the world is run by so many Generals and Managers!

I am afraid a ‘culture of sycophancy’ was prevalent in the days of our Sinhala kings – tempered, however, by traditions of hereditary protocol and precedence. But with democracy and universal suffrage anybody, even a cabinet Minister, is free to grovel before the great in an exhibition of loyalty and in the hope of favours to come. In olden days one went down on one’s knees only to pay obeisance to family elders and monks. Today, schoolchildren are expected to show this same humility to TV Quiz masters at TV contests.

Government institutions now exhibit their sycophancy in the print media by publishing, at their own expense, fulsome tributes to their own Minister. Goebbels has spawned many disciples.

Let me conclude this pitiful list with the folk story of the villager seen carrying a pineapple to the local Chieftain’s house. "Where are you going with that?" he was asked. He replied "If it works – I’ll be a Headman. If it does not, all I have lost is a pineapple"

I am not sure whether this illustrates bribery or sycophancy – or both!

After this rather grim picture of the workings of government, and the pitfalls that abound, you may ask me "Is there no hope? No silver lining?"

I am happy to say there is. The illustration is the election just concluded. During the whole process of the election- from the compilation of the Voters’ List, the printing of votes and their secure storage, the issue of poll cards, the appointment of Election Staff. The conduct of the election, the counting of votes and the announcement of results – is all in the hands of government officials devoid of political interference. An administration that has carried out these functions so vital a component of democracy can surely be trusted to run the country.

A final word of praise to the Tamil Government Agents of the Northern Provinces, some of them women, who struggled to maintain the delicate balance between their duty to the Central Government and judicious accommodation with the terrorists who really called the shots in those beleaguered territories

Sri Lanka has as ample reason to be proud of our administrators, most of them yet selected objectively by competitive examination – a tradition that has to be protected at all costs,

A dying culture? No! But, a limping one!

(Inauguration Address at Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies delivered by Tissa Devendra on March 26, 2011)