Fifty years of service as a Protestant Minister in Sri Lanka:
Rev. Charles Jansz, a Minister and a former Head of Sri Lanka’s oldest Protestant Church goes down memory lane and reflects
by Prabhath de Silva
Rev. Jansz with Pope John Paul II (Now Saint.)
Rev. Jansz married Maxine Herft in 1977. He has held key positions in Christian organizations in Sri Lanka and abroad. These include, Chairperson of National Christian Council, Chairperson of Christian Evangelical Alliance, Chairperson of Religious Work Committee Colombo YMCA, Acting pastor in Christian Reform Church Ontario, Canada, Vice-President/Hon. Life Governor of Ceylon Bible Society, Member of Executive Committee of World Alliance of Reformed Churches, Chairperson of Asia Pacific Regional Board of United Bible Societies and Editor of “The Herald” – the official organ of the Christian Reformed Church of Sri Lanka.
On the eve of the Golden Jubilee of his ministry, I interviewed Rev. Jansz. These are the excerpts of the interview:
1. What are your childhood memories of Dehiwela and its surroundings in the 1950’s and 1960’s?
I grew up in Sri Wanaratana Road, off Quarry Rd in Dehiwela. This area was called “Pattiyamulla” and as far as I remember, that changed to “Galwala” and “Udyana”. These were the days when houses had large gardens, almost all homes were single storey and we children, irrespective or race,, religion or class, had great times, playing, visiting each other’s homes, enjoying meals, climbing trees and walking on the wall surrounding the Zoological Gardens! The memories include going to the Presbyterian Girls’ School with a carer, walking yards ahead of her, while she trudged behind carrying the school bag. Then there was attending Sunday School at the D/CRC Dehiwela almost every Sunday, followed by moving to Arethusa College where I completed my schooling.
It was a time when I was given 25 cents, which covered my bus fare, had 12 cents for a quarter loaf of bread and a ‘vadai’ from the School Canteen (Tuck Shop) and had a few cents left over! It was also a time when the area had loads of Burgher families…Nugara, Ludowyke, Neydorff, Woutersz, Kellart, Harris, De Kretser, Schokman, Van Ryke, Barrow, De Zilwa, Melder, Ferdinands, Heyn, Drieberg, Werksmister, Collom, Young, Van Rooyen, Van Sanden, Van Velzon, were all there and many of us met every spare moment for cricket, a little bit of rugby – with Cowboys and Crooks as a diversion. One other diversion was also catching “guppies” in the canal. Apart from Church, School and Cricket, from my childhood days I was passionate about politics…with a particular party bias. Was at almost every political meeting, was part of the processions, shouting the slogans mouthed by the adults, and even had “mock” elections together with the rest of my friends paying a 25 cent deposit! I vividly recall, on more than one occasion, my friends making a make-shift stage of Sunlight soap boxes and putting me on them, with what was supposed to be a mike and garlands as well, getting me to make political speeches – and in fluent Sinhala! (all of it picked up after listening to speakers at political meetings!).
There is much more of course…Dehiwela where I grew up was unspoiled to a great extent…there was a caring and sharing, much respect and understanding for one another, your ethnicity, religion and status did not matter…we lived in community… clean air and a pristine environment to a great extent….and if there was some discordance, it was someone shouting under the influence of some local brew.
What are the changes and strides that you have witnessed in the social, political and religious mileu in Sri Lanka and in the DRC and in the non Catholic Christendom in Sri Lanka and in the world at large?
Changes and strides have been many, some certainly for the better, some for the worse. Talking about the religious mileu, one can single out that inter-faith and intra-faith have made comparatively good strides during the last number of years…there has also been a definite attempt to be “church” outside of the confines of a building reaching out to the Community and certainly a concentrated effort to create and sustain spirituality beginning with the home. A greater emphasis on environmental stewardship has also been a pronounced plus. There has been also good attempts to address the needs with the “wholeness” of the Gospel message, and to be faithful to the primary vision, not forgetting the strides made towards worship that is creative and meaningful with more participation. In the social and political sphere changes have not all been for the better. We have witnessed the resurgence and growth of bigotry, racism, fundamentalism, terrorism, violence, division, nepotism, political victimization, intolerance, corruption, lack of law and order, drug abuse, child abuse, destruction of the environment and a receding of the good family values….and certainly some, if not all of this would also be part and parcel of the International milieu as well.
What motivated you to choose a pastoral ministry as your vocation in life?
