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Midweek Review

From ‘multi-ethnicity’ to multiculturalism

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by Susantha Hewa

Being able to speak only one language (monolingualism) is becoming the exception rather than the rule. More and more Sri Lankans whose home language is either Sinhala or Tamil are learning English as their second language (L2). Not many Sinhala speakers or Tamil speakers select each other’s language, namely, Tamil or Sinhala as their L2 for a few obvious reasons.

With due respect to both Sinhala and Tamil, neither of them has the social recognition that English commands in this country. Secondly, being perhaps the widest read and spoken global language, English has a utility value far exceeding that of Sinhala or Tamil, for all those who engage in higher studies, research, preparing for private sector employment, administrative work, translation, journalism and diplomatic service, among others. Many graduates realise at job interviews that a good command of English can often eclipse academic excellence, which has resulted in English becoming a major ingredient in all recipes for gainful ‘employability.’ In short, proficiency in English can be a big bonus for anybody aspiring to move ahead in any chosen path. That monolingualism among Sinhala or Tamil speakers is now appearing to be an anomaly and a deprivation needs little persuasion. However, opinions differ on how early a child should start learning English as his L2 to reap all its benefits. Is early exposure to an L2 harmful? Will it make him culturally rootless?

Let’s take an example from the Sri Lankan context. It’s not news that if a child’s parents spoke two languages, say, Sinhala and Tamil, the child would learn to speak both almost equally fluently provided that they were spoken often enough at home. So quite reasonably, she will have two mother tongues – Sinhala and Tamil, and thus be a bilingual if she were to continue speaking both languages into her adulthood. Alternatively, if only one language was spoken to the exclusion of the other at home she would be monolingual, which could be described as an instance of a lost opportunity given the time and difficulty involved in learning the other language at a later stage. What’s more, the former who acquires both languages simultaneously will have an edge over the latter in more ways than being fluent in two languages.

For instance, she would develop a better empathy with the speakers of either language and an increased awareness of their respective cultures, language being the most pervasive and fluid transmitter of the shared values of a community. Surely, it would be a better option than being excluded from one ethos depending on which of the two languages is to be her home language. Further, the exposure to two cultures would be an excellent opportunity for her to take a balanced view of both and grow up to be more unbiased about each. Such a child is unlikely to be overemotional about one culture and will find herself at home with either community as a grownup. Thirdly, as linguists point out, a bilingual is better adapted than a monolingual to learn a new language. Thus, early bilinguals in general will be more versatile than monolinguals in socialising, language learning and more open-minded about and less susceptible to synthetic divisions based on imagined/self-imposed identities. In other words, multilingualism may significantly bring down the volatility inherent in the so-called “multi-ethnic” societies.

Our longstanding tradition of being moulded by a single culture with only one home language may urge us to cast doubts about the soundness of being multilingual/multicultural from childhood, prompting us to consider it a denial of the right to have firm roots in a single culture. However, those who entertain this view may perhaps be ardent believers of “uniqueness” and “sanctity” of each culture- those who rely on “purity of stock” to be the mainstay of best human behaviour. Just take the above example of the bilingual child. If her Tamil speaking father or Sinhala speaking mother was adamant that only his or her language would be spoken at home wouldn’t it lead to a serious crisis? Can anyone determine with any justification whether mother or father’s decision should carry the day? On what grounds can anyone say that one linguistic/cultural environment is better than or superior to the other? If the parents had saner heads they would let the language mix be a blessing in disguise instead of making it a recipe for disaster. Surely, it would apply with equal validity on the broad canvas of society.

Come to think of it, it is usually our cultural seclusion that makes us feel rootless when we are placed in an unfamiliar social milieu as a grown up, which is more likely than not in the modern world where many cannot afford to stick to one job or place for long. Young children who migrate find it easier to adapt to the new setting than their parents do. As we have seen, children living in multicultural settings don’t seem to suffer any “rootlessness” whatsoever; on the contrary, they are often more confident and skilled in socializing. A bicultural is unlikely to be feeling any more estranged than an amphibian in water. It is often the insularity resulting from our cultural segregation in childhood that seems to prompt us to demonize cultural intermixing as a dangerous dilution, or worse, an out and out contamination of “inherited” values.

