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Holiday on the continent and eating dinners at the Inns of Court

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Excerpted from the Memoirs of a Cabinet Secretary by BP Peiris

In Heidelberg, I spent another three weeks. Crossing the Rhine from France to Germany, everything changed except the passengers and the rail cars because the train was one called a ‘through train’. At the frontier station, orders were shouted in guttural German that no passenger was to get out of the train. The train was about to cross a long bridge; we were also made to feel that we were about to cross from one country to another where even the air we breathed was going to be different.

The French engine driver, guards and attendants on the train got out, the French engine was detached, and a German engine with entire German staff were now in charge. The customs examination was on the train itself while on the move, and a very thorough examination it was. Every bag of mine was opened and searched and I was made to do the repacking myself without so much as a “Thank you”.

At Heidelberg station, I was met by my friend Ilse Wolff and her father, a tall military looking gentleman. He was a kindly man and Ilse’s mother was all kindliness too. They made me extremely comfortable. Unfortunately, they knew no English and I knew no German. We therefore conversed in French of which language we had a little knowledge.

Heidelberg, the ‘Oxford’ of Germany, is a beautiful city with an ancient castle on the top of a hill and the river Neckar flowing lazily along. In almost every shop there was a notice “English spoken here”. My host lived in a mansion and had an extensive library. But what I liked best was the beer, the variety of sausages and the beer gardens of which there were many and in which I spent most of my spare time.

Even the smallest beer garden had an orchestra playing German music. They were wonderful open air places and there appeared to be no closing hours. The Germans are great beer drinkers, and once when I ordered beer at one of the gardens, I was given some excellent black beer called ‘Miinchener’ in an enormous one litre porcelain mug with two handles. It was impossible to raise this large and heavy mug to the lips with one hand.

My beer and sausage holiday was coming to an end and I had to say “Good bye” to my host and hostess. Ilse and I left Heidelberg for Switzerland and were seen off at the station by her father.The Customs authorities at the Swiss frontier were charming after my experience with the German officials. Without inspection, they put the chalk marks on our bags.

They asked me questions about my Kandyan walking stick and requested me to show them the dagger which was inside. I said there was no dagger and submitted the stick for their inspection but they were not convinced. In the end, I presented the stick to them! I had extras in my baggage which I was carrying as presents for my friends.

We had to change trains at Olten junction and take a suburban train to Solothurn, a quiet little village. On the platform were our friends, Margrit Brunner and her sister Trudy and Margrit’s fiance, who took our bags out of our compartment into his car. A few miles drive and we were at the house of Margrit’s parents.

Although the girls and I used to walk in Sutton arm in arm, I was advised that Solothurn was not Sutton, that the people, were reserved, and the customs were different. It was indeed a quiet place, not thickly populated, but an orchestra played Wagner and other German music in the small park twice a week. These concerts were largely attended. There was no cinema in the place.

Again, the conversation had to be in broken French. Margrit’s family were German-Swiss and, although the girls spoke English, the parents knew neither English nor French. I had a happy time with kindly and hospitable people. After nearly a month in Solothurn, I returned to Sutton, fit and well, and was back at my studies.

At this time, in Sutton, there was a beautiful, young Czechoslovakian girl, about seventeen years of age. I have already mentioned her impossible name ‘Szmidel Szuszi’. After some months with us, she left to join the Hampstead Girls’ High School, but asked me to come now and then and escort her as she was nervous to get about London on her own.

One Sunday, I paid my usual visit to Sir Wilfred de Soysa at Hampstead. When we called, it was understood that we would wait for lunch, tea and dinner; but on this day, having promised to meet Szmidel at 6 p.m. I had to excuse myself from dinner after having had an excellent rice and curry lunch, billiards and a good tea.

The household was surprised that I was not staying to dinner. I said I had a previous appointment which I had to keep, made excuses and left. The Girls, School was next door to Sir Wilfred’s house, and his young son, Ryle, had glued his eyes to a side glass panel to see exactly where I was going and had been surprised when he saw me climbing the next door steps. He had kept his eyes glued to the panel until, five minutes later, he saw me walking out with the girl. On my next visit Sir Wilfred, in his humorous way, told the others that I had access to the school next door and was a lucky man.

