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A Golden Age in Public Administration



It is arguable that the golden age of public administration in Ceylon/Sri Lanka were the years between 1948 and 1972, probably extending even upto 1989. Before 1948, it was a colonial, bureaucratic administration. Since 1948, Sri Lanka had a Parliamentary democracy. The administrative system during this period was one of collaboration between the administrators and the politicians, each respecting the other’s role.

There was a degree of autonomy for the public service. Most senior administrators of this period worked in English and so did the politicians. The administrators came largely from the University of Ceylon. Moreover, the parliamentarians were genuine representatives of the people, elected directly through a constituency system. The members of Parliament knew their constituents and they in turn knew their parliamentarians. These systems have gradually been eroded.

Elmo De Silva was a senior administrator during this period. His career ranged from the late 1950s to the early 1990s. The first part of his career was in district administration, and the latter part was in the Customs Department and later in the World Customs Organization. He became an international authority on certain aspects of customs administration like trade facilitation. The volume deals with his career, and also with his early life, describing his school days and university life at Peradeniya in the 1950s. His family and personal life is interwoven into the narrative. Running through his life is his love of music. His marriageto his wife, Naomi, comes through the narrative.

The author’s early life was not a bed of roses, nor was it a bed of thorns. One could describe him as belonging to a middle class family, with his father employed in the postal service, most of the time as a postmaster in the outstations. His father was transferred from one place to another and that consequently affected the author’s education as he had to change schools frequently.

The author describes in some detail, the family life of his childhood and the schools he attended. One school in Ratnapura had a class in which children aged six to 16 were placed together – an intriguing mix of primary and adult education. From his early days, the author had musical talent, and music had been one of his life-long interests. When he married Naomi, his musical interests and enjoyment were complemented by that of his wife who was an excellent pianist.

Elmo De Silva had a successful four years at the University at Peradeniya from 1953 to 1957. He ended with an honours degree in Geography. He describes his days at Peradeniya in some detail. Music was one of his interests at the time. He remembers Ivor Jennings, the Vice Chancellor, who made a big difference to Peradeniya at the time. The author is critical of the quality of some of the lectures, especially in his first year when he had to read history. He describes some of the then students by their nicknames which they probably would like to forget in later years. There are also some interesting references to University slang of that time.

From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Elmo De Silva’s career was in district administration. He first served as an administrative officer in the Department of Agriculture. Then he joined the Land Commissioner’s Department as a District Land Officer and served in the districts of Hambantota, Galle and Polonnaruwa. He describes, the relationship he had with the members of Parliament of those districts. In those days, it was a friendly relationship.

The MPs knew their constituents intimately and were conversant with their problems. This pattern of relationships between the MP and the public servant at the district level has changed dramatically since the MPs came to be selected through proportional representation. The MPs had no familiarity with problems of constituents as they did not represent any particular geographical area within the district.

Elmo De Silva will always be remembered for his role in the second phase of the Kaudulla colonization scheme in the Polonnaruwa District. He was instrumental in opening up 5,000 acres of new land and settling colonists during his years as District Land Officer in Polonnaruwa. The volume describes his experiences of that time.

C. P. de Silva was the member of Parliament for Minneriya and the Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power. Prior to that, he had been AGA in Polonnaruwa in the 1940s. He had an intimate knowledge of the district and Elmo de Silva had a close relationship with him (as did Ivan Samarawickrama, the then GA). The volume describes the very unusual role of C. P. de Silva in the district, as AGA, MP and Minister of Lands. There is no other politician one can think of, whose diverse roles in his career converged so intimately with the interests of his constituents (Polonnaruwa district was largely one of colonization schemes).

The author has great admiration for C. P. de Silva. “Hon C. P. de Silva was the first to conceive the Mahaweli River Irrigation Project. He thought of this when standing on the Manampitiya bridge in Polonnaruwa, under which the Mahaweli flows. If I remember correct this is referred to in the foreword to the UNDP sponsored feasibility Report”.

One ubiquitous feature of district administration when the working language was English, was the petition writer who converted complaints of the public into some kind of English in a petition which was then delivered to the relevant administrator. The author describes one of these situations. “The first petition I received was against the farm manager of the Mapalana Agricultural Farm. The petition commenced with a very obsequous sentence, which says ‘we place this petition at your honour’s feet and beg for a solution’. Since the pun of the English language was not known to the writer of the petition, there were exhilarating mistakes. Eg. the petition stated that the farm manager was “giving the works” (work) to the young women and not “giving the works” to the older women. An added ‘s’ made all the difference.

