Arts Education in Sri Lanka: Some clarifications
By Farzana Haniffa
A recent report on higher education published by the National Audit Office (2020) attempted to make a connection between graduate unemployment and Arts education. Today’s Kuppi Talk is derived from a response that we, a group of university academics formulated to the report. When education policy is increasingly being driven by inadequate research, misplaced priorities, and flawed analyses, some of the report’s claims are worth a second look.
At the outset it must be acknowledged that there is much that can be improved about Arts Education in Sri Lanka. However, it must also be acknowledged that there are many misconceptions regarding graduates of state universities and their abilities that have little or no resemblance to how universities function or the quality of the degree programmes on offer.
Underserving the Arts
While acknowledging the need for creative Arts to enrich society, the report suggests that as a “developing country”, we cannot afford to spend resources (that could be spent on Science Technology Engineering Mathematics (STEM) Education on Arts education. A vibrant Arts scene is the hallmark of a thriving society. It is unfortunate that we—in our quest for economic development– are considered underserving of creative Arts. The lack of greater government support for Arts is probably a reflection of this sensibility. Unfortunately, such narrow and shortsighted positions inform much education policy today.
Arts Faculties also provide degrees in the social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, economics and geography, and in applied or “professional” fields such as education, archeology, and library sciences, as well as humanities subjects such as history, philosophy and literature. The skills and perspectives provided by these sectors are essential to a holistic understanding of any social problem, such as poverty or education, or even any “technical” problem, such as water scarcity. The ability to understand the philosophical and ideological bases of such problems, and identify the social, cultural, and human consequences of proposed solutions, is provided by the skillset cultivated by an Arts Education. In fact, this is the very reason that multidisciplinary perspectives are frequently called upon for research.
It is important then that we recognize the contribution that a good quality Arts education can offer to society. We as a country are suffering today from a lack of attention to the perspectives that social science and humanities education can provide. This is also why those with little or no exposure to the above fields feel qualified to drive policy in various sectors that have substantial social consequences. This situation does not bode well for our future.
Leaving no one behind?
Our free education system, enshrined with the goal of providing upward social mobility, is failing today due to neglect. That students from under-privileged communities are compelled to attend under-resourced schools is a factor that needs much greater attention in any conversation regarding higher education and employability.
The audit report points to the many problems with secondary education and argues that students from underprivileged schools have often no option but to follow the (less demanding) Arts streams for A-levels and University Education. The report claims that Arts faculties are therefore the locus of such under-prepared students. Despite identifying the education system as the problem (and not the ability of students), the report goes on to suggest that such students do not deserve higher education and should be directed elsewhere.
If Arts programmes are, in fact, where many students who have had weak secondary education end up by default, then these arts programmes must offer remedial support. Arts programs are not currently designed to do this. There is support for English language learning but little support to address weaknesses in other kinds of essential cognitive skills. The student population that enters university today emerges, by and large, from a badly resourced education system, and a tuition culture that produces exam-oriented rote learners.
Education policy must address the mismatch between the requirements of a degree programmes and the competencies with which students enter university. The solution here is not to dismantle Arts programmess or to add-on English training and IT skills to compensate for a lack of a good foundation, but to channel more resources to the education system, and provide additional remedial catch-up time prior to the degree programme.
The report sweepingly suggests that Arts programmes that draw these “weak” students are themselves “weak” and are of little societal value. For one, not all Arts programs are the same across the country’s university system. There are internal and external degree programes, three-year general Arts degree programmes following different subject combinations and Study Stream degree programmes that offer specialisation within a three-year period, and four-year honours degree programmes involving a research component. While the subject areas covered by Arts programmes are also diverse, the content of programmes across the many universities differ as well. Thus, Arts students demonstrate a wide and disparate range of abilities and skills. Addressing Arts Education as a non-disaggregated whole is unhelpful when analysing the skills and capabilities of Arts graduates. Disaggregating between Arts programmes is essential in order to recognise and develop the stronger programs and provide support for the areas that require reforms .