I took the young lady to a Chinese restaurant for a dinner dance. As usual, I wore my turban. She was in an exquisite dress and anyone could have seen from her dress and stockings that I was not taking the housemaid out on her off day. Two Englishmen, seated at the next table, were obviously interested. They were also probably surprised that a darkie could be out with such a pretty, young thing, well-dressed at that.

They kept staring at the girl for some time, rose, and came to my table and said, “Excuse me, Sahib, are you related to the Maharajah of Kashmir?” I said “No. Pray sit down”, giving them the impression that I was Indian royalty traveling incognito. I ordered a drink for them but did not introduce the girl and as no Englishman speaks to a lady until he is introduced, and I was determined on that point, there was no conversation between them.

When the drink was over, one of them asked me, again addressing me as Sahib, whether I would have a drink, for which I thanked him with almost regal politeness. He then asked “What about the lady?” “No,” I said, “she will not drink anything except water.” They realized that they would have to look elsewhere for the little bit of fun which they were expecting and went back to their table.

At Sutton, I was the only darkie, my brother having found another place nearer to his College, and attracted much attention with my turban. Street urchins used to shout “nigger” at me. But the rest of the townspeople were generally kind. My status rose considerably when the late Mr C. E. A. Dias, with his daughter, now Mrs Earnest Soysa, paid me a visit in a Rolls Royce car, driven by a liveried chauffeur.

The car could not be turned into the drive because of its size, and had to be parked in front of the house on the narrow London—Brighton Road. Mr & Mrs H. W. Amarasuriya also visited me in an enormous Sunbeam. There were several inquiries from neighbours shortly afterwards regarding Miss Overton’s distinguished visitors and, when told that they were relatives of mine, there was a distinct improvement in the attitude of the people towards me. Men used to raise their hats to me in the street and women bowed with a certain degree of familiarity. As I had no hat to raise, I used to return the salutation in oriental fashion.

At Miss Overton’s request, I once spoke to the ladies and gentleman of the “Sutton Adult School” on Ceylon. I spoke for about 45 minutes without notes. At the conclusion of my talk, a vote of thanks to the speaker was proposed and seconded. One speaker complimented me for the fluency which I had acquired in their language in the short time that had elapsed since my arrival in England.

Law Student

I was admitted as a student both of Lincoln’s Inn and University College, London. The Inn was a beautiful place with stately old buildings and a dignified library. Passers-by used to stand on the roadside and gaze in amazement at the beautiful and well-kept lawns with flower beds on the borders. No one dared to step on that grass. We all respected the gardener and these lawns.

I cannot remember any notices ordering us to keep off the grass.

In another portion of the Inn, there were garden seats intended only for the members of the Honourable Society and their guests. One day, I took one of the girls at Sutton to show her the Inn. We sat on one of the seats enjoying a cigarette in the quiet of the place. A watchman arrived soon after and asked “Excuse me, Sir, are you a member of the Inn?” When I said that I was, he apologized and retired.

Lincoln’s Inn, from the Treasurer to the Librarian, the waiters and the gardeners, was always very courteous. Many years later, when I was Secretary to the Cabinet, I sent to the Librarian with my compliments, a Digest of Law Reports which I had compiled for the Ceylon Law Weekly. The reply, thanking me for the gift came from Lord Evershed, the Master of the Rolls and Treasurer of the Inn.

The officials had an amazing memory for names and spelling. There were several foreign students: Ceylonese, Indians, West Indians, Africans and others. One is required under the rules to eat Bar Dinners before one can be called to the Bar. There are four dining terms in each year and we were required to eat six dinners each term making twenty-fours dinners for the year, and you were not “called” until you had eaten seventy-two dinners, which meant three years.

