by Razeen Sally
Our life is a journey
Through winter and night
We look for our way
In a sky without light
Louis-Ferdinand Céline,Journey to the End of the Night
I had watched Sri Lanka’s latest catastrophe unfold from the safety and comfort of Singapore, not having been to the country for two years due to the pandemic. But I felt this catastrophe personally. I am half Sri Lankan. Colombo is my hometown, where I spent most of my childhood. After an almost three-decade absence, I returned to Sri Lanka in my forties and spent a decade travelling its length and breadth to write a travel memoir. From 2015 to 2018, I was an economic-policy adviser to the government.
I arrived at Katunayake airport in late April. A score of porters stood idle around luggage conveyor belts – one sign of chronic overstaffing in Sri Lanka’s public sector. Once on the Southern Expressway, there were striking differences from pre-pandemic times: roadside billboards were naked, reduced to their iron frames, denuded of advertising; shops and small tourist hotels and eateries were shuttered and boarded up.
Galle was front and centre in the post-2009 tourist boom, heaving with visitors all year round, with a transformative facelift of its crumbling buildings and soaring property prices. But now I saw hardly any foreign tourists, just a Colombo crowd down for the weekend.On May 9, the government imposed a nationwide curfew. In Colombo, there had been violence between Rajapaksa supporters and protestors demanding the resignation of Gotabaya, Mahinda and the rest of the government. Mahinda resigned that afternoon. That night mobs burnt down homes belonging to the Rajapaksa clan and other Rajapaksa-supporting politicians.
Armed with a tourist permit to avoid the continuing curfew, my driver Nihal and I, accompanied by Indian friends visiting from Singapore, drove from Galle to Tissamaharama. The coast road was predictably quiet. Most shops were shut, and the odd police or army checkpoint waved us through. Just out of Tangalle, the scenery changed suddenly from the deep dark green of the wet zone to the dry zone’s wider spaces and bigger skies, more economical vegetation, a paler shade of green and fewer people.
On my previous visits, Tangalle and Hambantota were plastered with posters and billboards of the Rajapaksa brothers and Mahinda’s son Namal. This time none were to be seen. A police and army cordon protected Carlton House, the family’s home in Tangalle. Right opposite, lying by the main road, was the toppled statue of D.A. Rajapaksa, Gota’s and Mahinda’s father and founder of the dynasty, a victim of anti-Rajapaksa retribution on May 9.
Initially we were the only guests at our hotel in Tissamaharama. Priyantha, a boat operator on Tissawewa, complained of hard times: no tourists, no diesel for his boat, his children’s school without new textbooks due to a paper shortage, skyrocketing prices for everything. Nearby Kataragama, normally jam-packed with worshippers from all over the island and lots of tourists, was eerily quiet.
From the south coast, Nihal and I drove to Kandy. The Kandy road seemed to be a never-ending stretch of cars, lorries, motorbikes and three-wheelers queueing for petrol and diesel, often sprouting subsidiary branches snaking down side roads. Many stations had run out of fuel; vehicles were parked in queues overnight, their drivers hoping to get fuel the following morning. This day, May 16, was Vesak. But this was the most subdued Vesak I had seen: just a few lanterns here and there, no pandals, and much less food at threadbare roadside stalls.
The following day I walked around a down-at-heel Kandy. The handful of tourists I saw were young backpackers. The Suisse and Queens, Kandy’s venerable colonial hotels, looked even more faded than they did before the pandemic, in dire need of renovation. I popped into a sepulchral Suisse for tea, seemingly the only guest that afternoon. Opposite Queens, bordering the Tooth Temple, several tourist shops and a hotel had closed down.
Back at my hotel, one of the managers told me his family were now drinking tea without milk and not eating chicken to cut down on expenses – a symptom of hyperinflation immiserating the middle class. He said poorer folk in his village were down to one meal a day. Parents were giving up meals to feed their children. Many – all day labourers in the informal economy – had lost their jobs. On my last day in Kandy I spent a couple of late-afternoon hours with Ruwan, one of the founders of the Aragalaya protests in Kandy. We met close to the small group of protesters settled in by the central roundabout and clock tower.
Ruwan, in his late twenties, with unkempt black hair and a straggly brown goatee, had an earnest sincerity and practical idealism I found immediately attractive. He spoke in intelligible, though sometimes halting, English. He was a village boy who got top A-level grades and went to the University of Peradeniya. After graduation and a Colombo internship, he ran a small advertising business from his village home, where he looked after his widowed father. He remained a villager at heart, rejecting the noise, dirt and money-driven rat race that, he thought, poisoned human relations in Colombo. He took his Buddhist philosophy and meditation seriously: a simple, focused, present-in-the-moment life was his Buddhist ideal.
Ruwan told me of his entrepreneurial plans: marketing organic agricultural products from his village; a bike-sharing scheme in Kandy that had won him a nationwide competition. And of his myriad other pursuits: singing in a Sinhala folk-rock band, for which he composed songs with social and environmental commentary; a few screenplays for teledramas; and a novel he was writing on three generations of a family of Kandyan dancers, drawing on his own family and village experience. A visit to the Aragalaya protests in Colombo convinced him to start something similar with a group of friends in Kandy. He was hopeful the movement would bring about real change – “maybe 40 per cent if not 100 per cent”. And determined, unlike so many of his university contemporaries, not to emigrate but to stay in his homeland and do his bit.
