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Midweek Review

English-medium education: Fantasy and reality



By Gunadasa Amarasekera

“Once again the same anti-English Education lobby of two decades ago has won the battle. It is interesting how the same wheel turns 20 years later” (The island 25/06)

Dr. Tara de Mel has admitted that the pro-English, lobby, including herself, has lost the battle. Losing the battle should not come as a surprise to her. Battles are lost when they are based on fantasy and not on reality, and vice versa; they are won when they are based on reality and not on fantasy. It is time she realized this at least after 20 years.

Since Dr. de Mel has admitted defeat, I need not labour to present the case for the mother tongue in primary and secondary education for children. This case has been very convincingly presented by educationists the world over, including our own, during the past so many years. These views are well-known and need no repetition by me. Instead of repeating those, I wish to take up some of the views presented by Dr. Tara De Mel in her article.

The demand for English has not come from a social vacuum as such; it is firmly anchored in a social context. It comes out of a definite social background. In our country, there are four ‘interested groups’ that make this demand. They make use of different issues at different times to justify their demand.

The first group that takes up the issue in terms of technology maintains that lack of a knowledge of English has prevented us from acquiring the technological knowledge-technology, which is essential for us at the moment. They seem to be greatly enamoured with the ’Fourth Industrial Revolution’, which has overtaken the Western World. It is repeated as a mantra at every discussion on development. Our politicians too repeat it to exhibit their awareness or cover up their ignorance. There is no denying that such technological knowledge is necessary for us at this moment. We cannot afford to be left behind. We should keep abreast with other nations; we have to assimilate the technological knowledge available in the developed world. But, why tie it up with a knowledge of English? Is the knowledge of English absolutely necessary to assimilate this technology?

Our present-day medical consultants, professors in various scientific disciplines and highly qualified engineers, have not sat GCE A/L in the English medium. The ‘needed’ language or jargon was there for them to achieve that goal. I am amazed at the presentations they make on the television programmes.

Our youth who go to Russia and China master those languages-the jargon that is needed in a matter of one or two years. Their language skills are confined to the subject matter they have to learn. I have met some of these doctors who have studied in Russia, and was appalled by their ignorance of the great literature written in that language. Some of them had not even heard of Tolstoy! Hence the thesis propounded by the English-educated lobby is a myth. But this does not mean that we should not learn a world language, which by the middle of this century may not be English, but Chinese.

The second group that clamours for English bases its argument on unemployment. The youth unemployment seen today is attributed to the lack of an education in English. With unemployment rampant amongst our youth, and with the youth led insurrections of the recent past, these argumenta may appear convincing on the surface. But is the lack of an education in English the cause of the issue of unemployment they face? Are we to believe that there would not have been any unemployment problems if all of them had been proficient in English? Unemployment has nothing to do with a language, but everything to do with the economy.

Our economy since the time of Independence has been stagnant; it has not expanded, but contracted over the years. We have spawned welfarism at the expense of growth and development. To get the votes of the masses the rulers have made such promises as ‘getting rice even from the moon’. Lee Kuan Yew has made a very relevant comment about our periodic elections. He has viewed them as an auction of non-existent resources aimed at winning votes.

China or Japan did not have to resort to English or any other foreign language to structure their economies.

The third group that demands an English education is our middle class. Their aspirations, their understanding of the aims of education were amply demonstrated by the answers they gave to the questionnaire given to them. I quote from Dr. Tara de Mel’s article. “They were asked if they were favourable if the option to study selected subjects in the English medium was offered to their children. The large majority said ‘yes’ and when asked for reasons they gave the following ‘ability to face interviews confidently, converse with those in higher socio-economic brackets, to apply for overseas placements, and secure a good job in leaving school.”

This middle class has been the subject matter of my short stories and novels written during the last two or three decades. In my lengthy novel, starting with ‘Gamanaka Mula’, I have devoted one volume to portray this middle class and named it, ‘Inimage Ihalata’ (Climbing up the ladder). Anyone reading this volume will realise what an impoverished amoral self-centered community this class is.

I had thought this class was confined to our country till I came across that remarkable study, ‘The Great Indian Middle Class” by K. Pavan Varma.

I think this class has its origins in the inheritance bequeathed to us by out colonial masters. The aspirations, aims and values of this class were determined by the colonial masters so that this class may not become a challenge to them. Since Independence we have improved on this inheritance; we have structured our economy and politics so as to perpetuate those aspirations and values.

