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Professor Ashley Halpe, the great humanitarian I knew – I



By Rohana R. Wasala

I do not know
the thin reek of blood, the stench
of seared flesh, the
cracked irreducible bone; I know
only the thinner reek of pity,
the harsh edge of self-contempt,
the ashy guilt of being too old,
salaried, safe, and comfortable.
I would know their reasons,
the rigour of their hot hate, their
terrifying faith. But
they have said everything
in dying, a communication
beyond all speech….
        Ashley Halpe, ‘”April” 1971’

In the incantatory rhythm of the short meditative lyric contained in Professor Ashley Halpe’s collection of his poems entitled “Silent arbiters have camped in my skull” from which the above lines are quoted, we sense the ebb and flow of the self-assumed guilt (note the play on the word ‘ashy’ that echoes the sound of his first name) and the attendant self-contempt of a socially well ensconced and physically secure but conscience-stricken senior don; he imagined that he was so circumstanced as to be a helpless onlooker while the young students, for whose safety and wellbeing he held himself at least indirectly responsible, were getting slaughtered during the April 1971 JVP rebellion. The young people he empathised with were engaged in a violent struggle in the name of a cause that they fiercely believed in. Professor Halpe had the deepest concern for the education and wellbeing of the youth of the country. On its publication by the Tisara Prakasakayo, Dehiwala, in June 1976, Professor Halpe gifted me an autographed copy of the volume: He wrote “What about writing, too?” in the inner title page before signing it for me. I still have it with me.

He had great sympathy towards the young people who took part in the first JVP insurrection, that took place in April 1971; but he didn’t show any interest in the politics that drove their activism. He had a number of poems in that selection which were implicitly dedicated to the many young boys and girls, including university students, who had perished in that ill-prepared, ill-timed and ill-fated adventure, attempted though it was by a group of selflessly committed and genuinely patriotic young Marxists.



This present piece of mine, reluctantly autobiographical and discursive, is a memorial tribute to the late Professor Ashley Halpe of the University of Peradeniya, who breathed his last, aged 83, on May 15, 2016. It is five years overdue, though, (the reason for which is explained below). I was prompted to write it after reading three recent write-ups published in honour of the late professor: Tissa Jayatilake’s commemorative essay “Remembering Professor Ashley Halpe”, Aparna Halpe’s filial appreciation “Learning from My Father, Five Years after His Passing” (Aparna was no more than a little chatterbox of a toddler when I first saw her in her father’s light blue Datsun stationwagon, looking through the open shutters and commenting on the passing scenes on the way in her charming baby-prattle during a drive from the campus to Kandy) and George Braine’s “Shakespeare in a takarang shed”, befitting a pupil, published in The Island issues of May 17, 23 and 26, 2021, respectively. To date, Tissa Jayatilake has written quite a number of articles in appreciation of his beloved teacher and respected senior colleague in the academia over a long period of time. I still remember how Tissa, as a novice assistant lecturer, wrote a well-argued defence of Professor Halpe, the foremost Shakespearean scholar of the time in the country as he described him, countering an attack on the latter by some biased critic; it was published in a national newspaper, probably in the Daily News or the Sunday Observer. It was in the second half of the ‘70s decade. I find many laudatory assertions Tissa makes about Professor Halpe in his deeply felt latest eulogy (which is devoid of any hint of hagiography, nevertheless), that I can endorse through my own experience as one of the late professor’s close companions (at a particular time). The only reason for my inordinate delay in writing a commemoration article in honour of Professor Halpe was my own persistent diffidence and hesitation to do so caused by the feeling that the attempt might involve telling too much about myself in the process (instead of the person remembered) that would not be of any interest to my readers. However, I have now realized that that potential danger cannot be avoided by any of his grateful students in celebrating the memory of Professor Halpe simply because of his self- effacing humble nature. While alive he played a distinguished multifaceted role in the national educational and cultural sphere as the doyen of Sri Lanka’s English literature academics.



I enjoyed the opportunity to closely associate with Professor Ashley Halpe, the English scholar, poet, dramatist, translator, and painter, initially as my teacher and mentor, and eventually as ‘friend and colleague’ (as he had us identify him) during the 10 years from 1972 to 1982. He treated all his junior associates in the same unassuming manner. At times a rare vainglorious person among them would pretend to be extra pally with him by addressing him by his first name, something that our then colleague, the late Aubrey Kuruppu, well known cricket columnist, commentator, umpire, administrator, and coach – in fact, cricket filled his life – used to ridicule as trying to be ‘on Ashley terms’ with the professor! Professor Halpe was above all a great human being as Tissa Jayatilake has stated more than once in his writings about the late professor.

