Professor Carlo Fonseka
At the first death anniversary of Professor Carlo Fonseka, I would like to bring the focus of the reader to the legacy of our beloved professor through his services to learning and research in the field of Physiology and Medicine, to university education, and more generally to the Sri Lankan nation. His contribution was made in a wide variety of fields, but also in the exemplary life he led which, in my understanding, epitomised the qualities of mettā, karunā, mudithā and upēkkha, the teachings of the Buddha. It is a well-known fact that in the early stages of his university career Carlo Fonseka was a committed socialist, and a prominent activist of the ‘Lanka Sama Samaja Party’. He also proclaimed that he is a ‘Rationalist’.
‘Rationalism’ has many definitions and interpretations. Quite often, it is misunderstood as an ideology that rejects all religious beliefs and devotional practices. But if one were to read Professor Fonseka’s compositions in the volume titled ‘Essays of a Lifetime’, it becomes clear that ‘Rationalism’, as professed by him, represented the basic principle in scientific endeavours according to which, in generating knowledge, ‘Reason’ is superior to emotion and to objectively unverifiable perception.
As most of us are aware that there is no dearth of writings on Professor Fonseka published both before as well as after his passing away. In view of that, there is hardly any need to repeat the glittering details documented on his academic achievements. However, I shall briefly outline that Professor Carlo Fonseka obtained MBBS with first class honours at the University of Ceylon in 1960; and was awarded the Andrew Caldecott Gold medal for the greatest competence in that examination, Maneckbai Dadabhoy Gold medal (for the greatest competence in Obstetrics and Gynaecology), Perry Exhibition “for the greatest competence in a 3 -year period, Distinctions in Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Pharmacology and Forensic medicine. His studies leading to the MBBS degree were embellished with many such distinctions and prestigious awards which, I think, only a very few in the entire history of the Medical School in Colombo could have matched. He obtained his PhD from the University of Edinburgh. His doctoral thesis work has been quoted in textbooks of Physiology.
He joined the academic staff of the Department of Physiology of the University of Colombo in 1962 and rose steadily in rank, gaining recognition here and abroad as a brilliant researcher and an inspiring teacher, to be elevated to a professorship in Physiology. Later he moved to the newly established Faculty of Medicine, Ragama, as its founder Dean, and the person who was instrumental in developing the Faculty to take wing.
He authored many widely acclaimed publications in his field, focusing on specialties such as neuroendocrinology, pain and memory.
The Master’s degree in Medical Education was obtained much later in life (1999) underscoring his positive attitude towards learning throughout his life.
He was a great teacher in Physiology and had a passion to instill knowledge in his students. His students at Colombo and later at Kelaniya had almost worshipful admiration and affection for him. One of his pupil admirers has stated that his name ‘Carlo’ should be regarded as an abridgement of the Sinhala term ‘Kālōchitha’ – an interesting statement!
Outside the confines of teaching, research and academic administration, he continued to maintain a refined level of interest and involvement throughout his career in a wide variety of issues. For instance, a book authored by him has a focus on the vital necessity of promoting peace and inter-group harmony in order to alleviate poverty, and achieve equity and social justice in Sri Lanka.
He was an ardent campaigner for eliminating narcotic and tobacco consumption, and provided his fullest cooperation and leadership to the related government efforts, regardless of the political party affiliations of those who required his services.
When entrusted responsibilities in academic administration, he never became a ‘yes’ man of political bosses. He was guided entirely by his own convictions, even when his steadfast stand caused displeasure among the powers that be.
We have often seen that he was associated with the glitterati of our performing arts in theatre, cinema and music, but not with the objective of pursuing the limelight. That association was due entirely to the elite performers in those fields pursuing him, because he had the competence to contribute to their interests and aspirations.
I find it difficult to think of any other person in our university community whose record could match his versatility and competence in such a broad spectrum of fields. Yet, he interacted in perfect ease with those at all levels of our society, including rural youth, not as a ‘pundit’ distributing wisdom or a political bigwig harvesting votes, but as a friend expecting to engage in a dialogue.
