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Science, Non-science and Nonsense

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By Dr. SARATH GAMINI De SILVA

I congratulate Dr. Upul Wijayawardena for his honest opinion expressed in The Island of 5th March. The following is a further illustration of how the professionals are playing political games to further their own interests, with no concern for the health and well-being of the nation. Over the past few years, we have seen much untruths, hypocrisy and myths being propagated by professionals, misleading the ignorant public, creating social unrest, and even violence.

The campaign conducted blaming the fertilizer glyphosate as a cause of the epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin in the farming areas, mainly in the North Central province, was one burning issue then. There was no scientific evidence to prove this, despite the efforts of some professors in the medical faculty to find some. However, the importation of the fertilizer was banned mostly due to political expediency. One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so. When a visiting Sri Lankan expatriate doctor claiming to be a researcher in the field was asked, he could name only a small country still contemplating doing so. He was lost for words to answer probing questions on the matter. His research has since been discredited in the USA. How the ban adversely affected productivity in the agricultural sector in Sri Lanka has never been assessed or discussed. Fortunately, the ban has been revoked now, and glyphosate is used freely for tea and coconut cultivation.

How the issue of sterilization of women in Kurunegala without consent, propagated mainly by monks and medical men with no expertise in women’s health, is still fresh in our memory. It caused so much communal disharmony and even violence. The issue has now been conveniently forgotten with no punitive action taken against either the accused doctor, if he was guilty, or against the people who knowingly created all that mayhem, possibly for political gain.

The more recent episode of promoting scientifically unproven native medicine for Covid-19 caused much harm to the pandemic control programme. A quack was allowed to defraud the public, amassing much wealth. It was disappointing to see a professor of pharmacology in allopathic medicine as well as leading politicians including the Minister of Health, and the Speaker of Parliament openly advocating the questionable decoction. An earlier attempt to promote a similar decoction for use in state hospitals was thwarted by objections raised by a professional association. How the public was allowed to ignore the public health guidance to prevent the spread of the disease in attempts to obtain the medicine is deplorable. It was hilarious how even armed forces personnel in uniform were standing in the queue. The matter is now almost forgotten, after the Minister of Health herself fell seriously ill with the disease, despite having taken the offensive medicine, and the quack making it opting to get vaccinated!

As Dr. Wijayawardena has mentioned, having first given publicity and freely advertising the questionable ‘medicine’, now a committee composed of all the professors of medicine in the country, has been appointed to conduct a ‘trial’ to verify its effectiveness! It is known that the way proper trials as done for allopathic medicine may not be performed on native medicines. I do not intend elaborating on this further, except to say that it is a colossal waste of valuable time and money for the busy medical teachers. As usual the matter may be forgotten in the course of time.

The issue of compulsory cremation of deaths due to Covid continues to be a raging controversy. The Ministry appointed expert committee of nine virologists, as well as the Sri Lanka Medical Association and the College of Community Physicians declared nearly three months ago that there was no scientific evidence whatsoever to say that the disease could spread by contaminating the underground water table if bodies are buried. Yet the authorities thought it fit to rely, perhaps for political reasons, on a solitary report with an opposing view provided by a committee consisting mainly of Judicial Medical Officers and non- medical geologists, both categories with no expertise in the field of viral diseases. Eventually, the government had to bow down to international pressure from human rights advocates to do what should have been done months ago. How much heartburn and unrest was caused to the community need not be stressed here.

Several leading doctors registered to practice allopathic medicine keep advising people on public media about unproven health benefits of various traditional food products and health practices. Some of these food products like the varieties of rice promoted are quite expensive, compared to commonly used ones. The main claim made is that these foods gave immense strength to warriors (“yodhayas”) who won wars in the times of ancient kings! One can remember some doctors promoting papaya extracts as a cure for dengue fever. With their reputation as qualified doctors people tend to believe them. The risk is that the people following such advice often ignore life saving guidelines with disastrous consequences. There is no doubt about the unethical nature of this practice.