The report assumes that academically-oriented programmes are somehow antithetical to employment-oriented programmes. Such a perspective mischaracterises both the nature of academic engagement and the essence of job-oriented education. A strong academic programme that focuses on critical thought, substantive engagement with course material, independent learning, good writing, presentation and debate skills, will produce graduate that are able to think independently, express themselves and work towards creating meaningful change in whatever surrounding they find themselves in, including their jobs. An effective programme of this nature would simultaneously result in the development of English skills, “soft skills”, and IT skills as part of the curriculum. The World Bank loan funded AHEAD programme currently being implemented across the university system has integrated elements of such a perspective.
Arts Faculties currently tend to cater to a large number of students and relative to other faculties, their student body is more diverse and likely to have differing challenges and require greater support in transitioning to university education. Their student to staff ratios are larger, they tend to offer a greater number of degree programmes that are delivered in different language media, and their per student funding is less than for other degree programs. This creates a number of unique difficulties for arts faculties. These problems require systematic investigation in order for universities to provide the type of enriching education that an Arts graduate requires. The state must recognise the unique contribution that Arts faculties can make due to these very conditions and not dismiss them—as is sometimes done today—as breeding iniquity alone.
For most university graduates, employment means to be employed in the government sector. When graduates report unemployment, they do not necessarily mean they are not engaged in other income-generating activities or a private sector job. Defining a “job” as a government job alone may be understood as part of a cultivated culture of patronage and entitlement. Such a position also draws from a realisation that the working conditions, job security, and benefits of a government position far outweigh those in the private sector, regardless of claims to creativity, job satisfaction, higher pay, etc. The report recognises many of these issues and recommends raising awareness on the benefits of private sector jobs among undergraduates and urges the government to address the working conditions in the private sector.
The report points out that the majority of unemployed Arts graduates are women, but does not explore the gendered reasons as to why university educated women may be unemployed or opt out of employment. The Labour Demand Survey of 2017 provides insights on this matter. According to the Survey results, employers expressed negative attitudes towards hiring women owing to their “family commitments,” “security concerns”, and “maternity leave.”
Employers’ reluctance to accommodate women’s unpaid care responsibilities and fear of sexual harassment and violence point to yet another societal malaise that is not reducible to a factor of university education alone. Recent discussions on the unpaid care economy and women’s unaccounted labour at home are relevant here. Many women opt out of formal employment or engage in informal work to accommodate the demands of care work in the home. Additionally, work place sexual harassment and risk of the same when traveling home late after work are factors that contribute to women’s low labour force participation. These issues must be taken in to account to arrive at a complete picture of graduate unemployment.
The government’s education policies are not always based on rigorous analysis, and often exacerbate rather than ameliorate the crises in the education sector. It is important therefore that policy interventions are made after consultative and thought-through processes that are themselves not mere box ticking exercises.
(Farzana Haniffa teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of Colombo.)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
Trump indicted, Aragalaya in Israel, and IMF in Sri Lanka
by Rajan Philips
Halfway through my writing this piece news broke out that a Grand Jury in New York has voted to indict former President Donald Trump on reportedly more than 30 counts in connection with his alleged role in a hush money payment scheme and cover-up of his affair with an adult film star. The sordid affair was before Trump began his presidential run; the crime of payment was committed when he was the Republican candidate. The Grand Jury in the US criminal justice system is a group of citizens who hear evidence from a prosecutor and other witnesses against an accused person and votes in secret to decide if there is enough evidence to charge that person with a crime.