Ruwan’s simple life-philosophy, his idealism and engagement, and his varied talents, reminded me how much potential there was in Sri Lanka’s heartlands. But it had long been quashed by the country’s entrenched elite and its noxious politics. And depleted by decades of emigration to faraway places with more opportunities than obstacles – emigration is accelerating fast in the present crisis.
From Kandy I went to the high tea country for a week. The winding, climbing road to Nuwara Eliya was practically deserted, free of the usual traffic of local and foreign tourists, but, alas, still scarred by the billboards that uglify landscapes along Sri Lanka’s main roads. And from Nuwara Eliya we drove to the Uva hills, where my father was born and grew up, and where I spent childhood holidays on a little tea estate.
The petrol queues were nearly as long as they were on the Colombo-Kandy road. Wherever I went I heard the same complaints about fuel, cooking-gas and milk-powder shortages, and prices of eggs, meat, fish and vegetables going through the roof. But life in these mostly rural areas did not seem quite as desperate as it was in the cities and big towns, at least for those who tilled their own land: Sinhala villagers had their paddy fields, orchards, cows and hens to fall back on; and Tamil estate workers assiduously cultivated large, neat vegetable plots next to often straggly tea bushes, rusting tea factories and the cramped, cheek-by-jowl line-rooms they lived in. Most had ready access to firewood for cooking. But even they were anxious about the fertiliser shortage that endangered the next harvest.
I arrived in Colombo after over a month outstation. How different it looked from my last visit in February 2020: so many shops and offices closed – on a Monday afternoon; half the population seemingly queueing for fuel and kerosene; multi-storey hotels, malls and condos on and just off the Galle Road, now hulking eyesores with construction suspended due to lack of finance and concrete. At one end of Galle Face Green, right next to the Aragalaya protest site, Port City lay idle, as it had done since early 2020 when its Chinese workers were whisked back to their homeland. And I saw beggars in numbers I had not seen since my childhood in the 1970s: often wizened men and women with destitution and hopelessness written in their downcast eyes.
Conversations with old friends and acquaintances were almost uniformly depressing. Corruption was endemic: grand larceny at the top and everyday petty graft at the bottom. Hyperinflation, food and fuel shortages and power cuts made daily life a wasteful, exhausting grind. Burglary was on the rise; the poor were getting desperate. Many bemoaned a galloping brain drain. Local companies were haemorrhaging professional staff who were probably leaving the country for good. But the Colombo rich were still OK, filling their favourite clubs, hotel bars and restaurants and upscale malls most evenings.
On a clear, balmy Sunday night I paid my first visit to the Aragalaya protest site, passing crowds of all ages promenading on Galle Face Green, enjoying the post-sunset Indian Ocean breeze. The Aragalaya cluster of tents, stalls and raised wooden stages started right in front of the Shangri La hotel, mall and condo complex, an in-your-face contrast between an elite in glass-encased airconditioned luxury and a suffering majority outside. A flag-bedecked “Love Stage” obscured a roadside view of the statue of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Big white boards attached to a fence were filled with protest scrawls in Sinhala, English and, very occasionally, Tamil. One board displayed mugshots of all the Rajapaksa clan involved in politics. I passed a small tent with a makeshift “art gallery”, and a much larger one housing a well-frequented lending library.
One raised stage had a twenty-something man pumping his fist and shouting a slogan about Rajapaksa “robbers” repetitively, punctuated by an equally young woman singing the refrain, to the rhythmic beat of drums and cymbals. On another stage a university student, to emphasise communal unity, shouted Sinhala Ape … Damila Ape … Muslim Ape … Lanka Ape. The crowds were overwhelmingly young and Sinhala, but with Muslims and a few Tamils mixed in, even including the odd head-shaven, saffron-robed Buddhist monk and white-cassocked Catholic priest.
As I walked by one tent, my gaze turned towards a young man in a wheelchair, clad in a banian and sarong and with dishevelled hair. He made direct eye contact and beckoned me over, addressing me in Sinhala, his speech a little slurred. He took firm hold of my hand with his good hand – the other arm was skeletal, ending in a stump just below the elbow – placed it on the back of his scalp to one side, and ran it across and down to his forehead. It felt ridge-like and lumpy. These were bullet wounds, he said. He pointed to a bullet wound under one eyebrow. The eye below was clearly disfigured. A scar crossed his Adam’s apple – another bullet wound. Then he raised himself using a long crutch, lifted his sarong and showed me a broad gash running down the side of his lame leg – more bullet wounds. He told me he was hit by an LTTE sniper on Nandikidal lagoon, only two months after he got engaged. He spent over a year in a coma and the next five in hospitals undergoing surgeries and rehabilitation. Now he lived on a war veteran’s disability pension, unable to work. And never married.
As we chatted, other disabled veterans gathered round. Two had leg prosthetics, victims of landmines from battles in the Jaffna peninsula. They had all been here, in their disabled war veterans’ tent, since the first day of the protests. It was now Day 58. I found it difficult to keep up with their fast village Sinhala, but “system change”, oft repeated in English, was easy enough to understand.