The Church was very much part of my DNA…my family saw to it and encouraged me from my earliest of days to be part of it, beginning with the Sunday School; so much so that for many years running I carried away the attendance prize for attending every single Sunday of the Year. In addition, those who were part of my life in my childhood and teen years, were also very church oriented. Youth Conferences, Youth programmes were all part of my life – in short anything that happened in Church. It was also a time when the Pastors at that time – especially the foreign “Missionaries” spent much time challenging us to consider full time ministry. There were specific seminars for this purpose. It was one such seminar that made a deep impression on me…and even though I worked for a while (as a typist clerk) in the corporate world, I became restless enough to move out and make application for the Pastoral Ministry. At that time, if one joined the Ministry – it was primarily Pastoral. Today Christian Ministry is very much more diversified when it comes to full time service. Also, I think my gifts of public speaking and being a people person, added to the motivation to heed God’s call in this very specific way.
He percentage of Christians in Sri Lanka at the time of independence in 1948 was 9.1% but now it has decreased to 7.1%, and Hindus constituted 19% and now there are 11% Hindus
. What do you think are the factors that contributed to this decline? Only two religious communities namely Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims have increased since Independence, Buddhists from 60.6 to 70 percent and Muslims from 5% to 9.1% percent.
I must say that I was taken aback when you mentioned the statistic re: the decrease and more when you did mention the percentages of the increase. Talking about the decline – specifically thinking about the Christian Reformed Church since Independence, one major factor was emigration. Being at that time and for some years after, as primarily a “Burgher Community” Church, we did lose a large number of adherents through emigration. (Thankfully, the Church did have and does have the vision to reach out to all communities and we have seen much growth in terms of numbers and congregations) Of course “emigration” also has affected the wider Christian community and the country as well. The other main reason for a decline, if not non-growth, is the absence of a sustained missionary efforts, not so much in terms of “preaching” but more in term of “incarnational living” and an absence of addressing “felt needs” would also have perhaps made the Church irrelevant to many. So, if there is not to be further decline, I think we must ask the question – “Will we be genuinely missed in the Community if our Church were to close”?
You have completed 50 years in ministry. Looking back what do you think are the things or achievements that make you happy as a Clergyman
As I look back there are number of things that can make me glad…for one thing and this is primary, that the Lord who called me and kept me and sustained me through these many years…empowering me to avoid the many pitfalls that could be part of a ministry and blessing me with a great measure of good health. Then there is the joy of seeing people walking in faith and obedience…lives changed…becoming spiritually mature and having a place for God in their lives and especially in their families and children. I have always said that if people, respond and live by the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, which is very much part of the Reformed Confessions (What is your only comfort in life and death? – And “That I with body and soul both in life and death belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ”) … that would always be my greatest satisfaction. Of course, in a lesser way, I am also glad that I stayed with the Christian Reformed Church in Sri Lanka, when many were led especially to emigrate, so that in some measure I was able to put it further on the map both nationally and internationally and give back in some way what the CRC has given me – even to the extent of financially sustaining me and my family when I was growing up.
2. You have served in many positions in the ecumenical bodies here and abroad. You studied at Calvin Seminary in the US, one of the prestigious Protestant theological schools. What do you think are the changes that have taken place in Christendom in the Eastern world and in the western world since the 1960’s.
I must say at the outset that it was a great privilege for me to serve in these Ecumenical bodies and study at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Grand Rapids is known as the “Jerusalem” of the Reformed World and it added to my prestige by being there Most of the changes in Christendom in the East and West, I think, have been fairly common…Theologically, it would involve the principles of the Interpretation of the Scriptures, the Ordination of Women to Ecclesiastical Office, the changed stance re issues of homosexuality, gay rights and same sex marriages….more inter-faith and intra-faith action, dialogue and involvement, greater emphasis on caring for the environment and social and ethical issues …more pronounced division between Conservatives and Liberals, and the Church striving to be a truly prophetic voice, for transformation, in spite of pronounced oppression.
There is a decline of Christianity in the west since the 1960’s and this has affected the Christian family values. How do you explain this with your international exposure for 50 years since 1960?
It is certainly sad to see the decline you mention – especially in Europe where Churches and Cathedrals have become more or less museum pieces and sometimes converted to restaurants and entertainment centers. I have heard it often said, whilst at one time the West sent missionaries to us, now it is time to send Missionaries to them! I have heard that in many countries in the West, the Church is no longer relevant to people. So children are not baptized. And there are no weddings or funerals in which the Church is involved. Religion and faith are not part of life anymore and it is only the elderly, if at all, who make up a congregation. I believe that the overall reason has to do with a materialistic and very secularistic life style and culture that has become part of the DNA of many. They are, to use a Bible phrase, more interested in building treasures on earth than in Heaven. On the other hand, I must quickly add that the Church must also strive to be relevant to the people of today. We must be, to use the motto of “Youth for Christ.” – “geared to the times and anchored to the Rock” If the Church does not meet the felt needs of people, and be relevant, the Church and Christianity per se will become irrelevant to people. And that would not be only in the West.
