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Dr Nihal Jayawickrama

I grew up, spending my childhood, adolescence and early adult life, in the home of a judge who ended his judicial career as head of the country’s highest court. I also had the enviable experience of serving as his private secretary sometime between my graduation and entry into the profession. The life of a judge of that time, as I observed it, is perhaps best described in the words of Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia. The regime imposed on a judge, he said, “is monastic in many of its qualities”. Lord Hailsham, a former Lord Chancellor, described the vocation of a judge as being “something like a priesthood”. Sir Winston Churchill considered that “A form of life and conduct far more severe and restricted than that of ordinary people is required from judges”.

While judges did not isolate themselves from the rest of society, or from school friends and former colleagues in the legal profession, they rarely, if ever, socialized with politicians. They declined to perform the quasi-executive function of serving on commissions of inquiry. In that relatively calm and stable economy, their salaries were rarely increased. They drove, or were driven, to Hulftsdorp in their own cars. They lived in their own homes, except for the Chief Justice who was provided with an official residence.

In the early 1960s, when I was admitted to the Bar, and began practising before the courts of this country, any suggestion that a judge or magistrate might be corrupt would have been so preposterous that, in fact, it was never heard. A strong tradition of integrity underpinned the judiciary at every level. At a time of immense change, both political and social, the judiciary remained constant in its commitment to equal justice under the law.

Of course, the judiciary had its share of problems and its critics. The trial rolls were long; the backlog in the appellate court was enormous. The rules of civil and criminal procedure were Victorian. I recall expressing the exasperation of a starry-eyed young lawyer when, writing the annual report as honorary secretary of the Bar Council, I described the judicial system as an antique labyrinth with tortuous passages and cavities through which the potential litigant must grope, often blindfolded, in his search for justice. From below the Bench, some of the judges seemed short-tempered and discourteous; some seemed lazy – one, in particular, appeared to fall asleep from time to time; and not every judge appeared to be learned in the law. However, it was unthinkable that a judge could be corrupt.


The emergence of judicial corruption

It was some ten years later, in the 1970s, when I was serving as Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and also, ex officio, as a member of the Judicial Service Advisory Board, that I encountered, for the first time, a complaint that a magistrate had accepted a bribe. The complaint appeared to be true. When confronted, the magistrate resigned his office. It was also during this period that I saw and experienced, with considerable unease and sadness, how some serving judges could demean themselves, and the sanctity of their office, in the pursuit of preferential treatment from the executive branch of government. When some of these efforts proved to be rewarding, it was difficult not to become sceptical. It was time for the illusions of youth to disappear.


Conventional bribery

The picture changed dramatically in the 1980s and in the decades that followed. The civil, criminal and appellate procedural reforms of the 1970s which we introduced were repealed and the Victorian laws revived. Thereafter, many a litigant or accused person began to find it more economical to secure the disappearance of a case record or the absence of a witness than continue to retain counsel for prolonged periods when no progress was made in his or her case. Complicated procedural steps meant several gatekeepers requiring payment to facilitate movement to the next stage of judicial proceedings.

In a direct mail survey in 50 Sri Lankan judicial stations conducted by the Marga Institute in 2002, civil litigants, virtual complainants, and remand prisoners reported to having paid bribes to lawyers’ clerks, court clerks, police officers and fiscals. Lawyers reported hundreds of incidents of bribery, the beneficiaries being the same. Several Judges admitted to being aware of such acts of bribery, and added members of the legal profession to the list of beneficiaries. Finally, the Judges identified at least five of their own brethren as bribe takers, three of them being in connection with the delivery of judgments. The report of that survey was published by the Marga Institute under the title: “A System Under Siege; An Inquiry into the Judicial System of Sri Lanka”.


