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Life and Times of Sumi Moonesinghe, business leader extraordinaire

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This is the Afterword of Sumi Moonesinghe’s just-published biography written by Shehara de Silva herself an accomplished business executive

Fire & Ice

It was possibly a little after midnight, at the Supper Club. Circa 1991. It was the year Rajiv Gandhi was killed, the Hubble telescope was launched, and I met Sumi.

Sumi was there with Susil and mutual friends Badra and Kokila Wimalasekera. One of them introduced me to Sumi. By the end of the evening, between the dancing and the drinks, she hired me as her Marketing Director for Jones Overseas. That typifies Sumi. When needed, she can be like quicksilver, decisive and fast to assess a situation. She never walks away from closing a deal, whatever the context.

Anchor — a global case study

Her capacity to make strong and gut decisions are rarely capricious. Her mind has a clarity of purpose. She knows what she wants and she goes for it.

It was a fascinating juncture in her leadership and relationship with the New Zealand Milk Board. Anchor in Sri Lanka was already running in pole position – 70% market share with an 18 % price premium, the only country in the group at that time where Anchor had ousted the world’s biggest food company. Nestle. Nestle, on the other hand, was throwing everything and the kitchen sink at her to oust Anchor. Nestle had entered Sri Lanka in 1906 and was a 100-year-old heritage brand.

Nestle added 26 vitamins into its local Nespray, hired high-powered lobbyists, developed salacious campaigns about contaminated milk, and ran mega ad budgets on a ridiculous value proposition that “Local cows have better grass fodder than New Zealand!” It was, in fact, a classic panic reaction of how not to fight a market leader.

Sumi was unfazed. She had a knack of finding the right people for the right job – this was her ‘A team’. She trusted them, empowered them and resourced them.

Mehra Abeygunawardene’s meticulously executed sales strategy became the playbook for the Middle East and Asia. JoJo Kanjirath had made Anchor the country’s biggest milk brand and Sumi had a brilliant stroke of intuition in backing Rosy Senanayake (who became Mrs. World). She positioned her as the face and mother figure, retaining her across time which showed her ability to stay the course, despite her legendary impatience. She knew if something was working well, not to change it. It’s a fine line, but business acumen is founded on timing and Sumi knew when to move and when to hold on and milk an opportunity. Pun intended!

Unconsciously, they had stumbled upon the fact that the masses believed that Rosy’s fairness came from drinking Anchor, and though at no point did the messaging ever state this, the subliminal correlation stuck. Coupled with a constant messaging of quality premium value and that ‘mother knows best,’ Anchor was the poster brand for brand building.

Sumi then took one of those courageous calls so rare amongst business leaders. To do the morally right thing and not fret the business impact, she partnered UNICEF on a public awareness series conceptualised by Shaan Corea, commissioning the country’s first public service awareness campaign on the importance of breastfeeding and neonatal tips for mums. It was another stroke (unintended perhaps but spot on) of marketing brilliance.

It was a double whammy. Rupavahini gave her free prime time exposure that far exceeded her production costs, achieving huge brand saliency. The consumer trusted the brand because it told them the right thing – breastfeed as long as you can. And they remembered with gratitude the multitude of tips they got in their early postnatal days and migrated in the six months or first year when mother’s milk was no longer available.

It was around this time that I entered the business. Anchor was already a well-established market leader and she took another risk, by deciding to grow the market in a generic ‘Drink more milk’ campaign. Marketing textbooks would advise against generic market development campaigns by premium segment players with a dominant market share (Anchor’s 70% as price leader was itself a market anomaly).

Theory said this strategy would grow competitor share at the bottom end. Never one to fear the path less travelled, she threw the rule book out and backed a campaign that grew the market for the lower masses. The highly-creative cartoon-style milk campaign ended up sweeping the SLIM Campaign of the Year Award and the Effies.

Anchor’s brand building success will certainly go down in the annals of local marketing case lore, and in Fonterra’s case its global strategy, as a benchmark. I recall Unilever Brands Director Amal Cabraal asking me to send him a case study on Anchor that he could highlight at a Unilever global conference. We were a small country but we were the pole star. Sumi was treated like royalty by the main Board of Directors of New Zealand Milk Products (NZMP), all of whom were her friends by now. There was deep and abiding respect and trust.

