CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Personal Connections at the Mount
My Confession 11, published with the title of ‘The Greatest Love’ last week in the Sunday Island, resulted in more than the usual number of comments on social media. I was particularly happy to receive the following message on LinkedIn, “Fantastic article. I love the ending poem of the article dedicated to “the greatest love”, your mother. So touching and reminds every reader of the warmth and leadership role of a mother. Although, today is the day dedicated to all fathers, your article covers not only the great adventures and love of the hotel, but more importantly what a key role parents play in fostering children.” This message is very special to me because of the writer. He is Mr. Sanath Ukwatte, the Chairman of the Mount Lavinia Hotel (MLH) Group.
I met Sanath for the first time in his father’s office at MLH in early 1985. His father, Mr. U. K. Edmund, was one of those humble Southerners who came to Colombo and built significant business empires in mid-20th century Ceylon. He was a visionary business icon. After running the business of the Ceylon Government Railway’s entire catering operation, he built one of the two largest breweries in Ceylon, Three Coins. He purchased MLH in the mid-1970s, and expanded the great hotel while maintaining the early 19th century architecture. In early 1985, soon after I returned to Sri Lanka after completing my MSc in International Hotel Management at the University of Surrey, UK, I received a telephone call from the veteran hotelier Prasanna Jayawardene, who was the General Manager of MLH. He wanted me to join MLH as the Deputy General Manager, and wanted me to meet the owner and his young son, who was learning his father’s business.
At the end of the interview, Mr. U. K. Edmund stated decisively in Sinhala, “You are hired. When can you start work?”. I told him that I also have interviews with John Keells, Le Meridien, Oberoi and Coral Gardens Hotel; therefore, I needed a little time to decide. At that point, Mr. Edmund told me: “OK, go to all those interviews and see what happens. We will offer you much more than any of the others!”. I finally had job offers from all five companies, accepted the offer from John Keells and became the General Manager of their two largest resort hotels – The Lodge and the Village in Habarana. Sanath kept in touch with me, and offered me the post of the General Manager of MLH in 1988. Eventually I left a good job in London to accept Sanath’s generous offer on an expatriate contract for three years. Being the General Manager of MLH, was my last job in Sri Lanka, and easily the most memorable in my 50-year career in hospitality.
A Waiter at the Hut
During the 1972/1973 tourist season, four of my batch mates from the Ceylon Hotel School (CHS) and I continued to enjoy our work at MLH. Doing our co-op (in-service) as trainee waiters, we hardly made any tips serving the fixed four course dinner menu. Soon after the dinner service, we volunteered to work at the Little Hut, the famous night club at MLH. As tips were great at the Hut, we even did a couple of extra hours, without overtime wages. We also liked the live bands that played there. I always treated the hospitality business the same way as show business. One day I was happy when a top musician performing at the Hut, Ishan Bahar, asked me, “With your afro hairstyle, you look like a musician, would you like to sing in a band?” After work, around midnight while walking to the bus stand, we sang the top hits of the day that were played at the Hut. Inspired by Ishan’s comments, I tried to imitate Johnny Nash, and sang very loudly, but badly:
I can see clearly now the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way…
Although I could not sing well, years later, I produced a series of popular stage music shows with choreographed dance routines, set changes and special effects, at hotels and BMICH, the national conference centre of Sri Lanka. At the finale of one of those shows in 1980s, Ishan Bahar called me on stage and presented a token of appreciation, painted by him and signed by all the musicians who performed at that show. In the early 1990s, as the General Manager of MLH I convinced Ishan Bahar, to return to limelight as the special guest artiste at the Hut at prime time on Saturday nights. Thank you for the music!
After the tips
I quickly got interested in optimising my tip earning potential. More than the desire for making money, it was somewhat of a competition within myself. I started observing experienced waiters who made lots of money through tips. Most of them had good social skills and knew how to up-sell. I learnt those skills very quickly. I started recommending lobster to customers who were thinking of shrimp, Champagne to customers who were thinking of wine and fillet steak to customers who were thinking of beef stew. It worked most of the time. I also identified high spending customers and became friendly with them, while memorizing their favourite drinks and dishes. Most of the experienced full-time waiters were from villages which meant that they were not very fluent in English. That provided the trainee waiters from CHS a slight unfair advantage when promoting and up-selling products to European tourists.