My last trip outstation was to Jaffna. The scenery changed dramatically once we passed Vavuniya and entered the Vanni, becoming flat, arid, almost airless scrub jungle under an enormous sky and immensely distant horizons. We passed Kilinochchi. On my first visit, over a decade earlier, it was practically deserted, full of empty spaces where the LTTE’s buildings, parade ground and giant cemetery for its fallen soldiers had been razed to the ground by the victorious Sri Lankan army. Now it looked transformed. The smooth A9, heavily potholed a decade ago, expanded to four lanes through a town centre packed with gleaming white shops and showrooms.
The scenery changed again as we approached the causeway at Pooneryn. Parched brown scrub jungle gave way to a shallow expanse of glistening water and, entering the Jaffna peninsula, groves of black-brown palmyrahs, paddy fields and vegetable plots.
We entered Jaffna town, also busier and noisier than I had seen it before. There were new shops and eating houses, hotels and guest houses, reception halls, Hindu temples which looked like money had recently been lavished on them, and more cars and motorbikes replacing the ubiquitous bicycles I had seen on my first visit just over a decade earlier. Battered Austin Cambridges and Morris Oxfords from the 1950s and ‘60s, kept running during the lean war years, were then a familiar sight. Now I saw just one lonesome Austin Cambridge parked in a garage. In town and around the peninsula, ancestral homes that had been destroyed or lay derelict during the war had been rebuilt or renovated by their owners in Colombo and abroad. A new Indian Cultural Centre, built by the Indian government, was now the tallest building in town. But some sights and smells had not changed: plastic and other rubbish strewn on roadsides; the stench of open drains; roaming packs of stray dogs. And maddeningly dangerous driving: motorbikes, three wheelers and bicycles kept shooting out of side roads and sped across the main road.
On previous visits I had heard much about Jaffna’s post-war problems: grievances against the army and the government in Colombo; caste divisions; and disaffected youth freely spending money sent by relatives in the diaspora, indulging in drink and drugs, or whose only ambition was to emigrate. None of that had gone away. But Jaffna, like Kilinochchi, clearly had a post-war bounce. It was up and doing again, partially reviving its pre-war reputation for industriousness, alongside thrift and a thirst for education.
Selvi, introduced to me by a Colombo friend, embodied what I thought were the best Jaffna qualities. In her mid-twenties, short and bespectacled, she came to see me sprucely turned out in her Sunday best of long blouse and pants, her long raven hair brushed straight back. Her English was good. She had a mind of her own and exuded confidence.
There was tragedy in the family. Selvi’s father, a contractor, had an accident; his operation went wrong and he died after four months in hospital. A few months later, her adored younger brother, just nineteen, whose ambition was to become a pilot, committed suicide. She was left alone to support her traumatised mother.
Selvi wanted to make a career in aviation. She put herself through a training school in Colombo and was doing part-time jobs for aviation companies at Jaffna’s Palaly airport. She ran a vegetable export business on the side that generated a steady income. She did not want to rely on handouts from relatives in the diaspora, let alone emigrate via an arranged marriage with a diaspora Jaffna Tamil. Rather she wanted to stay, look after her mother and make the most of professional possibilities in post-war Sri Lanka. She told me there was a younger, aspirational generation in Jaffna without wartime baggage, who wanted to bridge old divides and mix productively with other Sri Lankans.
Jaffna, like the rest of the country, had its long queues in front of petrol stations, shortages of this and that, and hyperinflation. But it cast a different light on Sri Lanka’s present crisis to what I had seen elsewhere in the country. On our last evening in town, my hosts and I met a livewire doctor at the Northgate hotel bar, nursing a weird multicoloured cocktail and conversing in his fast-and-furious, semi-broken English. He was based at Jaffna hospital just around the corner.
He warned us to steer well clear of stray dogs; the country had run out of the anti-rabies vaccine, not to mention other essential medicines. Then he added: “The rest of the country is miserable because they don’t have petrol and cooking gas and suffer daily power cuts. But, during the war, we went for years without petrol, cooking gas and electricity. We had bombs dropping on us. We were terrorised by the army and the LTTE. This is nothing in comparison. So we cope as best we can and get on with life.”
The crisis got even worse after I left in June. In late July, the swelling Aragalaya protests finally prompted Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign as president. But the protestors’ victory was hollow. Parliament voted in Ranil Wickremesinghe as the new president. He owed his election to SLPP MPs and the backing of the Rajapaksas. He appointed a new prime minister and cabinet of Rajapaksa loyalists. The army and police cleared the Aragalaya protest site; some protesters were arrested and prosecuted.
There was no “system change”. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unopposed return to Colombo in early September, enjoying all the privileges due to a former head of state, was proof enough that the system really had not changed. Sri Lanka’s economic and humanitarian crisis continues, so far without substantial reforms to turn the situation round. Complex negotiations with international organisations (the IMF, World Bank and ADB), sovereign creditors (especially China, India and Japan) and mainly US-based private bondholders are proceeding slowly. For ordinary Sri Lankans, there is no end in sight to their suffering.Razeen Sally is author of Return to Sri Lanka: Travels in a Paradoxical Island. He was a professor at the London School of Economics and the National University of Singapore, chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies, and an adviser to the Sri Lankan government.