In the meanwhile, The Maharaja Group, which owned the franchise, acquired the Pepsi franchise. Jones Overseas, under Sumi, oversaw and funded the Pepsi sales force until it got on its feet. Various other distractions were tossed in – a cough syrup and a cookie business from Australia to boot. She succesfully brokered a joint venture with New Zealand Milk, and Jones Overseas which was renamed New Zealand Milk Products Pvt. Ltd (NZMP).

Around this time, Sumi raised her game. She decided to grow the lower end of the market with the introduction of Ratthi, a risky move that stretched the trust of the New Zealanders. It is a testament to the faith they had in her that they let her get away with it.

To differentiate and consolidate the new brand and ensure there was no cannibalization from Anchor, Sumi needed a rear guard attack on Lakspray. She brought in a UK-manufactured milk powder which had 26% milk fat (less cream, less quality) to attack the number two value leader Lakspray. Lakspray was a leader in the tea and coffee segment at a different price point.

She had initially decided to push it unbranded to tea and coffee shops in plain foil packs. It failed to gain traction. This was the juncture at which I entered the business. I asked her if she had the guts to go the whole hog and really build a new market segment rather than try a covert unbranded attack. She didn’t flinch or waver, but flagged me on. Thus, Ratthi was born. Today, it has totally ousted Lakspray, dominating this segment.

In the interim, she decided to extend the Anchor brand architecture into related dairy categories. She began drawing plans to introduce yoghurt and butter lines and constructed a factory, doing it in record time. This once again, became a blueprint for NZMP and Fonterra, the umbrella corporate brand name that New Zealand Dairy Board used in other parts of Asia. She eventually facilitated a complete acquisition of NZMP by Fonterra in 1996, making it a full multinational, and the Maharaja Group exited the business.

The philanthropist and friend

I had been with her under two years when I needed to leave Sri Lanka and support my husband who was taking up a posting in Kuala Lumpur. Sumi was sad to see me go at such a critical juncture. But she was ever so supportive, offering to open many doors with her legion of contacts in the region.

This again was one of Sumi’s most defining features. Her largeness of heart and spirit. I saw her offer an entire sugar trading business, which was immensely lucrative, to one of her Anchor team salespersons. Her cup was overflowing; she had made enough. So she gave that business away, lock, stock and barrel for love and friendship – with nothing expected in return.

Most recently, I was with her one day when a call came through; Teddy, one of her old team members, had had a heart attack and needed urgent surgery. She called his daughter and said, “I’m transferring a million rupees, get the surgery done.” She saved his life.

Decades on, she crossed over from Singapore especially to meet me in Kuala Lumpur. She heard I had hit one of those rough patches. My husband was tail-ending a long battle with Alzheimer’s, my youngest was doing her A/Levels going to one of the most expensive British schools in Kuala Lumpur, my son was at university in London, and although I had a plum job as Country Head of Interbrand, the world’s premier brand consultancy.

I was faced with a moral dilemma. There was some distrust that had developed between the local equity partner, the Chinese entrepreneur and Group Chairman who had brought me into Malaysia and his Regional Director and JV partner. It was a typical multinational strategy of playing around with transfer pricing, keeping most of the business within the Singapore and Japanese regional offices. I had decided to leave rather than be disloyal to my former boss. However, my daughter’s education was being paid for by the company and pulling her out of school could jeopardise her A/Levels.

I had bounced my concerns off Sumi; as a former boss she knew that loyalty scored high in my playbook. In her characteristically generous and impulsive style, she came over from Singapore and told me, “Never fear the future. Don’t worry, this will pass. You will fly high again. I admire what you are doing for your husband and holding the family together.” She left me an envelope, making me promise not to open it until she left.

In it, was a note which said: “Consider this a belated thank you for helping me on my journey towards success. With love and gratitude,” and a cheque covering an entire year of my daughter’s schooling! What was amazing was not that she offered to pay the fees, but her sensitivity to my pride and ego, framing it as a reward for work done. In fact as I tried to return it, she blithely said, “Think of it as a delayed bonus!”