Global phenomenon

Judicial corruption was not a Sri Lankan phenomenon. In Bangladesh, a national household survey revealed that 63% of those involved in litigation had paid bribes to either court officials or the opponents’ lawyer. In Tanzania, a commission of inquiry reported several instances of judicial officers accepting bribes to grant injunctions, reduce sentences or dismiss cases; accepting bribes from advocates to give preferential judgments; and colluding with auctioneers to share the receipts from selling property belonging to litigants. In Uganda, the Chairman of the Judicial Service Commission reported several complaints of judicial officers taking bribes to give bail or judgment. In Argentina, 57% of those polled said that they felt corruption was the main problem with the judiciary. In Honduras, three out of four polled believed the judiciary was corrupt. According to the Geneva-based Centre for the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, out of 48 countries covered in its annual report for 1999, judicial corruption was pervasive in 30 countries.


Undue influence

Corruption in the judiciary is not limited to conventional bribery. An insidious and equally damaging form of corruption arises from the interaction between the judiciary and the executive, as well as from the relationship between the judiciary and the legal profession. For example, the political patronage through which a judge acquires his office can give rise to corruption if and when the executive makes demands on such judge. Similarly, when a family member regularly appears before a judge, or when a judge selectively ignores sentencing guidelines in cases where particular counsel appear, the conduct of the judge would give rise to the suspicion of corruption. So would a high rate of decisions in favour of the executive. Indeed, frequent socializing with particular members of the legal profession, the executive or the legislature, is almost certain to raise the suspicion that the judge is susceptible to undue influence in the discharge of his duties.


The blurring of a critical relationship

In Sri Lanka, a dramatic change in the relations between the judiciary and the executive occurred with the advent of the Executive President, the ultimate source of power and patronage. For example, in 1983, a Judge of the Supreme Court described to a parliamentary select committee his relations with the then President:

“I want to say this. My relations with His Excellency the President have been very cordial. In fact, I know him. I have only met Mrs Bandaranaike for a few seconds in my life. But I have known the President from 1948 and I have had very cordial relations with him. We had a common interest in history. I admire his culture, his refinement, and it was never my intention to do anything harmful to him personally. We have met at several functions at President’s House, at private dinners, and in 1981 he invited me and my wife for his birthday party at President’s House. We were very honoured. My community, my family, are his traditional supporters”.

The same Judge described how he enjoyed the hospitality of a Cabinet Minister:

Thanks to the hospitality of the Honourable Minister of Lands, we were all sent on that wonderful trip of the sites. We got younger. You know, we all went and it was a delightful trip. I wrote and told you about it. Lovely time, delightful! We were hoping we could make it a sort of annual trip.”

He also spoke about a prominent Opposition parliamentarian:

“His step-brother, Mr Michael Dias, has been a friend of mine since he was my tutor in the Lex Aquilia at Cambridge University in 1945-48. However, my friendship with Michael Dias has brought me no advantages. The two brothers are as different as chalk and cheese. I think in 1973, Honourable Minister of Lands, your nephew Upul had that tragic death by drowning. I met you in the funeral house. That was a time when he was turning Hulftsdorp upside down. We had a conversation about that. I think I told you in plain, blunt, Anglo-Saxon what I thought of him. You may remember this. I wish to say that in the 1977 election nothing gave me greater pleasure than listening all night to the Dompe result.”


The blurring continues

The blurring of the critical relationship between the Judiciary and the Executive continued under later Presidents. For example, in 2004, on the eve of the general election, a Chief Justice, reputed for his political sagacity and legal acumen, participated in a religious ceremony in a Buddhist temple together with a Cabinet Minister and several candidates of a particular political party. The television camera constantly focused on the Chief Justice, who was seated at the feet of the Minister (who appeared to be on an elevated seat) during the long programme. Several years after he had left office, the same Chief Justice publicly apologized for not having given the right judgment in a politically sensitive case. “I am very sorry. I am asking the whole country: forgive me”, he was reported as having said (Sunday Times, 26 October 2014).