That the Grand Jury in Manhattan, New York, believes that there is enough to charge a former president with a crime is unprecedented in US history, but it should be considered par for the course when it involves Donald Trump. A separate criminal trial with another jury awaits the indicted Trump, but the legal theatre that the Manhattan District Attorney has opened in New York will preoccupy US society and politics for months, even years, to come. America will trundle along with no dramatic changes internally because as a highly federated leviathan it is too cumbersome for swift overhauls. Externally, the US President will have the necessary autonomy to plough ahead, but only with impaired credibility and not without universal derision.
Besides the case in New York, Trump is facing the real possibility of a separate indictment in the State of Georgia over election interference, and the growing possibility of indictments by a federal prosecutor for his involvement in the January 6 (2021) violence at the Congress in Washington and over his handling of confidential government documents and obstructing the course of justice. Trump is still bluffing and believing that the indictments will boost his campaign for another shot at the presidency, but the only ones falling for his bluff are those in the Republican Party – those who believe like him and others who do not have the backbone to call his bluff. Trump has been calling out on his faithful to come out and protest for him, but no one seems to be falling for his demagoguery anymore.
Global protests now are against those in power and for throwing them out. They are not for reinstating someone like Trump who didn’t deserve to get power in the first place, the first time. There will be a lot of drama but nothing like what is going on in France and Israel, or what happened in Sri Lanka last year. Israel is having its own version of aragalaya with nearly a three-quarter million people storming the streets of Tel Aviv last Sunday to protest against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political scheming to subordinate the country’s judiciary to its legislature. The pretext theory for Netanyahu in Israel, as with others of his ilk elsewhere, is that unelected judges should not be allowed to frustrate the so called will of the people that is conveniently expressed through the governing majority of their elected representatives in parliament. Mr. Netanyahu’s real purpose, however, is to prevent the courts from finding him guilty on charges of fraud, corruption and potentially sending him to jail.
The scale and persistence of protests in Israel are not unlike the explosion of aragalaya in Sri Lanka. But both are different from the protests in France in that they are not about government corruption or an authoritarian President. Also, the judiciary is not implicated in the French standoff between President Macron and the people protesting over the working life span of ordinary French people, especially women and wage workers. Sri Lankan governments and Presidents, like colonial Governors before them, have had their monkeying moments with the judiciary, but the judiciary has been spared of political ignominy for some time after the cowardly impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake by Rajapaksa bullies.
Now there are rumblings that Supreme Court Judges might be hauled before a Parliamentary Privileges Committee to clear up just who the bosses are when it comes to disbursing government funds. This is President Wickremesinghe’s tit-for-tat response to a divisional bench of the Supreme Court directing the Treasury not to withhold funds needed for local government elections that are now past their due date. This is not the same situation that Netanyahu has stirred up in Israel, and it is not likely to stir up the same level of protests as in Israel. Put another way, there will be no aragalaya for the judges in Sri Lanka.
But the judges should feel free to stage their own form of silent protest and rebuff any highhanded call to attend a parliamentary committee meeting. They can take a leaf from Justice TS Fernando’s playbook when he stood up to Felix Dias’s tricks and entreaties to drop the curtain on the proceedings of Sri Lanka’s first Constitutional Court in the 1970s. Such a judicial pushback against a clever-by-half executive will command huge public support and sympathy, even if the people may not take to the streets (or Galle Face) as they did during aragalaya, or as it is going on now in Israel. There are other differences too.
The protests in Israel against Netanyahu’s scheming against the judiciary are also a manifestation of simmering differences between secular Jews and orthodox religious Jews over the future direction of Israel, the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the provocative Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The orthodox religious Jews of Israel generally of Middle Eastern descent are hostile to the courts which often rule against ultranationalist Jewish claims and agendas. The courts are seen to be dominated by liberal judges who are Jews of mostly of European origin.
Israel’s ultranationalist and religious Jews have largely been a fringe force in Israeli politics until Netanyahu reached a Faustian pact with them after the elections last November to become Israel’s Prime Minister for the sixth time in his checkered political career. He cobbled together a coalition comprising rightwing and religiously conservative parties, all of them more conservative than Netanyahu’s Likud Party, to form the most rightwing government in Israel’s history. Their aim is to expand Jewish settlements on the West Bank, subordinate the courts to the will of the governing coalition, and transform the state of Israel to become more religious and less secular.