There is a discussion on “born again” phenomenon in the social media these days particularly after
one particular Pentecostal church published a video on the miraculous healing of a veteran musician. Can you explain the history and origins of “born again” phenomenon in the Western world and in Sri Lanka? Many people in SL think that it is a new cult or a sect.
May I say that the “Born again” phenomenon, as you call it, is as old as the St. John Chapter 3. If people in Sri Lanka think that it is another cult or a sect, I think it is because of the way this wonderful Biblical concept has been marketed by certain people in keeping with their own ecclesiastical agendas in addition to the poor understanding of what it biblically entails by the laity. I remember someone asking me a few years ago, whether the Christian Reformed Church at Dehiwela is a “Born Again” Church. I had to make it clear that the Bible emphasizes the truth that all Christians must be “born again” (“born from above”) in the sense that we must be “regenerated” by God’s Spirit and blessed with this “new birth and new life,” if we are to be saved from our sins and live Christianly. In fact the term “regenerated” comes from two Greek words, that can literally translated as “born again.” But not too many people think of regeneration, when they hear the term “born again”. That is made possible, when we are led to make a faith commitment and believe in Jesus as our Saviour. It is very clear that our “old nature” will not pursue the things of God, only our “new nature” would make that possible and that becomes a reality when we are “born again”. It is primarily a reference to our spiritual birth. That is the starting line of the Christian life. If we have not stood at the starting line, running the race, to use another Biblical metaphor, would not be possible.
The Peace, tranquility and tolerance in the Sri Lankan society have been disturbed by religious and racist extremism of some groups in recent times. Can you comment?
I would agree with you that until recently there was a great degree of tolerance, but that has changed as you mentioned. Of course, this is not a phenomenon only involving particular religion or race. Society generally has become intolerant and this is not only in terms of other faiths, but also In many other or all areas of life. Take a journey on our roads – you will definitely be met by intolerance at its best!! The growth of bigotry and fundamentalism, a false sense of nationalism and patriotism, selfishness, egotism etc, some of it fanned by political and even religious leadership in different ways, to fulfill their own pursuits, would be a primary cause. Whilst not living out the principles of the respective religions would be another. On the other hand, talking of the Church, we must be careful that our actions and strategies do not give room to further intolerance. And we must strive not to give offence.
How do you see the future of Christians in Sri Lanka? And what do you think are most important and urgent reforms that are necessary in churches and in society.
Certainly, from a human point of view and from the present context there would be many challenges ahead as far as Christians are concerned. And the call would always be to be creatively faithful to our mission, claiming again the Lord’s good promise that “even the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church.” In terms of reforms involving the church, we must move away from worship that is merely a spectacle and a gospel that is being distorted. We have more Pastors who follow the Master! As far as society goes, religious belief must play a more significant role in daily life. In all areas of life we do not need more preachers, but we do urgently need more of those who practice. I must quickly add that in terms of urgent reforms in society there must be some good and meaningful work to reform some of our existing laws to deal more relevantly and specifically with issues that are part and parcel of life today, that it turns would make justice what it really should be. Two areas that come to mind which are being debated more recently are the Election laws and the Law involving contempt of court….not forgetting Constitutional reforms in general, Institutional reforms for the protection of fundamental rights and economic reforms which would result, as someone said, with an economy with a “human face”.
Do you have any message to the Christians in Sri Lanka and to the wider society?
Basically to the Christians it would be a message to sincerely live out their Christian faith. As someone said, “Name Christian live Christian,” or as the Bible says, to live as the “salt, light and leaven”. To the wider society it would be a message to live out the precepts of their respective religious faiths that call for love, acceptance, compassion, justice and peace, striving for a greater measure of ethnic and religious harmony. Right living divinely empowered can make it happen for ultimately, as the Bible says, “Righteousness (and only Righteousness) will exalt a nation.”
Where are Sri Lanka’s economists?
By Uditha Devapriya
Asoka Bandarage’s Colonialism in Sri Lanka (first published in 1983) follows a long line of books on the impact of British land policies in Ceylon. The best of these books remains S. B. D. de Silva’s The Political Economy of Underdevelopment, first published by Routledge in 1982. De Silva, easily one of Sri Lanka’s finest economists – though he would have detested the genericness of such honorifics – died five years ago. His death went by almost unnoticed. But in every book that has been written and every effort that has been undertaken to appraise the country’s impoverishment at the hands of British colonialism, one notices his influence, his life’s work.