Vinland: A Question of Timing
By Gwynne Dyer
“If the 20th century AD were dated at the same resolution as the 20th century BC, the two World Wars would be indistinguishable in time; and the Montgomery Bus Strike might post-date the release of Mandela.” So wrote the ECHOES team of palaeohistorians at Groningen University in the northern Netherlands – and then they fixed the problem.
Their new method for dating events in the distant past immediately got my attention, because the first problem they solved was the exact date of the first European settlement in the New World. It was the Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows at the very northernmost tip of Newfoundland, and the year was 1021 AD.
I was always interested in the Norse, because I grew up in Newfoundland and that was already seen as the likeliest location of the region they called ‘Vinland’. I read the sagas (‘Erik the Red’ and ‘The Greenlanders’), which were rip-roaring tales of triumph and treachery but distinctly short on geographical and chronological detail.
Then in the 1960s, Norwegian archaeologists discovered the remains of eight Norse longhouses on the L’Anse aux Meadows site. So, the location was known, but still not the date. The explorers came from the new Norse settlements in Greenland, which had been founded in 985 AD, but nobody knew how much later they arrived in Newfoundland.
So, what the hell! Let’s say it was the year 1000 AD. The Newfoundland Museum declared that the year 2000 was the millennium of the Viking settlement, the local tourist authorities went into high gear – and somebody at the Museum contacted me to write the script for the exhibition, because…well, because I was a journalist and a Newfoundlander.
I swallowed my doubts, named my price, and did the job. Not a bad job, actually, because I could play with the fact that the Norse in Newfoundland had both peaceful and violent contacts with the local indigenous people.Those people, probably related to the extinct Beothuk of Newfoundland or the modern Innu of Labrador, were very distant descendants of the modern human beings who left Africa around 100,000 years ago, turned right, crossed all of Asia, and finally arrived in North America when the glaciers receded about 14,000 years ago.
The Norse, on the other hand, were the distant descendants of those who turned left when they left Africa, settled in Europe – and eventually island-hopped across the Atlantic. After all those millennia the two streams of migration finally met up again in Newfoundland. So, I called the exhibition ‘Full Circle’, and slid past the question of exactly when it happened.
But now we know. The ECHOES team (it stands for ‘Exact Chronology of Early Societies’) figured it out by examining bits of wood found on the L’Anse aux Meadows site that had clearly been cut with iron (European) axes. A huge solar flare in 993 AD left a spike in that year’s tree rings, so just count rings out from there to the bark. The trees died in 1021.
The specific date of L’Anse aux Meadows doesn’t really matter, of course, but the technique does. Cosmic-ray-induced surges in atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations are another new tool for figuring out the past, and that is now important work.
Two centuries ago, our knowledge of the past barely reached back past classical Greece and Rome: say, 3,000 years. Now scientists are working hard to puzzle out past climate states ranging from hundreds to billions of years ago, because understanding the patterns of the past may help us through whatever happens next. Every scrap of information may be valuable.
All very well, but why didn’t the Norse settlement last?
They abandoned their exploration of north-eastern North America because the ‘cash crop’ they were looking for in Vinland turned out to be much closer to home: ivory from the abundant walrus population that they could hunt in Disko Bay, only a thousand kilometres up Greenland’s west coast.They could feed themselves by farming and fishing, but it was the ivory that paid for all the things they needed to import from Europe (timber, iron and bronze, stained glass, etc.). Up to 5,000 people lived in the Greenland settlements for more than four centuries, apparently quite happy to ignore ‘Vinland’ – and then they disappeared.
Where they went or how they died has been promoted as a great mystery, but the real reason is probably that the bottom dropped out of the European market for ivory in the early 15th century as abundant new supplies became available from Africa and Russia’s new Arctic settlements.
The climate had also turned against the Greenland Norse (the ‘Little Ice Age’), so they most likely just upped stakes and moved back to Iceland, or even to Norway. No massacre, no famine, just a change in the trade routes. It’s not always dramatic.
Anwar: Not Malaysia’s Mandela, but something more
By Krishantha Prasad Cooray
Something extraordinary happened in Malaysia this week. After a bitterly fought general election with no clear winner, the King had the wisdom and the courage to appoint Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as Malaysia’s 10thPrime Minister. To those observing from the outside, it was a remarkable sight. So, one can only imagine the gravity of the moment from the point of view of Malaysia’s new Prime Minister.
Anwar Ibrahim travelled to Istana Negara for the ceremony on Thursday from Sungai Long with his wife, the accomplished and independently remarkable Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who for 24 years, has taken her husband’s crusade against corruption and bigotry in Malaysia and made it her own. When Anwar was imprisoned, she stood in for him and embodied his cause with an authenticity and ferocity that saw her become Malaysia’s first ever female opposition leader.
When they arrived at the ceremony, one of the many dignitaries assembled for Anwar’s swearing in was Malaysia’s Chief Justice, Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, the first woman to hold that office, who herself has long stood out as a judge with little patience for corruption or abuse of power. Whether in the MDB appeals or in holding firm against other powerful special interests, she has embodied the kind of judicial independence for which Anwar has fought.
As Anwar, the Prime Minister in waiting, took the instrument of his appointment into his hand and began reciting his oaths, he must have felt the weight of every word he swore of the pledge he has long dreamt of taking. Perhaps no Malaysian politician has distinguished himself on the world stage as Anwar did as Malaysia’s finance minister between 1991 and 1998.