Netanyahu calls his era Israel’s golden age to the dismay of the country’s moderates and its overseas benefactors. The country including the military is gravely divided, and the protests have been successful in forcing Mr. Netanyahu to call for ‘a pause’ to his legislative scheming, to have more dialogue with his opponents. But he has given no indication that he will scale down the changes that he is pursuing. However, the PM’s pause has becalmed sections of the protesters. Histadrut, the country’s largest trade union with 800,000 members, has now called off a general strike after successfully staging a token strike that even included Israeli officials in foreign missions walking out of their embassies.
In France, on the other hand, the unions are demanding that their President follow Israel and call for a pause on the retirement age! The Macron government has responded that it is prepared to dialogue with the unions on any and all of their other grievances except the age of retirement. So, the standoff continues with no end in sight. But neither in France nor in Israel, is there any attempt to clampdown on protesters or declare emergency rule. That happens to be only in Sri Lanka, thanks to President Wickremesinghe and his political machinations.
The IMF and its Discontents
It has been clear that after the tumultuous exit of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President Wickremesinghe has been the beneficiary of a protest fatigue in the country. Strangely enough, it is the President who seems to be bent on poking the protest tiger to give himself the excuse to impose a clampdown. His poking is all political; for on the more critical issue of the economy, the President is shadow boxing because there is no real opposition to his economic initiatives including his ‘pre-historical’ (inasmuch as Sri Lanka’s economic history is just beginning with Ranil at ’74) deal he signed with the IMF. While the Sri Lankan protest universe is mad as hell with the President on specific issues – taxes, LG election etc., no one has the stomach for a general strike over the IMF.
While a strike may have been averted, that was no reason for government bozos to light firecrackers to celebrate the IMF deal. There is nothing to celebrate here. The IMF is not the end of the road, it is only the end of the beginning. At the same time, the old detractors of the IMF seem to be immaturing with age – to borrow Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s classic putdown of Tony Benn, then keeper of the Labour Party’s left-conscience, that “Tony immatures with age!” There is no point in rehashing the rhetoric of the 1960s and 1970s against an IMF deal in 2023. Those who eternally bring up the venerable name of Joseph Eugene Stiglitz and his searing criticisms one time of the IMF, may want to know what The Economist said recently about Mr. Stiglitz and the IMF, that they may have “warmed to each other,” after their earlier differences. All of this is table talk that is not going to help Sri Lanka in any way.
Apart from the details of the Ranil-IMF agreement, what is remarkable now is the openness of the IMF officials to engage directly with the Sri Lankan public. On March 21, after the IMF agreement was finalized, there was an extensive Press Briefing and Q & A session conducted virtually from Washington. Quite a few commentators and journalists participated from Colombo, and the IMF website carries the transcript of the whole briefing and exchanges. Questions and answers were free and frank, and covered, besides details of the agreement, even the timing of local and presidential elections in Sri Lanka. The exchanges were livelier and more informed than one might come across in today’s parliament in Sri Lanka. This was followed by a virtual roundtable meeting with trade union representatives in Colombo, in which the IMF officials indicated that the government might be able to revise the current tax proposals to address some of the union concerns.
The onus is on the government to finally set about revamping the economy. For the opposition, there are parts of the IMF agreement that can and should be used to hold the government accountable and answerable in a very political way. These include eradicating corruption, going beyond the IMF’s goal of “reducing corruption vulnerabilities; strengthening social safety nets; and revisiting the tax concessions currently offered to potential Port City investors. The IMF Staff Report includes a number of Annexes, one of which, Annex VII. The Social Safety Net: Recent Developments and Reform Priorities, could be a technical blueprint for a political manifesto. Annex VII. Colombo Port City Project, provides a sobering account of what the Galle Face venture may or may not bring to Sri Lanka after all the shouting. There is a lot to chew here besides the shouting.