To me, Professor Halpe was an immensely knowledgeable teacher and a kindhearted guide with a philosophical bent, at a familiar personal level, rather than at a routine official level, due to the uniqueness of the circumstances on my side that caused me to seek his help at a time I had no direct connection or communication with him; but to him, in his own generous estimation, I was one of his ‘young colleagues’, an honour I let myself accept with a keen awareness of my own inadequacy beside him. The latter phase of our relationship (‘friends and colleagues’ stage) was during 1976-82 when I served as an English instructor in what was then known as the sub-department of English (which at a later time became the English Language Teaching Unit/ELTU), whose function was to teach English to the new entrants of all the faculties of the university who lacked the proficiency in the language that they needed to acquire in order to complete their academic studies at the high level of excellence that the university traditionally maintained.



The Peradeniya University’s department of English, even then, more than two decades after its heyday, harked back to its classical fame under its legendary gurus, such brilliant English scholars of the ‘40s and ‘50s as professors EFC Ludowyk, HA Passe, and Doric de Souza. They together bequeathed to the later generations of students the likes of Professor Ashley Halpe and Associate Professor Thiru Kandiah {the latter later moved to the Department of English Language and Literature of the National University of Singapore}.) The Trotskyite English don Doric de Souza (a prominent member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party) played a significant part in the formation of the sub-department and was responsible for the compilation of a prodigious amount of appropriately chosen practice materials which were designed to meet the advanced linguistic needs of the general mass of students who had little or no English on admission.

I believe I was lucky enough, under the volatile circumstances later reflected in this personal account, to have the chance to subject myself to something of the lasting influence of the first two stalwarts mentioned above, in my attitude to, and grasp of, English literature from and through Professor Halpe, while drawing similar inspiration from the astonishingly creative and productive ideas independently incubated by Doric de Souza about teaching English for academic purposes (which our work as instructors was all about) through Dr Thiru Kandiah. I didn’t personally know Dr Kandiah before my appointment as instructor in 1976, but from then on, my friendly as well as productive interactions with him became as close as those with Professor Halpe.

At this point I feel that a quick flashback to my senior secondary school days is necessary to put my relationship with Professor Halpe in perspective. (By the way, I’d like to alert my readers to the fact that the account given here is not going to be linear; it will have a number of duly indicated flashbacks and flash-forwards, which, I hope, you will not find to be too much of a disjunction in the narrative.) My particular family circumstances caused me to interrupt my GCE AL studies and find a job. While still attending school at Poramadulla Central, I appeared for a competitive examination for admission as a ‘non-teacher’ to the Government Teachers’ Training College at Maharagama, the country’s premier secondary teacher training institution of the day (The National Institute of Education stands at the same venue today) for following a secondary English teacher training course. In those days (the latter ‘60s), Maharagama specialist trained teachers (in any of the specialized fields of science, maths, English, etc) enjoyed special recognition and were paid on a higher salary scale than those from general teacher training colleges. This salary disparity was removed under the UF government of the ‘70s. Our English teacher at the GCE OL in the mid-60s was an alumnus of G.T.C Maharagama.



It was at the G.T.C. that I started entertaining an English Honours degree ambition, thanks to two scholarly lecturers there: Mr A.M.G.Sumanapala Akmeemana who held a BA English Hons (London) degree, and was also a postgraduate TEFL (UK) diplomate, whose thought-provoking lectures delivered in flawless (but not stilted) English left a lasting impression on my young mind. It was from him that I learned what the ‘Socratic method’ of teaching was: for a considerable part of the lecture time, he didn’t ‘teach’; he asked questions and made us think. Tissa remembers the same stimulating approach used by Professor Halpe, and I agree with him. (Incidentally, the senior English lecturer at Vidyalankara University, Mr A.M.G. Sirimanne, that George Braine mentions in his piece was Mr Akmeemana’s older brother, but I never saw him; I had only heard about him as a first-class English scholar.) The other lecturer who similarly inspired me when I was training at Maharagama was the late Ms Chitra Fernando, linguist, academic and author, and eminent English fiction writer. She was a Peradeniya English Hons graduate, who had been tutored by Professor Passe and other stalwarts in the later ‘50s; she was perhaps a little junior to Professor Halpe at Peradeniya. On my first day at Maharagama, she called me to her after a lecture, and asked me from where I was and how old I was. I told her. When I said I was 19 plus, she said to me: “You are still too much of a kid. You should be in a university, not here. Don’t stop your studies after training”. Her words made a seminal impact on me. The training gave a foretaste of my Peradeniya experience, which I went through in unusual circumstances.

Before being enrolled as students of the Teachers’ College, the successful candidates were appointed as assistant teachers so they could be paid while in training.

They were made to sign a bond committing themselves to mandatory unbroken government service for a specified period after training, failing which they were required to pay back the cost of the training in full. On completion of the two year course, they were appointed to secondary schools. As luck would have it, I was appointed to a secondary school close to my home town, which suited me in view of my family responsibilities and my postponed university education prospects. This was a year or two before the first JVP rebellion of 1971.