The Medical Council of Switzerland recently removed a doctor from the medical register for speaking in public against the well-proven recommendations to control the spread of Covid like face masking, social distancing, vaccination, etc. The doctor claimed that his right to freedom of speech should be respected. However, the Medical Council held the view that a doctor cannot mislead the public, and now that he is no longer a registered medical practitioner, he will have the freedom to say whatever he wishes. On a similar basis, a medical doctor should not be allowed to smoke tobacco in public, thereby falsely reassuring gullible people that tobacco is harmless. Thus the message is that a doctor has no freedom of speech to speak on matters dealing with health not conforming to established knowledge, principles and practice. This should apply to other professionals as well when they deal with their discipline. Unfortunately, we find politicians, even the few professionals among them, are the most undisciplined with no ethics or principles in practicing their craft!

Doctors are registered with the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC) and are under obligation to strictly adhere to the long established ethical principles of the profession. When doctors speak on matters dealing with health, or for that matter on any issue based on science and common sense, people believe them due to the faith they have in their knowledge and wisdom. According to the Hippocratic Oath, doctors are supposed to practice the profession at all times with conscience, dignity, integrity, honesty and compassion. They are not supposed to consider among many other things, political affiliation in their dealings with the people. Beneficence and non maleficence (benefiting and not harming) to those under their care is a basic principle in the practice of medicine. We can only hope that the Sri Lanka Medical Council will emulate its Swiss counterpart in strictly disciplining the doctors registered with them.

Medicine and religion deal with physical and spiritual wellbeing of the people. Practitioners of both are guided by strict codes of ethics. Despite their various shortcomings and misdeeds being highlighted from time to time, the society still respects and believes what they say in view of the vital functions they perform. If they breach the codes of conduct much harm could be done to mankind. It is unfortunate that in several instances mentioned above, the doctors and Buddhist monks have joined together in causing havoc.

Nations are blessed when their leaders act with conscience doing good for the people. Lack of accountability is what seems to drive the politicians and their henchmen to mislead all. Sri Lanka is cursed by an entrenched system that seems to bring out the worst in men, leading to what appears to be collective suicide.



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Opinion

Bakeer Markar left his mark in every Lankan’s heart

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By Dr Harsha De Silva

Passionate in his noble thoughts with an undying belief in unity for the sake of peace, coexistence and, above all, the development of the nation, Deshamanya Al Haj Mohammed Abdul Bakeer Markar was a prominent lawyer, a formidable politician and a loving family man who has left his mark in every Sri Lankan’s heart.

It is very hard to eulogise any man, to capture in words the very intimate details of his life, and it is even harder to do so for a prominent figure in history, who moved a nation towards unity and harmony. However, I consider it a privilege to write about the remarkable life lived by Mohammed Abdul Bakeer Markar and will attempt to capture in words the true essence of his life.

Bakeer Markar was born into a respectable family in Beruwala in 1917. After completing his primary school education at St. Sebastian’s School, Hulftsdorp, he had the privilege of joining Zahira College, Colombo for his secondary education. He passed out as a lawyer and commenced his legal practice at the Kalutara Bar in 1950.

Due to the perseverance and study he put into his practice of the law, he had clients, both Sinhalese and Muslim, flocking to him. Legends are many of the several instances where he appeared for Sinhalese clients in cases filed against persons of his own community, thereby following discerningly the commandment in the Holy Quran that one must ‘stand up for justice’ even against one’s own kith and kin. Like it is said, he never wavered from the courage of his own convictions.

His initial steps into politics, was in 1946 when he was sub-warden at Zahira College, Colombo. Then Dr. T.B. Jayah contested the Labour Leader A.E. Goonesinghe at the General Elections of 1946, to the State Council. Bakeer Markar was entrusted the task of carrying out Dr. Jayah’s election campaign, which he did successfully. Dr. Jayah was elected Member of the State Council.

The leadership of Dr. Jayah was laudable. With this kind of inspiration, experience, and the taste of political nectar, Bakeer Markar pursued in the footsteps of his political guru Dr. T.B. Jayah. Bakeer Markar began his political career as a young member of the Beruwala Urban Council in 1950. It would have been evident even at the time, where this young and amateur politician was heading when he was elected Chairman of the Council in his first year as a member.

Early in his political career at the Urban Council, he earned a name as a servant of the people; an honest, hardworking and approachable man with excellent knowledge of his constituency and its citizens. That reputation naturally paved the way for him to become the Member of Parliament for Beruwala and later the highest position in the Parliament of Sri Lanka, the Speaker of the House in 1978.