De Silva came from a generation of economists – among his contemporaries he counted were G. V. S. de Silva, H. A. de S. Gunasekara, and Gamani Corea – who remained, to their last day, profoundly concerned about the plight of their country and of the masses. They were all convinced – and none more convinced than S. B. D. – that Sri Lanka’s future lay in industrialisation, or more specifically production. Taking the famous example of the pin from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations – a tract that is regurgitated in toto by Sri Lankan economists today – he contended that Sri Lanka had failed to grow: it made and sold garments, but did not even manufacture a pin. In every aspect and in every corner, Sri Lanka remained dependent on imports.
A small state located to the south of a regional hegemon, in an ocean that remains heavily contested by a wide array of superpowers and major powers, cannot thrive without industry. Contrary to those economists who offer solutions in the form of liberalising or liberating the economy – the question can be asked, liberated from whom, or what? – S. B. D. de Silva’s generation did not limit themselves to abstract theorising. They were moved, on the contrary, by practical considerations – as all thinkers and economists must – and they were convinced that before undertaking any major reform, they had to first ascertain their impact on all sectors. They did not shy away from attacking or critiquing policy orthodoxies, because they knew that before everything, policies must work. If they did not, or if they risked destabilising the country and its society, there was no point pursuing them.
Indeed, all of them questioned these orthodoxies, and none with as much zest as S. B. D. His work targeted two assumptions – that Sri Lanka’s plantation sector was modern, and that Sri Lanka’s capitalists were progressive minded – and effectively debunked both. That the country’s plantation sector is stagnating today is evident enough: the situation is so bad that when the previous regime mandated a Rs 250 hike in daily wages, no fewer than 20 companies went to courts, seeking to quash the decision. Value addition has declined in the sector since the 1980s, and much of the money spent by companies has been on marketing and advertising. Yet, instead of addressing and arresting these declines, Sri Lanka’s capitalists seem content in letting things continue. This is the gist of The Political Economy of Underdevelopment: that unless those who can reverse stagnation steps in, Sri Lanka will continue to shrink, to remain the economic basket-case it has been for a long time.
Unfortunately, for some reason – for some not entirely unknowable reason – Sri Lanka’s economic sphere has been penetrated by influential think-tanks and ideological interests which have strayed from this approach. To put it bluntly, we no longer find economic thinkers who are ready to question policy orthodoxy, who can point out the fallacies of pursuing it, who, indeed, can show just how incompatible the needs of the country are with the implementation of such orthodoxies. When the country was urged to reduce its food subsidies in the mid-1960s, Gamani Corea, then despatched to represent Sri Lanka at the World Bank, argued that given the tiny military the country possessed at the time, welfare remained an important stabilising influence: to reduce them now, he argued, would be to incur higher defence expenditures later. If it’s impossible to think of economists today, basking in their think-tank-doms, making such statements, it’s because there aren’t any.
In the foreign policy sphere, the likes of S. B. D. and Gamani belonged to that breed of intellectuals who were convinced that Sri Lanka’s future lay in the Global South. Both Corea and de Silva hailed from elite and middle-class backgrounds, yet both saw and accepted the practicality of following these principles. Their intellectual descendants today – if they can be called as such – remain, as S. B. D. himself observed, beholden to powerful interest groups, to external funding and patronage. In such a context, it is easy to understand why policies which have failed in the West, which the West is abandoning in favour of full-scale industrialisation, are still being touted, still being promoted, still being idealised, in countries like ours: because they are easier to market in places where intellectuals and policymakers, not to mention officials, accept them without question.
The solutions prescribed by these interest groups remain predictable and utterly bland: from tweaking labour laws to privatising State corporations, from floating the rupee to closing State-owned factories, these reforms have been promoted for as long as one can remember. Yet it remains intriguing, if not perplexing, as to the relevance of such policies to countries which have never, since independence, grown as much as they should have. How relevant, indeed, are they to the affluent economies of the West, which are rejecting them on the grounds that, in the words of a former US Economic Advisor, the State “had to step in” where benefits no longer flow from “the individualised decisions of those looking only at their private bottom lines”?
Or to restate the question: how relevant are these policies at all? Free market orthodoxy, or market fundamentalism, of the sort advocated by Colombo’s economic circles today, no longer holds ground. It was rightly critiqued by the likes of S. B. D. de Silva, who saw such reforms as serving the role of maintaining if not entrenching the financial establishment, with hardly any benefits at all for the key stakeholders who mattered: the people of the country.