MLH at that time had a very colonial style hierarchy with several levels of employee meal rooms. Although we were trainee waiters, because of our CHS connection we were treated a little differently. For example, we were not sent to the common employee canteen in the basement for our meals. We were served our meals at a comfortable clerical staff meal room on the first floor. I was always uncomfortable with this preferential treatment. I was keen to avoid any jealousy from the full-time employees who were helping us to learn the profession. Therefore, ignoring advice from a couple of my CHS buddies, I addressed some of these senior waiters as ‘aiyya’ (elder brother), ‘uncle’ or ‘boss’. They liked that as I was showing them respect.
One thing I learnt quickly is that to up-sell food and beverage, one needs good product knowledge. When we were not too busy, I commenced studying the cocktail lists, wine lists and à la carte menus. I sought Chef Publis’s help in understanding some of the dishes I was not familiar with. He was always very helpful and friendly, and went into detailed explanations in Sinhala. All of these efforts made me a better waiter who earned lots of tips. Every night during my commute to home, I would sit at a back seat on the top deck of a red double decker to count my tips. When I went home, I announced my successes to my mother. I soon kept a target for each month and recorded daily tip earnings on a handwritten sheet. For my first month at MLH, I reached my target of Rs. 1,000 in tips. Considering that my salary for the same month at MLH was only around Rs. 100, my tip earnings were a lot of money at that time.
A Workers’ Strike
One afternoon when five of us arrived at the hotel for our shift, we were surprised to see most of the staff outside the hotel shouting slogans against the management. They were aggressive. Even the employees who were usually very friendly with us looked and sounded angry and unfriendly that afternoon. I realized how peer pressure can change attitudes of some people, very quickly. Owing to the support of the socialist government of Sri Lanka at that time, the left-wing trade unions controlled by the LSSP, were very strong. A union delegate ordered us to go home and said, “We will not let you go into the hotel today. Until the management changes their unfair rules, we will close MLH!”
My batch mates and I were scared, but I gathered some courage to inquire the reason for this sudden strike. The American General Manager had insisted that all staff wear Hyatt uniforms, which included trousers and shoes. In his mind, maintaining Hyatt standards, at any cost was a top priority. Unlike now, most employees coming from villages had never worn western clothes. They wore sarongs and slippers, and never in their life wore a pair of shoes. That day the lesson I learnt was that managers must balance corporate standards with practicality, while understanding human challenges.
This lesson helped me to avoid a major strike in Jamaica in late 1990s when the union there refused to wear a section of Le Meridien uniform, as it reminded them of the dark days of colonial slavery. My superiors in the corporate office of Le Meridien in Paris insisted that corporate standards must be maintained at any cost. I disagreed and was able to eventually change the corporate policy in recognition of the cultural challenge.
I told the chief union delegate in the middle of the MLH 1972 strike, “We simply cannot refrain from working today. We are students and not members of your union. If we don’t work today, most likely we will be expelled from CHS.” He disagreed. After further negotiation he asked me to come down to the employee quarters with him and meet with the union leader for a one-on-one meeting. I met a powerful leader of LSSP trade union. His name was D.G. William who later became an LSSP Senator. His commanding personality and his booming voice, made me very nervous. However, with a brave face I narrated my rationale. He listened and thought for a while, before telling the chief union delegate, “This boy has a reasonable point.”
He then ordered the delegates to let five of us to proceed to MLH to work. That was my first experience of situational leadership. That afternoon we worked very hard as there were not enough employees to serve the guests in a hotel that was full. The strike was settled just before dinner service. The management gave in. Those employees who were uncomfortable wearing trousers and shoes were allowed to continue working in sarongs and slippers.