His time as the Speaker earned him respect and appreciation from parliamentarians of both sides of the House. He continued to serve as the Speaker until 1983 when he was appointed a Cabinet Minister without portfolio. After ending his parliamentary career, he was appointed as the first Governor of the Southern Province.

Given the sweep of his life, the scope of his accomplishments, the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is appropriate to remember Bakeer Markar as an icon whose qualities set him apart from everybody else. His memory is still fresh in the minds of the Sri Lankan people as a man of robust principle and strong character, never seeking wealth or glory through his political ambitions and responsibilities.

His home electorate of Beruwala is and has always been, a complete image of the diverse ethnic and religious communities of Sri Lanka. Engaging these various groups towards a common cause and a shared political goal was never to be an easy task. Only a man of exceptional character and an unwavering will, like Bakeer Markar, had the ability to do so.

“Though I belonged to the minority community, I was able to enter the national and international arena only because I was able to go forward with the majority community,” were words spoken by Bakeer Makar himself as an advocate of national unity. In the name of harmony and unity, Bakeer Makar was a prominent figure at the Beruwala Urban Council who pushed the moving of the resolution to recognise the Sinhala language as the official language. In his efforts to unite the Muslim youth with the Sinhalese, Bakeer Makar earned the affectionate nickname “Sinhala Bakeer”.

Further, he wholeheartedly supported the policy adopted by then Leader of the Opposition J. R. Jayewardene to avoid stirring the simmering anger of a vast section of the public of Sri Lanka towards violence. Moreover, speaking on the special allowance to plantation workers on 6 October 1965, he spoke on behalf of the estate workers, referring to them as “Ceylonese” which emphasised his vision “one identity under one nation”. He believed and espoused the true spirit of equality for everyone.

Bakeer Marker secured a special place in the hearts of the people as he worked tirelessly to change the lives of poor and desperate. Economic policies of Sri Lanka from 1970-1977 which created hardships for most people, made Bakeer Makar see the harshness of poverty and the struggle of the poor in the country. He knew the only way to change the lives of the poor was to change the government.

Bakeer Marker’s remarkable contribution towards the United National Party is not to be forgotten. With a strong will and lasting belief in fellowship, he worked tirelessly to support the regrouping of a demotivated United National Party after the catastrophic defeat at the parliamentary election in 1970. His work in the party, especially in the Kalutara District was an illustration of the positive contribution he and few other politicians made towards reorganising the party network and regrouping its members.

His victory at the General Elections of 1977 was the dazzling landmark of his political career. At this General Election, he was returned with a remarkable majority of 27,000 votes, with a total poll of 49,000 votes. This electoral victory of 1977 was a historic gift to the respectful minority.

On 4 August 1977, he was elected Deputy Speaker. This was a short stint. He was thereafter elected to the high office of Speaker on 21 September 1978, being the unanimous choice of the Government and the Opposition. He was the last Speaker of the old Parliament at Galle Face and the first Speaker of the new Parliament in Sri Jayewardenepura.

On his elevation to the position of Speaker, he stood by the great traditions and decorum of the Speaker’s Office. He did not want to be a nominal Speaker, merely presiding at parliamentary sessions. The Office of Speaker was made most significant. The mace was not any more mere symbolic. The Speaker’s mace was made the due symbol of authority. The Speaker’s traditional robe was reintroduced, which to this day has its glamour. Dignity was restored and redefined to the Speaker’s office.

Above all, Speaker Bakeer Markar saw to it that the annual audit of the Parliamentary administration was brought under the direct supervision of the Auditor General, making Parliamentary affairs and administration transparent. As the Speaker, he also maintained an excellent rapport with the diplomatic community. Further, he made sure a roster was drawn to ensure that equal opportunities were given to all Members of Parliament to go abroad on official duties.

Bakeer Markar was internationally renowned and countries in the Middle East and the Far East held him in high esteem as he proved to be a great Ambassador of goodwill for Sri Lanka. He went on to excel in international relations and established close connections with the Iraqi Government. Through this connection, he built an entire village in Eravur, in the East. He was the founder President of the Iraq-Sri Lanka Friendship Association and remained in that position until his demise. He was fortunate that he did not witness the dismemberment of Iraq which would have grieved him immensely.

