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Disciplined society: Bridge too far?

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By Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

Discipline, by definition, is the practice of training people to obey rules and orders and punishing them if they do not. But there is more to it. The government of the day can lay down the rules as well as the mechanisms for punishment if they are broken, but society has even a greater part to play, as disciplined behaviour is mutually beneficial. The behaviour of the majority of the public, rather the misbehaviour, contributing to the difficulty of controlling the present COVID-19 pandemic, is a case in point.

True, the Pohottuwa government has distinguished itself by scoring many own goals, but it has to be appreciated that the President and the government have done much to control the pandemic, under very difficult circumstances. For an under-resourced country, facing a severe foreign exchange crisis, due to the pandemic, to have vaccinated more than half of the adult population, in a relatively short period, is a remarkable achievement, as it surpasses some developed countries. True, mistakes were made but no country got things correct as this was an unprecedented situation. Had there been more cooperation from the public, including the Opposition, things could have been even better. Having seen how Britain, which was hit very much harder, controlled the pandemic, I wrote an article ‘Learning to live with Covid-19’ (The Island, 26 August) wherein I stated:

“Limitations in force in Sri Lanka, before the imposition of the curfew, were similar to the strictest lockdown measures in countries like the UK. Why is that Sri Lanka needs to go a step further and introduce a curfew? The simple answer is discipline; whereas in the UK the majority show disciplined behaviour, unfortunately, the opposite is true in Sri Lanka.”

Though many appreciated my article written in good faith, to offer scientific facts to convince the public that they have a greater part to play than the government, to overcome the epidemic and learn to live with it, most unexpectedly, the only rebuff I got was from a former colleague of mine. He lambasted:

“I was quite amazed and disappointed about your comments about the vaccination programme here. Every medical professional here, except the ever-diminishing number of those slavishly loyal to the Rajapksas, are extremely critical of the way it is done. This vaccination programme has totally ruined the reputation we had as a country with an exemplary immunisation programme for a long time. When the Army, politicians and other businessmen make decisions, overriding medical opinion, the outcome is obvious.

The vaccination queues are the latest super-spreaders. Many have got the infection few days after attending a mass vaccination site. The latter have become carnivals with the army band providing music and the President making a supervisory visit every now and then.

“You have suddenly found Sri Lankans to be very undisciplined. With such a set of power-wielding uneducated, undisciplined set of leaders, what did you expect the people to be? Living thousands of miles away, your extreme ignorance about the ground situation here, coloured by your unwavering loyalty to some politicians, is not surprising.”

I was shocked that a member of my profession sought to politicise a serious public health issue. Whilst pointing out that routine vaccination programmes are not comparable to a programme conducted during an extreme emergency and that many, including Dr. N.S. Jayasinghe, a much-respected physician, has written to newspapers praising the programme, I addressed the issue of indiscipline with the following response:

“I know from personal experience how undisciplined Sri Lankans are and it is not a new discovery! I left the GMOA because I was against strikes, a sign of lack of discipline among the members of the so-called noble profession. If you think Sri Lankans are disciplined, you are living in cloud-cuckoo land! Your statement that the vaccination programme acted as a spreader proves my point. If it did occur, it is because people do not know how to queue. They think if you push, things would be done quicker! If the Army had stood outside ordering people to queue properly, the Opposition would have claimed Gota was using the Army to tame the public!”

The last thing I wish to do is to criticize my brethren unfairly, from a distant land, but I am not left with much choice. It is pretty obvious that indiscipline has grown, as much as each successive government in Sri Lanka, since independence, becoming more corrupt than the previous.

We are supposed to be a Buddhist country and we expect the disciples of the Buddha to be the most disciplined. A Buddhist priest trying to assault a vaccinator, because the stock of vaccines runs out, may be interpreted as an isolated incident, but it is not. Utterances by some Buddhist priests in public are cringeworthy. A Buddhist priest leads a nurse’s trade union; much against the code of conduct laid down by the Buddha and adds insult to injury by getting them to take trade union action during a grave medical emergency, endangering lives. Buddhist priests are seen joining the teacher’s strike, too.