In 2011, barely weeks after his retirement, another Chief Justice was appointed as an Adviser to the President. When a judge, and a Chief Justice at that, decides to take a great leap from the Supreme Court to the Presidential Secretariat to serve the executive branch at its core, the alarm bells must surely begin to ring. The country was entitled to know, but was not told, whether the Chief Justice had sought this position, or whether the Head of the Government had offered it to him, when and why.

In 2014, yet another Chief Justice travelled from Colombo to the deep south, to join the then President, his immediate family and his siblings, in celebrating the Sinhala and Hindu New Year rituals at the President’s “ancestral home”. Several pictures that were published showed the participants, including the Chief Justice, “attired in white and facing south” feeding milk rice to each other and engaging in other traditional transactions in what was essentially a family occasion.


In the same year, the same Chief Justice joined the President’s entourage (which included Ministers and Members of Parliament) on an official visit to Italy and the Vatican. It was the first occasion when a Chief Justice had accompanied a political leader on a state visit abroad.


Such conduct too, was not peculiar to Sri Lanka. A former President of the Supreme Court of Jordan, speaking at a conference in 1999, provided several illustrations from his own personal experience of this form of judicial corruption. He described how judges were pressurized by executive authorities to render judgment contrary to law; received benefits from the government in the form of gifts in money or in kind; and offers of employment to the judges’ children. He also spoke of victimization when the decision did not accord with the wishes of the executive.


The corrupting influence arising from the interaction between the judiciary and the executive has been documented by a Nigerian jurist. For example, he describes how a newly appointed judge, still undergoing training, was flown by a presidential jet to try a sensitive case of national importance and delivered his judgment by midnight; and how a judge trying a case of an opposition leader said he would need time to consult others before delivering his judgment. In Costa Rica, 54% of those polled believed that judicial decisions were subject to external “pressures”.


Combating Judicial Corruption


In 1997, after almost two decades in academia, I was persuaded by a former colleague at the Commonwealth Secretariat to “come down from the ivory towers” to work at Transparency International in Berlin. That non-governmental organization was then in its formative years, and one of its principal objectives was to identify sectors that were vulnerable to corruption, and then to formulate strategies to combat such corruption. It was there that credible evidence began surfacing of corruption in judicial systems. How should this phenomenon be addressed? Independence had always been considered to be the single fundamental requirement for a national judiciary. Judicial independence is not a privilege of judicial office, but an essential pre-requisite for the protection of the people. How real was that protection if the evidence that was surfacing was an accurate reflection of the state of the judiciary? Was judicial independence being traded for money or other benefits? Was adherence to the principle of judicial independence, by itself, sufficient to ensure the delivery of justice? Was it now necessary to formulate and implement a concept of judicial accountability?


Judicial Accountability


Accountability was not a new or novel concept. It is a constitutional requirement in a society based on the rule of law and democratic principles of governance that every power holder, whether in the legislature or the executive, is, in the final analysis, accountable to the people. Was there any reason why the judiciary, which is entrusted by the people with the exercise of judicial power, should not, individually and collectively, be accountable for the due performance of its functions? The challenge, however, was to determine how the judiciary could be held to account in a manner that was consistent with the principle of judicial independence. My colleague, the late Jeremy Pope, and I agreed that these were issues that were best resolved by the judges themselves.


Judicial Integrity Group


For that purpose, we initiated discussions with a representative group of ten Chief Justices from Africa and the Asia-Pacific region who agreed to meet under the auspices of the United Nations. At that preparatory meeting in Vienna in April 2000, which was chaired by Judge Weeramantry, Vice-President of the International Court of Justice, the Judicial Integrity Group (as this group of Chief Justices is now known) agreed that judges should be accountable to the community they serve through their absolute adherence to a set of judicial values, and that a statement of core judicial values should be capable of being enforced by the judiciary without the intervention of the executive and legislative branches of government. The Group believed that transparency at every critical stage of the judicial process will enable the community, especially through its legal academics, civil society and a free media, to judge the judges.


The Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct


At the request of the Group, I prepared an initial draft statement of principles of judicial conduct, drawing on rules and principles already articulated in national codes of conduct (wherever they existed) and in regional and international instruments. Over the next twenty months, that draft was widely disseminated among senior judges of both common law and civil law systems in over 75 countries. In November 2002, at the Peace Palace at The Hague, a revised draft was placed before a Round Table Meeting of Chief Justices drawn from both the civil and common law systems, at which Judges of the International Court of Justice also participated. The final draft that emerged from that meeting – the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct – identifies six core values of the judiciary: Independence, Impartiality, Personal Integrity, Propriety, Equality, and Competence and Diligence.


In 2006, the Bangalore Principles were unanimously endorsed by the UN Economic and Social Commission (ECOSOC) in a resolution which requested Member States to encourage their judiciaries to develop rules with respect to the professional and ethical conduct of judges based on the Bangalore Principles. Sri Lanka has ignored that request.


Commentary and Implementation Measures


In 2007, at the request of ECOSOC, the Judicial Integrity Group developed a 175-page Commentary on the Bangalore Principles which has since been published by the UN and by national judiciaries in several languages. Sri Lanka has failed to take note of that.


In 2010, the Judicial Integrity Group agreed on Measures for the Effective Implementation of the Bangalore Principles. That statement describes action required to be taken by the judiciary, and the institutional arrangements to be established by the State to secure judicial independence and accountability. Among the latter is an independent appointment mechanism with both judicial and non-judicial members to ensure that persons selected for judicial office are persons of ability, integrity and efficiency. Through the recently enacted 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Sri Lanka has rejected that requirement.




The Bangalore Principles now provide the judiciary with a framework for regulating judicial conduct. It is the global standard. These Principles have been the model for codes of judicial conduct from Belize in the Caribbean to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, from Tanzania to the Philippines, from Bolivia to Jordan. They were motivated by the need to address the phenomenon of judicial corruption. Many judiciaries across the world have profitably employed them to achieve that objective. However, the Sri Lankan Judiciary has chosen not to formulate or to implement a code of judicial conduct to regulate itself.

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by Jehan Perera

A year after the protest movement took off into a mammoth public display of the popular desire for change, it appears to be no more. What appears on the streets on and off is a pale imitation of the mighty force of people rich and poor, from north and south, who occupied the main roads of downtown Colombo for more than three months. The government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe is leaving no room for the people to get on the streets again. This has been through a combination of both efficient and repressive policies that exceed those of the predecessor government.

The government has addressed the immediate causes that brought the people out on to the streets. The crippling shortages of vehicle fuel and cooking gas that caused long lines stretching for kilometers are not to be seen. There is enough to go around now as the demand for these basic commodities has dropped considerably following the tripling of their prices. There is an outward appearance of normalcy that belies the economic difficulties that the masses of people are facing. The three-wheel driver lamented that his monthly electricity bill of Rs 700 was now Rs 3200 which made keeping his refrigerator unaffordable. Government officers on fixed incomes are struggling to survive having pawned their jewellery and mortgaged their lands for survival. Those who can leave the country seem to be leaving.

The government has also shown it is prepared to use the security system to its maximum. This has won some supporters especially among the upper social classes and ethnic minorities who are always worried whether mobs of the under classes will invade their neighborhoods and subject them to looting and violence. After becoming president, President Wickremesinghe showed his resolve in bringing the protest movement to heel by sending the police to break it up and arrest the leaders. Protestors have been warned that their protests should not inconvenience the general public.

Those who do not heed the police guidelines have found themselves being tear-gassed, baton-charged and arrested. In contrast to the heyday of the protest movement a year ago, any voice of public dissent is liable to be quickly suppressed. A case in point would be that of the unfortunate hooter. As reported extensively in the media, a government minister who was laying a foundation stone for a religious shrine was hooted by a businessman who was travelling in his vehicle. The media reported that “the police acted swiftly, pursuing and apprehending the suspect. He will now be produced before the court for obstructing a religious ceremony.”