(Shehara de Silva is a Non-Executive Director of Keells Food and the former Marketing Director at New Zealand Milk Products (Sri Lanka).

(To be continued next week)



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Features

A devils’ drama in power politics

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President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did say with pride the government’s decision to set up 100 new police stations, at his inaugural speech at the opening of the new session of Parliament.

There may be cause for presidential pride in having many more police stations, but the recent records of police activity, especially on matters relating to public security, does leave much to be desired of the Police.

The reports flowing in about the hand grenade found at All Saints’ Church, Borella – Colombo, do raise many questions about police activity: Is it inactivity or directed activity on this matter? The limited time it took to search  for the person who placed this grenade, the first arrest in this regard – the sanchristian of the same church; the Church’s own revelation of the longer CCTV on the same day, with a different player in this grenade match, and the police arrest of that person too; and the stories of weapons or fire-toys found in the home of a retired doctor, who is now said to be the brain or strategist behind this grenade match, is rapidly unfolding into a drama of political direction, where the police is playing more than a lead role!

The All Saints’ Church is considered a holy shrine by those who attend religious services there, and those who come there to appeal for the blessings of saints, and God, too. But who would ever have thought that such a place of worship would be the defining authority on how many matchsticks a box of matches would or should have?

The Cabinet Minister in charge of Police was also heavily involved in this All Saints’ show piece – from matchsticks to joss-sticks and sellotape – and the ethnicity of the first suspect, too. As the country moves into the coming disasters on the economic and service fronts, as the dollar disaster keeps rising with Ajith Nivard Cabraal’s blessings, we may well see the All Saints being moved into an All Devils drama, with whatever dramatic expertise that key politico-police authorities possess!

President Gotabaya certainly has a way of his own. He is so fully supportive of his green agriculture programme. His desire for green is certainly not to do with his liking the UNP, although Ranil W may be supportive of any such moves.  But his continued support for green agriculture does raise questions about his memory capacity. Has he forgotten all the problems and the near disastrous situations that his green-agro policy did push this country into?

Does he know nothing of what his blanket ban overnight on agrochemicals did to the agricultural sector?  Has he not been informed of what this country paid to the shipload of Chinese fertiliser, which our own analysts found to be contaminated? Is he not taking any action against the officers of a state bank who signed a Letter of Credit, without the necessary information on financial security?

This is certainly playing with a green ball that gathers all the dirt on the field and giving all strength of profit to the Chinese player!

The President did say he would submit to Parliament the recommendations of the Expert Committee appointed to help draft a new Constitution. That means he has some faith in the Parliament of the people. That’s good. Let’s wait and see how this goes on.

What raises many problems is that he was so uninterested in the findings of the Special Committee appointed by him to study the gas disaster, caused by the gas dealers. Was he so ignorant or uninformed of the repeated and continuing blasts of gas cylinders, the deaths caused to mothers and children, the injury to gas users, and the huge damage to homes?  When will this Parliament have a proper debate on the gas catastrophe, as it may on recommendations of the Expert Committee on the new Rajapaksa Constitution?

The President’s speech was short. It was good, because the problems this government has caused to the country, since his election as President, and the huge election of a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which has given more than Green Agro Power, would not be a good, lengthy exercise.

Rajapaksa Governance is certainly calling for major changes in our political thinking, and system of governance. Making it even more brief would be of more service to the country and the people, than what the Family Power nor Pavul Balaya is doing today.

Even with the many twists of the current police exercise, and the rise of the new All Devils Drama that is unfolding, let’s hope the Rajapaksa Power Play gets run down to its end very fast!

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Features

‘Sensuality Hospitality’

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BY Srilal Miththapala

From time immemorial the female form has been exploited for diverse reasons, to achieve a wide variety of outcomes by various cultures, individuals, groups, tribes and business organisations.

At the same time, women have always been aware of the immense power of their sensuality, and how it can be subtly used to further their ambitions.