Decades later I did an assignment for another great hotel in Sri Lanka of the same vintage as MLH, the Galle Face Hotel. My three-month long assignment there was as the Consultant to then Chairman, Mr. Cyril Gardiner. My client made the arrangement to convert the board room of the hotel as my temporary office. This board room had been re-named by Mr. Gardiner, after one of the greatest trade union leaders of the country – late D.G. William.
Communication the key to representative government
By H. A. J. Hulugalle
The theme is “Social Communications and Youth.” I take social communication to mean the exchange of ideas between different segments of society.
For representative government, there has to be communication between the rulers and the ruled. For rural development, there has to be communication between planners and the peasants. Domestic harmony postulates communication between the older and younger members of a family. Communication between the teacher and the taught is the essential condition of education at school and university. Different communities live in amity when good communication enables them to understand each other’s problems.
The communicators are our pastors and masters, politicians, journalists, filmmakers, broadcasters and other manipulators of mass media. The health of a society demands that they fulfill their functions with intelligence and integrity.
Youth comes into this, because the future is theirs. In their time, they will not only handle the means of communication, but also determine its content.
One of the problems of today, in all countries is youth unrest. Sometimes, but not always, this is the outcome of imperfect communication. The young are impatient with parents, and other elders who will not or cannot understand their aspirations and yearnings. There is a generation gap. To the young people, if they stop to think, life must be more baffling than it was to an older generation. So much is changing around them including media, methods and goals.
Those of us who were able to acquire a knowledge of English had our windows open to the world. In this, young people today are impeded. Ambitious programmes for mass education fail for practical reasons. The temptation to act first and think later is common in newly independent countries. What is good is often scrapped because everybody cannot have it.
Without the religious motive, dedicated teachers are becoming fewer. Schools are ill-equipped, class rooms are crowded and suitable books in the national languages are not available. Students are herded into universities even when they do not possess the basic qualifications. The majority who follow arts courses are not interested in higher education or in the life or the mind. All they want is a job. And they cannot get this because the instruction they receive and the examinations they pass are not relevant to the conditions of the country or the kind of work they may hope to get.
As an American writer has said: “My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the college and the university fail to educate their students because they have long since ceased trying to do so.”
How can these facts of life be communicated to the student before he enters the university, and even more important, to the parent who impoverishes himself to give his children “higher education?”
Communication between government and the population at the grass-roots level will always be weak and generally ineffective until, in the words of the Donoughmore Commission, there is drive at the centre and demand at the circumference. The importance of communication for sound local government and economic development need not be stressed.
Every inducement should be offered to children to acquire a working knowledge of the three languages used in SriLanka. It does not require unusual intelligence to do so. Most traders use the three languages freely. In the long run, the people will adopt what is most useful for education, culture and the market place. For the present, the important thing is to be able to communicate freely and get rid of prejudice.
As for the training of youth for the communications industry – press, radio, films, etc – some have a special knack; others acquire it by persevering effort. A good liberal education, wide reading and the ability to convey one’s thoughts easily are useful assets. A pseudo-intellectualism is a counterfeit gimmick. A good journalist is always involved: he participates and is not merely an observer of the human condition. As such, he cannot forget his responsibility to be truthful and fair.
Walter Lippman, one of the most respected journalists of our time, says: “As the Free Press develops, as the great society evolves, the paramount point is whether, like a scientist or scholar, the journalist puts truth in the first place or in the second. If he puts it in the second place, he is a worshiper of the bitch goddess success. Or he is a conceited man trying to win an argument. In so far as he puts truth in the first place, he rises towards – I will not say ‘into’ but ‘towards’ – the company of those who taste and enjoy the best things of life.”
It is possible that the Press, like the pulpit and preaching hall, is too obsessed with politics, thereby distorting values. It should, as far as it is within its power, encourage readers to think for themselves rather than make confusion worse confounded. The appetite of the captive audience for political trivia grows with what it feeds upon. The dialogue should be a quest for truth and not to stir emotions and prevaricate.