What about the noble profession of mine and my friend’s? Even before the pandemic, their trade union did not care two hoots about patients’ lives; going on strike being their first response to any problem! Unashamedly, they risked innocent patients’ lives during a pandemic to get their demands.

Not that there are no disciplined professionals. Much was made, in the media, of Dr. Ananda Wijewickrema’s resignation and a few others from the expert committee. One of their colleagues has written to this newspaper that they owe it to the public to declare why they resigned. The resignation itself says it all and that is the way decent professionals protest.

Now teachers have joined the strike bandwagon to settle a dispute that had been lingering on for over two decades. They do not care a tuppence about the future of our youth and in the process have lost all the esteem the public held them in. My friend, very conveniently, has failed to notice that the virus spread due to demonstrations held by teachers breaching COVID-19 regulations, despite it resulting in the unfortunate deaths of some teachers.

Leaving politicians aside, most of whom are undisciplined, irrespective of their complexions, when respected segments of the society, like the clergy, medical professionals and teachers, display gross indiscipline during an unprecedented period like this, can there be any hope? I wonder! I do hope the next generation ‘rebels’ against these, as generations do, so that a disciplined society may not be a bridge too far; I can only hope!

Coming back to the political accusations my colleague made, my reply was:

“I am not ashamed to admit that, any day, I would prefer Mahinda, Gota and Basil to Ranil or Sajith.”

Just a few days after my comment, Sajith made his declaration that there should be a snap-election. My assessment was confirmed by the leader of the JVP who responded by saying that Sajith should have his head examined!

Perhaps, there is more to it than that. Considering the number of protests and trade union actions that have taken place in spite of the continuing national emergency, one cannot be blamed for suspecting that there is a hidden hand behind all this. Maybe, Sajith let the cat out of the bag by his unguarded comment.

On top of the inherent tendency, it looks as if there is planned indiscipline too!



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Opinion

Lal Senaratne

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Lal Senaratne (left) photographed with Lorenz Pereira (the writer) in New Zealand recently

Lal Seneratne passed away quite unexpectedly and suddenly after a very brief illness, in Auckland, NZ, a few weeks back. It was both shocking and saddening to me as my wife, Kumi, and I enjoyed his and his lovely Laotian wife, Noy’s (a pharmacist whom Lal met in the USA) warm and generous hospitality only a couple of months earlier.

They took us to Rotorua, the internationally acclaimed hot spring spa where we stayed the night as their guests and then on to his splendid Award-winning holiday house by the ocean, just one hour’s drive from Auckland. They were magic and exhilarating moments.

Lal was in great spirits and we spent hours reminiscing on our mutual overlapping sporting careers, particularly at Royal College. Lal was junior to me at Royal being with my younger brother, Bryan. So, I had known him for a good 70 years.

Our initial closeness grew from our involvement in sport, firstly in tennis and subsequently in rugby. Lal was a member of the Royal College Tennis Team that I captained in 1957. He together with Navin Gooneratne still holds an unbeaten record in public schools’ tennis, by winning the junior doubles and senior doubles championships for five successive years.

He won colors in three sports, namely tennis, rugby and badminton and half colors in cricket, being a reserve for the Royal-Thomian, which was his only disappointment in sports.

Lal’s real sporting love was rugby. At the tender age of 15 years, he played for Royal in the Bradby in the iconic 1958 team that won back the Bradby after a lapse of seven years. He played rugby for Royal for four years, winning the Bradby on three occasions. He played for Colombo schools for two years and was one of two schoolboys selected to play for the CR & FC in the Clifford Cup semi-final against Havelocks.

Lal and I became rugby Legends via a try in the 1958 Bradby game at Longdon Place. Lal was playing Left Wing and I Right Wing. During the course of that game, the ball moved at rapid speed from a line out on the Right Wing, with every Royal three-quarter handling and passing the ball at great speed and dexterity, ending with the ball in Lal’s hands on the Left Wing. He was about to be tackled, when he saw this “ghost” looming over his left shoulder. It was me.