There is an obvious paradox here. On the one hand the world is waking up to the harsh reality that austerity will not put food on their fable, that if a country is to survive it must pursue industrialisation and ensure self-sufficiency in critical sectors, food being an obvious priority. On the other hand, multilateral agencies, even those whose mandate is to provide aid and assistance, are selectively enforcing such measures in the Global South, while not bothering to pursue them in the more affluent Global North.
In this context, it is interesting to note what US trade representative said in defence of the Biden administration’s pursuit of protectionism and of a trade war in the chips and semiconductor sector with China. When asked by Foreign Policy magazine as to whether such policies were at odds with the US’s advocacy of free and open markets elsewhere, she replied,
“There is a direct through line between the state and expression in the economy. And that is a really important aspect of another shared challenge we have with our European friends and other partners around the world in terms of a sustainable path to economic growth and development. In a version of globalization where the field is not level, we are having to figure out how to adapt.”
Countries like the US will always tweak the rules and break with orthodoxy, because it serves their interests to do so. It is questionable as to why Sri Lanka cannot do the same. To rephrase that famous adage by Munidasa Cumaratunga, a country which does not produce even a pin cannot be said to prosper, and a country which excludes production from its priorities cannot hope to prosper at all. 70 years ago, Joan Robinson pondered whether Sri Lanka’s trade unions would ever witness capitalists willing to share the fruits of their enterprises with them. 70 years later. we ponder whether Sri Lanka will ever see economists and thinkers willing to think beyond policy orthodoxy, willing to think, not of external interests, but of the country they live in, and the people they live with.
Where are these economists? Where are these thinkers? Five years after the passing of Sri Lanka’s last great economist and one of its last great thinkers, these questions remain unanswered. The writing is on the wall, but no one appears to be aware of it. Not even those foundations and think-tanks which so ubiquitously display the names of these intellectuals, which claim to speak on behalf of their legacy, yet which end up maintaining the same narratives their forbearers tried so hard and valiantly to question, reform, and make more relevant to their people. This is what it is, and it should be called out as such: it is a tragedy, a national tragedy.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Hoffmann gets involved in the over 100-year old Wild Life and Nature Protection Society
Excerpted from the authorized biography of Thilo Hoffmann by Douglas. B. Ranasinghe
One year in the early 1950s the Wildlife Protection Society of Ceylon held its Annual General Meeting at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo. ‘Thilo went as a visitor, and watched the proceedings. He met the President of the Society, C. E. Norris, and intimated to him that he wished to join the society.
Norris promised to send an enrollment form, but it never came. The Society had no office in Colombo, and without an address it was almost impossible to contact it. Both President and Secretary were up-country planters who ran its affairs from their estate offices.
After years of trying Thilo eventually managed to become a member. He was soon asked to join the General Committee, which at the time included several prominent personalities such as Dr R. L. Spittel, Sam Elapata Sr., E. B. Wikramanayake QC, R. L. Poulier and D. B. Ellepola.
Thilo Hoffmann became the Treasurer of the Society in 1961, then was its Honorary Secretary for seven years from 1962, and finally its President for a record continuous period of eleven years from 1968 to 1979.
Some of the last Britishers in the Society did not like him. It seemed that they resented his ascendancy. They referred to him as ‘the little Swiss’, where the adjective did not apply to his build, which was about the same as most of them. One was the editor of the Society’s magazine, Loris. When Thilo Hoffmann was given the Conservation Award for the year 1965 – presented by the Soil Conservation Society and sponsored by Selwyn Samaraweera – this man wrote a critical editorial titled ‘Medals for the Meritorious’. That upset Dr Spittel, who put him in his place and obtained his resignation.
Later, things changed, as Thilo Hoffmann progressed with his ‘bridging’ function. On the occasion of a District Meeting in Kandy, Dr Nihal Karunaratne humorously referred to the time he joined the Society when he was often “the only black bugger there”. Thilo responded, to everyone’s amusement, “And now I am the only white bugger here!”
Developing and leading
When Thilo accepted the honorary job of Secretary, the office of the Society, and its single employee, Sam Rajendran, had to move to Colombo. A tiny cubicle was rented at the Friend-in-Need Society at No. 171 General Lake’s Road. Here, a small desk, a chair, some files and less than Rs 500 in cash – the total assets of the Society – were installed, with Rajendran as clerk-in- charge.
Two years later, with the Society growing, more space was needed for’ its office. A shop in Bogala Building at Upper Chatham Street close to Baurs building was taken on rent. This was used for a short period. In 1964 the office was moved to Chaitya Road, opposite the new lighthouse. This was done on Thilo’s initiative. The premises were secured for the Society by him.