His outstanding performance in transforming the Malaysian economy and navigating the perils of the 1997 financial crisis, while lauded across the globe, threatened entrenched interests, leading not just to his sacking and repeated imprisonment, but to a systematic 24-year long campaign to tear him down, destroy his name, and vanquish the causes of good governance and egalitarianism that he stood for. It was a campaign that was almost comical in its corruption.
Beginning in September 1998, every time it ever looked like Anwar was raising his head and might score a major political victory, either an arrest, a court ruling, gerrymandering or some other element of state machinery interceded to intercept him and keep him from power.
His multiple imprisonments on what the world agrees are trumped up charges are well known, as is the black eye bestowed on him by the fists of Malaysia’s chief of police. However, it is often forgotten that his Pakatan Rakyat won a 51.4% majority of the popular vote at GE13 in 2013, “losing” the election in practice only because of the first past the post electoral system by which the votes were apportioned. Whatever else Malaysia’s elite entrenched special interests disagreed about, they all seemed to agree on one thing: stopping Anwar at all costs.
Most of those who sacrificed their conscience and integrity over the years to keep Anwar down are now out of the spotlight, shunned by the electorate, recognised for their crimes by the judiciary, or cast aside by their political handlers once their utility expired. None were present in the corridors of power at the royal ceremony last Thursday to witness the totality of their failure.
It was heartening to see the local markets react to Anwar’s appointment with the biggest rally they have shown in two years, and to see the world market respond through the Ringit seeing its best day in the currency market since 2016. As Anwar prioritises tackling the skyrocketing cost of living for ordinary Malaysians in the backdrop of a looming global recession, these signals of confidence are a promising sign.
As he begins to combat poverty while forming his cabinet and steering a fragile coalition, the new Prime Minister will have to grapple with bringing about good governance, combatting corruption and ensuring judicial independence. With corruption as deep-rooted as Anwar himself has charged, he should expect and be prepared to combat the fiercest opposition and subterfuge. To those who live on graft, this is not just a matter of policy. They stand to lose everything, their livelihood and their liberty, if he succeeds.
It is difficult to argue against anti-corruption initiatives or transparency in government, so his opponents will try, as they did throughout his time in the opposition, to paint Anwar as an outsider, unpatriotic, anti-Malay, anti-Islam. It will be up to Anwar and those around him to ensure that from the bully pulpit of the Prime Minister’s office, he can show a larger swath of Malaysians who he is and unite them.
Anwar has the most essential quality of a unifying politician, in that he is a “we” politician and not a “me” politician. Notwithstanding the formidable cult of personality that has been built around him, he is quick to redirect any personal praise or flattery by sharing credit with others and putting them in the spotlight and doing so with a humility and sincerity that endears him to other leaders.
While Anwar Ibrahim is fond of calling himself a ‘village boy’ due to his affection for the simplest pleasures of life, there is nothing simple about his pedigree. He was born with UMNO in his blood, with an UMNO parliamentarian for a father and political organiser for a mother. He is accused of being anti-Malay for his egalitarian politics, even though his entire undergraduate education was devoted to the study of Malay culture, history and literature. The idea that he would oppose the legitimate interests of Malays is unthinkable.
So it is important that he succeed as Prime Minister where he failed as a candidate, in persuading more Malay people that they have nothing to fear from him. In fact, their interests are better served by a level playing field that would enable them to thrive and compete not just in the shelter of the cosy, subsidised affirmative action bubbles that other parties have tried to woo them with, but in the world at large.
Anwar’s in-depth study of the Bible does not make him any less devout a Muslim, but a stronger, more confident one. An unapologetic ally of the Palestinian people, Anwar’s opposition to the suffering imposed by Israelis on Palestinians is only sharpened, not blunted, by his assertion of Israel’s right to exist. He is confident in who he is. Even torture, and years spent in the darkest depths of solitary confinement in a gruesome prison cell were not able to make him waver in his values or political principles.
It is already evident that Anwar’s appointment has raised Malaysia’s standing in the world. Several governments who either vocally or privately protested the way he was treated over the last quarter century have responded to his appointment with a new vigor and eagerness to engage with Malaysia and deepen political and economic ties with the country. Anwar demonstrated in opposition that he has a gift for advocating for Malaysia on the world stage. As Prime Minister, this is a gift that will serve him in good stead.
Wherever they sit on the political spectrum, no Malaysian could deny the sincerity that Anwar brought to his first press conference on Thursday following his appointment. He means to do the job, and do it well, responding thoughtfully and obediently to the King’s direction to form a unity government. He has clearly taken to heart the words of the monarch that “those who won did not win everything, and those who lost did not lose everything.”
The lesson in that message for every politician is that Malaysians are sick and tired of political knife fighting, of “moves”, from Kajang moves to Sheraton moves. No doubt some confederacy of politicians are already plotting the next creative ‘move’ to bring Anwar down, but they may find themselves outmatched by history.
Pundits have quipped that Anwar’s journey this week was one of “prison to palace”, forgetting that he earned that particular honour on 16 May 2018, when he was released from prison and had to deal with the dizzying experience of being driven directly to the palace for an audience with then Yang di-Pertuan Agong Muhammad V. He has been dubbed Malaysia’s “Nelson Mandela” as both men were imprisoned for their politics and came to power soon after. But such reductions do little service to Anwar, whose time in prison, as horrific as it was, is not what defines him or best qualifies him to govern Malaysia in such perilous times.