This latter feature of Professor Fonseka’s personality is reflected in a story of a visit by him to a village in Puttalam District, invited for a speech by an association of youth, mainly school drop-outs and students of upper-secondary level at a Central College. That was in the gloomy aftermath of the youth insurrection of 1971. As previously arranged, on arrival at the railway station that morning, he was respectfully greeted and escorted to the venue of the meeting in a procession of bicycles, with the illustrious ‘doctor’ himself garlanded, and seated on the crossbar of the lead bicycle, motor vehicles in that era being far less abundant compared to the present. The social setting was one of mixed ethnicity. His audience, overwhelmingly young men and women, consisted of Buddhists, Roman Catholics and Muslims, including members of the clergy. According to this tale, they listened to the speech with rapt attention, and participated in a lively discussion that lasted until mid-day. What impressed the narrator of this story more than all else was the calm, respectful and persuasive manner in which the eminent ‘doctor’ responded to even those who disagreed with some of his ideas. He had lunch with his hosts, further informal chats, and was escorted back to the Railway station, demonstrating to a small segment of our society that the barriers of the ‘Ivory Tower’ are not entirely insurmountable.
That was a rare and exemplary dimension of Professor Fonseka’s personality, the ability to “walk with kings, but not lose the common touch”, a character trait of the ideal ‘Man’ as portrayed by the famous poet Rudyard Kipling.
On a personal note, he was a very dear senior colleague to me. The guidance, inspiration and the benevolence he bestowed on us Physiologists will remain among us for many years to come.
Dr. INDUMATHIE NANAYAKKARA
(MBBS, MPhil, PhD)
Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Medicine, Peradeniya
President, Physiology Association of Sri Lanka for 2019
Need for best relations with China
(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)
I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.
Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.
I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.
Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.
It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.
It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.
A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.
These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future
A change of economic policies for Sri Lanka
Millions of Sri Lankans are anxiously waiting to see what actions will be taken to make life bearable again.If we follow the example of successful countries we see them exploit their opportunities, and use the wealth created, not to import cars and go on luxury trips abroad, but to re-invest the money proceeds in further projects to bring in even more money. They proceed in this way until their citizens have good standard of living. Probably, the best example of that compounding of wealth is Singapore.
Singapore exploited its geographic advantages. It provided cruise ships with bunkering services and repair, later they provided airlines with refueling and expanded that to one night free stop- overs for passengers to buy luxury goods at their glamorous, tax-free shopping malls. The Japanese were making wonderful new gadgets: cameras, music players, portable radio cassette players, binoculars, all available in the malls and sold tax free!! Lee Kuan Yu forbade the ladies to wear denim jeans, and to wear dresses with hem lines coming down two inches below the knee! He even instructed the ladies to smile! No man could have long hair for fear of arrest. Littering was prohibited, so was chewing gum and smoking butts on the roads and pavements. The place was kept clean!
They used the proceeds arising from all this commercial activity to build housing blocks, develop new roads and other beneficial projects. (Individuals were not allowed to walk away with the profits, just to fritter them away.) Sentosa Island had installed a communications dish antenna connecting it with New York and the financial markets. This was an example of intelligent seizing of opportunities. I account for this intelligent development as due to the high educational and knowledge of Singapore’s progressive management. The result is a firm currency, holding its value.
Something similar has happened to Russia. Russia is rich. It is under progressive intelligent management. Stalin had developed the railway network across the full eleven time zones. But many areas remained to be connected. Putin found the finances to develop coal mines, develop oil and gas deposits and build railway bridges and tunnels for better access to markets and their demand for Russian products. Even as you read this, trains of 70 plus trucks, each with 70 tons of coal are grinding their way to China, day and night. Gas is flowing through an extensive network of pipelines, both east to China and west to friendly countries in Southern Europe. Mr. Putin and his men have succeeded in getting Russia fully functional. And the more Russians there are to spend money, so the more demand for goods and services: shops, etc., providing multiplying employment in Russia.
Mr. Putin wants to build a road and rail link south through Iran to India. A design plan is in the works. It is being discussed with Iran and India. Putin is displaying initiative for the benefit of Russia and its citizens. Putin cares for the citizens of Russia and is creating both wealth and jobs too. Architects are designing attractive living spaces and buildings which provide a better environment for Russians and contractors are building it. Education of Russian citizens is playing a big part in Mr. Putin’s thinking, too. Russia needs a talented workforce.
