Connect with us


President Premadasa, a committed human dynamo



Excerpted from the Memoirs of Chandra Wickremasinghe, Retd. Addl. Secy, to the President

I moved to the President’s Office as Additional Secretary to the President in February 1989. It was indeed a pleasure to work with my good friend KHJ Wijeyadasa who was as enthusiastic a workaholic as President Premadasa. Wije, was a proven, well seasoned administrator, who had shown his administrative ability as GA and in other responsible positions he had held in the public service. But his exceptional organizational prowess was brought out, I think, when the late PM Sirima Bandaranaike assigned him the daunting task of setting up the Land Reform Commission, vesting around one million acres of plantation lands in the State, virtually overnight. Wije, set about this enormous task with alacrity and had within a matter of months, taken over the entire extensive acreage and set up alternative managing Corporations/Boards, thereby ensuring a smooth transition from private to public ownership of all these broad acres across the island. He was at the helm of this gigantic undertaking till the advent of the new political dispensation in 1977.

I was privy to a memorable episode which I feel merits being fully recorded here, as it shows how high level decisions, affecting the history and the future of the country, are being made by certain Executive Presidents. I recollect vividly ,how President Premadasa strode into Wije’s room around 8.30 pm while the results of the 1989 General Elections were being announced. He sat at the head of the table with Mrs. Premadasa seated at the other end, with Wije, the late Gamini Iriyagolle(who was a close confidante of the President), Addnl. Secys. MBC de Silva, Neville Piyadigama and myself seated on either side.

President Premadasa then said “We will now appoint the Cabinet”. We hardly had time to recover from the shock when he said that he does not want to take over Defence as he dislikes getting involved in fighting wars. As I had been in the Defence Ministry, I knew the grave implications of the President not taking up the Defence portfolio and immediately pointed out that under the Constitution the President while being the Head of State and Head of the Govt. was also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and it was mandatory for the Defence portfolio to be under him. With both Wije and Gamini endorsing what I said, President Premadasa agreed reluctantly to have the Defence portfolio and to leave the warring part in the hands of Ranjan Wijeratne.

It was in this manner that the entire Cabinet was selected by President Premadasa. I will limit myself here to recounting the manner in which two particularly surprising decisions he. When it came to the appointment of the Prime Minister, everyone’s expectation was that it would be Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali. All this was belied by President P, when he calmly said ” You know, our DB Wijetunge is very popular, no? He is liked even by people in the Opposition. Everyone speaks well of him. He is the best person for the job”.

Then again,when it came the selection of the Health Minister, President P. said with a straight face, (his very words) ” Renukata dang ingrisi hondata kathakaranna pulluwang ne. Mekata honda eya thamai”. President Premadasa had his own mind and made the selections of individual Ministers for the new Cabinet, exactly as he wanted them to be placed. After selecting the Ministers to head the new Cabinet portfolios, the President directed ,Wije , MBC, Neville and myself to immediately get down to the business of assigning subjects and functions to the newly created Ministries, with Nalin Abeysekera, the Legal Draftsman, assisting us in this exercise. The five of us had to literally work round the clock for two full days to make doubly sure that there were no overlaps of these subjects spilling them over into other Ministries, with related subjects. This was no easy task as the subjects and functions assigned to a particular Ministry, had to be determined, making them into a perfectly integrated whole. Wije had to constantly consult the President whenever certain doubts arose in making these allocations.

During his tenure in office as President, the Presidential Secretariat became the hub of administrative governance. Each Additional Secretary had to oversee six Cabinet Ministries. No Minister could submit a Cabinet paper on any important project without first obtaining clearance from the President. Each Additional Secretary had to study the Cabinet papers relating to the Ministries he was overseeing and submit them with appropriate recommendations to the President via Secretary/President. This only meant that in effect the entire system of governance was highly centralized, with all important policy matters having to be first cleared by President Premadasa before they could be submitted to Cabinet. Although Secretary/President and the four Additional Secretaries to the President had to work at a cracking pace to keep up to the near impossible deadlines given by the President and the exacting efficiency levels expected by him, it was nevertheless a satisfying experience as we knew the impact we were having on policy making and implementation, at the highest level.