The contrast with what happened a year ago could not be more stark. The main slogans of the Aragalaya protests was to arrest the rogues who had bankrupted the country and compel them to bring back to the country their ill-gotten gains. The draft Anti-Terrorist law that has been approved by the Cabinet to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act is, in many ways, a more repressive law that will encompass a much wider swathe of social and political life. Clause 105 in it defines a “person” who can be taken into custody under this law to mean an individual, an association, organisation or body of persons.” Readers of George Orwell’s classic novel of authoritarian government, “1984” would feel a chill if that new law is passed when they think of protesting against the government.

A key demand of the protest movement last year was the demand for “system change.” At its core this was a desperate call for a change of government that had bankrupted the country and accountability and punishment for those who had impoverished the people by their mis-governance, corruption and indifference to the people’s plight. Another terminology for “systems change” would be to say that the people called for a new “social contract.” The notion of a social contract between rulers and ruled was developed over four centuries ago in Europe by Enlightenment era thinkers such as by John Locke in England and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France who gave the name “The Social Contract” to his 1762 book.

The social contract theorists argued that people left the state of nature where without government life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (as described by their predecessor Thomas Hobbes). People entered into a social contract with those who would govern them. In terms of the social contract, the people would give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for protection and order by the government. In modern democracies, people elect their representatives who form the government of the day and look after the best interests of the people. But in March 2022, the people of Sri Lanka felt hat their government had not lived up to the social contract and demanded they leave office and return their ill-gotten gains.


Those who continue to come out on the streets in protest demand elections and also demand to know why the government has not made efforts to bring back the money that was stolen. What is visible at the present time is that most of the government members who were responsible leaders of the previous government continue to remain in positions of power, either frontally or behind the scenes. There continue to be allegations of corruption and abuse of power. In one appalling instance, two government ministers resigned from a watchdog committee they were appointed to. They complained that they were not getting the information they required to play their assigned roles.

Sri Lanka has yet to address the monumental failure of government that took place in the early part of 2022 that plunged the country from a middle income level to a low income level. When the people went out on to the streets to protest and call for a “systems change” they were demanding that the government should step down and go. But it did not go and instead re-arranged itself and continues to be in power. Much to the chagrin of the protest movement, the government they wanted to go has grown stronger under the leadership of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and is ignoring the demand for “system change” and those who call for local government elections which are overdue.

Speaking to students at Harvard University last week through the internet, President Wickremesinghe made it known that the government would abide by the Supreme Court’s decision with regard to the elections. A confrontation involving the three branches of government would signify a “systems breakdown” in place of the “systems change” that people fought for a year ago. The president has also taken pride in announcing that the government will soon be passing into law the best anti-corruption legislation in South Asia in parliament soon. If the president’s vision of sustainable political stability and economic recovery is not to be a re-enactment of the Orwellian dystopia of 1984, there needs to indeed be a “systems change”, a plan for the future prepared in consultation with the opposition and civil society and a new “social contract” in which elections would be the first step.

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Free Education, Social Welfare and the IMF Programme



by Ahilan Kadirgamar

Sri Lanka’s seventeenth IMF agreement sealed last week may well prove to be the most devastating one of them all. The reason is that the agreement comes along with Sri Lanka having defaulted on its external debt for the first time in its history. The IMF amounts to being the arbiter of the debt restructuring process with Sri Lanka’s external creditors, which will provide considerable leverage for Sri Lanka to be held accountable to IMF conditionalities.