The Need To Feed And Invest In The Future Of Our School children
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
Undoubtedly, children, particularly from low-income families, have borne the most significant hardships due to the unprecedented economic crisis that has beset our country. The single biggest challenge has been the skyrocketing food prices of even essentials, resulting in many families adopting coping strategies from reducing the number of meals consumed to eating less preferred meals lacking nutrition. As a result, the impact on schoolchildren has been a double whammy from constant hunger to skipping school, thus impacting their education.
The WFP situation report in October 2022 said, ” Even before the economic crisis and the pandemic, malnutrition rates across Sri Lanka were already high. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lankan women and children suffered from far higher rates of malnutrition than most other middle-income countries: 17 per cent of children aged under five were too short because of stunting, and 15 per cent were too thin for their height (wasted). The current economic crisis will likely aggravate this further.”
However, the statement made in September 2022 by the SLPP Anuradhapura District Parliamentarian K.P.S Kumarasiri in parliament that he had received reports of instances where 20 students fainted in three schools at the Vilachchiya Divisional Secretariat division caused a media storm and highlighted the problem. He went on to name the schools where the fainting of the students had occurred. He also highlighted media reports of a student bringing coconut kernels as her midday meal to the school in Minuwangoda.
True to form, Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said he was unaware of such incidents in Vilachchiya. However, he assured that he would look into the matter and denied the occurrence in Minuwangoda. Chief Governmen Whip Prassana Ranatunga, also got into the act by saying that Minuwangoga was his electorate. Having inquired from the principal about the media reports, Ranatunga attributed them to lies fabricated to instigate people!
The government reacted to continued social media posts citing incidents of schoolchildren fainting by extending a ban on public servants speaking to journalists to include social media posts. In addition, the order said, “Expressing opinions on social media by a public officer shall constitute an offense that leads to disciplinary action.” This was after certain provincial health officials, and teachers claimed students were fainting in schools because of a lack of food. The government also suspended the former Hambantota Regional Director of Health, Dr Chamal Sanjeewa, charging him with “causing inconvenience to the government” by presenting “false” information to a media briefing about child malnutrition in Sri Lanka. One hopes that he has now been reinstated and an apology tendered to him.
Why the government denied the existence of the problem is a mystery because several months before that, the World Food Programme (WFP), the world’s largest humanitarian organization, stated in a release, “An estimated 4.9 million people – 22 per cent of the population – are currently food-insecure and require humanitarian assistance. Reduced domestic agricultural production, scarcity of foreign exchange reserves and depreciation of the local currency have caused food shortages and a spike in the cost of living, limiting people’s access to healthy and affordable meals. The economic crisis will push families into hunger and poverty – some for the first time – adding to the half a million people who the World Bank estimates have fallen below the poverty line because of the pandemic. The latest WFP assessment reveals that 86 per cent of families are buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and, in some cases, skipping meals altogether.
Similarly, in its 2022 report, UNICEF said, “Children are disproportionately affected by the rapidly unfolding economic crisis in Sri Lanka. Rising food and fuel prices, frequent power cuts, and shortages of life-saving medicines are particularly impacting the poorest and most marginalized. More than 5.7 million people, including 2.3 million children, require humanitarian assistance. Sri Lanka is among the top ten countries with the highest number of malnourished children, and the numbers are expected to rise further.”
Save the Children Sri Lanka released in March 2023 their “Rapid Needs Assessment Report – Phase 2,” a comprehensive report based on a country-wide survey done in December 2022. Some of the critical findings were:
Food was a significant contributor to household expenses, which increased by five percent from 44% in June 2022 to 49% in December 2022.
33% of households reported they still cannot meet their food needs.
30% of households could not provide adequate nutritious food for their children, and six percent could not provide any nutritious food.