The dinners were the cheapest one could have in London. For two shillings and six pence, one had soup, fish, meat, pudding, cheese, bread and butter, with unlimited quantities of beer, port, sherry and claret on ordinary nights. We were required to go to the office and pay in advance our fee for the six dinners. I have never heard the officer ask anyone his name. He received the cash, went inside, and came back with a receipt, your name correctly spelt. There were long Indian names like Rajagopalachariar and equally long Ceylonese names like Wijekulasuriya all correctly spelt. On my receipt, “Peiris” was correctly spelt although there were others who spelt their names ‘Pieris’ and ‘Peries’.

Once a term, there was a night called ‘Grand Night’, on which night we students, four in a mess, had in addition to other liquor, a magnum of champagne. I never understood how the Inn was able to give all this liquor for nothing, as the dinner charge was only for the eats, but someone told me that the Inn imported liquor free of duty under a Statute of Charles II. And the liquor, once drawn out of the cellars, never was put back. What was left over after the dinner was for the butler and the waiters.

On Grand Nights, the High Table was occupied by the Benchers and their very distinguished guests like the King, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Ambassadors and High Court Judges. Barristers sat at a middle table and the students, lower down, seated on benches. Grace was always said before and after dinner. On these nights I must confess the Ceylon students were always wide awake and acted with an eye to the main chance.

There were quite a number of us – D. S. Jayawickrama, Shelton de Silva, D. W. Fernando, D. W. F. Jayasekera, J. B. C. Rodrigo, K. A. P. Rajakaruna, T. S. Fernando and Victor de Soysa, to mention just a few. We used to wait until three Indian students had sat at a mess and one of us would then take the fourth place; and so it went on down the table. After grace had been said and the magnum of champagne opened, the Ceylonese would ask each of his three friends in the mess in turn “Champagne?”, and the reply always was “No thank you, I am a Hindu” or “I am a Muslim”. The Ceylonese had the magnum to himself.

The hosts on these dinner nights were the Benchers of the Inn, the governing body who have also the supreme power to strike a Barrister off the Roll. His Majesty, King George V, was a Bencher and Treasurer. Lord Sinha, an Indian, had been a Bencher and his coat of arms hangs in the Hall.

An amusing incident took place at dinner one Grand Night. The students, as I said, sit on benches and, in the middle of the dinner, one of the Ceylon students who had a wee drop too much probable forgot that there was no back to the bench, leaned back and fell on the boarded floor.

Not one of us dared to go to his rescue. He was just drunk and lay prostrate. It was winter time and freezing cold. The butler came with four waiters and carried the ‘corpse’ outside. When they came back shortly afterwards to attend to their duties, we were unable to find out how they had disposed of the body, because the body was incapable of steadying itself or of propelling itself under its own power.

After this incident, an order was made that no student should be served with more than two pints of beer, but Jayawickrama spoke kindly to the butler, after which we had all the drinks we wanted.

I did not attend any lectures at the Inn, the only requirement in our time being that we should eat our dinners. My law studies I did at the University, but used the library of the Inn in preference to the University library.

Travelling to work with me on the same bus every morning was a Negro student on his way to the Middle Temple library. We both had to get off the bus at the Chancery Lane stop. He was dressed in striped trousers, black coat, wing collar and wore a bowler hat. One day, from his seat by the window he was looking on to the pavement at one of the stops when a pretty, young girl with a small suitcase entered the bus and occupied the vacant seat next to him.

When the bus started and my friend turned round (I was seated immediately behind him) the girl saw his black face and just said “Uh”. My friend had a way with the Ladies. He half rose in his seat, bowed, raised his bowler and said “I’m sorry Madam if I frightened you.” The reply came “Oh! You speak English,” and an animated conversation followed until the bus came to our stop. I got out: my friend didn’t.

Some days later, I met him and asked what had happened. He said that the poor thing he had met was a complete stranger to London, so he had taken her out to lunch and a cinema, then to tea, sightseeing and dinner, when he discovered that, at that late hour, she was looking round for lodgings. My gallant friend had offered her, free of charge, the hospitality of his flat. He had said that he had a spare room which he could place at her disposal. The offer had been gratefully accepted. The girl had come for a weekend, but had stayed on for more than a week during which my friend attended no lectures.