The tourism and hospitality is not an exception in this context, where a woman’s presence in the service delivery/customer contact points usually has a strong positive impact.

This discussion tries to analyse this phenomena in an objective manner, with special emphasis on how localised cultural contexts affects it, and the resulting implications

Women and sensuality

Sensuality is about ones sexual feelings, thoughts, attractions and behaviours towards other people. Sensuality is diverse and personal, and it is an important part of who you are. And manifests in various ways such as body language, tone of voice etc.

Many In today’s world believe that a wide variety of expressions of female sensuality can be empowering to women when they are freely chosen. It can also be utilised by women to further their personal ambitions and goals.

History is full of such examples. The very origin of humanity may have been vastly different if Adan did not succumb to Eve’s ‘charms’ in enticing him to eat of the forbidden fruit.

Delilah enticed Samson to reveal the secret of his brute strength, at the behest of the Philistines.

Eva Duarte, was an illegitimate child with dreams of stardom. She met rising political star Juan Perón in 1944 and unabashedly charmed herself into his life, ending up as the First Lady of Argentina.

Cleopatra is cast as the ultimate femme fatale, whose influence supposedly ruined many a good man’s career, with she herself succumbing to the complicated web she wove.

And Harry Belafonte summed it all up in his famous song “Man Smart, Woman Smarter”-

“And not me but the people they say

That the man is leading the women astray

But I say, that the women of today

Smarter than the man in every way”

All these examples are of women who have leveraged their sensuality in a rather ‘aggressive’ fashion for personal gain, which often had them labelled as promiscuous, flirty and slutty, and looked down upon.

However in todays ‘sexually liberated’ world, the feminist movements have successfully transformed this thinking by radically removing the arbitrary shackles prescribed by tradition. Today a woman who is aware of her sensuality, and confidently carries it, is considered an emancipated person.

However when a woman’s sensuality and form, is used to achieve some results by a third party, implicitly or explicitly, it could be considered a form of exploitation.

Women in Hospitality and Sensuality

‘Sexual hospitality’ was an ancient custom whereby the host provided a hostess from his household to the male guest for their pleasure.

The Himba tribe of Nigeria, are known to practice the Okujepisa Omuka tradition, which involves a man giving his wife to his visitor for sexual entertainment and pleasure.

While such actions do stem from cultural norms, there are other numerous examples where there is an aspect of domination, where women are forced or coerced to provide these services, rather than of their own free will.

However in today’s commercialised and highly competitive hospitality industry, a women’s sensuality has become a commodity employed to attract customers, although it may not be officially endorsed.

When women and girls are repeatedly objectified and their bodies hypersexualised, the media contributes to harmful gender stereotypes. In a study of print media, researchers at Wesleyan University found that on average, across 58 different magazines, 51.8 percent of advertisements that featured women portrayed them as sex objects.

The hospitality industry today, not only legitimises and reinforces these historical gender stereotypes to some extent, but also eroticises hospitality, albeit in a subtle manner. Almost always front-end customer contact staff are attractive, well-groomed and well attired women. An establishment will go to great efforts taken to design ‘eye-catching’ uniforms for frontline female staff. (This is more prevalent in resort hotels in the Asian region, which are seen to be more exotic destinations) .

The hospitality industry is a “looks” industry, in which women are expected to use their appearance as part of the service experience. Restaurants often have strict grooming and uniform rules, requiring employees to maintain certain “looks.”

There is no doubt that women in the hospitality industry do brighten up and add colour to the industry by their sensuality, charm , physical form …call it what you may. Ask any hotelier and he will conform that the charming smile of a girl at the front esk has neutralised many a guest complaint!

This in turn often attracts sexists remarks and sexual innuendo from customers, which are possibly relatively ‘mild’ and female frontsline staff usually learn to cope with. ( “The food is as good as you” and “Are you on the desert menu? Because you look yummy.”)

However this environment of the hospitality industry which to a certain extent ‘accepts’ this status, could also lead to other forms of more damaging issues.