Prime Minister Anwar was born Malay and has always been a devout Muslim. Unlike the African Mandela in white apartheid South Africa, Anwar was born to power. And he was not directly elected to his office by a clear majority as Mandela was, but instead, Anwar was appointed Prime Minister after no one won a majority. He is not Malaysia’s Mandela, or Malaysia’s Barack Obama. But history has examples more fitting of Anwar’s pedigree, principles and intellect.
There was another politician once, who, like Anwar, had the privilege of sailing into politics through an established political party. That politician too, like Anwar, was from the majority community, but over time grew to vocally oppose discriminatory policies and helped form a new political party. That politician too, like Anwar, was an accomplished orator and compelling communicator. And he did not directly win nomination for the American presidency in May 1860. Instead, he was selected following much debate after no candidate secured a clear majority. And just like Anwar will have to do in the coming days, President Abraham Lincoln had to assemble a broad coalition, a team of rivals, to get his country through the most perilous of times.
Prime Minister Anwar shares other qualities with America’s most revered President. Lincoln too was known for having little patience for pettiness, and to extend a hand of friendship to sworn rivals. The American President’s devotion to his children was also legendary. Anwar rarely responds to questions about his ordeal in prison without sharing his anguish that his five daughters and only son had to endure in watching their father suffer and be persecuted.
Having either taught or studied at schools of the calibre of Oxford, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, an astute student of history such as Prime Minister Anwar has no doubt already drawn some of these parallels and knows how to take the right pages out of Lincoln’s book to thread the political needle and form a stable government. As a battle-tested politician, there is little doubt that if any Malaysian can rise to the challenge and hold together a team of rivals, it is Anwar Ibrahim.
For Anwar to truly succeed, he will have to transform Malaysian politics and bring about the paradigm shift in Malaysia’s political culture that his supporters have rallied behind for so long. Anwar may be the first Malaysian Prime Minister since independence who does not plan to leave behind a legacy for his children of titles, property, monuments or fortunes.
Anwar’s own oldest daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, in her congratulatory message to her father, said that the legacy she expects to be left for the next generation is not a material one, but one of “ideals, principles and values that cannot be bought or sold.” Over the last 24-years, Anwar, his family, his party, and their supporters have braved unimaginable odds to take this simple message to Malaysians.
Whatever policy compromises Anwar may have to make to assemble a stable coalition government, he, like Lincoln, will be defined by whether he is able to remain true to his core principles while governing effectively. After so many years of struggle, so many years of trying to awaken Malaysians to the future that could await them if they unleashed the potential of all Malaysians and empowered grassroots industries and businesses to thrive, Anwar will finally get a chance to show them through deeds instead of words.
From Jungle To International Five-Star
CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Prime Minister’s Village Re-awakening
I first met Ranasinghe Premadasa, the ninth prime minister of Sri Lanka, in 1981. He was a unique man loved by many supporters and hated by many critics. At that time, I was at the John Keells head office as the Manager – Operations of their hotel management and marketing services company. We also managed Temple Trees, the official residence of the Prime Minister and his family. Managing Temple Trees was a demanding contract.
I visited Temple Trees occasionally to support Fazal Izzadeen, a manager whom I transferred from Hotel Swanee to be in charge of the Temple Trees operation. Given the personal friendship my boss, Bobby Adams had with the Prime Minister, the Director – Operation had to be personally involved in managing this prestigious property. A perfectionist, Mr. Premadasa did not tolerate any sub-standard quality in maintenance, upkeep and cleanliness. Fazal did a great job in keeping the second family of Sri Lanka content with the services we provided, and more importantly, off our backs.
Unlike any of his predecessors, Ranasinghe Premadasa came from a family of modest means. Politically a self-made man, he was the first ‘commoner’ to become Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, breaking a 30-year tradition of the top leadership of the country being controlled by the high caste aristocracy coming from affluent families. Educated in a Christian missionary college in Colombo, Mr. Premadasa initially opted for a career as a journalist. He was a prolific writer and an electrifying orator in Sinhala. He had been keenly interested in neighbourhood welfare affairs since his youth. He became increasingly involved in municipal politics, initially as a member of the leftist, Ceylon Labour Party which led to his election to the Colombo Municipal Council at a young age of 26.
One day in early 1986, Bobby Adams entrusted a special duty to me. He called to say, “the Honourable Prime Minister will be staying at the Village, Habarana for five days, while he is busy with the 1986 Gam Udawa (Village Re-awakening) project in nearby Hingurakgoda. As I cannot be there this time, please look after him and his team of 50, including the security detail.”
Between 1979 and until his gruesome assassination by a suicide bomber while organizing a May Day demonstration in 1993, when he was the President of Sri Lanka, Mr. Premadasa led 15 annual Gam Udawa projects in different districts in rural Sri Lanka. The festivals were part of a massive, public housing and development program envisioned by him. The festivals were implemented with great efficiency, for the benefit of poor villagers, and predominantly in Sinhala Buddhist areas. Gam Udawa helped consolidate state ideologies at a time when its political and moral authority was being challenged by insurrectionary and separatist groups.