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Isn’t cleansing hearts a political issue?

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President Ranil Wickremesinghe presenting the government’s policy statement in Parliament on 07 Feb.

In his policy statement during the inauguration of the 5th session of the 9th parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that the solution to the economic crisis lies in economic and scientific measures, not political ones. However, he draws inspiration from Confucius and urges citizens to introspect and cleanse their hearts, which can be seen as a political measure beyond being framed as moral or ethical. In the meantime, he has asserted that his government has achieved a significant transformation and provided a concise progress report, highlighting the remarkable recovery of the economy. President Wickremesinghe has emphasised that the economy, once in dire straits and requiring intensive care, has successfully emerged from its critical condition, exhibiting a robust V-shaped recovery. (See Table 1)

President Wickremesinghe claimed that this record-breaking breakthrough achievement in a brief span is truly a world record; he compared similar situations such as Greece, which took almost a decade to recover. Refuting allegations that he is engaging in secret agreements to conceal the true situation from the public, he has emphasised that every step taken was transparent, offering opportunities for discussion and debate both within and outside Parliament, with nothing hidden. The accuracy of this statement has to be verified by the concerned parties.

Going by confidence that people will eventually recognise and appreciate his decision-making, driven by the country’s growth rather than political gain, the President does not seem to have learnt from the defeat he experienced in the past including the last presidential election. Despite implementing relatively better governance with initiatives like increasing tax revenue and anti-corruption measures, the electorate prioritised different concerns, such as the “inna ratak” outcry. Consequently, they not only failed to acknowledge or appreciate these efforts but rejected the regime altogether, leading to the election of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2019.

The President appears aware of the risk of truth manipulation, deceiving both the nation and its people, yet he seems to take insufficient action to effectively prevent such occurrences.

Facing opposition from major media institutions, the President should proactively direct his media unit to implement a robust awareness program. Relying solely on the passage of time for people to become aware of his administration’s achievements is not sufficient. To effectively communicate the positive initiatives, the President and his government must engage in proactive efforts to counter the negative narrative. Failing to take assertive action may lead to a repetition of mistakes, as people are less likely to recognise and appreciate the purported “good” work without an active and strategic communication strategy.

Accomplishments:

·  Recognition from international institutions.

·  “Urumaya” program for land rights to over two million people.

·  “Asvasuma” program improving living standards for 2.4 million poor individuals.

·  130% increase in tax network (from 437,547 to 1,000,029 registered taxpayers).

·  Successful debt restructuring.

·  Establishment of an economic commission.

Future Initiatives:

·  Eradication of corruption.

·  Simplification of the investment process by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles and corruption risks.

·  Social modernization.

·  Target of attracting 5 million tourists annually.

·  Emphasis on technological advancement, renewable energy, and establishing the International Climate Change University in Sri Lanka.

·  Increase productivity of agricultural land in the dry zone (double or triple).

·  Restructuring of foreign relations with non-aligned policies.

·  Pursuit of free trade agreements with China, Bangladesh, and Indonesia (Singapore agreement already in full operation).

·  Intent to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

·  Diversification of economic activities away from the Western Province to cities like Jaffna, Trincomalee, Bingiriya, Hambantota, and Kandy.

·  Plan to complete over 50,000 houses for low-income urban residents.

·  Positioning the country as a service center and economic hub in the Indian Ocean by developing three new ports.

·  Collaboration with India to develop Trincomalee as an economic hub.

Some of these objectives appear contradictory and need clarification. For instance, the goal of constructing 50,000 houses in urban areas, mainly in Colombo, seems to contradict the broader plan of expanding activities away from the Western Province. Additionally, there is a seeming contradiction in developing Trincomalee as an economic hub while simultaneously positioning the entire country as a service centre and an economic hub in the Indian Ocean.