Women in Hospitality-The Sri Lankan context

Women in the industry

Women’s under -representation in the labour market is high in Sri Lanka. The population comprises of 52.8% females but when it comes to labour force participation their representation is only 35.6%, which is the lowest in South Asia (Department of Census and Statistics – Sri Lanka, 2014).

Howev, Sri Lankan females are among the most literate in South Asia, and the country tops the sub-continental rankings for female literacy. According to the University Grant Commission of Sri Lanka is the only country in the region to produce more female graduates from its local universities.

The Sri Lanka Institute of Tourism and Hotel Management (SLITHM) – Colombo School in 2017 had a representation of only 21% of female students, 12 % in Kandy Hotel School and only 6% in the Anuradhapura Hotel School. Similarly the three privately managed hotel schools namely Mt. Lavinia Hotel School, The Winstone Hotel School and William Angliss Hotel schools representation is 11%, 10% and 24% respectively.

Sri Lanka’s overall female labour force participation is lagging behind many Asian nations. Presently, Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation rate is around 35% compared with male participation rate of 75%

Despite its importance to the economy (was the third largest foreign exchange earning Industry before CoVid), Sri Lanka’s tourism industry and its growth was facing several constraints, among which the lack of skilled human resources is prominent.

However, in contrast to the high levels of female participation in the tourism industry worldwide (about 54%), albeit with some regional differences, women are highly underrepresented in Sri Lanka, with females accounting for less than 10% of the workforce.

The reasons for this are varied, and often based on cultural issues and norms. Jobs in the industry are considered to be socially unsuitable for women, especially for single females, and are often associated with

safety issues (sexual harassment),

poor prospects of career advancement

lack of job security

poor retirement benefits in relation to the public sector;

long/late working hours and shift work (no flexibility)

sub-standard working environments and facilities.

dress code

Some of these are definitely perceptions perpetuated by the media. Consequently, parents and husbands have discouraged their female children from pursuing a career in the hotel sector.

According to a World Bank study on women’s participation in the Sri Lankan labour force, 85% of the respondent stated that women are likely to leave their job in tourism after marriage.

Sexual Harassment

From the aforementioned reasons that women shun the tourism industry, sexual harassment at work is perhaps the most contentious issue.

In a wide ranging study published by Hospitality Management Degrees Net, it is stated that one in every ten women in the hospitality industry in the world, has faced some form of sexual harassment, with restaurant and frontline staff reporting more incidents. The type of harassments ranges from sexist remarks (87%), sexual innuendo (84%), and inappropriate touching (69%). The larger proportion (80%) are from other male co-workers and customers (78%)

In Sri Lanka, there are no specific studies done on the sexual harassment in tourism industry, but there is considerable literature on the general female workforce in Sri Lanka.

However, the same aspects are prevalent in the local tourism scene with restaurant and the housekeeping staff most prone to such issues. The most common acts of harassment were obscene language, sexual jokes and sexually suggestive comments.

In a Sri Lankan context more women in junior positions in hospitality experience sexual harassment which indicates that it has to do with both gender and power issues. With low levels of education, they are less confident than other employees when dealing with difficult people in positions of power.

There are also instances reported of subtle ‘sexual bribery’ where certain ‘favours’ can be demanded by those in higher management positions in return for job related rewards.

However, without specific information it is difficult to comment about the Sri Lankan situation. But definitely harassment is often ignored or taken to be ‘part of the job’, by both the targets of the harassment, and the co-workers who witness it. Unfortunately in the hospitality industry it is taken as the ‘norm’ and exposure to unwanted sexually related attention is considered to be part of the job (Hoel & Einarsen, 2003).

When compared to actual number of complaints on sexual harassment from the employees of the tourism sector to other main sectors, it is seen that complaints received from tourism sector is much lower than some other sectors where the females dominate in numbersss. (such as the apparel industry)

Conclusion

There is no doubt that women play a vital role (knowingly or unknowingly) in marketing and promoting a hospitality establishment through their own sensuality. However this subtle ‘making use’ of women to promote the business can lead to enhanced issues related to sexual harassment to them, both from within the establishment (co-workers) and from without (customers).