To survive, the Press, like other forms of private enterprise, must make money. It seeks to cater to the dangers in going too far in this direction.
Henry Luce, the founder of the Time magazine, one of the most successful publishers of the century, has said: “The first and principal danger of the Press that gives the people what they want is that there is no significant restraint on vulgarity, sensationalism and even incitement to criminality. The second danger, which is perhaps even more insidiously deleterious to the public taste and morals, is the fact that there is in this situation an enormous financial incentive to publish twaddle – yards and yards of mediocrity, acres of bad fiction and triviality, square miles of journalistic type.”
These are warnings which anyone entering the professions connected with mass media should never forget. While good, clear fun is necessary for the entertainment of the masses, there are enough serious problems to engage the best minds of the younger generation who can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before them and benefit by maintaining standards.
(Courtesy Catholic Messenger)
They do it differently…
Duos are there, aplenty, especially in this pandemic scene, but what Michelle and Chanitha do together, as a husband-and-wife duo, is totally different.
This has, no doubt, paved the way for their success, as entertainers, in the entertainment scene, in the Maldives.
Michelle and Chanitha are from Sri Lanka and have been performing, in the Maldives, for the past two-and-a-half years, and, they say, it has been a very fulfilling experience, especially seeing guests enjoying their music, and complimenting them, as well, for their professionalism.
Right now, they are based in a tourist resort and have been doing that scene for the past two years, as the resort’s house band.
“We had the privilege of entertaining guests at the resort’s Christmas Dinner dance (2019/2020) and also ushered in the New Year at two grand New Year Eve dinner dances (2019/2020), at the same resort,” said Michelle who, incidentally, happens to be the daughter of Melantha Perera.
Michelle went on to say that as their music is wide and varied, they also did the Valentine’s dinner dance (2020/2021), and also functions, connected with Women’s Day, and weddings, as well.
The duo’s repertoire is made up of over 600 songs, and they do pop, jazz, RnB, rock ‘n’ roll, rock, blues, and lots more.
“We both sing, harmonise, and Chanitha plays lead guitar standard solos,” said Michelle, adding that their music has been very much endorsed by guests and the bouquets that have come our way have been very gratifying.
Critical thinking and the ‘value’ of university education
By Harshana Rambukwella
‘Critical thinking’ is a term that has become ubiquitous in both general and higher education discourse. One sees this phrase appear frequently in educational policy statements. Many who speak of education reform see it as a key skill that education needs to foster. Those who see education primarily as a tool of producing a productive workforce or ‘human capital’ also see it as a positive attribute. However, there is little clarity about what ‘critical thinking’ means. For many involved in education policy-making it seems to mean something like problem-solving ability and the ability to make reasoned judgments – a so-called ‘higher order skill’ in Bloom’s Taxonomy (a hierarchical categorisation of skills developed by an educational psychologist in the 1950s and widely utilised worldwide). There is a significant body of scholarly literature on higher education and the need to foster critical thinking. This literature tells us that the ‘industry’ needs critical thinkers and that often our universities and undergraduate programmes are failing to produce such thinkers. Critical thinkers we are told will make better doctors, better engineers, better lawyers and a host of other ‘better’ professionals.
But to be ‘critical’ can and does have many other meanings. If we move from the adjective ‘critical’ to the noun ‘criticality’ things begin to become fuzzier. The dictionary definition suggests that criticality is something of great importance, that it is a point at which a physical material like a chemical becomes unstable, that it is an orientation to life which promotes questioning and criticising what you observe in the world and so on. It is this fuzzier meaning of the word ‘critical’ that interests me. Critical thinking, unfortunately, like many other concepts which have a long, complicated and radical intellectual history have been tamed and domesticated when they enter mainstream education discourse.I have been personally puzzled when educators talk glibly about ‘critical thinking’ when all their actions mark the very absence of such a critical spirit or orientation. For instance, within the University system I have been at many forums where we discuss the ever-increasing student load with little or no matching investment or expansion of human or physical infrastructure. On many occasions these discussions veer toward how we can use innovative teaching methods, alternative assessment strategies and other innovations to bridge the gap between increasing student numbers and the inadequacy of resources. It is very rarely that our faculty boards or senates take this question to the next level. Why are we getting increasingly larger numbers? Why is the state investing less and less in higher education? Why is an institution’s contribution to education measured in terms of student output? Clearly there is a larger fundamental set of questions about the nature and purpose of education that need to be asked. However, these questions often become marked as ‘political’ or ‘ideological’ and many educators see their role as one of avoiding such ‘politics’ or ‘ideologies’ and instead focus on the ‘practical’ aspects of education.