The small, unoccupied structure there had been used during the last World War by an Army dhoby and belonged to the Army. The only other building along the newly constructed road, then named Marine Drive, was the Ceylon Light Infantry Headquarters, which is now part of the Navy Headquarters.
The structure was improved and enlarged from time to time, and a wall built around the premises. An article by Sam Elapata Jr. in Loris, reproduced as Appendix III, describes Thilo’s involvement in this.
For the first time, the Society had a regular place to work in, and to hold the monthly committee meetings, even the general meetings, and to house its library – started by Thilo – and files, thus serving as a central rallying point for all members. It remained the headquarters of the Society for 34 years. Recalling his early days Thilo says:
“I was young, inexperienced in public speaking and shy. I attended my first half-yearly meeting (at Kurunegala, I think) as Hony. Secretary in the role as I saw it: organizer and recorder but not active participant. The President, ‘Ted’ Norris was discussing a possibly controversial subject (I cannot remember what). When he had finished there was silence, and so he just ordered me to speak. I was, of course, not prepared, and it was the first time I spoke before a public audience, not in my mother tongue, and with a strong Swiss accent. But it did not go too badly and that gave me confidence.”
He continues: “In the course of time I learnt to speak freely in public, and occasionally I even enjoyed it. But generally I had to give myself a push. This was also the case when I had to meet powerful VIPs, such as Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents. My basic shyness never left me, although most people have perceived me quite differently.
“Of political and other VIPs I got to know very many in the course of my work for conservation, and a few became friends, such as Ministers Edwin Hurulle and Nissanka Wijeyeratne, Lalith Athulathmudali and also D. B. Wijetunge, who became President of Sri Lanka.”
Gradually, through purposeful and relentless work, Thilo Hoffmann built up and furthered the Society, as no one before or after him. Similarly he served its cause. Knowledge, understanding, enthusiasm and self-discipline are some of the characteristics which have made him a successful conservationist. But mainly it was his perseverance, his tenacity, which brought results. As long as there was a glimmer of hope, he would put forward again and again his ideas and proposals, never letting up, with memos, reminders and personal meetings with anyone from the Prime Minister or President downward, who would be in a position to bring a project to a successful end.
His style of work was entirely based on his own involvement. He would himself do all the hard work, investigations and field work, write reports and memos, push and cajole. Any memo from the Society submitted to any authority during the period he was Secretary or President was written by him. The fact that he knew what he was speaking and writing about, based on his intimate and detailed knowledge of the country, was a prerequisite to his success.
The Society and its General Committee would provide the necessary backing and background. He found that there were few others who could be relied upon to perform major tasks with the personal involvement, discipline and perseverance required. Hoffmann never took up extreme positions, always keeping a balanced mind and advocating reasonable and realistic solutions. He could readily see and understand contrary viewpoints as well as external constraints, e.g. political though not personal. In this he is notably different from present day `super-activists’ and ‘greens’, who in his opinion “polarize to extreme positions and exaggeration, often based on ignorance, even ill-will and mischief”.
Day-to-day problems were dealt with by correspondence or direct intervention. Thilo’s application and promptness in such matters are described in the last Chapter. There were many cases of poaching, not only by villagers but by well-to-do hunters. There was illegal timber felling, and clearing.
Complaints and reports from members had to be looked into. This often led to unpleasantness and frustration, such as in cases of drunken engine drivers ploughing their trains into elephant herds crossing the railway line at night in the Polonnaruwa area.
Once, two student members, a local and a German, verbally reported a serious case of misbehaviour and shooting by an Air Force training group in the Lahugala Sanctuary. Thilo wrote a letter. An ‘inquiry’ was held by a senior officer. The incident was denied, and Thilo was asked to apologize. When he requested the two members to confirm their report in writing both refused! The foreigner is today a professor, and organizes seminars and writes papers about Sri Lanka – like so many others, says Thilo, who use the island for easy pickings.
The institution of District Representative (“DR”) had been created in 1962, when Thilo was Secretary. The DR had to have at least two meetings per year in his District. There were DRs in many areas, including Jaffna, Ampara, Ratnapura, Kandy, Kurunegala, Puttalam, and Udawalawe. They were sent the minutes of the monthly committee meetings. Thus the members in the Districts were informed of the activities of the Society. At Udawalawe the DR was Gamini Punchihewa, and at Ratnapura it was Bennie Abeyratne, a close friend of the Hoffmanns.