The fallout of the IMF package will be wide and deep, greater than the Structural Adjustment Programm e with the IMF in the late 1970s, when our cherished social welfare system came under attack. In this Kuppi column, I address some of the dangers facing our education system. Education is inextricably linked to welfare and democracy, and in the years ahead the nexus of the IMF and the current avatar of the neoliberal state are likely to impose an authoritarian regime of dispossession. The future of Free Education in our country now depends on tremendous resistance by our students and teachers along with solidarity from all quarters of the working people.

Welfare and democracy

Social welfare in Sri Lanka reaches back to the 1940s. It included food subsides, free education and free healthcare, which were all universal schemes. The IMF packages and the World Bank programmes since the neoliberal turn in the late 1970s have consistently attempted to weaken such universal social welfare programs in the interest of creating a market economy, including through the commercialisation of education and healthcare. Neoliberal ideology privileges the individual, and by the same token places the entire burden of wellbeing on the individual. As the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—who, along with US President Ronald Reagan, initiated the neoliberal age on a global scale—famously said, “there is no such thing as society”.

This rejection of society is at the heart of the attack on social welfare, as the IMF and World Bank are now in the process of changing the very idea of social welfare itself into a narrow concept of targeted cash transfer programmes. This attack on the social aspect of welfare entails both granting enormous discretionary power to those in power to determine which individuals can obtain minimal support, in addition to the monetisation of such entitlements, which over time would likely be reduced or inflated away.

Historically, universal social welfare came after the policy of universal adult franchise in 1931. Furthermore, universal free education policies, as they emerged in the mid-1940s, were framed in terms of strengthening the ability of Sri Lanka’s citizens to exercise power through their democracy. In this context, today’s attack on universal social welfare is a key part of the agenda of an illegitimate and undemocratic regime in power. Moreover, the regime’s vision of the education system derives from the IMF’s technocratic assumption that the goal should be to create subservient employees for a market economy, rather than democratic-minded people who can become agents of social, economic and political change.

Austerity, dispossession, and resistance

The attack on education is not only ideological, in terms of the neoliberal emphasis on individualism. The austerity measures that are inherent to the current IMF programme are also material. They are bound to reduce the allocations for education. The Government is being forced to find avenues to create a primary budget surplus by next year. This will further lead to initiatives for the commercialisation of education; for example, the expansion of fee-levying programs in the state university system, loan schemes for education, and the initiation of private educational institutions, including private universities.

The logic of the IMF programme and the unfolding developments will dispossess people of one of their most important social welfare entitlements: education. There is already evidence of rising school dropouts, of children not being sent regularly to school, children fainting at school due to the lack of food, and children having to labour for their existence. University students are finding transport costs unaffordable and even lunch packets are becoming out of their reach. These are the consequences of a contracting economy due to the austerity measures that have been imposed. Indeed, our economy has contracted by as much as a fifth over the last few years. The critical gains of social welfare made after the Great Depression of the 1930s in our country are now in danger of being completely rolled back because of the ongoing economic depression along with the IMF programme making it worse.

The dismal prospects for our country can only be addressed by solidarity and resistance. We need to regain our sense of social belonging, which was undone through the very attack by neoliberalism on the idea of society, while taking forward the struggle for democracy. The great struggles last year that dislodged an authoritarian populist president provide hope that despite decades of neoliberal policies, working people’s capacity to envision society, solidarity, and resistance are very much alive.

We are going through the most painful period of our postcolonial history. It is a moment in which, even as our economy is collapsing, our elite are working in cahoots with the IMF and global finance capital, which have achieved a stranglehold on us by leveraging the default and the bankrupt state of our country. In the context of this existential danger, for those of us concerned about safeguarding free education and, for that matter, any meaningful system of education, this time around that struggle must begin from a broader defence of social welfare and democracy.

The author is attached to the Department of Sociology at the University of Jaffna

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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The Box of Delights – II



Seeing through testing times and future

Text of the keynote address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences,

University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.