The author’s career took a dramatic turn in the mid-1970s. From agriculture and lands, he moved to international trade and the Department of Imports and Exports. Harry Gunaratna, the Controller, who was a former DLO colleague asked him to come and join him at the department as Deputy Controller. A couple of years later, a vacancy occurred in the Customs Department for what became later known as the post of Deputy Director General. There were many who were interested in this job.

When the Minister of Finance (Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike) asked the relevant officer in the Ministry “whether there was any applicant who had not lobbied to be appointed to this post. He had said that only I had not done so. Besides, I had my Import and Export control experience. He then ordered Mr. Gomez to appoint me to fill the vacancy”. That was how senior appointments were made those days.

Elmo De Silva had an outstanding career at the Customs, and was a central figure in the Sri Lankan economic transition from a controlled to an open market economy. The new government which came into power in 1977 is credited with this economic transformation. While the politicians decided on broad policies, there were many critical tasks which had to be undertaken to make them a working reality. In opening up the economy, the Customs and the tariff system had a key role to play. Elmo De Silva was actively engaged in facilitating this transition – in the removal of tariff barriers, in trade facilitation, reducing the many requirements of documentation and streamlining the procedures involved. He became an authority on trade facilitation, and was much involved in the international engagements which led to agreed procedures among customs bodies internationally.

He describes the many conferences and seminars which he attended. He worked closely with the Export Development Board. He was appointed a member of the Presidential Tariff Commission of the late 1970s. He was also appointed Chairman of the Trade Facilitation Committee. The author expresses his great regard for ministers such as Ronnie de Mel (Finance) and Lalith Athulathmudali (Trade) for their key role in the overall economic transition of the country which was initiated by President J. R. Jayewardene.

The author’s valuable insights into the operations of government in opening up the economy is a major contribution to the understanding of the economic history of that time. What emerges clearly from this volume is also the close working relationship which prevailed at the time between ministers and public servants. Technical advice was much valued, and there was a clear division between political decision making and administrative action.

Elmo De Silva had five years with the World Customs Organization (WCO) in Brussels. This was a key organization in the entire process of opening up world trade, with the establishment of the World Trade Organization and the reduction of tariff and non-tariff barriers. The author’s expertise in trade facilitation was highly regarded in the many countries and in the many organizations with which he worked while in the WCO. The volume is replete with information of his many engagements while in the WCO.

The high quality of Elmo’s contributions while at the WCO, is illustrated by the tribute paid to him by the Organization of American States (in Washington, USA), and which is contained in the volume.

On a personal note. I have known Elmo since our University days at Peradeniya, and as fellow residents of Ramanathan Hall in the 1950s. Since then, our paths have crossed as fellow District Land Officers in the 1960s. It is a privilege to have known Elmo and his wife Naomi. Elmo De Silva is one of the most conscientious public servants I have known in my career – highly principled and dedicated to his work, and at the same time, a friend for all seasons. His autobiography is indeed an important contribution to the understanding of public administration in our time.

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Investigative Journalism?



I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!



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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants



Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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Better use of vanity projects; Cass apologises, and New Year graciousness



A wise one, with the interests of the country at heart, calling himself ‘A Member of the Silent Majority’, wrote in The Island of Friday, April 9, offering an excellent solution for the better and genuine use of the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport which was built at a stupendous cost to both the Treasury, and wildlife abundant in the area, to satisfy an ego and sycophants’ cries of Hail to the King. Even sans Covid and lockdowns and shut downs of airports, the Mattala Airport was a white elephant, endangering and displacing the black elephants, roaming along their familiar corridors; receiving such few airplanes. Thus, as the writer Cass mentions says, convert the airport to a super hotel with excellent and sure-fire access to wildlife watching, like referred to hotels in Kenya and elsewhere. Yes, it will definitely be a bigger money earner than an airport waiting for a plane to land. Expensive equipment going rusty could be transferred to smaller airports being developed all over the island. There was such a hue and cry when storerooms, within the deserted airport, were used for paddy storage, but not even a whimper of concerted protest when the vanity projects were being built. We also heard that on the rare occasions a plane was to land/take off, peacocks in the area were shot at to prevent them flying into the planes. Aney, what a sin, just to have a name on a nameboard! Use the Suriyawewa Cricket Stadium too for a better purpose and less costly to water and maintain green in near desert climate conditions. What about a residential training institute for youth, perhaps in small industries? If the king-sized ego demands the name be present, OK, leave it. What’s in a name?