Talks, film shows and discussions were regularly organized. Members and friends got together in this manner, which was a great help to Thilo in the promotion of the objects and ideas of the Society, the enrolment of new members, and to obtain support for Society activities. Thilo attended most of these meetings, which were often held in planters’ clubs, and were followed by social gatherings of members, office-bearers and guests. Mae Hoffmann’s 16 mm wildlife movie was a big attraction. A gift to the Society’s membership drive, it was shown in public over and over again, even in distant places such as Embilipitiya (Udawalawe), Passara and Inginiyagala (Gal Oya).
Jungle bungalows owned and run by the Society for members, an old proposal, were promoted. As a matter of principle, these had to be outside National Parks. Dr Uragoda in his book (see Chapter III, above) says: “In the mid 1950s the first attempts to obtain leases of crown land for building bungalows were made. After much difficulty and plenty of spade work especially by the Honorary Secretary, Mr. T. W. Hoffmann, the Society managed to obtain leases of crown land near Wilpattu and Yala.”
Thilo and the Assistant Secretary, Lalith Senanayake chose the two locations after several visits to the areas. Money was collected for putting up the buildings. The Volkart Foundation of Switzerland, no doubt on Thilo’s persuasion, made a handsome contribution of Rs 5,000 to the fund. The Wilpattu bungalow was opened to members on December 1, 1967 and the Yala bungalow on December 31, 1969. Much later, a Society bungalow was built by the boundary of the Udawalawe National Park.
At Lahugala the unused Irrigation Department circuit bungalow was managed for some time by the Society for the benefit of visiting members and guests. It was situated on the bund of the large, picturesque tank, where visitors are sure to see elephants at almost any time of the year. The area, formerly a Sanctuary, is now a National Park.
When Hoffmann took over as Secretary the number of members was less than 500, and the Society’s total assets, as mentioned, amounted to a few hundred rupees. There was no library and no proper office. Most of the members were planters, with a few of the urban elite thrown in. The Society was just ticking over, although it had in the course of time had some remarkable individuals as members and office-bearers: see the paper by Thilo in Loris titled ‘The WNPS of Ceylon: Some Historical Reflections on the Occasion of its 75th Anniversary.”
.At the end of his time as President the Society had over 5,000 members, assets worth many lakhs, and had become a force to be reckoned with.
An autobigraphy of a remarkable self-made billionaire
The story of Ceylon Teamaker: MERRIL. J. FERNANDO
by Manik de Silva
Merril J. Fernando’s recently published autobiography would be considered by many to be best story of its kind coming out in recent times, if not all time, of the life and times of a business leader in Sri Lanka. Similar volumes published in recent years that come readily to mind are the life and career stories of C.P. (Chari) de Silva of Aitken Spence, Ken Balendra of John Keells, Hemaka Amarasuriya of Singer and Rienzie Weeraratne of Unilever.
Undoubtedly many more resources have been poured into this production than to its predecessors. The result is spectacular both in appearance and substance. Over 200 interesting photographs scattered throughout the well-designed volume, makes reading its 400+ pages easy. The reader cannot but be impressed about MJF’s meticulous record keeping that is a feature of the book; also the author’s deliberate decision not to pull back his punches aimed at some prominent figures in the country, many of them now dead.
Merril Fernando, undoubtedly, is the best known face in Sri Lanka’s tea industry. He’s not the biggest producer or exporter of tea in the country. But his Dilmah brand, coined from the names of his two sons, Dilhan and Malik, is also the best known Sri Lankan-owned brand worldwide. Few would know until they read the book that the original brand name was Dilma, The ‘h’ was added later to give it added punch as recommended by advertising professionals in Australia; nor would many know that Fernando served four years as a seminarian at St. Aloysius Seminary in Borella (“I was very unhappy and frequently reduced to tears”). Training a youth who had his sights on the legal profession to be a catholic priest was forced on him by his parents to whom he couldn’t say “No” at that point of time in his life and the prevailing culture.
Also that very early in his working life when he was training as a tea taster at Heath and Co., a hard to get opportunity then when that work was largely a preserve on the British, that he broke away to take up a job offer in the U.S. multinational, Mobil Oil. Fernando says the terms offered were “quite attractive,” and the offer too good to turn down at age 22-years with about Rs. 1,500 monthly on the table. He admits a “distressing lack of responsibility in suddenly abandoning my trainee tea taster programme.” Although he enjoyed the work the work at Mobil and was good at it, he says “the business was open to and driven by bribery” and he returned to tea at AF Jones, a small firm run by a British father and his two sons.
A condition of that employment was that he had to train in London at his own expense. In arranging his training slot, the head of a British firm here wrote to a friend in London recommending MJF (letter reproduced in the book) raising an interesting points about Merril (1) ” His general appearance and ways of doing business have always struck me as displaying a certain amount of integrity, which is more than I can say for most of his brethren” The second was “I have made it perfectly plain to him that in the UK there are no bottle washers or Tea Boys to wait on learners and practically all the messy work has to be done by the learners themselves.”