Now, still in my early twenties, while teaching in that school, I successfully appeared for my delayed GCE AL exam as a private candidate offering English as one of the standard four subjects to be offered at the time in the arts stream instead of the science stream which I had followed at school, and qualified to apply for enrolment in a university. However, I couldn’t legally find admission to a university or leave the state school system which employed me without losing my job because of the training college bond that I had signed with the government. So I decided to achieve my ambition as an autodidact, and got enrolled for the external degree programme of the Peradeniya university as a special English trained teacher.

Following this, I wanted to make contact with an internal student in the English department. I did that through a former schoolmate of mine who was just finishing his studies in another department of the Peradeniya university. He said he had a friend doing English, who, he was sure, would gladly help me with his notes and other materials as he was a ‘kaddek’ with revolutionary leftist ideas in politics ‘like us’, and offered to take me to him. (The slang word ‘kaddaa’ in university parlance meant a (male) person who was already competent in English or was pursuing studies in the English medium; ‘kaddee’ would have been the feminine form, which I never heard, though.)

By the way, it may be said that the campus colloquialism ‘kaduwa’ for English (from which base the above forms were derived) originated among university students, about or just before the time covered in this narrative; they, having mostly come from the non-English speaking (or exclusively swabhasha speaking) rural peasant and generally subaltern sections of the society with negligible English, recognized the alien language (English) for what it had been in the past: a symbol of colonial power and privilege and an instrument of oppression and exploitation; a perception that they expressed by calling it ‘kaduwa’ (sword). I owe this analysis of ‘kaduwa’ to Dr Thiru Kandiah mentioned above, internationally known Sri Lankan linguist, who both spoke and wrote about it occasionally in his normal research related contexts. He drew upon his research experiences among Black and other non-white subjects from dispossessed backgrounds in America in this respect. I remember him describing “kaduwa” used in that sense as a remarkably expressive poetic construction. Being a senior lecturer in English, he happened to be the coordinator of the subsidiary division of the English department at the time I got appointed to the permanent cadre of instructors in1976 after facing a highly competitive recruitment test (By that time, I had completed my English Hons degree, while working in a government school as a teacher.)

To go back in my narrative again, the ‘kaddaa’ that my school friend took me to was none other than the same Tissa Jayatilake I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, then a student of both Halpe and Kandiah. This was around 1970 to early 1972, i.e., well before I came into any close contact with the latter two. Today he is well known as English academic, political analyst and director of the Fulbright Commission of Sri Lanka, among other things. When Tissa was appointed as the director of the American Center (called the American Corner at present?) in Kandy in those early days that I am talking about, he was given a big official vehicle by the embassy that employed him. I still remember (hope my memory is not erroneous) him telling us how embarrassed he felt to be driven about in that ‘limousine’ among the poverty stricken fellow citizens of the place. I also remember attending a public lecture on the prominent ‘metaphysical poet’ John Donne (of the late 16th- and early 17th century) that he delivered as a fresh lecturer (no doubt on being recommended by Professor Halpe) at the British Council library, then located in a building adjacent to where the current supergrade branch of the Bank of Ceylon in Kandy was built decades later. In passing, it must be remembered with gratitude, that the British Council and the American Center libraries in Kandy, which were well stocked with books, offered the local readers (mostly students) free library facilities, that I made the best use of as additional resources in my scholastic endeavours.

Going a few years further back from this point, the past scene of my first meeting with Tissa is clearly etched in my mind. This was in the early ‘70s, during the months that the April ‘71 insurgency was gradually fomented, got suddenly ignited and was quenched with considerable violence. The security situation in the country was still tense consequent to the JVP revolt, which I had survived miraculously unscathed. The untimely death of my father due to sudden illness a few years previously left my family without its anchor. The responsibilities that my father shouldered largely devolved on me. This left me neither the opportunity nor the inclination to take part in the revolutionary political movement, which had been initiated by the ‘Peking Wing’ (of the Communist Party) led by N. Shanmugathasan. The activities of the ‘Peking Wing’ led to the formation of Rohana Wijeweera’s Janatha Vimukti Peramuna.

We – my school friend and I – , to resume the episode of my first meeting with Tissa, called on him in his room in a hall of residence whose name has now slipped out of my memory. He was reclining in his bed against some pillows, chatting with some friends of his (from the adjoining rooms, as was obvious). He immediately sat up, and welcomed us with warmth, while his friends left, letting him talk with us. Tissa showed great empathy with my situation. He proceeded to give me some very useful hints. He named books that he thought I had to read in addition to the prescribed texts for the first year exam or the General Arts Qualifying (GAQ) examination, which he had already been through. Later, Tissa introduced me to an assistant lecturer named Wimal Weerakkody for help with Western Classics. The latter’s brilliance in spite of his visually handicapped situation was amazing, and he was very generous in helping me. This Wimal Weerakkody was none other than the late Prof Emeritus of Western Classical Languages D.P.M. Weerakkody (familiarly known as Wimal Weerakkody), then an assistant lecturer in that subject, who was residing in either Jayatilake or Arunachalam Hall of Residence – I can’t clearly remember which – close to the Arts Theatre and the central library of the university. Meanwhile, my schoolmate friend borrowed the books that I needed from the university library using his student library tickets.