The President has said that merely condemning and blaming the crisis without delving into its root causes is ineffective. However, this stance apparently runs counter to his plans for eradicating corruption and promoting social modernisation. The question is how he can conclude that addressing the economic crisis is solely dependent on economic solutions, and dismiss the relevance of political remedies. Many analysts argue that a political solution is primary, with economic solutions being secondary. Historical observations indicate that political changes, such as a regime change, precede the implementation of economic solutions by new political leaders. Without political change, the emergence of these economic solutions is challenging, if not impossible. These statements raise concerns about the possibility of individuals responsible for the crisis being absolved, despite the Supreme Court’s determination and punishment of those accountable and identification of root causes.

He has acknowledged the importance of addressing these issues but has not explicitly deemed them necessary. Perhaps, his emphasis on these matters is an attempt to garner support from the SLPP for his presidential campaign. However, it is crucial to note that he repeatedly emphasises the need to address root causes and hold those responsible accountable.

Finally, the President poses a series of questions: Why is it challenging to embrace an open perspective? Despite our diverse ideas, ethnic backgrounds, languages, provincial residencies, faiths, beliefs, and political affiliations, why can’t we unite in a shared vision for the country’s well-being and the future? Why can’t we collectively understand the benefits for our nation’s youth and join hands to reach great heights? The answers, for many, are not ambiguous. The rise to power by ultra-nationalists and corrupt politicians is often facilitated by divisive tactics. Many politicians faced imminent convictions, and without regime change, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, several could have ended up in jail. We clearly witnessed manipulation of emotions to set different communities against each other as a route to political power. To counter such tactics, he should advocate for the implementation of strong laws and systems to prevent the propagation of manipulation through mass media.

In conclusion, vital statistics illustrate a remarkable turnaround in key economic indicators, signaling progress under his administration. However, certain contradictions and concerns arise, particularly regarding the alignment of various objectives and the perceived emphasis on economic solutions over political remedies.

The President’s call for heart cleansing and unity, inspired by Confucian principles, highlights the importance of fostering a shared vision for the nation’s well-being. Despite the accomplishments outlined, challenges remain in navigating political complexities, addressing root causes, and maintaining transparency to win public trust.

The proposed initiatives, including eradicating corruption, social modernization, and economic diversification, reflect the administration’s ambitious agenda. However, the potential contradictions warrant clarification.

The assertion that the economic crisis resolution lies predominantly in economic and scientific solutions contradicts the notion that political remedies are secondary. Analysts argue for a holistic approach where political and economic solutions complement each other, emphasizing the need for effective governance and accountability.

The President’s reluctance to name the people, who are responsible for the crisis, raises concerns. This ambiguity may stem from political considerations or an attempt to garner support from the SLPP.

The reference to manipulation of emotions for political gain highlights the need for strong laws and systems to counter divisive tactics through mass media.

Hence, the President should address the underlying political forces that contribute to the root causes of the crisis. Cleansing hearts is not an economic solution; it is fundamentally a political issue.

(The writer, a senior Chartered Accountant and professional banker, is Professor at SLIIT University, Malabe. He is also the author of the “Doing Social Research and Publishing Results”, a Springer publication (Singapore), and “Samaja Gaveshakaya (in Sinhala). The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the institution he works for. He can be contacted at saliya.a@slit.lk and www.researcher.com)

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President needs to take up challenge of leaving a legacy

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President Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

Even as the date for the presidential elections approaches, there are increased speculations regarding those elections, not only who might win but also whether those elections will be held at all.  There is also a debate being generated whether the presidential elections ought to be held at all.  There are many who feel that President Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to be given more time to take the country to development. United States Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, might be one such. He has described Sri Lanka’s economic recovery as one of the greatest comeback stories in the part of the world he deals with. On the other hand, there are others who argue in favour of abolishing the presidency as soon as possible.  This would also do away with the need for a presidential election to be held.

There is indeed a strong case for the abolishing of the presidency which is generally believed in the country to be an institution that is over-powerful and prone to abuse by those who are elected to it.  This argument has been made into an election campaign theme by some of the past presidential candidates at past presidential elections.  But after they won the elections those who promised to abolish the presidency failed to do so, and instead made strenuous efforts to stay on as long as they could, which explains why the presidency continues to this day. There being little faith that those who win the presidency will wish to abolish it, there is an opinion being formed that the presidency should be abolished before the presidential elections. The fact that the presidential form of government led the country to economic disaster is another reason for the hurry. There is, however, a question as to the practicability of this proposition.