50% of households have reduced the quantity of food consumed
74% of households are eating less preferred food.
27% of households have reduced the frequency of food intake (three times to twice or once)
25% of adults skipped food
Almost 90% of households adopted some coping strategy to meet their daily food demand. The most cited report of coping strategies adopted was relying on less preferred and less expensive food.
The manual on the School Nutrition Program published in 2020 by the Ministry of Education states, “Many surveys reveal that school-going children’s physical, physiological and nutritional status directly or indirectly impacts the students’ attendance, participation in learning and performances. Therefore, improving the nutritional level of children of school-going age is essential”.
The Observations of a Medical Consultant
I reached out to Dr B. J. C. Perera, Specialist Consultant Paediatrician, for his observations on the importance of nutrition for children. He sent me a short note “It is abundantly clear that optimal nutrition is of seminal importance for children and adolescents. Right from the time the baby is in the womb, where adequate nutrition for the foetus is provided by the mother, to the time after birth, where the golden elixir of mother’s milk provides all necessary nutrients to the baby during the first six months of life on earth and then afterwards to the time during early and late childhood as well as adolescence where a well-balanced diet provides adequate nutrition, the young ones of our land are totally dependent on the parents for the provision of optimal nourishment. All essential nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals have to be provided for children and adolescents for physical and mental growth. Physical growth in stature leading to satisfactory weight gain and an increase in height depends to a great extent on the provision of adequate food.
On the other hand, the inadequacy of essential nutrients leads to a reduction in height or stunting and poor weight gain, leading to different types of malnutrition states. Moreover, the inadequacy of certain essential nutrients leads to the development of well-documented diseases and increases the susceptibility of malnourished children to catch various infectious diseases. Many believe that the inadequacy of food leads only to disturbances in physical growth. However, it must be pointed out that optimal nutrition is also crucial for cognitive and mental development. There is accumulating evidence from research studies that inadequate nutrition has significant effects on intelligence as well as the proper development of all types of mental skills”.
Who is Doing What?
The Sri Lankan government has funded a school meal programme for several decades. According to the Ministry of Education manual on school nutrition, in 2017, a total of 1,105,605 students of 7,871 schools benefited from the meal programme while 112,088 students of 414 schools benefited from the programme of providing fresh milk.” But unfortunately, one of the economic crisis’s consequences was the reduction in the 2022 budget allocated for the school meal programme. Nevertheless, according to recent media reports, the cabinet has approved a proposal by the President to extend the school meal program to benefit an additional one million students, resulting in nearly 50% of school children benefiting from the program.
Several international organizations have come forward to help with the school meal program. For example, the October 2022 WFP report stated that 556,929 schoolchildren had received school meals prepared with rice supported by WFP. In addition, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and in partnership with Save the Children, the United States donated 3,000 tons of food to nourish school children across Sri Lanka. The U.S. Ambassador Julie Chang said, “This donation from the American people targets the most vulnerable Sri Lankans – children – and enables them to focus on their schooling rather than on their hunger.” Furthermore, UNICEF was planning to raise U.S. $ 28.3 million for various initiatives in the country, including providing nutrition to children.
The Chinese government donated 8,862,990 metres of cloth to the Education Ministry as school uniform material for the 2023 academic year. The donation amounts to 70% of the country’s school uniform material required for this year.
Several charitable organizations and corporates have also gotten involved in supporting the school’s meal program. For example, my former employer, the John Keells group, has taken 12 schools and seven preschools under their wing, supporting 2,415 children with daily meals under their “Pasal Diriya” program. The supermarket arm of the group is also supporting an initiative to feed 1,000 preschool kids aged between 2.5 and five years for over six months. The customers of Keells Super primarily fund this program contributing 80% of the cost and the company the balance. I have also read media reports of a donor-funded project called ” Rise Up School Meals”, supporting 12,000+ children in 81 schools with meals and a glass of milk. The Roshan Mahanama Trust of the former Sri Lankan cricketer too is doing excellent service helping children with school books, among many other initiatives. No doubt, many other organizations and charities are doing their bit.