Subsequently, I passed the GAQ examination, earning eligibility to read for a Special (or ‘Honours’ as it had been known until not long before that) degree in any of the three subjects that I had offered for the GAQ (namely, English, Western Classical Culture and Economics). I opted to major in English, which had been my lifelong dream. I chose Western Classical Culture as the subsidiary subject to go with my principal subject English. This happened about a year after the first Che Guevarist uprising (1971) of the JVP was brutally put down by the government security forces, as shown above.

I thought it appropriate to go and see Ms Chitra Fernando and Mr Akmeemana at Maharagama and express my gratitude to them for invigorating me with their kind advice and guidance. Unfortunately, the former was not there. But I was able to meet Mr Akmeemana. He seemed more pleased to see me alive than to hear about my exam success (not that he underrated the second). “My family circumstances and my passion for English saved me, sir”, I told him. Like Professor Halpe (whom I came to know a year or two later), Mr Akmeemana, it was evident, wept in his heart over the ‘tragic destruction of young lives’. “Those innocent boys and girls were on the threshold of life. But their idealism killed them”, he mused, “They were just waiting to be slaughtered in the jungle!”

(To be continued)

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Sat Mag

Colonial bourgeoisie and Sinhala cultural revival



The Birth of Prince Siddhartha Gautama


By Uditha Devapriya

The colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka did not form a monolithic class. They were divided horizontally as well as vertically: horizontally on the basis of income and inheritance, and vertically on the basis of primordial attachments, such as caste ideology. Various factors, mainly economic, conspired as much to unify the bourgeoisie as they did to divide them, distinguishing them by their homogeneity as much as by their heterogeneity.

Sri Lanka’s transition to a plantation economy took place under British rule (1796-1948). While it’s not really accurate to say that prior to British rule the country, especially parts of the Kandyan kingdom, remained cut off from monetary exchange (a thesis that has been questioned by S. B. D. de Silva in his work on colonial underdevelopment), the British sped up the consolidation of a plantation colony, dominated by import-export trade. The creation of a new economy facilitated the formation of a new elite that found ways of building up wealth and prestige from road toll and arrack rents, plantation profits, investments in urban property, and entry into the civil service and the professions.

This bourgeoisie differed in degree and substance from the traditional elite that hailed from the apex of the social hierarchy in the Kandyan kingdom. A two-way process followed: while the bourgeoisie gained wealth and prestige over the traditional elite, the latter either found themselves reduced to a semi-dependent elite, or adapted to a changing world.

While differences between these two elites had become pronounced by the middle of the 19th century, by the time of the Buddhist revival they were fading away. The bourgeoisie, for their part, did not completely reject the customs and habits of the old elite, as witnessed by nouveau riche govigama families marrying into the Kandyan aristocracy.

Given the all too fine distinctions which cropped up among the bourgeoisie as it grew and evolved in the 19th century, the Buddhist revival evolved in spurts and stages rather than in one giant leap. The question as to which class gave an impetus to the revival, then, is linked to the question of which class interests prevailed in the unfolding of that revival.

Different scholars have approached these issues from different, if only vaguely similar, vantage points. Thus Gananath Obeyesekere ascribes the revival to the dissemination of “Protestant Buddhist” values among the Sinhala bourgeoisie, Kumari Jayawardena to the ideology of the Sinhala petty bourgeoisie, and Michael Roberts to the adoption of Western notions of nationalism and forms of propaganda. These are important perspectives, and they shed light on the role of class interests in the unfolding of nationalist revivals in colonial society. Yet different as they may be, they are all premised on assumptions of one milieu’s (petty bourgeoisie) dependence on a dominating elite (comprador bourgeoisie), and of that dominating elite’s dependence on a colonial economic framework.

For perfectly plausible reasons, these hypotheses deny ideological autonomy on the part of both dependent and dominating classes. Thus Kumari Jayawardena distinguishes between the plantation bourgeoisie and the semi-industrial bourgeoisie, in relation to their response to the revival, on the basis of the relations between their methods of acquiring wealth and colonial economic constraints, so that elite families subscribe to a conservative reading of Buddhism moulded by their ties to plantation capital, while Anagarika Dharmapala, whose family was involved in industries “not totally dependent on colonial patronage”, espouses a more “reformist” reading in keeping with a radical approach to politics.

Simply put, to the extent that the bourgeoisie was locked into an economy dominated by colonial interests, it viewed the revival as an expression of its own ideology. The use of the plural is instructive here, in that the bourgeoisie, as Roberts notes, did not share a unifying ideology, and were in fact “more differentiated” than traditional elites.