As the General Manager of the Lodge and the Village, hosting the Prime Minister for five-days was an interesting assignment. It enabled me to see the different facets of a unique personality of our times. Our team did the outdoor catering whenever the Prime Minister went to Hingurakgoda to see the progress of the project. At times, he was ruthless in dealing with the government engineers, project managers and private contractors.
He had no patience for project delays and inefficiencies. Nor did he hesitate to take senior bureaucrats to task, in public, in the presence of their subordinates. Quoting one of his idols, Jawaharlal Nehru (the first Prime Minister of India, whose autobiography was translated into Sinhala by Premadasa), he emphasised that, “I am only interested in work done and not in excuses!”
During the evening at the Village, the Prime Minister was in a more relaxed mood, and I saw a different side of his personality. At times he played football with the resort staff. He was athletic and fit. He had his dinner around 6:00 pm and then walked with our management team on the bund of the Habarana tank. His loyal and influential valet, Mohideen walked behind him with a radio playing Buddhist pirith chanting.
One early evening, during our walk, the Prime Minister looked at my wife who was pregnant, and asked her, “Did you have your dinner?” When she replied that we eat around 9:00 pm, the Prime Minister was unhappy. “In your condition, you should ideally be eating five hours before bed time.” he lectured her.Mr. Premadasa was a hard-working man who commenced his day around 4:00 am. After his early breakfast (usually string hoppers made with healthy, kurakkan (millet) and red rice flour, he would call the cabinet ministers and senior officials. They all knew his early routine and had gotten used to getting up very early to respond to the boss’s calls.
Mr. Premadasa was a big fan of the Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew and his tough leadership style. He often spoke fondly about how effectively Lee Kuan Yew had developed Singapore to an unprecedented advanced level from a previously poor country which only obtained independence 14 years after Ceylon.On the last day of his visit, we were all waiting by the helipad of the Village Habarana to bid farewell to the Prime Minister. At 8:00 am sharp, he left his suite and said his goodbyes to managers and staff waiting in a long greeting line, before getting into an Air Force helicopter piloted by a squadron leader.
Mr. Premadasa was very observant. He paused for a moment and looking unhappy, picked a small, dry leaf from the floor of the helicopter. He then placed that leaf in the palm of the pilot without uttering a word. There was pin drop silence until the helicopter took off. “That’s something Lee Kuan Yew would have done too!” one of our managers told me.
My New Best Friend
From February 1, 1986, with the birth of our son, Marlon, my life changed. Our apartment in Habarana was Marlon’s first home. After my daily, lunch management meeting at the Village, I dropped in at our apartment to spend time with him. After playing a little, we both usually fell asleep for a short nap. When he started talking, Marlon commenced calling me his best friend.
In the later years, Marlon travelled to many countries with us and lived and studied in Iraq, United Kingdom, Sri Lanka, Guyana, Jamaica and Canada. He also lived in Vietnam for five years as a corporate executive of a large company. When he was in his mid-teens, I prompted him to pursue a career in hospitality, but he declined, saying that, “Thaththi, I never want to work as hard as you do in hotels!” Marlon was correct – hoteliering is certainly a demanding career, which often requires long hours of work, while sacrificing family life.
I was saddened to hear that the Chairman of the John Keells Group, Mark Bostock had decided to retire. He had led the company for over 17 years, since 1969. Under his remarkable leadership, the John Keells Group evolved from a traditional company focusing on commodity and share broking to become the largest and most diverse group of companies in Sri Lanka. Today, John Keells Holdings, PLC (JKH) is Sri Lanka’s largest, listed conglomerate on the Colombo Stock Exchange. It is also the undisputed leader of the tourism and hospitality industries in the country.
Having been associated with the group’s chairman since 1972, initially through rugby football and then as a hotel manager, I was an admirer of Mark Bostock. I was extremely grateful to him for fully sponsoring my first overseas trip and training in London in 1979. In 1980 when I got married, Mark Bostock was an attesting witness. My personal friendship with him continued in 1984 when my family was invited to visit his family in their home in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, for an overnight stay. Later in 1985, he supported re-hiring me to John Keells to manage their two largest hotels (The Lodge and The Village) as the General Manager.
An emotional farewell to a visionary leader
During his last visit to Habarana as the Chairman, he kindly accepted my invitation for Mrs. Bostock and him to plant a tree and address the employees. He shared his vision for the future, and said that, “My Deputy Chairman, David Blackler will certainly continue our good work, as the new Chairman. We have developed a strong team of Sri Lankan directors, who will take the company to a new level,” he assured.
Unfortunately, my first meeting with the new Chairman did not go well. David Blackler, who was also a Britisher like Mark Bostock, wanted some changes done immediately. He also told me that spending time as the President of two trade associations was a waste of time in my busy schedule. I was unhappy, but did not comment as I realized that with leadership change, emphasis may change. Managers need to go with the flow.
Being the General Manager of the Habarana Resort Complex was a rewarding job, but it was not overly challenging. I enjoyed the opportunity to do new things, develop an amazing team and the free rein that I had been given, up to that point. Yet, it was not fully aligned with my mid-term career plan, which was to gain five-star international management experience. I decided to keep my options as well as, my eyes open. The last memo/letter Mark Bostock sent me was motivating and I was very touched with his kind words.
