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Midweek Review

‘Race’ and racism



By Prof. Charles Sarvan


The following is an abridged version of a longer essay: “essay” in the earlier meaning of “to attempt”. Argument generates the heat of emotion but rarely the light of understanding – I attempt merely to share some perspectives on race and racism.

The signifier “unicorn” refers to a non-existent animal. Similarly, “race” seems to be a signifier without a signified. But we are loose in our use of language. We speak of colonialism and colonies in instances where it was imperialism and imperial territories. We talk of “black” (non-white) and “white” people though there are neither “white” nor “black” people. The paper on which we write is white but not the people classified as “white”: Jeffrey Boakye (‘Black Listed’) offers “pinkish beige”. But the dominant West has chosen “white” (associated with cleanliness and purity), and the rest of the world has followed suit through docility or simple laziness. Besides, we have a penchant for sharp dichotomy: the guilty and the innocent, good and bad, etc. Shades in between, nuance and complexity, are mentally taxing and troubling. “The first problem with being black is that it is literally not accurate.” No matter how dark my skin is, it is not black (Boakye). Often in the Western press “race” means a non-white skin-pigmentation. In an article written many years ago, I suggested, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that a certain kind of racism be more precisely termed “Colourism”.

It’s argued that prior to the 1600s and the enslavement of Africans, white people did not see themselves as belonging to a ‘race’. In simple terms, the slaves weren’t Christian and, therefore, could be enslaved. But, as the slaves became Christian, another justification was needed, and it was found in whiteness. But language is conventional rather than individual, so though I am careful to distinguish between colonialism and imperialism; though I refer to the autochthonous as “Native Americans” and not as “Indians”, I find myself writing of “black” and “white” people; sometimes, of “people of colour”.


Human race

Those who believe in race are unable to agree on the number of races presently existing: it ranges from one (the human race) to about seventy. Shlomo Sand, Professor of History at Tel Aviv University in his The Invention of the Jewish People, first published in Hebrew for a Jewish readership (see, Sarvan, ‘Groundviews’, 07 March 2013), states that there is no biological basis for Jewishness, and that belief in a Jewish race is nothing but “racist pseudoscience”. Race is a social myth and not a scientific fact but “Zionist pedagogy produced generations who believed wholeheartedly in the ethnic uniqueness of their nation”. Another work by Professor Sand has the provocative title, ‘How I Stopped Being a Jew’. Opposition to Zionist policy and practice, particularly against the Palestinians, is deliberately and incorrectly besmirched as racism, more precisely, as anti-Semitism. But there is no Semitic race (Sand). What prevails is but ethno-religious nationalism. Israel today is made ugly by “brutal racism” and a crying failure to take others into consideration (Sand). Israel defines itself as a Jewish state but is unable to define who a Jew is: there is no Jewish DNA (Sand). Professor Sand asserts that he can’t be free unless others are also free. “My own place is among those who try to discern and root out, or at least reduce, the excessive injustices of the here-and-now”.



Yet another synonym suggested for discredited ‘race’ is ‘ethnicity’. However, the latter term can testify to the resilience and mutability of racism, and the disguises it can adopt. Ethnicity is an aspect of relations between groups where at least one party sees itself as being culturally distinctive, if not unique. This sense of difference influences the perception and treatment of others. Though there are similarities and differences, the former are glossed over, and much made of difference. However, the boundary delimited by one cultural criterion – system of government, language, religion, social customs and practices – does not coincide with those established by other criteria. In short, “ethnicity” may be a Trojan horse bringing back disgraced racism. Ethnicity is a term to be used after careful thought. The term culture can now denote something essential, now something acquired; now something bounded, now something without boundaries; now something experienced, now something ascribed. Race as culture is only biological race in polite language.

Finally, it’s a matter of defining terms and clarifying concepts. Take for example, the word “peace”: Is it peace for the conquerors only? Is peace merely the negative absence of overt war or the positive presence of harmony for all citizens which, in turn, is the product of elements such as justice and a sense of security? (Justice cannot be equated with Law because there can be unjust, discriminatory, laws.)



As with ethnicity, so it is with nationalism. It has been said that a patriot is one who loves his own while a nationalist hates all others. ‘Nationalist’ can be but a euphemism for ‘racist’: some nationalists claim that only members of their group constitute the real and authentic nation. Racists reject a nationality based on citizenship. Some Sri Lankans living abroad claim, often receive and enjoy, legal nationality but vehemently and violently deny it to other groups in Sri Lanka: there, they affirm, nationality is based not on citizenship but on ‘race’.

Though race does not exist, racism certainly does – and flourishes. Race is not the father of racism but its child (Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘Between the World and Me’). It’s those who are race-minded, who think and react in terms of race: see Flannery O’Connor’s short story, ‘The Artificial Nigger’. As Professor Amy Chua notes in ‘Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations’, the majority projects itself as the norm; others are deviations and subordinate. “Sri Lanka” means for many “Sinhalese Buddhist”, and secondly Sinhalese Christians. Tamils, Muslims and others are beyond the including circle. (The Buddhist scholar, Dr. K. S. Palihakkara, using figurative language, sadly noted: Soon after the death of the Enlightened One, the beautiful clearing he had made was overrun by the surrounding jungle, and now “almost all Buddhists practise more of Hinduism than Buddhism: ‘Buddhism Sans Myths & Miracles’, Stamford Lake Publications, Pannipitiya, 109. If this is so, it obviates the question whether there are Sinhalese Hindus: Buddhists are also Hindu.)