This interpretation of the revival helps us glean the intricate links between the economic base of colonial society and the ideological superstructure of revivalist movements, avoiding the pitfalls of rationalising such movements on purely cultural grounds, as nationalists are wont to do. It also presents colonial history as a series of successive periods in which one set of class ideologies prevailed over others: a plantation bourgeois at the tail-end of the 19th century, and a petty bourgeois at the turn of the 20th.

Yet, despite the validity of these perspectives, they omit three factors pertinent to the triad of colonialism, cultural modernity, and nationalist revival: ideological agency on the part of the contending milieus (intra-class, between sections of the elite, and inter-class, between different elites), the contribution of “unrepresented” classes, most prominently the working class and peasantry, to that triad, and the part played by different artists and art forms with respect to the revival and its unfolding in the 20th century.

The latter point merits much consideration. In his study of the evolution of Sinhala music in the early 20th century, Garret Field observes that composers and playwrights were as moved by monetary reasons as by cultural ones. In Jayawardena’s view, artistes like Charles Dias and John de Silva “nibbled” at colonial rule, critiquing the decay of cultural values while paradoxically presenting a colonial reinterpretation of local history.

A good example of this would be de Silva’s Sri Wickrema. While lamenting the loss of the Kandyan kingdom to the British, it presents the last king of Kandy as a rapacious tyrant, a drunkard laggard: ironically, in line with propaganda about the monarch disseminated by colonial officials, in particular the Orientalist agent, John D’Oyly.

What is pertinent here is that the stunted ideology of nationalist elites found its expression in the stunted ideology of the objets d’art they exhibited, and that this ideology prevented these art forms from undergoing a modernist revolution which could question colonial rule without subscribing to a colonial reconstruction of culture. I posit three reasons for why the nurthi plays of John de Silva, among other objets, failed to make that important leap: their mass appeal, the high levels of capital investment they required, and the conflicting attitude of their patrons, some of whom hailed from the bourgeoisie, to colonial rule.

At the turn of the 20th century, with the bifurcation of nationalism into radical politics and cultural revival, it was possible for patrons of these arts to decry a lost heritage (Sinhala and Arya) while adhering to colonial conceptions of history. As Roberts puts it,

“The cultural awakening and the recoil against the Western world, then, took many forms. It was influenced and permeated by romanticism, populism, indigenism, and anti-Western sentiments. Its conceptual forms were more traditionalist than tradition; and more revivalist than traditionalist. It did not possess the solipsist complacency and self-confidence of those who rely on the traditional… Neither was it wholly traditionalist and restorative. Its principal activists were selective in the traditions they picked up.”

Roberts has noted elsewhere that, while calling for the end of British rule, nationalist elites resorted to Western modes of protest; thus, while nationalist liberators who sprang up in the Kandyan regions after their annexation by the British decried the Kandyan Convention as a betrayal of the Sinhala kingdom, nationalist agitators in the 20th century rationalised the Convention as a legal document which British officials had honoured more in the breach than the observation. Benedict Anderson has analysed these paradoxes in his study of what he calls the “last wave of nationalism”, which unfolded in the European colonies of Africa and Asia at the end of the 19th century. His thesis explains the paradoxical response to their own history by Sinhala nationalists; even in the act of decrying a lost pre-colonial heritage, these same nationalists subscribed to values promoted by colonisers. Hence Sri Wickrema is a plea for the restoration of a lost heritage, a condemnation of colonial “modernity”, yet it is also an indictment of a key figure associated with that heritage.

Dependent as these objets were on “colonial capital”, for a more meaningful analysis, they should be compared with art forms that were not no dependent on such capital.

In the decorative arts, breaks with the past transpired more rapidly, and thoroughly, than they did in the realm of literature and theatre. As Sunil Goonesekara has observed, by the time of the revival in the early 20th century important debates had sprung up about which mode of painting best suited the country. On the one hand, there was the studio painter, who looked up to styles established in European art academies; on the other hand, there were the traditional Kandyan painters, a vanishing group even then; on yet another hand, there were lithographers reproducing Buddhist parables, whose figurehead, Sarlis, exuded a style that was, as Goonasekera puts it, “not wholly native nor wholly other.”

Perhaps the most obvious reason why painting was able to undergo a modernist revolution faster than could theatre and literature was that it did not fit the three criteria applicable to the latter two art forms: it lacked a mass audience, it did not require high levels of capital investment, and it did not need the patronage of elites tied to colonialism.

Underscoring this was the even simpler fact that painting was a visual art, and that unlike theatre and literature it could dispense with the written word. If John Berger’s dictum that we see before we speak is indeed true, and what we see establishes our place in the world more quickly than can the printed word, modernism in art swamped Sri Lanka more rapidly than either the theatre or the press because it was cut off from print capitalism; simply put, it was easier to defy canons of taste in painting, because the painter did not have to borrow European notions of modernity that nationalists and revivalists had been innovating on from the tail-end of the 19th century. He did not need a “text.” He had frescoes, lithographs, and murals to work from. The revival may have thrived on the polemic, but it breathed through the canvas. This is, perhaps, a point seldom appreciated, if at all. Yet it is true.