Last memo/letter to me from Mark Bostock
Mr. Steffan Pfeiffer, the General Manager of the 500-room five-star hotel, Galadari Meridien called me with another offer. It was the third time he was offering me a job in this hotel managed by the hotel company owned by Air France. “Chandana, after working here for three years, Meridien is transferring me as the General Manager of their hotel in Hong Kong. All other senior managers will continue, except four managers from one division – Food and Beverage, are leaving. I have identified you as the new lead for this division.” Steffan was trying to motivate me to make a career move.
Due to the popularity of nine food and beverage outlets and large banqueting facilities, the Food and Beverage Division of Galadari Meridian was generating over half the total revenue of the hotel. The offer was for me to be accountable for 230 employees including three expatriate managers, working in 13 departments, including kitchens.
The Food and Beverage Division of a large five-star hotel usually has four senior managers – Food & Beverage Manager, Executive Chef, Assistant Food & Beverage Manager, and the Banquet Manager. Two Frenchmen, who were the Food & Beverage Manager/Executive Assistant Manager and Executive Chef in the hotel opening team had left as well as the other two, who were senior Lankan hoteliers were about to leave Sri Lanka.
Steffan Pfeiffer offered me the opportunity to take over, and to re-organize the Food and Beverage Division. “I have recruited an excellent French Executive Chef to report to you. That is Chef Emile Castillo, who worked with me at Hotel Lanka Oberoi. You have a full control to fill the other two senior vacancies,” he explained. “I need you to meet the new Acting General Manager coming from the Meridien head office in Paris – Mr. Jean-Michel Varichon.”
“We will take you as the Acting Food & Beverage Manager and be confirmed in the position after six months, or once you have impressed the new General Manager, which I am sure that you will.” I agreed to join the Galadari Meridian on the day when Jean-Michel Varichon and Chef Emile Castillo were arriving – June 16, 1986. Steffan Pfeiffer said that he would work with me for two weeks prior to leaving for Hong Kong. I decided to leave John Keells to pursue a career with an international five-star hotel business.
On my last day at the Lodge and the Village, I decided to do something different. I had initiated many new things, but was not sure how the 18 managers in my teams viewed those. I developed a one-page questionnaire listing 12 general aspects of leadership and 18 other aspects we had initiated in 1985 and 1986. I requested the managers not to write their names on the questionnaires.
When I tabulated the results, I was happy to note that my team gave full marks for five elements – Planning, Delegation, Sales Promotion, Leadership Training and Statistical Analysis. The other side of the coin was that I was given poor marks for initiatives such as: Job Descriptions, Best Worker Awards, and surprisingly, the Management Trainee Program. Since 1986, every time I changed my job, I requested written feedback from the teams I managed.
Good Bye from the Lodge Team
David Blackler was surprised that I would leave the position of the General Manager of two of the best local hotels in the country to join a five-star hotel as an Acting Divisional Manager. Some of my friends were also surprised that I would leave the largest group of companies in the country, which was considered a great employer. At times, one has to follow the heart for career progress.
Over the next three years, until his retirement from John Keells in 1989, as a regular lunch customer of Colombo Club (one of the nine food and beverage outlets of Galadari Meridien), Mr David Blackler became very friendly with me. He often discussed my innovative initiatives at Galadari Meridien, especially when I mastered the art of show biz productions to increase hotel profits.
Progress with Le Meridien
Exciting new challenges awaiting me in Colombo…
Within six months of joining, I was confirmed as the Food & Beverage Manager of Galadari Meridien (from 1987, Le Meridien), and another six months later I was promoted Director of Food & Beverage, a job title unique at that time for any Lankan hotelier.
Le Meridien was very generous in developing my international hotel management career. During my two stints with them in 1980s and in 1990s, Le Meridien invested time and funds to send me as a Management Observer to their five-star hotels in Singapore, Changi Airport, Paris, Tours, London, Guadalupe, New Orleans, Toronto, and Dubai (the last two, on quality assurance mystery shopper assignments). They also sponsored my business management education with Institut International Meridien in France, where they developed promising divisional heads to become expatriate General Managers of five-star Le Meridien hotels.
In 1997, after gaining years of experience in managing seven hotels for different companies, I was chosen to convert the largest and the best hotel in the capital city of Jamaica, as Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. My team worked hard with the union to make this hotel become the first hotel in Americas to earn the ISO 9002 certification. In that rewarding assignment, on my request, the company sent two of Le Meridien experts to assist me with the opening – Jean-Michel Varichon from Paris and Chef Emile Castillo from New York. Small world!
In 1997, at the soft opening of Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus Hotel. (L to R) Paddy Mitchell – MD of Le Meridien North America, John Issa – Chairman of Jamaica Pegasus Limited & SuperClubs, and P. J. Patterson – Prime Minister of Jamaica, listening to my welcome remarks.I will briefly narrate some related ‘fun’ stories in the future episodes of this column.
Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena
has been an Executive Chef, Food & Beverage Director, Hotel GM, MD, VP, President, Chairman, Professor, Dean, Leadership Coach and Consultant. He has published 22 text books. This weekly column narrates ‘fun’ stories from his 50-year career in South Asia, the Middle East, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and North America, and his travels to 98 countries and assignments in 44 countries.
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