Fernando started at AF Jones, a company he was to later acquire, as an Assistant Tea Taster at Rs. 750 a month in May 1955. His UK experiences makes good reading including the story that he brought back pounds 325 when he returned to Ceylon at the end of five months. His landlady in London, Mrs. Butler, had tried to persuade him to buy her terraced house for pounds 750 and offered to arrange a mortgage. “I didn’t even consider it,” says Fernando. “That apartment was worth four million pounds in 2019.”
What comes out strongest in the book is Merril Fernando’s passion for “pure Ceylon tea” and his determination that this product be offered globally to discerning consumers worldwide. When strong lobbies were hard at work saying that Sri Lanka should be made an International Tea Hub like Dubai and Rotterdam by permitting the import of cheaper teas for blending, packaging and exporting, he battled unrelentingly against a move he considered would be disastrous making many enemies in the process.
Equally strong is the projection of Dilmah as a family business with his two sons figuring in both text and pictures. Merril promoted his tea using his own photo widely and with homely messages to consumers of a product coming from “us to you.” His own avuncular appearance and the excellence of the photography, perhaps an offshoot of Dilhan’s passion for the camera, played a major role in promoting Dilmah, evident in many of the photographs included in the book. Fernando’s faith in God and belief in divine intervention is a continuing thread through the publication.
There is no doubt that Merril Fernando has made a major contribution towards preserving the authenticity of Ceylon tea which had over the long period when it succeeded coffee in this country had built the reputation for unique flavour and quality that made tea drinkers worldwide recognize the product as the best available. His early training exposed him to the harsh realities of international tea export trade and he says he learned many important lessons he would never forget. These helped him to chart his business course over the next few decades. This experience and the absence of severe work pressure gave him time as a trainee in London for reflection, absorbing new impressions, acquiring new tastes and inculcate in him a lifelong passion for travel and new cultural experiences.
Attacks directed at him over the years included accusations that he was getting favours from his former father-in-law, Major Motague Jayawickreme, onetime Minister of Plantation Industries, although his marriage to Devika Jayawickreme had long ended by then. The fact that President J.R. Jayewardene made Jayawickreme dispose a small shareholding in MJF’s listed Ceylon Tea Services Ltd. (the predecessor to Dilmah Ceylon Tea Compny PLC) on a conflict of interest argument is duly recorded in the book. But Fernando makes the telling point that Jayawickreme bought the shares three years before he became minister. He also says he once refused to speak to Jayawickreme for three months when the latter called for a vote on an appointment to the new Tea Centre in New York with Fernando’s the only dissenting vote against the proposal.
The reader must not be misled by what’s written above to think that Merril Fernando has made his autobiography a platform to merely hit out at those who opposed him. On the contrary, he has been lavish in his praise of many including senior bureaucrats and political authorities that include one time Plantation Industries Minister, Dr. Colvin. R. de Silva and his former teacher and later Trade Minister Hugh Fernando. But there is another side to that coin when he discusses estrangements with business partners at AF Jones and later in his own companies.
I have known Merril Fernando for over 50 years and reported on his journey through the tea industry. One anecdote I will relate here is an occasion he took me to his home on Gower Street in Havelock Town for a string hopper dinner. That was the first time I had eaten a seer fish kiri hodda with pol sambol. I was so impressed about the meal that I mentioned it to his neighbour, my friend Mrs. Bertha Samarasinghe, the wife of the then Judge-Advocate of the Navy. A fine cook herself, Bertha responded: “Merril understands fish. I see him buying his fish from vendors at his gate.” This came to mind when I read a reference in the book to the “ever-faithful Alice, the best chef I have ever known apart from my mother.” She probably cooked the meal I enjoyed.
He could have found no better writer than Anura Gunasekera, a retired tea planter who worked for Dilmah for 10 years after he quit planting to collaborate in the writing which took all of three years to finish. With Merril Fernando completing his 92nd birthday days before the book was launched in May, there were constant challenges including covid, MJF’s hospitalization off and on during the writing and many more. But an excellent production of a compelling read has been the result.
The book is priced at Rs. 10,000 with all proceeds of sales going to MJF supported charities. But it looks as though it would have cost more to produce if all costs are factored. However that be, it’s a compelling read on the life of a remarkable man, a self-made billionaire who’s fond of saying that “business is a matter of public service” – his many charities testifying to this. It’s the history of a battle to preserve the integrity of Ceylon Tea which Merril Fernando says ought to be marketed like wine and champagne.
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