Racism can strengthen the racial consciousness of a minority. While identity is neither single nor simple but multiple and complex, racism and ‘colourism’ focus on just one aspect: ‘race’ or skin-colour. I quote from an earlier article of mine:

“There was a time when most, if not all in the Island, irrespective of language and religion, equally took a measure of pride and encouragement from ancient achievement, temple and lake; an equal measure of happiness in being “Ceylonese”; a time when Tamils described themselves as Ceylonese and not (as some Tamils tend to do now) as “Sri Lankan Tamil”. When in 1915, D. S. Senanayake (later the first Prime Minister of independent Ceylon) and his brother, F. R. Senanayake, were jailed by the British authorities, Tamil Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan went to England to plead their case. On his successful return, jubilant crowds placed him in a carriage, detached the horses, and dragged the carriage themselves. He was not seen as a Tamil who had helped free a Sinhalese, but as a Ceylonese helping a fellow Ceylonese… In 1925-6, when Bandaranayake, as leader of the Progressive National Party, set out the case for a federal political structure for Sri Lanka, he received no support for it from the Tamils (K M De Silva). In 1952, the Kankesuntharai parliamentary seat was contested by Chelvanayagam, as a member of the Federal Party. He was comfortably defeated by a UNP candidate.”

Racism can erase class solidarity: I know individuals who were socialists but later in life proudly succumbed to racism. Even those who have chosen to live outside the Island, while asking for and enjoying equality in their new home, nourish racism in the Island. In the Bible, cruel and persecutory Saul changed dramatically, and became saintly Paul. But with politics, it’s a case of Pauls becoming Sauls, racist and corrupt: life can be corrupting.


‘We can’t breathe freely’

The trampling of the rights of others is often justified by a proclaimed sense of victimhood and vulnerability: “We are victims.” “We attempt only to balance the scales of justice.” “Our identity and survival are in danger.” The last is said even by an overwhelming majority in full control of the state and its apparatus. The struggle for equality by a minority group is deliberately miscast as an attempt at domination, and brutally suppressed: fear, imagined or real, can breed cruelty. George Floyd’s dying words (May, 2020), “I can’t breathe!” have resonated internationally. Oppressed minority groups may gasp: “We can’t breathe freely!”

Inter-racial social and personal friendships do not alter fundamentals, though they are touted as evidence of the speaker being above racism. It doesn’t help if you are against injustice but do nothing at all about it (Henry Thoreau, essay ‘On Civil Disobedience’). Perhaps, the ruling elite in Sri Lanka, including military officers, have Tamil associates, if not friends: “I have a Tamil friend, therefore I am not a racist.”

Racism is also more powerful than religious affiliation: white Christians in the USA joined their fellow whites in enslaving or lynching black Christians. If I’m not mistaken, Sinhalese Christians primarily don’t identify with Tamil Christians but with Sinhalese Buddhists. A sacred text in one hand can inflict more harm than the knife or burning torch in the other. Religion has often willingly lent itself to political and racist projects. Those capable of injustice and cruelty (irrespective of religion), transform those evils into the noble and, most importantly, the holy: sacred, therefore obligatory. Golda Meir asserted that Israel was brought into existence in order to fulfil God’s wish. Similarly, “the Buddha chose Lanka and us. Therefore, we have no choice but to dominate”: not, “Blame me on History” but “Blame me on the Divine”!

For Sri Lankan readers, the contradictions inherent in racism are illustrated by Anagarika Dharmapala .The Buddhism he ‘exported’ was a world religion; broad and inclusive; lofty and noble, but within Lanka, Dharmapala’s Buddhism was narrow and racist. As Patrick Grant writes (‘Buddhism and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka), Dharmapala lauded Buddhist tolerance and inclusion but believed in Sinhalese hegemony. He preached that Buddhism was universal, breaking down boundaries and hierarchies of race, colour, caste, kinship but promoted a racist Sinhalese-Buddhist fundamentalism, one which even excluded Sinhalese Christians. He urged young Sinhalese to be scientific but credited the myth of the ‘Mahavamsa’ with literal truth (Grant). Evidently, the Anagarika was not troubled by cognitive dissonance. The “dreams” of some can become terrible and tragic “nightmare” to others. The Anagarika was an irredentist who wanted to recover a paradise that had never existed. In his “dream”, Lanka under King Dutugemmunu was a paradise: The Sinhalese people lived a joyously cheerful life in those bygone times … the streets were crowded day and night by throngs of pilgrims … The atmosphere was saturated with the fragrance of sweet-smelling flowers and delicate perfumes There were “no slaughter houses, no pawnshops, no brothels, no prisons and law Courts and no arrack taverns and opium dens”: see, Ananda Guruge: ‘Return to Righteousness’.