The present system of government is called the executive presidential system on account of the central role in the constitution given to the presidency.  It can be imagined that cutting out this central institution will be like a fatal wound caused to the prevailing structure of governance. It may be argued that through skillful constitutional engineering that the hole caused by the excision of the presidency can be filled.  But the speed at which these reforms can be enacted is questionable in the absence of a political consensus that includes both government and opposition on the issue which is presently not to be seen. If there is to be an abolition of the executive presidency, it is very necessary for there to be consultation with the population and political parties about the new system that will replace the executive presidency. It must be one that meets the expectations and aspirations of the ethnic and religious minorities as well. There is no such consensus at the present time.

UNPOPULAR GOVERNMENT

There have been deliberations on a new constitution and on constitutional reform on many occasions. However, constitutional schemes from the past cannot substitute for the need to consult people and political parties at this time, when circumstances have changed so drastically, having experienced the Aragayala protests and economic bankruptcy. There is also need for recognition that where there is no consensus, as on the solution to the ethnic conflict and the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities into governance, change proceeds painfully slowly.  This can be seen in the change of the electoral system to the provincial councils that commenced in 2017 and has still not been completed with the result that provincial council elections are overdue five years. It is also noteworthy that 36 years after being made part of the constitution, the provincial councils are in abeyance and there is a proposal pending to eliminate their police powers which, in any event, was never implemented. Fast tracking constitutional change does not seem to be an option especially when all eyes are focused on elections.

 Public opinion polls are repeatedly showing that the opposition candidates are ahead in the presidential race by significant margins. If these poll results are anywhere close to reality it can be surmised that the vast majority of people are looking for an election.  They would see that it is an election more than anything else that could dislodge the government which is entrenched in power under the leadership of President Wickremesinghe.  Two years ago the weakness of the government was such that its leading members dared not come into the public as they feared the wrath of the mob.  Some even faced heckling at weddings where people who had come for the happy occasion started hooting those whom they accused of bankrupting the country.  Now they are able to attend public functions without fear and with reasonable confidence that their security personnel can handle any eventuality.

The prospect of losing power is never a pleasing one to political leaders with their sights on power.  Even advanced countries such as the United States have faced this situation.  At the presidential election held in 2020, incumbent president Donald Trump refused to accept defeat and claimed the election was rigged.  The desire of those in power in developing countries would be as strong, perhaps even stronger, as losing power could make the incumbent vulnerable to revenge in which the system of checks and balances fails to protect them.  The prospect of facing an unknown future in the aftermath of electoral defeat would also be unnerving to those in government, especially if the new government is composed of those with a very different political ideology.

MOST INTRACTABLE

The present government is for the most part a continuation of the government that had to face down the protest movement in which tens of thousands of people from all parts of the country participated.  During those halcyon days, protestors young and old from far and near came on foot, on motorcycles, tractor trailers and improvised lorries to be part of a historic revolution they thought was near.  The vision of a “system change” that motivated them to make big sacrifices to come to the various protest sites still lives within them, as indeed it must within all who want to see Sri Lanka politically awaken and rise to its full economic potential which is still a distance away.  The main beneficiaries of the elections to come will be those who best hold out the hope of system change that will eradicate corruption and ensure a fairer distribution of the costs of getting out of bankruptcy.

The opportunity to effect governmental change will come in October when the constitutionally mandated presidential election falls due. Those in the government would prefer if those elections do not take place or are postponed for as long as possible.  In March 2022, the government ensured that local government elections were not held by denying the Election Commission the money to hold them.  The government’s determination not to hold those elections was high. It even disregarded the Supreme Court order to make the money available to the Election Commission to conduct the elections. This was a highhanded act that undermines the principles of democracy itself. There is concern that the presidential election will similarly be postponed on some ground or the other.