I received his well-executed and timely pass and scored a spectacular Royal three-quarter movement try. I still vividly recollect that horror look in Lal’s eyes when he caught a glimpse of me, completely out of position. I will carry that “look” in his eyes forever with me. That instant magic moment of rugby ball exchange between Lal and I created a most intimate life-long bond between the two of us.

Our rugby association didn’t stop at Royal. After leaving school, Lal followed me to the CR & FC, although we never played for the club together, as I had gone overseas. On my return, the two of us comprised a small band of about six “Ceylonese” players to first play for the all-white CH & FC. That was in John Bank’s CH Team of 1965.

The following year, I became the first Ceylonese to captain the CH and Lal was by my side giving invaluable assistance both on and off the field. I remain ever grateful for his sincere, warm and friendly companionship during our halcyon rugby days.

Sport was undoubtedly Lal’s driving passion in his youth. However, on leaving school, Lal blossomed into his many other latent interests, such as in theatre by acting in and directing numerous plays and musicals. He was also a sports car enthusiast, racing at the Mahagastota Hill Climbs.

Lal’s work career was both varied and of high achievement. Returning from studying management overseas he dabbled in many portfolios, including being appointed Managing Director of the Hardware and Leather Corporation. He was charged with improving the profitability of the Corporation which was incurring heavy losses. This was achieved in 18 months.

Lal always wanted to live in NZ, the rugby fanatic country. He migrated to NZ and made it his home for almost 45 years. NZ proved to be an extremely successful country for Lal, working in many multinational companies, including as Deputy Managing Director, General Foods Corporation, Group General Manager-Administration, Heinz Watties NZ (part of the world’s largest food company) and Group General Manager-Hospitality, Ceramco NZ.

Lal’s insatiable thirst for even greater personal achievement saw him create his own company. He commenced a retail liquor chain, in spite of Lal never imbibing in liquor consumption during his entire life, knowing that NZ is second in the world for per capita liquor consumption. The company grew to be market leader within a short space of time, with 240 liquor stores and sales of NZ $360 million and a staff of over 400 – an incredible achievement in the space of a few years.

In June 2020, Lal sold his company to an Australian multinational with a condition that his son, Andre, remains as Operation Manager. His daughter, Tammy and husband recently took ownership of two McDonald franchises.

Dearest Lal, you have had a beautiful and successful life and achieved so much with your amazing range of talents, in sport, the arts and in business. You were also a singer of some repute having recorded a CD in the USA called Romantica, containing 14 romantic songs. Indeed a true reflection of the “lover boy”.

I find it difficult to fathom how one person can possess so many varied attributes and do so very well in each -a role model par excellence. However to me, the supreme quality that I admired most in Lal was his HUMILITY.

I consider myself incredibly privileged and blessed to have known him.

May His beautiful Soul Rest in Peace

Much Love

Lorenz Pereira

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Opinion

Ad hoc allowances trigger strikes in state sector

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As a retired Government official, I have been observing with interest the present trend of paying substantial lump sum monthly allowances to government officers. As I rightly thought and was to be logically expected, this has caught on like wildfire and has now spread to many sectors of government service. Still more are on the warpath. Some are already on strike and others are threatening strike action soon. This would cripple government services to the people in many areas.

If I recall correctly, this concept of paying allowances started with government medical officers. Then all other health care workers clamored for similar treatment and launched strikes causing great inconvenience to the public. I am not sure whether that issue in the health sector was settled or is still pending. University teachers too got a number of allowances after a long drawn strike and now the non academic staff in all state universities have been on strike for over two months demanding similar allowances. The universities remain completely shut down which is a serious situation.

Recently, the Government decided to pay a monthly allowance of Rs.25,000 to all executive officers in government services and this week all non executive officers (teachers, clerical officers, technical officers etc. plus other ancillary staff) launched a two day token strike. Further strike action has been threatened if they are not paid the relevant allowance. But the Secretary to the Treasury has announced that the latter demand cannot be met without imposing additional tax burdens on the public.