This can be managed if there is a good open and transparent work ethic and culture, where professionalism and the dignity of labour is respected.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317289094_Hostage_to_hospitality_Is_there_a_relationship_between_’sexual_hospitality’_and_sex_in_commercial_hospitality

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_sex_tourism

https://historyofyesterday.com/the-culture-that-offers-free-sex-to-house-guests-4d770e59f5b9

https:// Importance-of-women-to-Sri-Lanka-s-economic-prosperity

So Sri Lanka; More like, So Where are all the Women in the Hotel Industry?

https://hospitalitymanagementdegrees.net/features/sexual-harassment-in-hospitality

https://www.thefocus.news/travel/sexual-harassment-sri-lanka/

D A C S & Mendis B.A.K.M. Women in Tourism Industry – Sri Lanka Silva (2017)

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Museums through Prof. Thapar’s eyes

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Dr. Roland Silva Memorial Lecture:

By Uditha Devapriya

On Thursday, 27 January, Prof. Romila Thapar will deliver the Dr Roland Silva Memorial Lecture to the National Trust of Sri Lanka. Prof. Thapar will be speaking about the museums in India, charting their evolution from private collections to public displays and placing them in the context of similar institutions from other colonial societies.

Museums formed a crucial part of the colonial project, aiding administrators, officials, scholars as well as nationalist elites in their reconstructions of the countries they lived in and governed. Not surprisingly, after Independence the role of such institutions changed. Prof. Thapar would be discussing this aspect as well along with their potential to bring the historian and the social scientist together and their contribution to society.

The event will be the 141st such organised by the National Trust, as part of its Monthly Lecture Sessions. Originally held on the last Thursday of every month at the HNB Auditorium in Colombo, these lectures have brought in various scholars from fields connected to the study of history including archaeology, architecture, and ornithology. The shift online during the COVID-19 pandemic did not bring them to a halt: while the trustees held 10 online lectures in 2019, they held eight in 2020 and another 10 in 2021. Since 2015, moreover, these lectures have all been uploaded online free for everyone and anyone.

The brainchild of two of Sri Lanka’s finest archaeologists and scholars, the National Trust of Sri Lanka celebrates its 17th anniversary this year. Its objectives include the identification, documentation, protection, and conservation of the country’s heritage, defined in terms of physical objects like historic buildings, monuments, artistic and cultural works, as well as intangible artefacts like rituals, customs, and beliefs. More importantly, it seeks to inculcate an interest in these matters among ordinary people.

There it has more or less been doing what such organisations should be doing. The contemporary notion of a National Trust first came into being in late 19th century in Britain, with the establishment of a National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Founded as a not-for-profit association in 1895 and incorporated by an Act in 1907, it has since become the largest conservation charity in Europe. Its aim has not just been to save important sites from destruction, but also to open them up for public enjoyment. More than 125 years later, it has evolved into a fully-fledged institution, overseeing more than 500 historic sites, 250,000 hectares of land, and 780 miles of coastline.

Since then similar institutions have sprung up elsewhere. In India, a National Trust was established as a registered society, a corporate body with its legal personality, in 1984. Today that country is home to more than one such society: the International National Trusts Organisation lists three, including the Indian Trust for Rural Heritage and Development. In other countries these organisations serve different functions: the Yangon Heritage Trust, for instance, focuses on urban heritage, while the Siam Society also focuses on the natural sciences. Whatever function they serve, the International National Trusts Organisation lists more than 80 of these institutions, emphasising their common inheritance.

Though the need for a National Trust had been felt for some time in Sri Lanka, nothing was done about it until Roland Silva and Senake Bandaranayake intervened in 2004. The concept papers reveal that a great deal of thought went into the founding of the organisation. Initially conceived as the “Sri Lanka National Heritage Trust”, it later transformed into the National Trust for Cultural and Natural Heritage. The concept papers tell us that from its inception, much emphasis was placed on the notion of intangible cultural heritage, based on UNESCO’s classification of customs, traditions, and beliefs as enshrined in a landmark treaty, the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, in 2003.