Furthermore, Additional Secretaries had to take turns to attend the weekly Cabinet Meetings and brief the President on the concerned Cabinet papers, whenever the need arose. I for one, and I am sure the other three colleagues of mine will concur with me in this, found it easy to work at the Presidential Secretariat as all the Secretaries to Ministries and other high level officials were only too eager to co-operate with us in getting things attended to expeditiously.

As is was overseeing the Ministry of Lands from the Presidential Secretariat, I was selected along with Secretary/Lands for a study tour of the United States in September 1991 on the “Establishment of Wild Life Trusts for Wild Life Conservation.

President Premadasa was a person of incredible verve and energy who brooked no opposition and who wanted the assignments given to Ministers and Officers done in double quick time. The expenditure aspect did not bother him overmuch, as long as the work was completed to his satisfaction. His pet projects were primarily, the ones carried over from his days as Minister of Housing and included the upgrading of sub-standard housing in the city, the construction of lower middle class and middle class flats in the city, rural housing, Gam Uudawa housing schemes, development of infrastructure facilities including rural roads and water supply projects etc.

Coming from lower middle class beginnings, on becoming President, Mr. Premadasa made the alleviation of poverty and the upliftment of the poor one of his abiding concerns. He was ambitious and had exceptional political acumen to match this overweening ambition. He also had in good measure, the rare knack of making the poor identify themselves with him to the extent of making them believe that any successes achieved by him were their successes as well! He did try his utmost, to improve the lot of the poor, the dispossessed and the deprived. He perceived the latent potential of the poor to move forward on their own, given the correct incentives. He combined State assistance with self –help inputs by the beneficiaries themselves, particularly in his rural housing programmes. This was to instill in the poor the virtue of self-reliance.

His Gam Udawa Exhibitions were often itinerant carnivals and florid extravaganza, which however enabled him to get closer to the rural masses while providing them entertainment of a kind rarely seen by people in rural areas. He even toyed with the idea of enlisting the support of the JVP and even of the LTTE to join him in his relentless endeavours to put the country on a course of rapid development rivaling the new Asian Tiger economies. These earnest efforts however turned out to be fruitless and abortive in the case of the JVP who were hell bent on pursuing its own destructive path of murder and mayhem in pursuit of the anachronistic ideological goals set out by them, for which folly, they paid a terrible price by having their youthful members ruthlessly decimated by a Govt. that had totally exhausted it’s patience with them. Despite the hopes of peace and the end of hostilities with the LTTE that President Premadasa had fondly entertained, the former had him assassinated with characteristic insouciance.

President Premadasa known for berating public servants for not living upto his expectations, strangely enough, never upbraided me although I may have failed occasionally to meet his exacting deadlines for completing assignments given to me. All Additional Secretaries had to keep a cracking pace to keep to the near impossible deadlines set by him. On many occasions Neville Piyadigama and I worked till the wee hours of the morning, writing his speeches to be delivered at meetings the next day. He always gave instructions for dinner to be supplied by Galadari Hotel, next door.

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


From a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ to a ‘Dialogue among Civilizations’



A meeting of BRICS leaders

As the world continues to reel from the ‘aftershocks’ as it were of the October 7th Gaza Strip-centred savagery, what it should guard against most is a mood of pessimism and hopelessness. Hopefully, the international community would pull itself together before long and give of its best to further the cause of a political solution in the Middle East.

It is plain to see that what needs to be done most urgently at present is the prolongation of the current ceasefire, besides facilitating a steady exchange of hostages but given the present state of hostilities between the warring sides this would not prove an easy challenge.

Considering that there are no iron-clad guarantees by either side that there would be a longstanding ceasefire followed by a cessation of hostilities, what we have at present in the Middle East is a highly fraught ‘breather’ from the fighting. There are no easy answers to the currently compounded Middle East conflict but the external backers of the warring sides could alleviate the present suffering of the peoples concerned to a degree by bringing steady pressure on the principal antagonists to drastically scale down their hostilities.