Any matter, financial or economic, with benefit to country buttressing it – refer to Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne. Likewise, anything pertaining to fauna, flora and preservation of natural habitats ask Devani Jayathilake. Cassandra would give two years of her life (she does not have 10 left, she suspects) to know what the answers of the three wise and sincere ones mentioned would be to the proposal to convert the Mattala Airport, oops sorry – Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport – to a 7 star hotel for wildlife watching and then tourists proceeding to Yala and other places that were touted to be reached easier if planes brimful of tourists, landed in Mattala. Pipe dream even sans Covid-19.

The thought of the millions, nay billions, our country was indebted to China to construct these vanity projects aka white elephants of the Rajapaksa fiefdom sends Cass’s blood racing in her contracting veins. And now another hair-brained scheme is being exposed, not new but re-exposed: that of the stupendous amount sent direct from the Central Bank with no nod, as reported, from the then Cabinet or Parliament, to an American-resident con-man to improve our appearance on the world stage or at least American stage. My word!! Cosmetics of creams and colours and such like can improve the face of an already beautiful woman. But a country that was once beautiful, glorified, accepted internationally and then politician-spoilt, cannot be redeemed by PR work, however expensively. Nivard Cabraal was the then Govenor of the CB. Of course, as every Banda, Singho and their women say, nothing will come of this. Powerful political sweeping under the carpet in the presence of cardboard administrators and sycophantic hosanna singers, makes the matter disappear and not merely hides it. Unless of course there are enough intrepid outers-of-truths and persistent protestors, brave and national minded enough to continuously tease the matter like a cat its caught rat. Ranjan is locked away in hard labour for four solid years, losing his Parliamentary seat for misusing the gift of his gab, while convicted murderers of the right colour attend Parliament, escorted and all.

Cass apologises

To the reigning Mrs World, Mrs Caroline Jurie, for crowning, uncrowning and recrowning of the winner of the recent Mrs Sri Lanka contest. Caroline Jurie took this stride because the winning contestant was four years on the way to being a divorcee, which status forbids a woman from attempting to wear the crown of Mrs…. (country) with a view to becoming Mrs World. This title and honour is bestowed on a woman who promotes, holds sacred the institution of marriage and is a married woman. Cass castigated Caroline Jurie without knowing then the fact that Jurie had protested about this candidate being considered due to her impending divorce; and allowed to contest. She said she withdrew from the panel of judges since her point was not taken by the others. WHY is the Q. Easy to answer. The new beauty queen of shaky married status was a loud speaker in favour of Presidential Candidate Gotabaya R in Polonnaruwa (captured on social media) and probably spoke on stages for SLPP Parliamentary candidates. So of course she was slated to win; vision impaired over rules and future probabilities, She has her height – one advantage. Beauty can always be dexterously rubbed and painted in. But honesty is important and cannot be cloned or grafted in.

Cass now definitely faults the new Mrs Sri Lanka. She should not have contested, having her papers sent in for divorce and not retracted. What happens when she wins the divorce (or her husband wins it, however the divorce was first mooted). Another local contest? And if the divorce was still pending and she went overseas at great expense and won THE crown or a lesser one. To be returned forthwith when she has to remove the present gold band from her third finger, which probably she has already removed but hastily wore for the contest and when preparing for it? This is why Cass avows that many young women particularly, are so very selfish and forward and uppity and even dishonest now. In Cass’ time and even a decade or two later, a girl would never do what this new beauty has done, flipped aside a core rule and necessity of the contest, just to win by honest means or foul. Way the country’s going, my friend.

Post – Aluth Avurudhu

Cassandra is stuffed gill-high with kavun, aluwa and crunchy kokis, preceded by kiributh and lunumiris. She is fending for herself because a dip in Covid numbers and having had the jab, her domestic wished to enjoy a family new year having missed the last one, locked down as we were. Cass made her own kiributh – tasting somewhat like it should, but the sweets were all gifted her. So, also the offers of help, sleep-ins at others’ homes and solicitous frequent inquiries of ‘how are you?’ Kind and gracious relatives and friends, acquaintances too are thanked; and the most appreciated being neighbouring kitchen helps and care givers. Three-wheeler drivers who spin Cass around on errands too make enquiries. And thus her thoughts when resuming work at the nekath time and word processing this article. Sri Lankans are such good people: kind, caring, willing to share and genuine. And then specters themselves on this very sunny landscape: the dishonest, selfish, revengeful and disgraceful. Shrug them off, clear the mental picture and pronounce thank goodness for goodness around.

May all of us (decent people) have a very good year to follow today –Subha Aluth Avuruddhak!

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