K. Pavan Varma has shown how economic liberalisation initiated by Manmohan Singh has caused the expansion of this Middle Class in India.

“The economic liberalization that has been sweeping across the country for the last few years has altered the lives of a large section of India’s burgeoning Middle Class. They have become far more international in their outlook and aspirations, more sophisticated and liberal in life styles and attitudes.”

This picture is applicable to our middle class too. The big boost it sought came from the open economy of JR.

The fourth interested group is represented by Dr. De Mel and her ilk who are hell bent on enthroning English in this country. They may be a vanishing species, but yet are capable of clinging on tenaciously to their fantasy hoping it would become a reality one day.

Dr. De Mel quotes the latest neuro -scientific discoveries to prove that a child is capable of learning more than one language in childhood. One does not need the latest neuro-scientific discoveries to prove this point. The brains of children are like blotting papers that absorb anything that comes in its way. They may learn not only two languages but several others; what matters is not the number of languages absorbed, but what language provides the cultural roots that are essential for the development of the child. They come only from one language, the language spoken at home by his parents and siblings and from his immediate environment. The language is the vehicle that transmits these cultural roots from generation to generation.

The cultural imprimatur with its ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ impressed upon the child in infancy is what ultimately provides the cultural world with its ideals, values and the Weltanschauung needed by him in adult life, and what makes him a sane person inhabiting a sane society.

Those who believe in a universal civilization and culture will dismiss it as irrelevant in today’s world, and look upon it as cultural aggression or cultural hegemony. They want to make ‘world citizens’ of us.

Dr. De Mel quoting one Dr. Mahim Mends praises Chandrika Kumaratunga for ‘undoing the harm done by her father decades ago’. It would have been more appropriate for her to have castigated her father for bringing up a daughter who was out to destroy the legacy and the party he formed. Chandrika, nor anyone else, nor any political party or leader, has so far been able to turn back the irrevocable political tidal wave that was ushered in by SWRD in 1956. They all had to acquiesce and go along with it. Even the great promoter of liberalization, JRJ had to present his diabolical plans wrapped up in that sanctimonious cultural garb, ‘dharmista samajaya’. It is not surprising that Chandrika has had to end her political career having earned an odious sobriquet.

Dr. De Mel praises Lee Kwan Yew for making English the national language of Singapore. To push a pidgin English down the throat of a servile deracinated ethnic group cannot be such a feat for a dictator. Does she imply that we should do the same? To push the same pidgin English down the throats of 75 % of our people who are rural would need a dictator more powerful than LKY.

There is a much easier way of making our country a Singapore. That is to reduce our forest cover to that of Singapore – 3%. This may sound as a fantasy but the way we are getting about, destroying our forests, encroaching on Sinharaja, building hotels and restaurants and tanks and finally implementing those suicidal proposals of the MCC, it may well become a realty in days to come. The English educated lobby’s fantasy too may become a reality.

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Midweek Review

Crossmatch: A moral mirror



by Santhushya Fernando

Blossoming somewhere between a Chinaman and a Jam Fruit Tree is a Lotus. An unusual place to bloom, but there it is, anyway, Crossmatch. Crossmatch is Carmel Miranda’s debut novel that won the Gratiaen Prize 2020. Here’s what isn’t there in Crossmatch: steamy sex, profanity, harsh political commentary, preaching, flowery similes, structured ‘tools of literary writing’, boring descriptions. Probably uninfected by formal literary training, Miranda writes a provocative story with the acumen of a skillful doctor documenting on a patient’s bedhead ticket with some hardcore suspense thrown in. Crossmatch, for its entire 261 pages is captivating in its heart race potential.

Is she for real?

About 20 pages into Crossmatch, I phoned a senior friend who has spent the better part of his life at the Faculty of Medicine and the National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL). “Seriously, you had a colleague called Dr Carmel Miranda? She writes like a hawk observing it all- is this a real name?” He’s was entertained, and replied “Carmel Miranda is for real. She spoke very little, did very much. Never spoke an unnecessary word: serious, committed, all about the patient, precise, not attention seeking, you know, the kind of person you miss when they are not there”. Oh, so I figure. Like Lotus. In Crossmatch.

