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Midweek Review

Shakespeare in a takarang shed

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by GEORGE BRAINE

In a tribute to Prof. Ashley Halpe, his daughter recently wrote about the time he was “forced to give his lectures in a takarang shed”. That triggered my nostalgic memories, of sitting in those takarang sheds, both as a teacher and a student. This is that story.

But, let me begin at the beginning. In 1973, I was teaching English at a remote school in Uva, when the Vidyalankara campus advertised for English instructors. I was called for a written test, and, to my amazement, nearly 200 applicants had turned-up. I thought my chances were nil. Surprisingly, after a follow-up interview, I was selected ­– one of only three appointees.

Vidyalankara campus sat on a hill, at Kelaniya, not far from the Colombo – Kandy road. As one climbed the hill, back in the mid-1970s, the sports ground and the convocation hall would be on the left, followed by the science block and the library. On the right were the student centre and a dormitory for female students. Teachers travelled from home and students lived mostly in nearby boarding house. A no-frills, commuter campus.

After walking past these buildings, one descended the hill to a strange sight: a scattering of low slung takarang (zinc sheeted) buildings on either side of the road. On the left, one long structure housed the English department. On the right, a number of buildings housed the sub-department of English, offering general English courses to students of all majors. These courses were taught by a host of instructors, mainly English trained teachers like me. English majors, on the other hand, attended lectures conducted by professors, lecturers, and assistant lecturers.

The takarang sheds were spread among coconut palms, each consisting of a number of classrooms. The walls, which rose to about six feet, were made of cement blocks, crudely white-washed, topped by wire mesh. The roofs were zinc sheets, dented by falling coconuts and branches. The classrooms were hot, the teaching method was chalk-and-talk, and the students sat passively, bored, their minds elsewhere. On rainy days, the sound of rain on the roof was deafening, and all chairs were soon wet, not drying for days.

Vidyalankara, having been a pirivena (monastic college), enrolled a large number of young Buddhist monks. They were the better students, but, the longer they stayed at the university, the less inclined they were to remain in robes. Perhaps, the easy interaction with female students showed them the disadvantages of a celibate life.

After the 1971 insurrection, Vidyalankara had been a camp for captured “Che Guevarists”, and their kurutu gee (poetic graffiti) could still be seen in the basement of the science building. A few years later, a group of trainee math teachers were brutally ragged in that basement. Already, JVP led, Marxist-oriented student unions were making a comeback.

The senior common room, actually a partitioned off space on a staircase landing, is where all teachers, irrespective of rank, met and mixed. We chatted, read newspapers and magazines, had a cup of tea, and played carrom. One player I partnered was Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, having previously known him at Maharagama Teachers’ College. A man of few words, with a disdainful stare that made lesser mortals uncomfortable, he wore his shirt halfway buttoned that displayed his hairy chest, and the sleeves rolled up just below the elbow. He was already a well-known poet, and is now acknowledged as perhaps Sri Lanka’s best, writing in English.

A few years after joining, I was given permission to enroll full-time for a special degree in English at Vidyalankara itself. So I led a double life, an instructor and a student at the same time. As a student, I came into close contact with other students majoring in English, mainly young and female, as well as the teachers who taught them. My group of special degree students had five young females and me, the only male and a good 10 years older than my classmates. This was when English was cynically nicknamed kaduwa (sword). What I soon realized was that, despite their shabby appearance, the takarang sheds also sheltered inspiring and passionate teachers.

Prof. Doric de Souza was renowned among them. A Trotskyite politician and a Marxist theoretician, and a contemporary of NM Perera, Colvin R. de Silva, and Philip Gunawardena, Doric – tall, bald and slightly stooped – had a commanding personality. He had been a senator and a permanent secretary of a ministry, but dressed simply, in a bush shirt and cotton pants. He addressed students as Mr. or Miss. He never brought politics into the classroom.

Doric taught The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s 14th century classic. The tales were related by a motley collection of pilgrims, including a knight, a prioress, a monk, a man of law, a scholarly clerk, a miller, a wife of Bath and many others. Doric’s mode of teaching was to read the text in his sonorous voice, pausing to explain and ask for our questions and opinions.

Some tales contain explicit descriptions of debauchery. On the day the Miller’s Tale was to be discussed, the female classmates (young enough to be his grandchildren) waited, sitting upright with bated breath, staring at Doric mischievously, wondering how he would handle the bawdy parts. Doric was up to the mark, and, looking down on the text, read right through the lines, without a pause, explanation or question! The scene is etched in my mind.

Doric once invited me and two other instructors to the 80 Club for drinks, where the actor Gamini Fonseka stopped by our table to mention how much he admired Doric, whom he addressed as Sir. One instructor, a smart aleck, got into an argument with Gamini.

Those were the days of strict foreign exchange controls, and even essential textbooks for our courses were not freely available. The library was bereft of books, the shelves for English language and literature holding only a few tattered, outdated volumes. (Instead, the shelves were bulging with the thick volumes of the collected speeches of Kim Il-Sung, donated by the North Korean Embassy, and read by no one.) All this meant that we did not have secondary sources, or access to literary criticism. So, in tutorials, we wrote mainly what we had noted down in lectures. The lecturers would have found the endless repetition of their own ideas returning to them in student tutorials utterly boring.

AMG Sirimanne was perhaps the most popular and inspiring teacher. He did not have a commanding presence, nor did he stick to the text, interposing the lecture with anecdotes, usually funny. He taught Wordsworth with passion, taking us away from the mundane surroundings to a green and pleasant land, to a time of romance and places of natural beauty. He deftly added pithy statements in Sinhala to his lectures, and we barely noticed the intrusion. Sirimanne had a thriving tuition class for AL students, and that, in the eyes of his colleagues, somewhat lessened his standing as a scholar. But not in ours.