The result is that the currency, the Ruble is strong and does not devalue. It keeps its value.Belarus, Russia’s neighbour, can also be praised for outstanding development. The population in the big towns is cossetted with amenities and facilities which provides a luxurious way of life for townspeople especially those with industrial jobs. However, it must be admitted, the standard of life for the minority 30% population living in the countryside has yet to catch up. The administration is strict and everyone is law abiding. For example, you can leave your hand phone at your seat while you visit the toilet conveniences and it will remain undisturbed until you return.
Belarus, being a mostly agricultural country has a big tractor manufacturing plant, it has a fertiliser mining and producing plant, it has a commercial vehicle plant, DK MAZ which produces industrial trucks such as fire extinguishing trucks and also produces the most comfortable, bright, low step buses and so on, and of course, Belarus makes its own industrial vehicle tyres. The towns are prosperous and clean and Minsk, the capital is a beautifully laid out city. Town apartment blocks are multi-storied living spaces, but are so well designed and fitted as to provide pleasant living spaces for its people. These reduce urban sprawl across the wooded countryside.
What are Sri Lanka’s strengths? It is a small island thus making communications short and sweet. Its location in the Indian Ocean is a plus, its scenic beauty is a plus allowing a thriving tourist trade for people from colder climates, and its soil and climate allows almost anything to be grown. Therefore its agriculture is a great strength. Its long coastline can provide fish if the fisherised. It has deposits of graphite and phosphates which can be exploited to produce profits for further investment in development projects. It has its illiminite sands which are an extremely valuable asset but need to be controlled and exploitation expanded. It has a whole gem mining industry which need to be managed in way beneficial to the government. It has several government owned businesses which need to be overhauled and modernized to convert losses to profits. The rupee in 1948 was equal to the English pound, now it is around 450 rupees to the Pound. That gives a good description of Sri Lankan past governance.
Profits from projects need to be ploughed back into further projects to bring about a higher standard of living for all its inhabitants. Then the Lankan reputation of being a paradise island with happy people will be restored.
Sapugaskanda: A huge challenge for RW
It will be interesting to see if anything fruitful will come of the so-called “investigation” announced by the Minister-in-charge, about what seemed like an outrageous overtime payment to the petroleum refinery workers.While waiting for the outcome of that investigation, I thought of highlighting again the real and central issue that cuts across all loss-making government undertakings in Sri Lanka, such as the CPC, CEB, SriLankan Airlines, etc. that have been mercilessly sucking off tax-payer’s money into them like “blackholes”.
These organisations have been typically sustaining a mutual understanding with corrupt or inept politicians. “Sahana milata sewaya” (service at a concessionary price) was the catchphrase used by them to cover up all their numerous irregularities, wanton wastage, gravy trains, jobs for the boys and massive corruption, mostly with direct and indirect blessings of the politicians.
Here, I’d like to bring out just one example to help readers to get an idea of the enormity of this crisis built up over the past few decades. You’ll only have to look at what seemed like gross over-staffing levels of the CPC’s Sapugaskanda refinery, compared to international standards as shown below:
* Sapugaskanda Refinery – 50,000 Barrels Per Day (BPD); 1,100 employees Superior Refinery, Wisconsin, USA – 40,000 BPD; 180 employees
* Louisiana Refinery (including a fairly complex petrochemicals section), USA – 180,000 BPD; 600 employees
* Hovensa Refinery (now closed) – US Virgin Islands; 500,000 BPD; 2,100 employees.
These are hard facts available on the Internet for anyone to see, but I’m open to being corrected. I doubt if any sensible private investor would even dream of allowing such a level of gross over-staffing in their businesses.
As everyone knows, this is the position in all government business undertakings, as well as in most other government agencies in Sri Lanka. One can say that Sri Lankans have been willingly maintaining a crop of GOWUs (Govt Owned Welfare Undertakings), primarily for the benefit of the “hard-working” employees of these organisations, but at an unconscionably enormous cost to the rest. Obviously, this “party” couldn’t have gone forever!
Will Ranil be up to this challenge? I doubt very much.
UPULl P Auckland
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