My submission is that a similar evacuation of the political and ideological aspects of critical thinking happens when we bring it into the curriculum and the classroom. The notion of criticality dominant in mainstream education is heavily appropriated by neoliberal thinking. In this version of criticality students are trained to practice a form of emotional self-surveillance that passes as critical thinking. It ultimately leads students to be conformist and feel guilty about their inability to be ‘productive’ members of society. Take for instance, the practice of ‘reflective thinking’ that has gained much currency in teacher education. To be a reflective practitioner in this understanding is to constantly think about how to be a ‘better teacher’. Are my methods adequate? Am I practicing learner-centered approaches? How good are my lesson plans? The casualty of such thinking is often politics and ideology. Very rarely do we compel our students or teachers/lecturers in training (student teachers), to think about how unequal and classed out education systems are. It is rarely that we speak openly or think about the sexism, classism and even racism of what passes as educational content. By reducing the notion of ‘criticality’ to a ‘skill’ (one among many other ‘productive’ skills that are supposed to be given to students to make them employable) ,a delusion is created that critical thinking is being promoted.
As opposed to this commodified and toothless notion of criticality are the meanings of ‘critical’ that lie on the fuzzier margins of the word. In western philosophical thought ‘critical’ is a term that can be traced from the thinking Socrates, for whom it meant a radical questioning of what appears normal and normative, extending through thinkers such as Erasmus, Thomas Moore, Bacon, Descartes, Russell extending into figures like John Dewey whose thinking has also played a major role in contemporary education philosophy. While the names I have invoked cover a vast range of philosophical orientations and what I am doing here is a kind of gross glossing over of different philosophical traditions, one thing in common here is a radical spirit of questioning the normative. This does not mean that all these thinkers rejected the normative or what was accepted in their societies but their understanding of norms was always tempered by a critical spirit that questioned before acceptance.
This brings me to the notion of ‘value’ in the title of this essay. In his 1997 book The University in Ruins, Bill Readings observes that ‘value’ in the new ‘corporate University is determined by accountants rather than philosophers. This pithy statement captures the dilemma of critical thinking I have been outlining above. Appropriated by a mainstream discourse of education, which in turn is heavily informed by neoliberal values, critical thinking has lost it philosophical edge – its value today lies in its ability as a skill that will provide a competitive advantage in the employment market. Reading’s book as a whole is about this neoliberal transformation of the higher education sector. What he outlined in the 1990s was a process that was gathering pace in Euro-America where modern Universities were increasingly turning both in terms of their administrative structure and in what they taught and how they defined themselves. The ‘ruins’ the title refers to is the notion of a classical university as a site of critical philosophical thought – a site from which to question the normative. In Sri Lanka what we see today is a particularly intense form of this emasculation of the notion of the classical university. Sri Lanka is fast becoming what I would call a ‘frontier market’ of higher education. State policy is guided by a highly impoverished vision about producing ‘employable graduates’ and deregulating the higher education sector so that more and more profit-making entities that offer degrees can be established. Value in this new university culture lies in the numbers of graduates that are produced and their prospective employability. Critical thinking, as I have explored in this essay as a whole, is understood in equally impoverished terms. I offer no ‘practical’ solutions to this dilemma but make these observations in a somewhat polemical style to provoke discussion and debate.
Harshana Rambukwella is Professor in English and Director of the Postgraduate Institute of English, the Open University of Sri Lanka.
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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