At its inception on May 27, 2005, the National Trust counted 11 founders, including Silva and Bandaranayake as well as Ashley de Vos. To oversee its activities, seven committees were formed; another committee to oversee the management of the society, came into being in 2010. Arguably, the most important of these, the Scientific Committee, branched out to eight sub-committees, dealing with areas such as monuments and sites, architectural conservation, and industrial heritage. These, not surprisingly, reflected the expertise of its founders; since their formation, they have brought together a wide group of scholars, from art historians and architects to musicologists and archaeologists.

Today, the Trust engages in several activities, and not just lectures. In 2006 it organised an inaugural tour to the Botale Raja Maha Viharaya and other areas of historical interest in the region; due to the pandemic, it has not undertaken any historical tours since 2019, when it sponsored a visit to Jaffna. It also took up several conservation projects, one of them involving the Portuguese Fort in Malwana and another Joseph Lawton’s photographs of various national heritage sites. The latter has proved useful to the researcher and archivist of 19th century British Ceylon. These projects, in turn, led to two audio-visual productions: an exploration into the history of Sinhala music based on a lecture by Tissa Abeysekara, and a similar project about the evolution of music theatre in Sri Lanka.

Perhaps, the Trust’s most important contribution has been its publications. About 20 of these have been done so far. Foraying into different fields, they have spurred interest among scholars and readers alike.

These titles include Senake Bandaranayake’s and Albert Dharmasiri’s Sri Lankan Painting in the 20th Century, Neville Weeraratne’s The Sculpture of Tissa Ranasinghe, Nishan Perera’s Coral Reefs of Sri Lanka, Gehan de Silva Wijeyaratne’s Birds of Sri Lanka, and Shanti Jayewardene’s Geoffrey Manning Bawa: Decolonising Architecture. Reasonably priced and available at leading bookshops, they underline the need to go beyond just coffee table publications of general interest.

Elsewhere, National Trusts have become a gauge of a society’s intellectual activity. In that regard the Sri Lankan National Trust may have much more potential. Though these tours, lectures, and publications have contributed a great deal, they have not been met with adequate levels of interest. Ambitious as these have been, they have not succeeded in gleaning a response commensurate with the Trust’s objectives.

In this, of course, the Trust is not to blame: there is just so much an institution can do. Yet when one considers that the British National Trust claims a membership exceeding 5.4 million, while its counterpart here claims fewer than 600, one realises the depths to which scholarly activity in Sri Lanka has fallen.

That tells us as much about our people as it does about our intelligentsia. Of late, one leading academic institution after another has been swept up by the rigours of politicisation. Scholars have increasingly turned into yes-men. Original research has become a thing of the past. What little intellectual activity there is now is underfunded and overstretched.

If Sri Lanka is to compete internationally, it must produce scholars capable of taking it to the world. Such individuals cannot thrive in a culture that rewards obeisance and acceptance over scrutiny and critique. This does not apply to politicians only, of course; people have contributed to such a state of affairs as well. In other countries, non-specialists rarely, if ever, have the last word over experts. In Sri Lanka, however, they exercise a more formative influence on the public than do professionals. This can only end badly, for everyone.

It’s not unfitting, then, for the National Trust to have chosen someone like Romila Thapar for this year’s inaugural lecture. Professor Thapar is not just the leading historian in India; she is also one of its most outspoken intellectuals. Of late, she has come out into the open, emphasising the need for nuance and rationality in the study of history.

There she has had to face a situation not too different to what we are facing: nationalist extremists have more or less monopolised discussions, turning the study of the country’s past into debates over who should be determining its future. Lost in such debates is the point that we are what we make of ourselves, that we invent the customs and traditions which we believe define us, and that these must always be placed in their historical context.

The National Trust obviously has a role to play in all this. We are caught in the midst of a severe crisis, and economic problems have taken precedence over everything else. Yet, there probably has been no better time to raise these concerns, to talk about them, to make it easier to understand our past. This is something the Trust’s founding members, especially Senake Bandaranayake and Roland Silva, engaged induring much of their lives. It is the legacy the Trust is heir to, the legacy it bears today. If it cannot live up to its own inheritance, no one can.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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