‘Worse than War’

Professor Daniel Goldhagen (Harvard University) sees racism leading to something much ‘Worse Than War’ (eponymous) which he terms eliminationism, racism at its very worst – the transformation, repression, expulsion or extermination of a group. It’s implemented “only when the perpetrators are confident of success, owing to the overwhelming superior force they can unleash against defenceless people” who, though they are fellow countrymen, are seen as foreigners and inferior. The enemy is pursued and killed with veritable “glee”. “They routinely talk to them, taunt them, conveying to them their belief in their deeds’ rightness and justice, and their joy in performing them”. Multiple acts of savagery not only precede and accompany but occur after the death of the victims. Bodies are stripped naked, mutilated and displayed to men, women and even children. The perpetrators express joy, gloat and boast. “They mock the victims and celebrate their death”. Not only dead bodies but places of worship and cemeteries are deliberately desecrated. The rape of women is part of the display of power, intended to humiliate and visit shame, not only on the victims but collectively, on the group.

Eliminationists view their victims as “having inflicted great injury upon them and their society”. Eliminationist action is justified as being essentially retributive and, secondly, preventive of (imagined) future attack. The victims, and not the perpetrators, are seen as the “problem”: They are the cause. They are to blame. They exist. Horrible and horrifying cruelty is seen as obligatory, laudable, even as “sacred”. The aim of eliminationism is to homogenize society, to usher in some dreamed-of pure state.

Language and visual images conveyed in talk and discussion, newspapers and radio spread the notion that an entire group of people are subhuman and dangerous. Therefore, any study of eliminationism that “fails to give primacy to language and imagery” denies the fundamental reality of how people are cognitively, psychologically and emotionally prepared. Language is the soil that contains the seeds of action. Such eliminationist attacks will not occur if the community in general disapproved, was shocked or expressed revulsion and distaste: there’s general complicity. Intellectuals, artists, university professors, academics, journalists are no different from the illiterate and the lowest in society. Indeed, having status and influence, they are far worse and more culpable.

Soldiers, the paramilitary and policemen play a major role in elminationism. They constitute “pre-existing institutions of violence”, and are either “the lead killing institution or in a critical support role”. During a period of conflict, other countries have difficulty knowing what is happening, and this gives licence to the military to act as it pleases. Soldiers often feel rage because of the danger they face, and because “their comrades, loved ones and people” have been killed, suffered injury or harm. They inhabit a brutalizing and brutalized world.

Detention camps set up by the government and its soldiers are “a spatial, social and moral netherworld” into which the perpetrators herd “a weakened, overwhelmed, unthreatening, and pliant population, including children” . “A principal operational purpose of camp systems is degrading the victims, to make them understand their subjugated, demeaned, and right-less state. Camps are “cruelty’s quintessential sites” and perpetrators create them in a manner guaranteeing the victims will suffer cruelty “regularly, daily and nightly”.

Changing perspective completely, one can argue that racism is inherent and makes us the most dangerous of all animals. We have made the planet and everything on it our prey (‘The Life of Pi’). There’s something fundamentally flawed in our human makeup. Jacques Lacan wrote of the mirror-stage in the development of a human being when it realizes that the image seen in the mirror is she, herself: that there is me here. The German word fremdeln refers to a behavioural pattern in the development of infants in which a child has a mistrust, dislike or fear of strangers. In a fundamental, biological, sense there is “Me” and everyone else is the “Other”. Is racism the result of the individual, rather than being single, seeing herself as belonging to a group, separate from, if not opposed to, other groups formed by other individuals? Does racism go back to our distant past when, armed with stones and sticks, we fought other animals and other groups of humans for our very survival? Professor Harari writes (‘Sapiens’) that tolerance is not a human characteristic, and a small difference in skin-colour, language or religion has been enough to prompt one group of Sapiens to set about exterminating another group. Biological distinctions between different groups of Homo sapiens are negligible yet figments of imagination are transformed into cruel and very real social structures and practice.

Although not based on fact and science, ‘race’ exists powerfully. ‘Race’ exists – for those who believe it exists. To the Stoics, the divine spark in human beings was reason, and Voltaire believed that though doubt is uncomfortable, and certainty can lead to criminality, progress can be made by the use of reason. To my limited knowledge, Buddhism is a philosophy; a moral and ethical code. But a moral position is based on reason. What has struck me about Buddhist doctrine is its beautiful reasonableness (reason + able): no wonder most follow the Buddhist religion and not Buddhist doctrine. Empathy too is needed to combat racism. And a pre-requisite of empathy is a modicum of imagination; the ability to “put oneself in the shoes of another”. Bu this imagination and empathy are lacking – even in academics teaching lofty, compassionate, literary texts.

Racism being irrational, can it be deconstructed by reason? After all, racists first form attitudes and beliefs, and then set about finding justification. Heraclitus famously said, “All is flux”, and the Buddha made transience one of his most important perceptions. But though some things change, some unfortunately don’t. Professor Harari observes that confronting racists with facts, evidence and statistics has no effect because their beliefs are not based on reason.

Professor John Gray argues (‘The Silence of Animals’’) that the idea that history is a story of increasing rationality, decency and ethical progress is a myth.