In my view, a sustainable solution to this problem is making the salary scales of all job categories in the government sector strictly job specific. The qualifications and skills required and the tasks to be performed should be taken to account in setting the scales without ad hoc allowances being paid haphazardly as at present. Best is to do away with allowances totally. In this regard, government will do well, if it looks at how government salary scales are drawn in other countries where state sector salary disputes have been minimized and government services are known to be rendered smoothly.

In yesteryear, to my knowledge, the system was different. Unlike now no blanket allowances were paid to government officers of any category for the use of private cars for official travel. Some middle level technical officials like Agricultural Instructors were paid a monthly “commuted allowance” to cover field travel by motor cycles. Those who were entitled to use private cars for official travel had to submit traveling claims for the relevant mileage and this had to be approved by an authorized official.

Last but not least, it is best for all government sector employees to bear in mind that as their salaries are met through the government budget, the public at large, rather the institutional hierarchy, are in reality their paymasters. They are therefore duty bound to render the required services to the public without disruption by launching strikes now occurring with increasing frequency

A.BEDGAR PERERA
( email bedgarperera@gmail.com)

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Opinion

Sally Hulugalle

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I have been blessed to have met and to have been mentored by many inspiring people in my life. Among those, Sally Hulugalle looms large. On July 11, 2024, a few weeks after her birthday, we buried her, after a brief battle with cancer. Her grave was covered with flowers and candles. And there was beautiful music and everyone who was present was there because they loved her and because she had touched their lives in some way.

My first job was as Sally’s assistant. I had just come back to Sri Lanka from New Delhi after obtaining my degree, all dewy eyed and hopeful of finding work. I responded to an advertisement in a newspaper, met Sally at her home, and that was that – I had a job! I worked with her for five years and it would be no exaggeration to say that those five years changed my life. She taught be so much, but most of all she taught me never to walk away from injustice. She also taught me the importance of kindness, to never tolerate cruelty towards another human being or animal. She showed me what it’s like to be fearless – I am still learning that lesson – and that it’s okay to forge your own path, however unusual it may seem.

I have so many memories of that time – travelling around Sri Lanka or between her home and Hendala, very often in the ‘white van’ (long before ‘white vans’ became associated with state terror) with Sally at the wheel. Her driving style was as unique as everything else about her was, and I learned very quickly to ignore the infuriated or sometimes simply bemused expressions on fellow drivers around us. She had an amazing ability to turn any place she occupied to one of colour and beauty, using the simplest of things – whether a hospital room, ward, house or office.

She had an unerring ability to spot the person needing the most amount of comforting and care, in the most crowded of places, or hidden away in some corner, out of sight – but Sally would find them. Many people or situations that most of us would simply give up on as too hard, too complex and too messy – Sally would march right in and transform. I often trailed behind her – often scared, sometimes embarrassed, but most often in awe. Our wills sometimes clashed – I was young and brash and felt I knew a thing or two as well – but between us grew a bond of understanding, respect and affection that held us together. We just got each other.

Sally’s death leaves a large hole in my life that no one else can fill. I will miss her exuberant emails – where after seeing me somewhere, she would say that I looked beautiful, or that my hair looked fantastic – incidentally, one of the very few people in my life who did not despair about my hair! On my last visit to her, I noticed on the wall, along with all the photos of her family and all the things she loved – ballet, horses, flowers, birds – a collage made up of cuttings from newspapers where I had featured. I had never felt more honoured – and I doubt I ever will.

I will miss her generosity – beautiful hand drawn stationery, colourful cushion covers, and books, that she would often spontaneously sent me and my mother. Even as I type this, behind me hang colourful little cloth flags slung together on a string, that she once sent me. I will miss her laugh, how she made me feel so loved when I was with her and the twinkle in her eyes.

Sally was one of a kind – and I was blessed to have her in my life. There is much more to say about Sally and all she accomplished through her life. For now, I just miss her. My thoughts are with her wonderful husband Arjuna Hulugalle, children and grandkids. Thank you for sharing her with us so generously.

Harini Amarasuriya

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