In addition, in a personal capacity, many assist with meals and purchasing school books, bags and shoes for school children individually or as a group coordinating with school principals and teachers.
All these initiatives are genuinely commendable, and no doubt go some way towards helping children, particularly from low-income families. The smile that you get from a child after providing a wholesome meal is indeed something that will make one happy and fulfilled. However, whilst international organizations, corporates, charitable organizations, and well-intentioned individuals can support the initiative to feed a child for some time, the primary responsibility lies with the government.
Therefore, it is incumbent on the government to allocate the necessary funds and ensure the program’s success. It should not remain only a slogan. UNICEF, in their release, stated, ” In tackling the current crisis in Sri Lanka, put children first. As the situation evolves, Government efforts must include closely monitoring the impact on Sri Lanka’s youngest citizens—the future of the country, but currently the most vulnerable.” No one can disagree with that.
Kumar Sangakkara brings pride to Sri Lanka yet again
MTV 1 in its night news bulletin on March 27, mentioned that Kumar Sngakkara had addressed the Oxford Union and presented a short visual. Interest kindled, I googled and watched the entire Union session on video.
There he sat comfortable and so at ease, looking his handsomest best, dressed near casual in a dark blazer like jacket with grey slacks and subdued tie. He spoke excellently with the slightest of attractive accent, as English should be spoken. Also, no er…s and um…s at all. His talk, whether recounting incidents from his life or answering questions about cricket, was even paced and smooth flowing. Listeners’ reaction seemed to be riveted interest; questions at the end were many and penetrating.
A note on the Oxford Union is apt here. It is a debating society named the Oxford Union Society, commonly referred to as the Oxford Union, in the city of Oxford, England, whose membership is drawn primarily from the University. Founded in 1823, “it is one of Britain’s oldest university unions and one of the world’s most prestigious private students’ unions. It exists independently from the university and is distinct from the Oxford University Students Union.” Women were admitted as late as 1963. “The Union has the tradition of hosting some of the world’s most prominent individuals across politics, academia and popular culture.”
Please do note that sentence. Thus Sangakkara has been accepted by a most prestigious association as one of the worlds’ most prominent individuals. (In contrast local figures that stomp our stages hubris-filled come derisively to mind: granted PhDs from potty institutions and using Dr with names; claiming educational/professional qualifications that never were and strutting puffed up with self-inflation)
Kumar Sangakkara addressed the Oxford Union on February 23 this year. Seeing him walk up to the small platform filled me with justified pride. The convener, probably President of the Oxford Union, asked the first question on how Kumar got started in cricket. Kumar replied he was more into tennis and swimming as a schoolboy in Kandy, but at around 18 or 19, he moved to cricket and liked it as it was a team game calling for collaboration and playing as a cohesive group. He mentioned his father, several times later too, as being his guide and promoter, wanting him to always excel; while his mother was keener on his studies and educational success. His father had advised him to learn to change and never stop learning. “He threw a book at me each week – Tolstoy or philosophy or whatever and on Friday came question-time. He kept at me throughout. When in Australia for a test match, the hotel reception phoned me one night to say I had received a fax from my father. Initial alarm gave way to suspicion he was being usual. I told reception to put it under my door in the morning. As I had expected it was an entire page from the biography of Don Bradman and advice I should follow him.”
From his talk it was obvious he grew up in a closely knit family of three siblings and now his own family is very important to him. He referred to his wife several times.
He modestly said he was far from being a superior cricketer. “Talent is an overused word. Was I talented? Yes. Super-talented? No, not at all. I went through a learning curve and became self aware. What is identity – mine? Cricket for a short while, philosophy of life now. Personal relationships have been very favourable to me always.” He mentioned that leadership is basically stewardship.