Lines from a once-popular song: “Oh when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” The question is really a sad exclamation. However, as Toni Morrison pointed out,, the more hopeless a just struggle, the greater the honour in not giving up. Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote that she no longer talks to white people about “colourism” because it’s futile. The speech-act theory is associated with J. L. Austin but it can be argued that all speech and writing are acts, and Reni Eddo-Lodge in saying she won’t talk does precisely that. Violence in any form, as Sartre noted, is the failure of human beings to resolve issues without resorting to the crudity of force. Reason and language are what we have to combat racism, and the peaceful existence of several multi-ethnic, multicultural countries attest to the fact “otherness” need not necessarily lead to conflict. Franz Boas insisted on the basic unity of humankind. There was no natural hierarchy of races, cultures or languages. He acknowledged that rejecting traditional beliefs and stories “in order to follow the trail of truth is a very severe struggle”. Boas used the German word “Herzenbildung”, meaning the training of one’s heart to see the humanity of another.

Racists will argue that racism is natural. But doesn’t “civilized” also mean the overcoming of our negative impulses and drives? As I wrote to Martin Jacques, author of ‘The Global Hierarchy of Race’: “Individuals like you have helped to make people confront their prejudices; to increase awareness, and so change attitudes and conduct. Our globe, planet Earth, rotates on its own but social change is the result only of human endeavour and action.”

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Midweek Review

Shades of Beddegama in teeming Hong Kong




Even after being closely connected to Hong Kong for 26 years, I am still amazed by the contrasts there. Professionals earn the highest salaries in the world while destitute old women scavenge for cardboard boxes. Tycoons live in the world’s most expensive mansions while the poorest live in tiny subdivided flats. Perhaps the most striking contrast is the crowded urban areas of Central, Kowloon, and Mong Kok, and the deserted villages in the rural parts of the New Territories, where I lived.

Hong Kong is barely 500 square miles, and only half of that is inhabited; the rest is given over to hillsides and country parks. They are seven million tightly packed people. Then, how does one explain deserted villages?


Wong Chuk Yeung

Leonard Woolf’s classic Village in the Jungle, set in colonial Ceylon, narrates the slow decline of a small, isolated village, Beddegama. As the people leave or die out, the jungle gradually covers the crumbling, miserable huts. The last survivor is Punchi Menika. In the final scene, as Punchi Menika lies in her dilapidated hut, a giant wild boar glides in like a mythical devil to gore her. This scene came to mind when, during a hike, I stumbled upon the village of Wong Chuk Yeung. Located about 3 km uphill from the lovely seaside town of Sai Kung, the village lies within a country park, at the end of a narrow, twisting road. On the way up, the road winds through a steep slope on the left and a forest to the right. Uphill, trees press on the road from either side, forming a canopy.

At its first appearance, the village gave the idea of being inhabited, with strands of electricity, street lights, and a functioning water service. The one mailbox overflowed with recently delivered mail, mainly electric and water bills. However, the lichen-covered houses and the trash-strewn, weed-choked alleyways indicated a lack of life. Rice fields and fruit trees long abandoned and overgrown with weeds surrounded the village. Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered. Signs of rooting by wild boars was everywhere, and the fragile barking deer scampered off at my approach. Five-meter long Burmese pythons had been seen nearby. Old graves stood sentinel.

Long ago, the village was occupied by rice and vegetable farmers of the Li clan. They lacked proper roads, schools, electricity, or water service, but this simple life style suited the villagers. Then, imported rice became much cheaper. Rice also became hard to grow because a nearby iron mine caused a drop in the water table. Lacking even public transport, the younger generation preferred the comforts of urban Hong Kong or emigrated to Britain.

The last survivor Since that first encounter, I visited the village, on and off, over a number of years. An elderly man dressed smartly in a jacket and trousers, carrying a rolled-up umbrella, would pass me by on his way to town. I would also see him in town, chatting with people his age or doing a little shopping.

Later, I also noticed a younger man from the village, laboriously pushing his bicycle uphill, laden with plastic shopping bags. He would pause often on the way, squatting on the ground to rest before attempting a further stretch of the steep road. He did not make eye contact or return my greetings.

Then, I stopped seeing the elderly gentleman. He had died. I also learned that his wife used to carry home-made cakes on a shoulder pole for sale in Sai Kung. She had passed away before my time. The younger man, the last survivor of the village, was their son. The family had emigrated to Britain but returned to Hong Kong and to Wong Chuk Yeung for some reason.

As the years went by, the last survivor no longer had his bicycle. Instead, three dogs with matted fur would accompany him all the way to town and back. I would sometimes see him in town, feeding the dogs with scraps of bread, and reading crumpled racing sheets that he may have found in trash cans. At the village, I had noticed a ramshackle house with garbage strewn outside, the dogs loitering at the door barking fiercely at my approach. That’s perhaps where he lived.

Eventually, only one dog was left. For the last survivor, life must have been horrendous. The eerily quiet nights would have been fearsomely lonely, perhaps the ghosts of departed ancestors his only company. Occasionally, a police vehicle would pass me on the way to the village, so they must have been keeping an eye on his safety.

On my way down to Sai Kung town, splendid views of the island-studded bay, a golf course, and of a distant reservoir opened up. Although other hikers appeared on weekends, the road was mainly deserted during weekdays. Domestic helpers walking their employers’ dogs could be seen, but they too become fewer when the heat of summer set in. On some mornings, paragliders would be floating down towards Sai Kung town, adding colour to the clear blue sky.