However, on this occasion, the President’s media unit has stated that the presidential election will be held within the mandated period and according to the current timeline. It added that the general election will be held next year and financial provisions will be provided for in the 2025 budget.  The government has also stated that the Election Commission is responsible for conducting the elections and the government will be communicating with the Commission as and when required. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also reiterated to a group of MPs who met him recently that the presidential election would be held on time and there would be no abolition of the presidency. Speaking in a statesmanlike mode, the president said, “I have clearly stated several times that I have no intention to put off the presidential elections. Funds for that purpose are there. The talks about attempts to abolish the executive presidency were circulated by the main opposition.”

The president is also reported to have said that “People of this country know better than the opposition that the abolition of the executive presidency cannot be done in a hurry. There is a procedure to do that. We should not fall into their trap. Do not waste your time on this. You speak of the economic revival programme that we are carrying out.” Likewise, President Wickremesinghe can also seek to address the country’s most intractable problem, the ethnic conflict by ordering the full implementation of the 13th Amendment which would make it easier for the victor at the next election to find a mutually acceptable solution. Whether he succeeds or not he could feel contentment that he did what he had agreed and undertaken to do.

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Silence in the classroom: Confronting the dynamics of ‘deficiency’

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by Ruth Surenthiraraj

I remember, with unusually vivid clarity, the first time I really noticed the presence of silence in the classroom. One of the lecturers, who was taking our undergraduate class, had assigned us reading to be done ahead of time, parts of which were quite tedious and had to be read twice/thrice over to be grasped. In true happy-go-lucky undergrad spirit, my classmates and I turned up having ‘skimmed’ the articles and nurturing the fervent hope that someone else would pick up the discussion in the event that any questions were raised. As you would imagine, it went horribly wrong. The lecturer posed a question that required some thinking, and we suddenly and silently went into panic-mode in a bid to offer something akin to an answer. A few of us tried to start things off by giving noncommittal responses in the general direction of the question and were kindly asked to explain ourselves further – at which point we fell silent once more because we felt that we hadn’t thought things through. The lecturer, instead of berating us for not reading adequately or making us feel like we were bad students, simply invited us to embrace the silence so that we could get our thoughts in order.

In recalling this incident, I remember the strong sense of discomfort that we felt as learners. It wasn’t, however, something that stemmed from the lecturer or their handling of what must have been a frustrating situation. Instead, I now read that feeling as the acute discomfort of learners who had been trained to view silence in the classroom as something negative. That incident – apart from giving me impetus to never turn up to my classes without completing my assigned reading – also invited me to begin exploring the role of silence and its presence (or absence) in our undergraduate classrooms.

Although silence in teaching and learning is still fairly under-researched and is rarely a nuanced consideration in mainstream conversations around the dynamics of a classroom, there are still broad arguments that have attempted to imbue silence with meaning. For one, our multiple religious traditions seem to have strong tendencies towards silence as a form of retreat to assist deeper reflection even though these traditions often sit in direct contrast with current trends to be constantly producing and documenting aspects of life. Conversely, there is often a ‘culture of silence’ (much bemoaned by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire) that surrounds those who are socially, economically, and culturally vulnerable – a way in which socialisation teaches people to not interrogate their realities. Linguistically speaking, silence often assists us in distinguishing speech units (i.e., the silence that marks a pause in or completion of an idea/thought), but it can be further categorised as playing various functions in establishing relationships between participants in conversations. The possibilities of interpreting silence are myriad.

In the classroom, however, I think we are often limited to viewing silence as a negative indicator. As educators working with undergraduates, we assume that learners’ silence signals a disinterestedness or a disengagement from the critical approaches that should ideally frame undergraduate classroom discussions. At an even more basic level, we often consider silence to signify a lack of knowledge and we then attempt to fill that assumed void with speech that appears to address this lack of knowledge. As a result, we educators often view silence as a thing to be disliked at best and dreaded at worst. But what could silence really mean in a classroom of learners attempting to engage with new knowledge?