If they mean well by the communities concerned, these external backers, such as the US, as regards Israel, and those major Middle Eastern states backing Hamas and other militant groups, would set about creating a conducive climate for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

De-escalating the supply of lethal military hardware to the warring sides is a vital first step towards this end. External military backing is a key element in the prolongation of the war and a decrease in such support would go some distance in curtailing the agony of the peoples concerned. The onus is on these external parties to prove their good intentions, if they have any.

Meanwhile, major states of the South in increasing numbers are making their voices heard on the principal issues to the conflict. One such grouping is BRICS, which is now featuring among its prospective membership, countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran. That is, in the foreseeable future BRICS would emerge as a greatly expanded global grouping, which would come to be seen as principally representative of the South.

Since the majority of countries within the BRICS fold are emerging economies, the bloc could be expected to wield tremendous economic and military clout in the present world order. With China and Russia counting among the foremost powers in the grouping, BRICS would be in a position to project itself as an effective counterweight to the West and the G7 bloc.

However, the major challenge before the likes of BRICS is to prove that they will be a boon and not a bane to the poorer countries of the South. They would be challenged to earnestly champion the cause of a just and equitable world political and economic order. Would BRICS, for instance, be equal to such challenges? Hopefully, the commentator would be able to answer this question in the affirmative, going ahead.

The current issues in the Middle East pose a major challenge to BRICS. One of the foremost tasks for BRICS in relation to the Middle East is the formulation of a policy position that is equitable and fair to all the parties to the conflict. The wellbeing of both the Palestinians and the Israelis needs to be staunchly championed.

Thus, BRICS is challenged to be even-handed in its managing of Middle Eastern questions. If the grouping does not do this, it risks turning the Gaza bloodletting, for example, into yet another proxy war front between the East and West.

Nothing constructive would be achieved by BRICS, in that the wellbeing of the peoples concerned would not be served and proxy wars have unerringly been destructive rather constructive in any way. The South could do without any more of these proxy wars and BRICS would need to prove its skeptics wrong on this score.

Accordingly, formations, such as BRICS, that are genuine counterweights to the West are most welcome but their presence in the world system should prove to be of a positive rather than of a negative nature. They need to keep the West in check in the UN system, for example, but they should steer clear of committing the West’s excesses and irregularities.

More specifically, the expanding BRICS should be in a position to curtail the proliferation of identity politics in the present world order. The West has, thus far, failed to achieve this. The seismic convulsions in the Gaza re-establish the pervasive and pernicious presence of identity politics in the world’s war zones, so much so, one could say that US political scientist Samuel Huntingdon is being proved absolutely right in his theorization that world politics over the past 30 years has been essentially a ‘Clash of Civilizations’.

After all, current developments in the Middle East could be construed by the more simple-minded observer as a pitting of Islam against Judaism, although there are many more convoluted strands to the Middle East conflict than a violent clash of these religious identities. More so why the influence of identity politics needs to blunted and eliminated by the right-thinking.

One way in which this could be achieved is the through the steady espousal and practise of former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’ theory. While the existence of a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ cannot be denied on account of the pervasive presence of identity politics the world over, the negative effects of this brand of politics could be neutralized through the initiation and speeding-up of a robust dialogue among civilizations or identity groups.

Such an exchange of views or dialogue could prove instrumental in facilitating mutual understanding among cultural and civilizational groups. The consequence could be a reduction in tensions among mutually hostile social groups. Needless to say, the Middle East is rife with destructive politics of this kind.

Accordingly, there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way cultural groups interact with each other. The commonalities among these groups could be enhanced through a constant dialogue process and the Middle East of today opens out these possibilities.

Continue Reading


Their love story in song…



The duo in the company of Dinesh Hemantha and Jananga

It’s certainly encouraging to see Sri Lankan artistes now trying to be creative…where songs are concerned.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen some interesting originals surfacing, with legendary singer/entertainer Sohan Weerasinghe’s ‘Sansare,’ taking the spotlight.

Rubeena Shabnam, Sri Lankan based in Qatar, and Yohan Dole, living in Australia, have teamed up to produce a song about their love life.