As such, linguistic “isolation” in childhood may contribute in no small measure to the emergence and hardening of divisive feelings continually attributed to “ethnicity” – a label which has always proved to be more harmful than useful. If bilingualism or, better still, multilingualism can dilute this unserviceable sense of segregation, why thwart it? Can we think of any instance where humans have run in to a crisis for not knowing who belonged to what “ethnicity?”

However, being a bilingual from the cradle is too good to be true. In most families, children have to be content with one home language, often, Tamil or Sinhala. Thus, to compensate for this customary language seclusion in early childhood, the L2 has to be made available to children as early as possible. As linguists claim, changes in brain plasticity make delayed L2 learning more taxing- the older you get the more laborious it becomes. In the L2 learning continuum, the earlier you start, the closer you are to the natural L1 acquisition process, which gradually shifts from its “acquisition mode” to a more artificial “learning mode” as you age, and the latter is far less effective than the former notwithstanding the extra time and effort it requires. Furthermore, while early acquisition of an L2 tends to be more comprehensive and enriching, late learning is often narrowly focused and inhibited. Many adult learners, for example, a good number of undergraduates grudgingly learn it to fulfill a necessary condition to get their degree certificate and “be employable.”

A child’s growing inhibition towards learning a second language with the passing of years is nowhere more manifest than in universities where students wanting in English language skills are conspicuous in their absence in kaduwa classes. Thus, undoubtedly, the most prudent, scientific and result-oriented approach to teaching English, or any L2 for that matter, is to focus on primary and secondary level students without delaying it until their language learning mechanisms have risen to their, so to speak, “level of incompetence.”

Surely, university entrants aren’t at their best age to contend with English because they are in an age category in which their L2 assimilation mechanism is shifting gear from acquisition to learning. The most affected by this change are those whose medium of instruction happens to be English. Their lack of proficiency in English, which is the result of inadequate exposure to it during their primary and secondary education, makes them pay a heavy price now, at least in three ways. Firstly, it makes them cut kaduwa classes to avoid looking “foolish” in the presence of their more privileged colleagues. It also drastically reduces their grasp of academic lectures, which directly affects their performance at exams, especially, in the first semester. What is most unfair is that in a system in which the first semester grades of the academic subjects determine their eligibility for field selection, those who get lower grades due to their lack of English language skills but with no deficiency in cognitive skills, are often denied of getting into their desired field. This is just one undesirable outcome of prolonged monolingualism, which can be easily avoided by placing more emphasis on early bilingualism.

Therefore, the most prudent, profitable and scientific approach to teaching English as an L2 is to focus on the young students in primary and secondary grades which will ease the pressure exerted on undergraduates who are compelled to mug up English for passing exams and be “employable.” A good command of the English language can help create a level playing for all new entrants. Only a few of them enter university to study English as a subject and all those who learn other subjects – particularly, those who study in the English medium must not be penalized for being deficient in it. After all they belong to the brightest bulbs of our youth. That English is given an excessive importance in higher studies amounts to making those who lack kaduwa pay for the “sins” of a flawed L2 teaching system, which is made absurdly top-heavy to compensate for the lack of sufficient attention given to English in early years.

With so much evidence in support of early bilingualism, ‘better late than never’ policy would only be a good joke when it comes to teaching English as an L2 in our country. In a broader sense, making English accessible to all young students may help reduce the ills of an unproductive and costly “multi-ethnic” system, which should have long been upgraded to a truly multilingual and multicultural system sans “ethnic” fault lines. Bilinguals will outdo monolinguals even if we are forced to learn another language- let it be any language from China to Peru.

 

 



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Midweek Review

Crossmatch: A moral mirror

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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

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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

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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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