Anne Blackburn has cautioned against viewing the Buddhist revival solely as a response to colonialism by nationalists. In painting, we come across a new way of viewing the revival: neither a collective rejection of the West, nor a total acceptance of colonial canons of taste and propriety, but rather a break from both. This obviously opens up new lines of discussion and interpretation as regards colonialism in Sri Lanka, a topic that for far too long has been viewed through a class, caste, or elite lens by scholars and students.

The writer can be reached at

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Sat Mag

Enblish Experiment: Bold or Barmy?



London comes alive after the easing of lockdown


By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Only time will tell whether the ‘English Experiment’, which started as 19 July dawned, would be a success or a failure. There were count-down clocks in many a place, mostly in night clubs, as they could open for business after a break that looked like eternity. Jubilant young, sans face masks, hugged and danced, physical distancing already being a distant memory. A carnival atmosphere erupted right across England as ‘Freedom Day’ dawned. It was only in England, not right across the UK, which is made up of four countries, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, with devolved administrations, health being one of those devolved functions and the Secretary of Health of Her Majesty’s government looking after health issues only in England. It is these oddities that I love about Britain!

‘Freedom Day’, already postponed once from 21 June, could not have come at a worse time and already the Opposition is holding the knife to the government’s throat. Failure is likely to result in a disaster. The Secretary of Health, who was largely responsible for introducing the regulations 16 months ago, was caught breaking his own rules by smooching with a female aide in his office! Like one of our politicians, he tried to remain in office but was forced to resign. His successor tested positive two days before ‘Freedom Day’. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who were in close contact, attempted to avoid isolation by trying to take part in a trial but public opinion forced them to isolate from the day before freedom!

On average, over 40,000 cases are diagnosed daily, almost all being due to the more infectious Delta variant. However, hospital admissions remain low and the NHS is able to manage comfortably unlike in the previous waves, as there are only around 4000 patients with Covid, in hospitals throughout UK. But this comes at a cost; millions remaining on waiting lists for elective procedures that had to be cancelled to accommodate the emergency admissions. More importantly, death rates remain very low, averaging around 40 per day, which is almost certainly due to the commendable vaccination programme. Already almost 90% of the adult population has had one dose and 70% both doses of the vaccine.

The major problem at the moment is the large number of cases diagnosed daily with a significant number of contacts being instructed to isolate at home, being identified mostly through the ‘NHS app’. One of the reasons for the increased number of cases is, no doubt, due to allowing large crowds at sporting events, like the just concluded Euro 2000. Even the most optimistic of experts agree that with the relaxation of preventive measures like face masks and physical distancing, the number of cases is bound to increase further, at least in the short term. Although no longer mandatory, the government is requesting the public to adhere to physical distancing and wearing face masks in enclosed spaces. In short, the government has shifted the responsibility to the public in the hope that there would be satisfactory compliance.

On the other hand, if most people behave irresponsibly, there is the real risk of another wave, which may be difficult to control. Although working from home is no longer the norm, if significant numbers are made to isolate, normal work would not resume. Due to staff isolation, already there have been some supermarket closures and cancellation of public transport. During the weekend Preceding the ‘Freedom Day’, a few lines of the world-famous London Underground were not functioning. Therefore, success is not guaranteed and failure would make it look like the government decision being barmy!

However, the Rubicon had to be crossed sometime and we cannot be dictated by a virus forever. A new normal has to be established but whether this is the right time is the question asked by many. Perhaps, doing this at a time when things are not optimal is barmy. On the other hand, it can be construed as a bold step by a government determined to get the country back to normal again. It is pretty obvious that the whole world is watching, with bated breath, whether the ‘English Experiment’ will be a success.

It is entirely possible that with the continuing energetic campaign of vaccination, which is reducing morbidity and the mortality rates considerably, and the rapid spread of the virus which too would lead to the production of antibodies, a wall of immunity would develop soon, ‘taming’ the virus. The hope is that after a temporary phase of worsening, Covid-19 would be ‘tamed’ to be like seasonal flu. In the winter months, there are around 200 deaths daily due to the flu virus in spite of the vaccination of vulnerable people, but the country is not shut down. The hope is that a similar equilibrium would be established.

The UK has the infrastructure to conduct surveys and gather very accurate information. As the four countries of the UK are moving at different paces, comparisons can be made and lessons learnt. Also, the issue of vaccine hesitancy and resultant harm could be established. London, unfortunately, has the lowest level of vaccination, standing around 65% for the first dose and 45% for the second. Ethnicity also seems to play an important part. In those over 50 years, 95% of Whites have had the vaccine compared to only 75% of Blacks. The percentage for South Asians is around 87%. It is well known that most of the deaths occur in those not vaccinated. As no vaccine gives 100% protection, unfortunately, a few get Covid even after full vaccination but the disease tends to be milder and deaths rare. It is regrettable that there is a tiny number of deaths due to the vaccines as well.