In addition to his extraordinary political career, Bakeer was an extraordinary humanitarian. Large gatherings from all walks of life were constantly seen at his Arab Road residence in Beruwala and each individual was attended to their satisfaction. He attended weddings and funerals and went wherever and whenever he was needed as President of the Muslim League Youth Front. He travelled to all corners of the country, continuously meeting people and addressing their needs. All petitions and requests were perused in his chambers and the relevant ministers were summoned to deal with and give redress to the humanitarian problems of all concerns.

He was also known for advising his security to ensure that the public was made comfortable when visiting him, for he believed that without the support of the common man he would not have reached the heights in life that he has. It was precisely this goodness in his heart that he carried and the deeply embedded love he had for his people that makes him unforgettable.

Bakeer Markar’s legacy lives on through his children and grandchildren. The public standing and love his eldest son Imthiaz Bakeer Markar is enjoying throughout the island is a testimony to this. Imthiaz Bakeer Markar similar to his father, is a well-respected, politician and a man of robust principle and strong character. His grandchildren Asaf, Azam, Fadhil, and Insaf continue to carry on their grandfather’s legacy by working tirelessly towards social justice and equality. I take this opportunity to remember not only the soul of Abdul Bakeer Markar but also the young and wise soul of his loving grandson Adhil Bakeer Markar.

This giant in history demonstrated that action and ideas are not enough and that no matter how right, they must be chiselled into law and institutions. Bakeer Marker was not afraid to compromise for the sake of a larger goal. He was not only a leader of a movement that pushed for equality and unity but also a skilful politician who understood the ties that bind the human spirit.

With a strong belief in reconciliation and coexistence and a will to contribute in his utmost capacity towards the harmonious development of the nation, there was a tone of sadness in his final address to the Parliament when he stated, “It is my regret that I shall no longer be with you when you add chapter to shining chapter in Sri Lanka’s history.”

He dreamt further when he said: “The time is not far off when Ceylon will sit in the Assembly of Nations, as a well-developed country and take its rightful place there and play its role.” This goes on to show Abdul Bakeer Markar’s deep-seated love for his nation, every community that makes Sri Lanka the beautiful diverse island it is, and his undying belief of the heights the nation can reach coupled with his vision “one identity under one nation”.

It is no doubt that his political legacy and the memory of his magnificent soul continue to secure a hopeful future for Sri Lanka and all its people.

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Opinion

Another ruse?

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Reading about the indictment for murder brought against Hemasiri Fernando, former Secretary of Defence, and the former IGP, I was tempted to look up a legal dictionary which said that murder is an intentionally committed criminal offence, whereas manslaughter or homicide are offences committed unintentionally causing loss of life.

As a former public officer of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service, I remember a similar charge of intention to commit murder brought against a Minister or his deputy in the 1970s, when Felix Dias Bandaranaike was a senior minister of the Sirima Bandaranaike’s government, over the throwing of a chair by the Minister concerned on a trade unionist Teacher of the Department of Education. The case was thrown out if I remember right, on the ground that there was no such murderous intention on the part of the government politico.

It was pretty obvious then that the charge had been artfully magnified and manipulated to get the case thrown out of court.

Is this another such instance of pulling the wool over the eyes of the public, to forestall the case of charges being levelled against a former President?

KANTO FERNANDO

Pitipana

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Opinion

Importance of Humanities in Education

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These days if one writes outside the subject of Covid one runs the risk of being ignored by the editor, or by the readers if published. However, education is too vital a subject, and education reforms are being contemplated in Sri Lanka, and one cannot wait until Covid abates. In this regard the relevance and importance of humanities ie subjects like literature, history, philosophy, languages and art have been discussed in these columns. People who view higher education as a training for employment and think in terms of STEM (science, technology, engineering,mathematics) education, as the most important and essential type of education a country needs, speak almost in derision of subjects like history, art and pose the question what could anybody do with such knowledge except teach the same to another person.

However, the purpose of education has to be much broader than training for employment. It must also instill human qualities such as sensitivity, generosity, unselfishness, tolerance, ability to understand different points of view etc., and it is a broad education which includes subjects like literature, history etc that could do this. In short, humanities are supposed to make a human out of you. In this sense humanities may be important for employment, also and employers may look for these qualities.