The plot

Lotus, the protagonist is a third year medical student at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo. She’s requested to pay a social visit to a hospitalised patient by her aunt, as all aunts of all medical students do. Like all medical students up to their eyes in real or imaginary stress, Lotus, grudgingly obliges visiting Anil Kumara only to find him dead. Events take Lotus to Lionel, the NHSL mortuary attendant with one glass eye, who convinces her to safe keep the dead boy’s mobile phone wrapped in a newspaper. Something about the numbers in the phone that includes the namesake Lotus Hospital, the NHSL ENT unit number and the contents of the newspaper drives Lotus to dig in deep. She uncovers, quite accidentally, the dangerous underbelly of organ trafficking mafia, poverty, inequality and the heart wrenching plight of the poor in our so called free healthcare system. Was it an accident that killed Anil? If not, who then is the killer? Finally Lotus finds answers and also confronts a devastating personal truth about her umbilical linkage to the Lotus Hospital. Even at the helm of her shatter, Lotus retains her characteristic objectivity and dignity. Throughout Crossmatch Miranda displays a true gift at maintaining the fidelity to her characterisation in personality, lingo, and mannerism.

The moral mirror

If you have read the captivating Gratiaen winner Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, you would know that one need not be a cricket fan to fall in love with that book. Miranda shows similar skill and humility in telling a “medical story” without medical jargon interfering with storytelling. She has labored well to tell a story about the holes of a medical system in effortless lay language. Never does she matronizingly “explain” medical terms down to the reader, weaving it all in, silkily.

Miranda holds a moral mirror on to our conscience with Crossmatch. It’s a grand mirror with one in center in front of which the reader is stands. That mirror is hinged with two mirrors on the side: the moral mirror of medical education and the moral mirror of medical practice. Both the hinged mirrors reflect unto the main mirror creating an ‘n’ number of reflections.

The moral mirror of medical education in Crossmatch touch on teaching via humiliation, linguism, unjust hierarchies, lack of cohesion in medical education, doctors past their medical fitness ‘expiry date’ continuing to practice medicine. But the beauty of Miranda’s moral mirror is that it does not discuss this in a malicious spirit. All is written with astounding tenderness and sensitivity towards human fallibility. It’s a mirror that every teacher must consider standing before.

The more serious moral mirror in Crossmatch is the territory that few would dare to tread: the kidney mafia, organ trafficking, bending the law, exploitation of the poor in kidney transplantation, lack of a transparent registry for organ donation, the legal and moral dilemma of compensation for organ donation. Importantly, this moral mirror in Crossmatch shines blindingly in our eye asking us questions: do you know what it means to be poor? The desolation beneath the label of poor? How many times do the rich donate kidneys to the poor? Is there ever a free lunch at a private hospital?

Our collective crime: poverty

Miranda reflects the moral mirrors on us for the sole purpose of telling her story. Her tender observations about how people live, talk, move, rationalize, love and sacrifice are all for the purpose of storytelling. Her power of observation is consistent across the slums of Wanathamulla to the bungalows down Rosmead place. After reading Crossmatch you cannot afford to be Sri Lankan and be divorced from the collective social crime called poverty that we all contribute to, by commission or omission. For poverty is the one crime that has the direct or indirect consent of society. The crisp humorful language, sharp precise observation, humane narration without judgment- all these make it a good read. Noteworthy is Miranda’s security as a writer who doesn’t feel the need to climb on top of her story.

Perhaps the only anti-climax of Crossmatch is its epilogue. In an uncharacteristic bout of a need to tie up too many ends, Miranda writes an epilogue reminiscent of last minute commentary over movie credits in a Hollywood or Bollywood movie stating how each character ended up happily. The last line of the main novel (prior to epilogue) “But that doesn’t stop me from dreaming “is disappointing and reminiscent more of a line out of a Hallmark card. Miranda could have written a killer last line. The epilogue takes her matter of fact story telling a bit too far and negotiates a mediocre “happily ever after” to a thought provoking , disturbing story meant to induce a bit of reader- insomnia.

Yes, Crossmatch makes us stand in front of a difficult moral mirror.

To Carmel Miranda I say: “You. Go. Girl!!!!”