Sadly, too, the GELT materials we produced are now forgotten, though in the end they were taken up by Cambridge University Press in India and prescribed too at some Indian universities. But in this country producing materials is a way of making money and so, though three years ago the UGC asked about using our materials again, they were prevented from making use of these, and individual universities demanded autonomy and nothing went forward as swiftly as our poor youngsters needed.

Delay also affected the curriculum reform I initiated when I chaired the NIE AAB [Academic Affairs Board]. I had told the then Education Secretary Tara de Mel that we should move immediately, but for once that normally efficient lady was diffident, and said we should wait. Six months later she told me to go ahead, and we did, swiftly, but then Chandrika Kumaratunga lost a year of her Presidency through carelessness and the new President and his Minister simply did not understand the need for continuity, and the vital changes we had embarked on were forgotten.

But Mahinda Rajapaksa and Susil Premjayanth did continue with perhaps the most important initiative begun under Tara—the English medium in secondary schools in the government system. That had begun in 2001, but was sabotaged by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became Prime Minister at the end of that year. But his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, a former Vice-Chancellor of this University, was more enlightened, and ignored Ranil’s instructions that he halt the programme, and it continued. He was lucky not to be tear-gassed, but, in those days, there were some restraints on unbridled authority with the forces then more supportive of alternatives.

But the teacher training programme I had started with support from Paru and Oranee, had to stop. The NIE then took that over and completely destroyed the learner friendly approach we had initiated, with its hierarchy promoting formulas, such as three Ts and then five Es and seven Ks, gloriously asserted in lengthy sentences such as ‘Also the teacher should closely observe the children learning, identifying students’ activities, disabilities, providing feedback, developing the learning capacities of the students and making implements to extend the learning and teaching outside the classroom are some other tasks expected from the teacher.

As I commented on this in English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence?, ‘It might seem churlish to cavil about the two main verbs in this sentence, were this not an instructional guide to English teachers, with three language editors who have doubtless been well paid for their pains, or the lack of them.

Training then was in the hands of the NIE, and the programme began to flounder. But, fortunately, the contract to produce books had been for two years, and Nirmali continued in charge of this, so at least a good foundation was laid, though after that the Ministry and the NIE took over and the usual tedious stuff was reintroduced. Our efforts to introduce wider knowledge, and creative thinking, were abandoned totally, unsurprising given the ignorance I had found in those entrusted with producing textbooks at the NIE (which managed once to produce a history syllabus which left out the French and the Industrial Revolutions in the whole secondary school curriculum). Let me, to prove my point, give you an extract from what the NIE managed to produce

‘Red the story …

Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway have a nice time” bye.

So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys

She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted.

“He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail it’s marvellous”

“Monkey usually do that’

And, so it seems does the NIE, was my comment. Unfortunately, I cannot in a speech make clear the carelessness with regard to punctuation and spelling, but a printed version will show just how appalling the NIE usage of English is and the callousness of inflicting half-baked stuff on our children.

Despite all this English medium has survived, but that it could have done so much better is obvious from the continuing proliferation of private English medium schools. Interestingly, the former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Dharmasiri Peiris, whom I met after many years, reminded me that in the early nineties he had wanted me to work at the Ministry to remedy the situation, but he had abandoned the effort when officials at the Ministry opposed this, understandably so given that I do not tolerate nonsense. And though Tara was made of sterner stuff, and did make use of my services, two changes of regime before things could be consolidated meant that our children still get short shrift as far as English Language Learning is concerned.

I have spoken thus far of English at university level and in schools. I have also worked on English for vocational training, first thirty years ago when the World University Service of Canada commissioned a basic textbook for those starting on vocational training, then more comprehensively when I chaired the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.

Having discovered that what were termed NVQ Levels 1 and 2, supposed to prepare youngsters for vocational training, hardly existed, I started Career Skills courses at those levels, to develop other soft skills and in particular English capacity, and these rapidly became the most popular courses in the system. After all, I had done a trawl and found that parents wanted something for their children to do in the fallow period after the Ordinary Level examination. Uniquely, Sri Lanka wastes the time of its youngsters by delaying the resumption of school, a boon to the tuition industry which embarks on recruitment and hooks youngsters for the next few years.