Driving home from Sai Kung on a blisteringly hot afternoon, I saw the last survivor struggling home and stopped to give him a ride, going out of my way to the village. As my car struggled up the steep climb on first gear, we drove in silence. When he opened the door to get down, I extended my hand and said “George”. He repeated “Georgie” in the Cantonese style that I find so affectionate. Pointing to himself, he said “Li”. He had finally spoken.

Nasty” Developers

The front page banner headline in the South China Morning Post came like a bolt from the blue. Forgotten Wong Chuk Yeung was in the news, with a bang, for illegal deals between developers and villagers domiciled in Britain.


Villagers profit in secret land deals

Indigenous residents sign away small housing rights in exchange for HK$500,000 or a new flat at the site, which helps developers avoid rezoning and premiums

Cheung Chi-faiNov 04, 2011

The article mentioned that the village was 350-years old, and once contained 96 houses. Obviously a substantial village, although I had not seen that many ruins; some crumbling structures may have been covered by weeds, or dissolved into the ground. But, every plot had an owner, and the developers were methodically buying up all the plots.

I had been writing-up my visits to the village on a blogsite, along with photos, and former villagers now in Britain had been reading my entries. In the comments section of the blog, the following message appeared:

Hi George, found your blog and found it fascinating. Great pictures. This is my family’s village, it is a lovely village, though very run down I still like to go and visit it whenever I am in HK – with much sadness all the villagers involved have now signed the papers for the land to be sold off to a development company. Not everyone wanted this but the majority won and it is now in process of exchange. I am extremely sad about this as the land has a lot of history. The buildings, the wildlife (the numerous beautiful butterflies!) in the land all needs to be preserved – Hong Kong needs to preserve old ancestral lands such as Wong Chuk Yeung before it’s too late.

Another villager in Britain, fiercely proud of his heritage, commented that he “will do everything it takes for Wong Chuk Yeung to stay in the Li family name”. He, and the last survivor, Mr. Li, may be what stood between the village and “development” that would erase all traces of a bygone-era.


Last days

I stopped visiting the village, but would see Mr. Li in Sai Kung town, sitting at McDonalds, engrossed in a newspaper that appears to have been salvaged from the garbage. He held the paper very close to his face, which probably meant he was nearsighted. That may have also accounted for his shyness and avoidance of people, because he couldn’t see well.

Over the years, his favourite place in town had been the Hong Kong Jockey Club betting centre. Even in the last days I saw him, he would be squatting on the pavement near the betting centre, carefully reading the racing sheet. He had shirtless, shoeless, the bicycle and the dogs long gone. He was become much scrawnier and unkempt over the years. Even when I said “Hello Mr. Li”, he would not look up or return my greeting.

I left Sai Kung in 2015. Recently, I saw that the following message had been left on my blogsite:

I’m sorry to announce that the lone survivor died at the beginning of this year (2015) and within weeks the developers moved in and put up 10 foot high corrugated hoardings fencing off the land from the public access road. This is a major eyesore and even worse is the bulldozing of the trees and wildlife areas (lush green grasslands that covered former paddy fields that were farmed by the villagers in the 50s and 60s).

I wonder about Mr. Li’s last days. Were they as wretched as Punchi Menika’s in Beddegama? Did he die alone, and discovered days later, or did someone find him before it was too late?

As for Wong Chuk Yeung, I have no wish to return. I prefer to remember it from all those years ago.

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Midweek Review

The trust deficit



Nelum Kuluna: “It’s the folly of such investments that has created the debt problem.”


by Usvatte-aratchi


‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

George Orwell


When this government was elected to office, there was wild jubilation, almost countrywide. People danced in the streets. But totally unexpectedly that ecstasy lasted a short time. This was no more strongly revealed than when the Cardinal, the leader of the Roman Catholic community in the country, publicly prayed to God that as he and his community could not get justice from secular authority. May God mete out justice to those who destroyed the lives of many members of his community! It was a pitiful cry of desperation (crie de coeur) that touched many people, no matter their religious faith or lack thereof. There were several well-known members of the Bhikkhu Sangha, who spoke most unhappily about the government for betraying the undertakings that had been given to them, when the now government sought election to office. The betrayal was bitter to a large sections of the population when the saubhagyaya (plentifulness), so prominently promised by the winning political party in 2019, turned out to be simply its opposite in 2021. The impending economic austerity, after the yahapalanaya government, glared in the face of all thoughtful people in 2019 but the winning party impressed upon the electorate that the party had worked out strategies and policies that would bring in prosperity which the opponents failed to achieve. The public were not shown the strategies and policies. When something is too good to believe, it is either not genuine or not true. It was sheer stupidity on the part of the electorate to believe that the key to El Dorado was in the hands of one individual or even the few who were on the path of wisdom (viyath maga); perhaps, inevitable given the alternative. It took three serious unexpected disasters to persuade two ministers of the government to explain in Parliament the dire economic situation in the country and their lack of policies to meet those perilous challenges. The first was the invasion of the SARS-CoV-2 infection that came along with tourists. After a promising start, the government floundered helplessly in 2021, failing to use effectively a fine public health structure that had many victories to its credit, including control of malaria, elimination of polio, typhoid and DPT. In mid-2021, the death rate among those infected rose above 1 percent, double that which prevailed in May 2021 and yet better than in most parts of the world. The government could not make use of the work of government servants who had information on the location and the age of people who lived there (Electoral lists in the offices of grama niladhari). The disaster that the Ministry of Shipping cluelessly invited into our seas destroyed not merely the eco system but with it the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, not necessarily only along the coast. The claim by a government minister that deaths on a large scale of sea creatures, both large and small, soon after the shipping disaster, was a regular feature in the stormy season (varakan) was shockingly disingenuous. The government handled both these disasters so incompetently that the electorate lost whatever trust they had about the government’s capacity to govern the country. The ill-timed policy to eliminate the use of synthetic chemicals in agriculture (which itself is not a bad idea in an ideal world) raised the ire of the mass of peasants and farmers and threatened the supply of food in the country and the continued production of tea and rubber. The persistent assertion by the Minister of Agriculture that there was plentiful fertiliser, herbicides and pesticides flew in the face of demonstrations by thousands of cultivators all around the country. Are these protestors true hirelings of fertiliser importers? The threat to import organic fertiliser is fraught with untold dangers, because that fertilizer carries organisms that could be dangerous to human, animal and plant health, here. More directly, that policy openly contradicted the pledges given in the manifesto of the party that fertiliser would be given to peasants free and freely.