(Dr Santhushya Fernando is a senior lecturer in Medical Humanities at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo)


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Midweek Review

Proposed Plantation University and its economic benefits



by Dr L M K Tillekeratne
Former Director of the RRI and UNIDO consultant in Rubber Processing

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent address to the nation made an emphatic reference to the establishment of a Plantation University by amalgamating all major crop research institutes, such as Tea Research Institute (TRI), the Rubber Research Institute (RRI), Coconut Research Institute (CRI), Sugarcane Research Institute (SRI). Of these four research institutes, two were established by British rulers over a century ago. The core mandate of the research institutes was to develop the respective agricultural crops, as the plantation crops generated the highest amount of foreign exchange for almost four decades.

With the advent of the free market economy in late 1970s, though the remittances from migrant workers and revenue from the garment industry surpassed the foreign exchange earnings of the plantation sector, the plantation industry continues to play a dominant role in terms of foreign exchange and employment.

Hence, the President’s thinking that the creation of a national university exclusive for the plantation sector is a far-reaching vision that could transform the plantation sector by increasing land productivity and by developing the value-added products manufacture particularly in the case of rubber that the country desperately needed at this juncture. In this context, that the article written by J. A. A. S. Ranasinghe, Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant in a leading English newspaper was a comprehensive analysis of the justification of the creation of a national university for the plantation sector. Such an incisive analysis should have come from a scientist initially.

Dearth of Scientists in the Research Institutes

I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Ranasinghe on his assertion that research institutes are functioning today in isolation without trained staff to carry out research projects. As he has very correctly identified the dearth of scientists of all the research institutes has hampered the research programmes, and that in turn has led to the deterioration of the productivity of all the sectors during the last two decades. Thus, bringing all the scientists and resources under one umbrella is the need of the hour and that could be accomplished relatively at a short time by establishing an exclusive university for the plantation sector.

The President’s far-reaching vision will be a turning point in producing scientists to run the plantation industry. At a time when most of the other countries in Asia and Africa are increasing their productivity levels of the plantation crops, it is unfortunate that Sri Lanka is far behind in terms of research during last two decades, though its Tea and Rubber research institutes are internationally known.

Downfall of the Rubber Industry

It is sad that in Sri Lanka, the first country in the world to have a rubber plantation established outside Brazil and distributed planting material to other countries mainly in Asia to grow rubber, rubber production has plummeted significantly for the last 25 years. The countries that learnt rubber planting technology from the scientists of Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka, such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, have already been able to overtake us both in terms of production and land productivity over the past two decades pushing Sri Lanka down to the 12th place as a NR producer at present. I strongly believe that the situation regarding tea is either the same or even worse.

As Ranasinghe has correctly pointed out in his article, our productivity has fallen to 50% of what we produced a decade ago while countries like Myanmar and Cambodia have been able to double their annual production during this period.

Dearth of Plantation Technologists

It is true that we have agricultural universities producing agriculture graduates. But they do not specifically focus on crops like Tea and Rubber, and cannot undertake the task of increasing productivity by means of applying new technology introduced regularly to overcome issues related to agronomy and tapping. Fresh Agriculture and Science graduates who joined the plantation sector lack the skills and knowledge the plantation industry demands and this mismatch has resulted in a shortage of plantation technologists with required competency levels.

Distinctive Advantages of Plantation University

The agricultural graduates of Sri Lankan universities, however, would be in a very authoritative position in that they can cover a wide variety of other crops better than the graduates getting their agricultural degrees overseas. Agriculture and science graduates should necessarily possess the required field exposure and experience to find gainful employment in plantation sector. Hence, fresh graduates who join the plantation sector will have to work for at least 10 years to be an expert who can identify problems and sort them out on them individually. The industry can ill-afford to wait for such a long period to produce talented plantation expert or qualified scientists, given the dearth of scientists in the country. As Ranasinghe has correctly mentioned, there is a severe shortage of scientists virtually in all departments of research institutes to tackle problems in the industry, which will badly affect the research institutes, if the present system is allowed to continue. More than 50% of the raw rubber and latex end products industry is imported at competitive prices. The coconut production is sufficient for the local consumption and there is no surplus for export in the form of oil or DC.

Exodus of Research Scientists to join Universities

Most of the scientists trained for special mandates in the research institutes have already joined the national universities purely due to better salaries and perks. However, according to the situation existed in early 1960s, those who joined research institutes for developing the agriculture sector were paid higher salaries than those who joined universities, considering their contribution to the development of the economy and the difficult conditions under which they work in remote areas.