‘Adare Sulagin’ is the title of the song and it’s the couple’s very first duet.

Says Rubeena: “This song is all about our love story and is a symbol of our love. It feels like a dream singing with my fiancé.”

Elaborating further, especially as to how they fell in love, Rubeena went on to say that they met via social media, through a common friend of theirs.

The song and video was done in Sri Lanka.

Rubeena and Yohan with lyricist Jananga Vishawajith

“We both travelled to Sri Lanka, in August this year, where we recorded the song and did the video, as well.

‘Adare Sulagin’ was composed by Dinesh Hemantha (DH Wave Studio, in Galle), while the lyrics were penned by Jananga Vishwajith, and the video was handled by Pathmila Ravishan.

It is Dinesh Hemantha’s second composition for Rubeena – the first being ‘Surali.’

“It was an amazing project and it was done beautifully. Talking about the music video, we decided to keep it more simple, and natural, so we decided to capture it at the studio. It was a lot of fun working with them.”

‘Adare Sulagin,’ says Rubeena, is for social media only. “We have not given it for release to any radio or TV station in Sri Lanka.”

However, you could check it out on YouTube: Adare Sulagin – Rubeena Shabnam, ft. Yohan Dole.

Rubeena lives and works in Qatar and she has been in the music industry for almost five years. She has done a few originals but this one, with Yohan, is very special to her, she says.

Yohan Dole resides in Australia and is a guitarist and vocalist.

He has a band called Rhythmix, in Australia, where they play at various events.

He has been doing music for quite a while now but doing an original song was one of his dreams, he says

Rubeena and Yohan plan to get married, in December, and do more music together, in different genres.

Continue Reading


Mathematics examinations or mathematics curriculum?



Some people say that it is not necessary for a Grade 10 student to buy an ordinary scientific calculator because they have smartphones with built-in calculators. If not, it is easy to install a calculator app on mobile phones. A smartphone should not be used as a calculator during a mathematics test or a mathematics exam because it can be used for cheating. In the UK and other developed countries students have to keep their smartphones in their school bags or in their lockers outside the classroom during mathematics tests and exams. 

by Anton Peiris

R. N.A. De Silva has, in a recent article, provided some useful tips to students as regards preparation for mathematics examinations. Trained teachers and graduates with professional qualifications are familiar with this topic.  All mathematics teachers have a duty to help the students with revision.

The more important task is to salvage the Sri Lankan O/Level mathematics students from the abyss that they have fallen into, viz. the implications and the retarding effect of the use of obsolete Log Tables. The Minister of Education, Senior Ministry Officials and the NIA are oblivious to the important and interesting things that have happened in Grades 10 and 11 mathematics in the UK, other parts of Europe, Japan, Canada, China and elsewhere. They have been like frogs in a well for almost half a century. Here are two important facts:

1. O/Level mathematics students in Sri Lanka are 46 years behind their counterparts in the UK and in other developed countries. Ordinary Scientific calculators were introduced to the O/Level mathematics classrooms in the UK way back in 1977. Prior to that those students used Slide Rules to facilitate their mathematical calculations. Ordinary scientific calculators give the values of Sine, Cos, Tan and their Inverses, Log, LN, exponential powers, square roots, squares, reciprocals, factorials, etc., at the press of a button, in addition to performing arithmetic functions. There is no memory to store mathematical formulae, etc. It is an invaluable tool for solving sophisticated and interesting mathematical problems and also problems in ordinary statistics. It has paved the way for achieving high standards in O/Level Mathematics in those countries.

Just compare the maths questions in the Cambridge IGCSE or the London O/Level Maths Exam with the questions in the Sri Lankan O/Level maths exam and you will see how far our students have fallen behind.

The Cambridge O/Level examination was replaced by the GCSE and the IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education) a few decades ago.

I am not referring to Programmable Calculators and Graphic Display Calculators (GDC), meaning devices with a small screen that can display graphs, perform statistical calculations like the Z- Score for large samples, show Matrix calculations, provide solutions to algebraic equations, etc., at the press of a few buttons. GDC is a compulsory item for A/Level mathematics students in the UK and in all developed countries.