In liberal democracies, governance is a matter of trust between the government and the governed. Governments are elected by the people periodically on the basis of manifestoes issued by political parties in which the parties lay out the policies that they would implement, if elected to office. Some unexpected emergencies inevitably arise and the policies they adopt to meet those emergencies must be governed by approaches to policy announced in their manifesto. The governed expect that government has spoken honestly in their manifestoes and would implement them in the people’s interest and not for the pecuniary gains of those that govern. When parties seeking office (not power, as we commonly say) systematically lie to seek election and the voters are either not sharp enough to see through the falsehoods or are swayed by other propaganda, (e.g. finding a small ethnic or religious group in the country whose electoral strength is petty, against whom a political party can whip up a frenzy) governments have a problem retaining the trust of the governed. ‘These leaders might invoke a lost imperial grandeur …. (Rajarata, in our case). They adopt sophisticated propaganda techniques (which may include events of spectacular destruction) in which to demolish adversaries and bolster their own egos… This charisma is leveraged to project an aura of virility that is supposed to protect a helpless citizenry against lawlessness and an endangered nation against the invasive impurities of alien and internal enemies.’ (Ariel Dorfman, 2021.) When lying came to light, the governed lost trust in government.

A fortnight ago, two Ministers who spoke in Parliament to defend the decision of the government to raise the prices of petroleum products (which itself is reasonable) laid out clearly, for the first time, the economic plight of the nation and the impecuniosity of the government. One was the redoubtable Bandula Gunawardana; the other, the lawyer Gammanpila. Later the new Minister of finance, whilst taking office, spoke about the ‘grave situation (bararum thatvaya)’ of the economy and the finances. We wish him well, in a difficult job. Why did it take 21 months for the government to take the people into confidence and explain the dire situation of the economy and the finances when they took over from the yahapalanaya government? There was, then, the added advantage of an escape goat ready for slaughter, a second time.


The government was so keen on standing by their propaganda that the president, soon after taking office, abolished the PAYE scheme, drastically reduced both direct and indirect taxes and renewed his promise to give new employment to hundreds of thousands of university graduates, which promise he fulfilled later under pressure. (The public were told, very late, that tax revenue had fallen sharply in 2020.) Independent observers were taken aback by these decisions which may have been so enthusiastically adopted only by a government, with an economy with strong sinews and a Treasury with bottomless reserves. The public awaited a miracle. They should not have, because the horn of plenty is only a fairy tale for toddlers not economics for adults. In government, one should have ‘soft hearts and hard heads’ and not the other way around, which seems to be partly the problem with the new government.

Now that some members of the government have given expression to the true nature of the economic situation and the financial imbroglio of the government, what about the way out of these predicaments? There was widespread antipathy to the idea of seeking assistance from IMF on account of the eventual necessity to agree to conditions they would lay down to come to the assistance of the economy. The IMF lays down those conditions because it wants to ensure that the objectives it sets out to achieve, require countries to follow those policies. The IMF conditions that the government disapproved of included austerity measures to ensure that the economy has a surplus with which to service debt. (It is the obverse of more resources than we produced when we borrowed from abroad.) There is no escape from seeking such drop in the domestic use of domestical output to pay back debts incurred. In addition, there was an equally widespread objection to seeking assistance from abroad and much enthusiasm for working out our own solutions. These strategies and policies now on display feature the following. There is widespread austerity in the country, fulfilling the first condition that could have been demanded by the IMF. The supply of goods of all kinds has fallen. That scarcity has resulted from many measures that government implemented. The direct reduction of imports is the most visible. Any shopper in a supermarket can observe empty shelves. Fertiliser and agrochemicals are scarce. The Covid epidemic, the shipping disaster and the scarcity of fertiliser and agrochemicals will reduce incomes cutting down total demand and demand for imports. The other means of enforcing austerity is to raise prices to make goods and services beyond the budget of most people. Fortuitously, the fall in employment has reduced levels of income and cut down living conditions. Printing money large scale brought about the rise in prices. Whether the government wished it or not, austerity which IMF would have recommended is here with us. No matter which party formed the government, this austerity was inevitable, not because we borrowed but because we invested foolishly. The public are in austerity. What is absent is a programme to reschedule debt repayment.