We have used literature, religion, art, music, language and philosophy to understand the world and man. This knowledge is different from what science would give us about the nature of the world. This knowledge gives us the opportunity to connect with those who came before us, as well as, with our contemporaries and learn about their achievements and their mistakes. Such knowledge tells us where we have been and gives us a vision about where we should go. The history of Sri Lanka, for instance, tells us how we were threatened by foreign invasions in the past, and helps us to understand the present threat of foreign interference and ways and means of evading such threats. Literature apart from being capable of giving so much pleasure has the ability to mould the character of a person, by showing him different aspects of life. This knowledge is as important as the scientific understanding of the world; one complements the other and knowledge is incomplete if one is lacking.

In the secondary stage of education, i.e. year six to eight in Sri Lanka, the foundation for this broad knowledge has to be built with as many subjects as possible included in the curriculum, but without burdening the student, as done at present, with too much detail. In this regard one cannot choose arts, maths, commerce or science as the stream one would follow, but select the number of subjects to cover the required broad base, out of a basket that would include all the important subjects that interest the human inquiring mind. This arrangement would not only give a broad education, it will also give the students with different talents and interests the opportunity to choose the subjects they like, and to make a decision about what subjects they would like to pursue in their higher education.

Giving such an opportunity to students in their formative years could result in the birth of great scientists, artists, writers, musicians, mathematicians and philosophers and all with human qualities. Humanities would make an intellectual out of a scientist. Further, research studies have shown that students who have studied humanities in primary and secondary education as part of a well-rounded curriculum, are more engaged in academics as a whole, read better, write better, think more critically, and go on to do higher education more often.

We must not forget that most human situations defy a single correct answer, that life itself is rarely if ever as precise as a math problem, as clear as an elegant equation. Science and mathematics do not have all the answers to the human predicament, for instance. From poverty to climate change the challenges in our age are connected with human nature. Scientific solutions alone do not very often work. Humanities help students gain historical and cultural perspectives and critical thinking skills that help them collaborate with people. Such skills would enable them to communicate, listen, explain and inspire. They would be better equipped to find solutions to problems that always have a human element. Given the state of the country and the world, humanities are more important than ever.

Learning humanities in early stages of education would help to grapple with complex moral issues, help us understand what goes inside us, and show us what it means to be a human being. Such abilities in leaders and decision makers would give them a broader and more diverse range of ideas, and the knowledge to better run a business or governments. Most of our politicians may be lacking in such education, and this may be why they haven’t been able to solve the problems our country faces since independence.

Education system in Sri Lanka compartmentalizes the students into science, arts, commerce, etc,. at the GCE ‘A’ Level. This precludes a student from pursuing studies in subjects belonging to more than one stream, even if he has a talent and interest in them. Moreover, he may be forced to do subjects that he does not like. Such combinations may be difficult in the case of students who want to do professional courses like medicine and engineering, but for others cannot mathematics and literature for instance be included in one basket of subjects in the GCE ‘A’ Level exam, and cannot students who follow such programmes continue their interest in the university too.

In the Sri Lankan universities there is no opportunity for students to follow programmes that are a mixture of science and art. It may be difficult to make provision for the study of both science and arts subjects in our universities as the separation starts early. Yet, the importance of such education has to be mentioned here, because of the vital importance of education of humanities at the highest level. In developed countries there is a lot of flexibility in the choice of subjects, and there are opportunities for students to study subjects they like. They have double degree programmes that enable students to get two degrees in different subjects, history and mathematics for instance. Our universities could think of starting inter-faculty study programmes to begin with, in order to prevent the total disappearance of humanities. Research has shown that brutalization of attitudes of doctors could be prevented by having modules in literature, music etc in their undergraduate programmes. In developed countries some medical schools have incorporated such modules in their curricula.

It is said that the demand for humanities courses in the universities is dwindling due to the lack of job opportunities for arts graduates. Further, the students who enter arts courses do so as they have no other option. Facilities for science education are lacking in many rural schools. Government must adopt the policy that both science, as well as humanities, are vital for education, and make an effort to improve the facilities for their learning in schools. As for employment, there are so many jobs that arts graduates could do as they don’t lack creativity and problem-solving ability. Their communication skills, English knowledge and IT literacy may be weak at present, and this could be the reason for their low employability.

N. A. de S. AMARATUNGA

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