It is expected that the entire adult population of the UK as well as vulnerable children will be fully vaccinated by the end of September. It is very likely that we will know which direction the epidemic is heading and whether the ‘English Experiment’ is a success by the end of October. I hope that it be a success for the sake of Sri Lanka, too.

After having overcome many difficulties, the vaccination campaign in Sri Lanka seems to be gathering momentum, at last, and it is very likely that the vast majority of the adult population would be fully vaccinated by September or October. If the ‘English Experiment’ is proved to be a success, then Sri Lanka will be in a position to open the country to tourism; many in the West are itching to get out to sunnier climes, to escape the drab winter. This would, no doubt, help Sri Lanka to get out of the economic quagmire.

Let us hope that the ‘English Experiment’ is bold, not barmy!

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Sat Mag

Master gardener’s role in transforming Singapore into ‘garden city’



By B. Nimal Veerasingham

Soil from time immemorial has been regarded the womb of mother earth – creating, shaping, and nurturing life. Recognising the pivotal role soil plays in sustaining life through greenery, water, food, ecology, weather and organisms, human livelihood continues on its familiar path. Life, which originated from the earth, is recycled as ‘ashes to ashes – earth to earth’, while most earthly elements are present in the human genome. The cycle of life continues.

The most visible extensions of soil are arboreal and tropical, deciduous and dense canopies. Greenery became the pulse of human existence, incubating larger settlements and civilisations. There is nothing possibly more satisfying than witnessing mother nature in one’s own backyard, or, for that matter, every available public space.

In 1965, when the father of Singapore, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), a Cambridge educated Lawyer, started off with a clean slate in a Singapore separated from Malaysia, which paved the way for an economic revolution, his inheritance was a forlorn nation. There was no reliable water source to even dream of greening the landscape. After all, redeeming masses from exploitation, crime, disorderliness while ushering in economic growth and hope was a more immediate requirement than providing secondary sustainable green space for the sake of livability and healthier environment. ‘Let’s put the house in order and fire the economic engine, and we will create an environment, both aesthetic and an internalised social asset for the citizenry to appreciate livability’, was the order in which the Southern tip of the Malay peninsula placed its priorities.

The founding father LKY envisioned a wholesome meritocratic outline, long term social and economic planning as opposed to populist policy, at times shaped by the evolving experiences elsewhere, to shape what others might have defined as daydream.

Green historians strolling through the landscape of Singapore might come across the obvious milestone, envisioned in 1967 and started with the very first official ‘Tree planting day’ in November 1971. LKY foresaw this attempt, to transform the country into First World standards, as per his memoir ‘From Third World to First’. But is there something that is not visible other than the obvious?

The majority, almost 70 percent of Singapore’s population is made up of those with Chinese ancestry. Confucianism is the backbone of Chinese thinking and lifestyle in many respects. It speaks strongly of the rhythm of nature’s ability to sustain life, both its biological and socio-cultural renditions. Its holistic organic continuum makes nature interdependent and interrelated to all aspects of harmonious human life. Landscaped, planned gardens or efforts to incorporate soil and greenery, are part of this grand equation, to bring nature closer to home. It is no secret that LKY strongly adopted practical realities including in early thinking, in his efforts to make Singapore a ‘garden city’, or the later attempt to place the ‘city in a garden’.

The art of harmonising nature with human lives by way of landscaped gardens by the Chinese Emperors has been observed well over 3,000 years ago, earliest recorded during the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC). Many features were added to synchronise waterways, vegetation, rocks, galleries, etc., besides the earthen or wall backdrops to add an element of surprise to suddenly unfolding spectacular scenery far and near. Explorers like Marco Polo (1300 AC) and early Jesuit priests (1600 AC) wrote in detail about the Chinese gardens which later became the inspiration for landscaped gardens among European royalty.

The earlier garden concepts were mostly undertaken by rulers who not only created the same for relaxation and pleasure, but also to impress others. This is no different from the present-day home gardeners. The same is true in a sense, of Singapore’s ambitious economic agenda. They realised the need to impress investors, distinguishing themselves from other developing countries, while also softening the harshness of urbanisation for its population. An orderly, manicured and planned green abode without litter, graffiti, or crime, provides an ambiance of a desirable, well-organised destination for investors and visitors. ‘Clean & Green’ became the slogan where land was specifically set aside for tree planting, green buffers and park development; even overhead foot bridges, lamp posts and flyovers were camouflaged with creepers and climbers to transform the dreary concrete jungle into life.

LKY, at the beginning, turned towards schoolchildren to fight entrenched old habits, getting them involved in valuing greenery, thereby taking the message home to the grown-ups, to prevent walking over plants and grass, trampling flowerbeds and saplings and damaging with motor vehicles. Whether his interest in green ecology was inborn or born out of necessity is hard to gauge, but he poured over many models and of ecosystems around the world during his many overseas visits. He discovered that in Paris a drainage system was built below the pavements to sustain broad tree-lined boulevards, and the reason rolling meadows of New Zealand cannot be replicated in Singapore.