Individuals, corporations and governments all borrow and prosper out of debt. The secret is in the uses made of the loan proceedings. Large scale borrowing was resorted to in the years 2010-2015. We had been impoverished by a long drawn out civil war. Borrowing was welcomed by society because there were large scale projects, employment in construction ran high and the rate of economic growth was elevated. By 2015, the rate of growth had come down and the government was voted out of office. Among other reasons, the poor performance of the economy was of major importance. With large investments in the early years which helped raise the growth of the economy, the failure of the investments to raise output (summarily, high incremental capital/output ratios – ICOR) dampened the rate of growth. The failure of investments to earn a return on it was all too clear to see: Hambantota Port still does not make an adequate return; the International Conference Hall lies idle; Mattala airport receives an occasional flight; Nelum Pokuna has a more attractive garden than audiences shouting acclaim for plays on its fine stage; and the Nelum Kuluna stands solitary guard over the Colombo Port City. It is the folly of these investments that created the debt problem, not borrowing itself. Yahapalanaya government failed to realise that unless they explained to the public the dire situation in the country and imposed austerity to pay back the loans, that they would hand over to the successor government a debt burden impossible to bear. That is exactly what has happened. Saubhagya government that succeeded the Yahapalanaya government completely failed to read the economy correctly or imagined that they could hoodwink the public to believe that they had strategies and policies to meet these exigencies. The public evidently took in the latter, hook, line and sinker. That the same strategist who promoted the infrastructure programmes in 2010-2015 was appointed today to manage the economy and that his first project was an infrastructure project is cause for deep concern.

We need to put in place a programme to restructure debt service payments so that the government can manage to avoid a catastrophic further fall in living standards of the people. To agree to reschedule debt repayment, creditors need an organization, in which they have faith, that it will enforce an agreed upon reschedule. Most of the time that organization has been the IMF. Interest rates in international capital markets have begun to rise with widespread fears of incipient inflation in developed countries. The prices of materials like aluminum, copper and rare minerals have been rising for several months. The tendency for interest rates to rise is further strengthened by the initiative of central banks to disgorge their bursting portfolios of financial assets. The cheap credit regime may have come to an end. A reschedule itself may be now more expensive than earlier.

If the government does not wish to use the IMF, they will have to find a substitute. There are no other solutions.

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Midweek Review

From ‘multi-ethnicity’ to multiculturalism



by Susantha Hewa

Being able to speak only one language (monolingualism) is becoming the exception rather than the rule. More and more Sri Lankans whose home language is either Sinhala or Tamil are learning English as their second language (L2). Not many Sinhala speakers or Tamil speakers select each other’s language, namely, Tamil or Sinhala as their L2 for a few obvious reasons.

With due respect to both Sinhala and Tamil, neither of them has the social recognition that English commands in this country. Secondly, being perhaps the widest read and spoken global language, English has a utility value far exceeding that of Sinhala or Tamil, for all those who engage in higher studies, research, preparing for private sector employment, administrative work, translation, journalism and diplomatic service, among others. Many graduates realise at job interviews that a good command of English can often eclipse academic excellence, which has resulted in English becoming a major ingredient in all recipes for gainful ‘employability.’ In short, proficiency in English can be a big bonus for anybody aspiring to move ahead in any chosen path. That monolingualism among Sinhala or Tamil speakers is now appearing to be an anomaly and a deprivation needs little persuasion. However, opinions differ on how early a child should start learning English as his L2 to reap all its benefits. Is early exposure to an L2 harmful? Will it make him culturally rootless?

Let’s take an example from the Sri Lankan context. It’s not news that if a child’s parents spoke two languages, say, Sinhala and Tamil, the child would learn to speak both almost equally fluently provided that they were spoken often enough at home. So quite reasonably, she will have two mother tongues – Sinhala and Tamil, and thus be a bilingual if she were to continue speaking both languages into her adulthood. Alternatively, if only one language was spoken to the exclusion of the other at home she would be monolingual, which could be described as an instance of a lost opportunity given the time and difficulty involved in learning the other language at a later stage. What’s more, the former who acquires both languages simultaneously will have an edge over the latter in more ways than being fluent in two languages.

For instance, she would develop a better empathy with the speakers of either language and an increased awareness of their respective cultures, language being the most pervasive and fluid transmitter of the shared values of a community. Surely, it would be a better option than being excluded from one ethos depending on which of the two languages is to be her home language. Further, the exposure to two cultures would be an excellent opportunity for her to take a balanced view of both and grow up to be more unbiased about each. Such a child is unlikely to be overemotional about one culture and will find herself at home with either community as a grownup. Thirdly, as linguists point out, a bilingual is better adapted than a monolingual to learn a new language. Thus, early bilinguals in general will be more versatile than monolinguals in socialising, language learning and more open-minded about and less susceptible to synthetic divisions based on imagined/self-imposed identities. In other words, multilingualism may significantly bring down the volatility inherent in the so-called “multi-ethnic” societies.