Speaking of cricket per se, he stressed the fact that when they played matches it was more for the people of SL than for themselves individually or for the team or the Board or SLC. “People looked up to us and in a generous manner, more than in most countries; and we represented their yearning. In our country people go through so much they deserve to be given wins on the field. We are looked upon as an integral part of them. Hence winning a match or a series was more than a victory; it was a fulfillment of people’s hopes and dreams. To be Captain of the team carried an extra dimension to it.”
He mentioned that cricket in Sri Lanka, like much else was/is highly politicized and calls for enlightened leadership with vision and transparency. He very sensibly did not elaborate on politicization though we remember full well how after winning a World Cup he and Mahela were subject to probing. Worse was to come after he delivered that excellent ‘Spirit of Cricket’ address at Lords, invited by the MCC, for which he received a rarely given standing ovation. No, the yakkos back home, meaning Colombo, were waiting to question and blacklist him. The then Minister of Sports – Mahindananda Aluthgamage – still a VIP in the present government, pronounced that Kumar’s speech would be ‘investigated’. I commented soon after, in this column, that the use of that word itself showed ignorance. What one can do to fault a speech is analyze it. With hindsight I now wonder whether Aluthgamage was puppet stringed to behave as he did, by other/s who thought they were the kings of sport.
Question time had many hands being raised. One undergrad seemingly from South Asia wanted to know the highpoints of his life. Prompt came the answer: “Leading five winning teams.” Another queried about memorabilia. Kumar said he had no attachment to collecting souvenirs of his cricketing career, he did not know what happened to some of his medals won.
He was asked about cricket in Britain which he answered at length. Then came the question from a young woman how he felt about the Cowdrey lecture. Kumar elaborated that he hesitated at first on accepting the invitation but the people concerned persisted. So he agreed and then thought of what his topics/subjects should be. He decided to speak from a personal perspective about cricket as it is perceived by the common man and other strata of Sri Lankan society; what significance it carries; how it is the most favoured sport – even more than other team sports like rugby. The inherited game from the British colonial rulers was adapted and evolved to be representative of the country with its cultural heritage and ideals et al. Little by little ideas that came to him fell into place and fitted well. His writing the script, however, only ended just before he got dressed to proceed to the venue. He did not mention even in passing how his ‘Spirit of Cricket’ address was received and his excellence acknowledged.
Advice was sought. His answer included: “Think freely, critically, acquire wisdom which is different from education, and be honest. Stand up against policy and politicians that have been negative and caused trouble.” He was asked what his political stand was. He replied that it was of sports and politics; they being interdependent and unfortunately not a healthy relationship as of now. He said his wife more than him was out with the initial Aragalaya and was involved with protest marches and gatherings, “We have an obligation to speak for the greater good of our country.”
I do so sincerely hope more people would listen to his address to the Oxford Union, more so politicians, most of them third rate but preening themselves as the best. A personal opinion I dare place before you is that Kumar Sangakkara has never been given the honour, even public mention, that he richly deserves. Some would bring in the words jealousy and envy – two emotions I personally despise and cannot believe people harbour. But of course there was and still is this from lesser men and some so self-called sportsmen. Also, he was not a ‘hail fellow well met’ type. Not at all that Kumar made himself thus or was elitist in manner and behavior. He just was of a better breed and school from those who harboured within them innate inferiority complexes.
The final question asked of him by an Oxford Unionist was: What now? What next? Kumar smiled broadly and gave no definite answer, except to indicate spend more time being a family man which he always was in boyhood and continues in manhood as well.
He met and spent time with Sri Lankan Oxford University students, including it was mentioned, Insaf Bakeer Markar, Pres of the SL Society of the U of O. I add that the details given when googling his name are that he is a cricket commentator, former professional cricketer, ICC Hall of Fame inductee, businessman and former president of the MCC.
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