Needless to say, when I was sacked, the English courses were abolished, and successive Ministers of Education, who now have charge also of vocational education, bleat about the need for more English but do nothing to promote this. Least of all do they think of learning from the past, and far from reinventing the wheel, they simply talk about movement while allowing all means of transport to be dismantled, with parents and children who have been left in the lurch turning if they can to private education, tuition in particular.

As your former Vice-Chancellor perceptively put it, when I was last here, the education system is abandoned by those who have the means to pursue alternatives, and it is only the most deprived who cling to it. And whereas any country with a conscience would do its best by the deprived, decision makers in Sri Lanka do not care about them – like the Mr Lokubandara, who ranted against English in the state system and sent his son to an international school, and then when I reprimanded him told me sanctimoniously that it was his wife who had insisted on that.

Is there then no hope? I fear not, and now I can understand the despair of Mabel Layton in Paul Scott’s brilliant analysis of the failure of the British in imperialism, and her lament that “I thought there might be some changes, but there aren’t. It’s all exactly as it was when I first saw it more than forty years ago. I can’t even be angry. But someone ought to be.”’ I rather fear then that your Vice-Chancellor’s observation will prove even more apposite in the years to come. There was a brief moment three years ago, when covid first hit us, when I thought the system would bestir itself to provide alternatives, but I fear nothing of the sort happened.

But let me end now with what should have happened. Given that the onset of covid saw closure of schools and institutions, there should have been efforts to develop curricula appropriate for a time when face to face contact would not be easy. And this required, as I started by saying, thinking as learners do, and tailoring the content of curricula, as well as systems to convey it, to the abilities of learners, not teachers.

This was particularly important in the context of 2020 in which learners had limited access to teachers. But our decision makers could not think on these lines, nor understand that the key to this was simple materials, that are not just user friendly but that will allow learners to gain not only knowledge but also relevant thinking skills on their own. Provision could and should have been made for guidance, but this had to be minimal, and also provided through small group clusters, where students could learn from each other, in addition to getting guidance at a higher level as available. I recall vividly the brilliant initiative of Oranee Jansz, in insisting that all GELT students not only did a project, but that they dramatized this. This proved a wonderful motivating factor, and students in the remotest of areas worked hard together, and the synergy they developed, to use one of Oranee’s favourite words, led to rapid learning by even those who had been initially very weak.

Such a system was especially important for youngsters in rural communities, and could have been activated in 2020, at a time when communication was difficult, and where the panacea authorities developed, of online contact, was not easy, and in many instances not even possible. But as I have noted, those rural communities are of no concern to our decision makers, whose main motivation is to have their children advance through educational systems different from those the majority of our children have to undergo. They are not at all like Oranee, or one of the academics I remember most fondly from my time at this university, Prof Wickremaarachchi, who started an accountancy course in English medium only, and noted that one had failed as a teacher if one’s students did not end up better than oneself.

To continue, in the midst of a country in a desperate plight, with the positives this university could develop, I will revert to the last time I was here, in December, and highlight again the initiative I mentioned when I began, to work through the national library system to promote English through entertainment for early learners. The project which has been developed suggests at last, after two decades, an effective approach to extending opportunities and means of learning.

This can easily be taken further, at all levels – and work on this has begun – to fill gaps that the state has sedulously ignored for several decades. Costs would be minimal, if only innovators such as the personnel here responsible for the initiative were given a free hand. I can only hope that, with the support of the hierarchy here, and the other players who have combined to take this forward, from the Governor of the Northern Province to the Chairman of the National Library Services Board, that this initiative will lead to the proliferation of user friendly materials and personnel able to use them productively.

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