Our longstanding tradition of being moulded by a single culture with only one home language may urge us to cast doubts about the soundness of being multilingual/multicultural from childhood, prompting us to consider it a denial of the right to have firm roots in a single culture. However, those who entertain this view may perhaps be ardent believers of “uniqueness” and “sanctity” of each culture- those who rely on “purity of stock” to be the mainstay of best human behaviour. Just take the above example of the bilingual child. If her Tamil speaking father or Sinhala speaking mother was adamant that only his or her language would be spoken at home wouldn’t it lead to a serious crisis? Can anyone determine with any justification whether mother or father’s decision should carry the day? On what grounds can anyone say that one linguistic/cultural environment is better than or superior to the other? If the parents had saner heads they would let the language mix be a blessing in disguise instead of making it a recipe for disaster. Surely, it would apply with equal validity on the broad canvas of society.

Come to think of it, it is usually our cultural seclusion that makes us feel rootless when we are placed in an unfamiliar social milieu as a grown up, which is more likely than not in the modern world where many cannot afford to stick to one job or place for long. Young children who migrate find it easier to adapt to the new setting than their parents do. As we have seen, children living in multicultural settings don’t seem to suffer any “rootlessness” whatsoever; on the contrary, they are often more confident and skilled in socializing. A bicultural is unlikely to be feeling any more estranged than an amphibian in water. It is often the insularity resulting from our cultural segregation in childhood that seems to prompt us to demonize cultural intermixing as a dangerous dilution, or worse, an out and out contamination of “inherited” values.

As such, linguistic “isolation” in childhood may contribute in no small measure to the emergence and hardening of divisive feelings continually attributed to “ethnicity” – a label which has always proved to be more harmful than useful. If bilingualism or, better still, multilingualism can dilute this unserviceable sense of segregation, why thwart it? Can we think of any instance where humans have run in to a crisis for not knowing who belonged to what “ethnicity?”

However, being a bilingual from the cradle is too good to be true. In most families, children have to be content with one home language, often, Tamil or Sinhala. Thus, to compensate for this customary language seclusion in early childhood, the L2 has to be made available to children as early as possible. As linguists claim, changes in brain plasticity make delayed L2 learning more taxing- the older you get the more laborious it becomes. In the L2 learning continuum, the earlier you start, the closer you are to the natural L1 acquisition process, which gradually shifts from its “acquisition mode” to a more artificial “learning mode” as you age, and the latter is far less effective than the former notwithstanding the extra time and effort it requires. Furthermore, while early acquisition of an L2 tends to be more comprehensive and enriching, late learning is often narrowly focused and inhibited. Many adult learners, for example, a good number of undergraduates grudgingly learn it to fulfill a necessary condition to get their degree certificate and “be employable.”

A child’s growing inhibition towards learning a second language with the passing of years is nowhere more manifest than in universities where students wanting in English language skills are conspicuous in their absence in kaduwa classes. Thus, undoubtedly, the most prudent, scientific and result-oriented approach to teaching English, or any L2 for that matter, is to focus on primary and secondary level students without delaying it until their language learning mechanisms have risen to their, so to speak, “level of incompetence.”

Surely, university entrants aren’t at their best age to contend with English because they are in an age category in which their L2 assimilation mechanism is shifting gear from acquisition to learning. The most affected by this change are those whose medium of instruction happens to be English. Their lack of proficiency in English, which is the result of inadequate exposure to it during their primary and secondary education, makes them pay a heavy price now, at least in three ways. Firstly, it makes them cut kaduwa classes to avoid looking “foolish” in the presence of their more privileged colleagues. It also drastically reduces their grasp of academic lectures, which directly affects their performance at exams, especially, in the first semester. What is most unfair is that in a system in which the first semester grades of the academic subjects determine their eligibility for field selection, those who get lower grades due to their lack of English language skills but with no deficiency in cognitive skills, are often denied of getting into their desired field. This is just one undesirable outcome of prolonged monolingualism, which can be easily avoided by placing more emphasis on early bilingualism.

Therefore, the most prudent, profitable and scientific approach to teaching English as an L2 is to focus on the young students in primary and secondary grades which will ease the pressure exerted on undergraduates who are compelled to mug up English for passing exams and be “employable.” A good command of the English language can help create a level playing for all new entrants. Only a few of them enter university to study English as a subject and all those who learn other subjects – particularly, those who study in the English medium must not be penalized for being deficient in it. After all they belong to the brightest bulbs of our youth. That English is given an excessive importance in higher studies amounts to making those who lack kaduwa pay for the “sins” of a flawed L2 teaching system, which is made absurdly top-heavy to compensate for the lack of sufficient attention given to English in early years.

With so much evidence in support of early bilingualism, ‘better late than never’ policy would only be a good joke when it comes to teaching English as an L2 in our country. In a broader sense, making English accessible to all young students may help reduce the ills of an unproductive and costly “multi-ethnic” system, which should have long been upgraded to a truly multilingual and multicultural system sans “ethnic” fault lines. Bilinguals will outdo monolinguals even if we are forced to learn another language- let it be any language from China to Peru.



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