Firstly, it is very likely that the learners in our classrooms are expressing a deep-seated, culturally taught fear: the fear of giving the ‘wrong’ response. Sad as it is, it is still common to find educators who berate students for giving unacceptable answers. Instead of engaging with why the answer might not best reflect the desired response, we often shut students down when they don’t meet our (sometimes undefined) expectations. We rarely realise in the moment, though, that learning is a process in which ‘mistakes’ are as important as so-called successes. In fact, mistakes and errors often pave the way for deeper understanding of how what works and why. When learners begin to internalise the message that they don’t know enough to answer, they will simply opt to remain silent despite having a working knowledge of a subject. On the contrary, our classrooms should be safe spaces for ‘stupid’ or partial answers that encourage the students to reflect on why those responses require more thought.

In a constructivist view, learners are not blank slates which we fill with information: rather, they are intellects with existing knowledge structures (schemas) which are formed based on their experiences in life. When these existing schemas meet new knowledge in the classroom, the learner is required to make some adjustments in order to accommodate the new knowledge. This accommodation requires time and the capacity to be reflective, which in turn enables a more integrated worldview. Indeed, if education is meant to be transformative, repeated opportunities to integrate new and existing knowledge structures must be offered to learners within our classrooms. In short, I believe silence could also indicate an unspoken request for space and time to contemplate the significance of new knowledge. Sometimes, we give our students too little time to fully turn ideas around in their heads before requiring them to respond to us. I’ve observed many good educators allowing their frustration at silence to compel answers from students – resulting in responses that might be superficial rather than actual reflections of learning. A better way to undercut our impatience with silence would be to invite learners to hash out their fledgling ideas among themselves before attempting to articulate a holistic and/or individual response. This preliminary discussion often assists in integrating new and existing knowledge in the relatively safer space of peer groups.

Over centuries, educators have also played directly into the problem of sanitising education – separating theories and practices from the contexts in which they originated or detaching them from the sociocultural impacts they may cause. In turn, learners gain an ‘education’ that is removed from its everyday consequences. This also makes it difficult for learners to assimilate such unrelatable concepts, leading to more awkward silences in our classrooms as they attempt to collect seemingly detached pieces of knowledge.

Finally, silence is further compounded in classrooms where students are expected to respond in their second languages. With increasingly more undergraduate study programmes opting to shift wholesale (and almost overnight, in some cases) to the English medium instruction, many more undergraduates are going to be struggling to articulate their thoughts in a language that is not part of their repertoire. Educators (especially those other than language teachers) must be doubly attentive to these unspoken difficulties when interpreting silence. There are a heartbreakingly large number of stories where perfectly articulate and knowledgeable students are deprived of their classes (not to mention jobs) simply because they have not mastered the art of the second language yet. In wrongly categorising such students as ‘below par’ or not having the requisite ‘skills’, we relegate them as incompetent rather than critique our own skewed standards. I have often admired a student in my class for her comfort with awkward pauses as she attempts to construct a sentence that accurately reflects her thoughts as well as ‘acceptable’ language structures. But this is also possible only because I have now taught myself to never rush learners as they navigate new knowledge in a language that they are not fully familiar with. As a teacher of English as a second language, the tendency is to jump in with the necessary vocabulary so that the silences/pauses cause minimal discomfort to the learner. Yet, how will our learners ever be comfortable with the pauses that are inherent to language use and language learning if we do not (want to) confront our own discomfort with silence?

Learner silence, therefore, could act as a signifier of multiple underlying processes and problems. I am not in any way suggesting that silence cannot be associated with a lack of knowledge or with disinterest. However, to boil nuances in learner silence down to either a lack of knowledge or a sense of apathy regarding their discipline is to view learners reductively; we rob them of their right to be considered and accommodated as complex intellects in our classrooms. In rephrasing our questions (to better shape the silences in our classes) or in simply limiting our impatience at the lack of sound/response, we begin to create an atmosphere that is supportive of deeper engagement with our disciplines.

(Ruth is a teacher of English as a second language at a state university.)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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