Hence, the science graduates’ first choice was research institutions. Today, it is the other way around, and only those who cannot find employment in universities and with low merits join research institutes to get post graduate training utilising the limited number of foreign training scholarships offered to research institutes and get qualified to join universities. Empirical studies have shown that trained researchers with special skills to tackle problems in the plantations have become misfits as academics.

Ad hoc recruitment criteria

The situation that existed prior to the late 1980s was totally different even with regard to recruitment criteria. It is due to the shortage of graduates produced by local universities due to closure of the university education for almost three years, due to the insurrection. There was a severe shortage of special degree holders and hence a decision was taken by the government to allow general degree holders in places where previously only special degree graduates with a class were recruited as research assistants in research institutes. Since then the quality of research produced by the research institutes has suffered.

The distinctive benefit in the President’s proposal is that in the future we might be able to produce graduates capable of tackling problems in the plantation sector with their adequate field exposure and hands on experience during their undergraduate studies.

In addition, there will be a good opportunity for institutions like TRI and RRI with international reputation to attract foreign students for training in Sri lanka thereby earning additional revenue to the country as the UK, India and Malaysia do even without having such recognition. If the proposed national plantation university is properly run, it will be quite possible for them to sustain adequate revenue from foreign students without depending purely on annual Treasury grant. Even now trainees from countries like Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Ethiopia and even from Malaysia have got their research assistants trained at these two crop institutes under international grants.

Contribution to the national economy by way of enhanced production

On a hypothetical basis, if the production of rubber in the country is increased to 135,000 Mt, which was the amount produced years ago, purely by increasing the land productivity, without even increasing the planted area, the country can reap maximum benefits from the fast-increasing rubber prices in the world market. Rubber was selling at around Rs 100 to 150 per kg during the last half a decade. Surprisingly, it has gone up to almost Rs 450 per kg now and the situation is expected to increase further with time to come owing to the demand for NR on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.

If the production is increased to 135,000 Mt, additional revenue the country can enjoy would be (Rs 450 x 50000 x1000) Rs 22.5 billion annually.

We should not lose sight of the fact that due to the shortfall in the supply of rubber, a considerable amount of NR and latex is imported by our rubber products manufacturers for value added products manufacture at a cost of over Rs 30 billion.

If this extra production is used to produce goods such as surgical/examination gloves for which the demand is fast increasing due to Covid-19 spread, the additional revenue country can gain is over 200%. It will be possible to create more employment opportunities as well.

Arduous task for the new Minister

The task before Economic Development Minister is to consider how best to improve the economy in bad state. This objective can be achieved in less than a year by getting the neglected rubber farms into tapping and by using techniques like lightly stimulated low frequency tapping and by utilising proven new techniques like rain guards to minimise crop losses due to rain. The additional cost involvement for these developments is insignificant and the time taken is less than a year.

New planting and replanting are two other ways of increasing the crop; they are costly and take nearly a decade to give a reasonable crop increase. Further, there is no guarantee that the improved rubber prices will remain high until then. However, replanting, and new planting should be continued according to the RDD targets.

Another factor that caused a drop in the rubber production was the removal of the extension services from the research wing and its attachment to the subsidiary function of the Rubber Development Department owing to an illogical decision taken by the then government almost 25 years ago. Today, the RDD is functioning in isolation ignoring the recommendations of the RRI. This has been the main cause for the drop in productivity of rubber farms in Sri Lanka. For example, the population of low yielding clones like PB 86 are still distributed and the clone population in the country is an utter mess.

Undoubtedly, everyone looks forward to the establishment of the plantation university.

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Midweek Review

“Madam” and her Wards



By Lynn Ockersz

Six anxious, awkward teenage girls,

Are following their “Madam” close at heel,

To the rundown Spa hardly seen in the busy street,

But sought by restless men when darkness sets in,

But in the Isle fabled for its charity,

No one looks askance at this sight,

No one dare asks questions that matter;

Nor is accountability exacted from office holders;

But posers like the following may be asked,

By those who choose to care for the ‘nation’,

Now that Ishalini too has brought things into focus:

Isn’t this an induction into prostitution?

What lured the girls away from school,

And made them walk footloose on the streets?

Would the “Madam” be ever taken to task?

Or would she be allowed to go, with no questions asked,

When a swoop by the uniformed gentry,

Thrusts the girls into a police lockup,

And makes them wilt there sadly,

Though into primal youth they are about to bloom.

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