Some teachers say that by using ordinary scientific calculators in Grades 10 and 11, students will not acquire the ability to carry out mental arithmetic calculations. This is not true because

(i). Calculators are introduced in Grade 10. Maths teachers have five years of Primary School and three years of Middle school (Grades 7, 8 and 9) i.e. a total of eight years to inculcate sufficient mental arithmetic skills in their students before the calculators are introduced in Grade 10!

(ii). In the IGCSE and in the London O/Level Mathematics Exams calculators are not allowed for Paper 1. Preparation for Paper 1 requires the acquisition of mental arithmetic skills, e.g., one lesson per week in class in Grades 10 and 11 in which calculators are not allowed. Sri Lanka could follow suit.

Some people say that it is not necessary for a Grade 10 student to buy an ordinary scientific calculator because they have smartphones with built-in calculators. If not, it is easy to install a calculator app on mobile phones. A smartphone should not be used as a calculator during a mathematics test or a mathematics exam because it can be used for cheating. In the UK and other developed countries students have to keep their smartphones in their school bags or in their lockers outside the classroom during mathematics tests and exams.

An ordinary scientific calculator costs less than 10 % of the price of a smartphone.

Sri Lankan students in International Schools sit the IGCSE or the London O/Level mathematics exams where ordinary scientific calculators are allowed. These students have made big strides in learning mathematics by using the calculators. Only the rich can send their children to International Schools in Sri Lanka. Millions of poor Sri Lankan students do not have calculators.

Our Minister of Education has announced that the government was planning to transform the country’s education system by introducing ‘’STEAM’ (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics). Maintaining high standards in O/Level Mathematics is the key to a successful implementation of STEAM programme. Unfortunately, the Education Minister and top education official are not aware of the fact that the only way to improve the standard of O/Level Mathematics is to do what the developed countries have done, i. e., revamping the O/Level mathematics syllabus and to introducing the ordinary scientific calculator in Grades 10 & 11. If they do it, it will be an important piece of curriculum development.

Bear in mind that the UK and other developed countries have taken another important step during the last 20 years; they have introduced the Graphic Display Calculator (GDC) to the O/Level Mathematics class and by providing a Core Exam and an Extended Exam. In the Cambridge IGCSE Mathematics Exams, Papers 1, 3, and 5 constitute the Core Exam. Papers 2 ,4 and 6 constitute the Extended Exam. Calculators are not allowed in Papers 1 and 2.

The Core Exam is a boon to students who have very little or no mathematical ability. More on this in my next article.

By using Log Tables, our Sri Lankan O/Level students have to spend a lot of time to solve an IGCSE (Extended Syllabus) exam problem or a London O/Level mathematics exam problem because the use of Log Tables takes a long time  to work out the Squares, Square Roots, exponential powers, reciprocals , LN , factorials, etc., and that is tedious work while their counterparts in developed countries do that in a few seconds by pressing a couple of buttons in an ordinary scientific calculator.

The Calculator has given them more motivation to learn mathematics.

O/Level students in the UK have graduated from the ordinary scientific calculator to the Graphic Display Calculator (GDC) thereby improving their ability to solve more sophisticated, more important and more interesting problems in mathematics, statistics and physics. Sri Lankan O/Level students are compelled to use obsolete Log Tables.

Hats off to that Minister of Education who introduced the ordinary scientific calculator to the Sri Lankan A/ Level Mathematics classroom and to the A/Level Mathematics Exam a few years ago. That was a small step in the right direction. Minister Susil Premjayantha, please revamp the O/Level mathematics syllabus and introduce the ordinary scientific calculator to Grades 10 and 11 now. That will ensure a big boost for your STEAM programme and yield benefits for the Sri Lankan economy.

(To be continued. Topic 2:  The necessity for introducing an O/Level Mathematics Core Exam and an Extended Exam. The writer has taught O/Level and A/Level Mathematics and Physics for 45 years in Asia, Africa and Europe and is an Emeritus Coordinator for International Baccalaureate, Geneva.)

Continue Reading