In fact, he brought two experts from New Zealand under the ‘Colombo Plan’ technical assistance programme to learn how rain water dripping from an equatorial forest as found in New Zealand, replace torrential rain that washes away the topsoil in Singapore, with its tree canopy. He frequently sent out expert teams all along the equator to find different vegetation that could thrive locally. He even trapped rainwater falling on the roadways, filtering the grime and oil to water the vegetation under the flyovers, in some cases even splitting the flyovers for sunlight to reach underneath. Hardheaded and pragmatic, he was not ideological or dogmatic, but willing to try many methods to get at what worked best. ‘A well-kept garden is a daily effort and would demonstrate to outsiders, the people’s ability to work hard, organize and to be systematic,’ he would say.

Fundamental to any dream of greening is water. There was no natural water source in Singapore. The entire water supply had to be imported from neighbouring Malaysia. Yet, imported water was cut down by more than 50 percent, and Singapore became a world leader in reclaimed water technology, setting up rainwater reservoirs and desalination.

Providing gracious natural amenities all across the city state was also a matter of equality, thought the planners, where a network of over 300 parks and four nature reserves were created spreading over the island almost the size of Colombo. Singapore was consistently ranked within top 10 of world’s greenest cities by leading global organisations, with further ambitious plans for cleaner energy models in transportation, public buildings and landfills by 2030.

The economic engine was in full swing in the late 1980s as the City State was ready to expand the green movement to provide greater space for leisure activities and to rejuvenate the population with parks and connecting green corridors, allocating more than half a billion Singapore dollars.

The annual tree planting week, which eventually expanded into the clean and green campaign, was aimed at providing a mental and physical stimuli for the population, in a tropical garden city setting. LKY mentioned the initiative as a crucial strategy for the wellbeing of Singapore, and never missed an annual tree planting event until his death at the age of 91. The campaign grew from 150,000 in 1974 to almost 1.4 million in 2014. The 162-year-old Singapore Botanical garden, being the crown green jewel, glares in its testimony as being the only tropical garden honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Being ranked high in UN Human Development index as well as having the second highest GDP per capita in the world with longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality was no accident. As one of four Asian Tiger economies with limited land area (728 Sq KM), Singapore continuously evolves from labour intensive industries to high end technological incubators and brain intensive software industries with less labour. Their economic innovation exemplified in diversifying digital technological opportunities is key to staying ahead of others to ensure economic supremacy. As part of this evolution, Singapore has started exporting expertise of urban industrial parks and residential complexes through its subsidiaries of national agencies, notably to China and Indonesia.

For all its glory of using nature for the benefit of the population’s physical and mental well being and productivity, there are critics who associate the attempts with social engineering and the state’s heavy-handed interference in individual freedom. They weigh in with arguments of Confucian influence where the elders or the State knows best and decides for the rest. Some critics point out that the whole green revolution is a pretext to keep the population within the watchful perimeters of large housing estates (91 percent home ownership), where they are watched, controlled and given directions.

But to all critics, Singaporean planners’ response is that the City State simply follows what the democratically elected lawmakers have enacted as statutes; the rule of law prevails. Corruption of any sort is severely dealt with. Nepotism and ethnic favoritism are legally barred and diligently followed in all areas of civic administration, to the books.

As the interwoven tropical topography of the region was ideal for spices, empires vied for control for supremacy over the aromatic gold, which changed the economic prospects of the region forever. Though the forced takeovers provided trading infrastructures and routes, the economic base needed to be reinvented with times, towards the long-term betterment of its inhabitants.

Among its pioneer influence of relevance, four dominant trees could be highlighted for their stronghold in Singapore from the time it was founded as a British Trading Post by Stamford Raffles in the early 19th century. Nutmeg and rubber trees changed the industrial world in two different but intrinsic ways, with economic expansion and industrial dynamism. Raffles himself planted Nutmeg trees after claiming Singapore, the spice that revolutionized baking globally. Singapore Botanical Gardens became the leading exporter of Rubber seeds whereby Malaya supplied almost half of the entire world supply of rubber. Banyan and Rain (Samanea saman) trees, known for their vast reach and circumference, have no promising economic purpose, limited to providing shade.

What the model of Singapore foretells in terms of an economic miracle is that, as Lee Kuan Yew found out from his vast exposure and experience as the Chief Gardener of Singapore, the economic diversity and resilience of the likes of nutmeg and rubber trees have to be replicated and developed. But the characters of the Rain and Banyan tree in particular have to be avoided at all cost in order for the model to work, let alone succeed.

Like the parasitic Banyan tree eventually kills its host, corruption in any form would kill the very foundation of any economic model––borrowed, replicated or home-grown.

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