Teachers often adopt the teaching styles of their favourite teachers. In retrospect, I realize that Sirimanne was my model. I, too, would rarely stick to the textbook, mixing anecdotes and jokes as I taught.

Here’s a Sirimanne anecdote. When he was in the USA, studying on a scholarship, a parcel had arrived addressed to him. Sirimanne was summoned to the post office, and the parcel opened before him by a counter clerk. Upon seeing and smelling the contents, the clerk exclaimed “What’s this? Sh*t?” They were lumps of maldive fish.

Ranjith Gunewardena, fondly nicknamed “Ranjith Goonda” by the students, taught poetry in translation. His forte was the Spanish poet Anthonio Machado. In his rough smoker’s voice, Ranjith didn’t teach, but performed, his soaring voice and passion carrying him away. Himself a product of Vidyalankara, and equally fluent in Sinhala and English, he would shock his sheltered, privileged students with profanities. Behind that idiosyncratic, devil-may care personality, was a tender heart. He called me “machang” (we were similar in age). In fact, he had many “machangs”.

A few years ago, I sat next to a Spaniard on a flight. As we talked, I told him about the Machado poems I had read in the 70s, and still cherished. Then I recited the opening lines of “To José María Palacio”, Machado’s bitter sweet poem of nostalgia and longing, to the amazement of my fellow traveller. I remembered how avant garde Ranjith had been.

Palacio, my dear friend, is spring already covering the popular branchesby the river and the roads? On the plain of the upper Douro, spring comes late, but it’s so soft and lovely when it arrives! Do the old elms have some new leaves? Even though the acacias are still bareand the mountain tops clad in snow. Mount Moncayo up there, rosy and white, so beautiful against the sky of Aragon!

This was the time that the English department was moved from Peradeniya to Vidyalankara, for reasons too complex to describe here. That brought Prof. Ashley Halpe to us. We had not met him, but his reputation as a top Shakespearean scholar preceded his arrival.

He turned out to be a soft-spoken, low key, unassuming man. He traveled from Peradeniya to Kelaniya perhaps twice a week, taking the bus, so we had little opportunity to get to know him. Our loss. If he resented having to teach in a takarang shed, away from salubrious Peradeniya, he did not show it. Often dressed in a bush shirt, casual pants, and sandals, I can still picture him trudging up the hill.

Those were violent days on campuses. The JVP was in control of student councils, but UNP student unions were being formed, leading to inevitable clashes. Vidyalankara was a hotbed of these clashes, leading to frequent suspension of classes. (I stayed home so often that a neighbour asked me if I was unemployed.)

In 1977, the UNP came into power, and the campus clashes worsened. One day in March 1978, a bunch of thugs (organized by a prominent politician) swarmed up from Kandy road, armed with knives and iron rods, and attacked students at the student center. Outnumbered, the thugs were beaten-up and chased away by the students. An eerie, ominous silence descended. The road leading down to the Kandy road was deserted.

Lakdasa and I had watched this from the safety of the science block entrance, and noticed that someone was lying on the road, halfway between the student center and the Kandy road. We thought it was a student who had been ambushed.

So we walked down to the prone body and squatted down for a closer look. It was one of the thugs, badly beaten, his hair matted with blood, bleeding from the nostrils, taking horrific, long drawn breaths. He appeared to be breathing his last. Suddenly, we heard a wild yell and saw a number of thugs running up the hill, brandishing iron rods, already within a few yards of us. Lakdasa and I took to our heels, and ran uphill back for our dear lives. Had we been caught, we would have been severely beaten-up, if not killed. (The thug died the next day, and the President of the country attended his funeral.)

Lakdasa died a few months later, from drowning. He was only 36.

Those takarang sheds hid inspiring, charismatic teachers, with a wealth of talent. Some students, too, have gone to stellar careers, in Sri Lanka and abroad.

Vidyalankara became the University of Kelaniya in 1978. The takarang sheds survived that change.



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Midweek Review

State of national economy, scandalous SUV order and fuel price hikes

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A smiling PM Mahinda Rajapaksa takes SLPP membership from SLPP Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris in late 2018 at the former’s Wijerama Mawatha residence while Sagara Kariyawasam, General Secretary of the Party, now embroiled in simmering controversy, looks on.

 

Trade Minister says Prez does not bring money from Mirihana or PM from Medamulana

 

By Shamindra Ferdinando

What is the current state of the economy? How can the public determine the state of the economy? Let me briefly refer to recent statements made, both in and outside Parliament, by members of the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) on the state of the economy. The issue, at hand, is whether the incumbent government is competent to cope up with the situation.

Trade Minister Bandula Gunawardane (SLPP/Colombo District), Energy Minister Attorney-at-Law Udaya Gammanpila (PHU/Colombo), Urban Development and State Minister of Coast Conservation, Waste Disposal and Community Cleanliness Dr. Nalaka Godahewa (SLPP/Gampaha District) lucidly explained ground realities. They painted an extremely bleak picture. Perhaps, they haven’t done so intentionally, to place the government in a difficult situation. However, their assessment certainly underscores the responsibility on the part of the government to review its strategies, without further delay.

Twelve years after the conclusion of the war against terrorism, the national economy is in tatters. The deterioration of the economy cannot be entirely blamed on the rampaging global pandemic, Covid-19.

Political parties may seek to take cover behind the pandemic, conveniently forgetting how waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence withered the economy. Obviously, the pandemic has accelerated the decay and the government is in an unprecedented crisis. Vast majority of people are struggling to make ends meet against the rapidly worsening situation.

Those responsible (both UNP and SLFP members of Parliament in the 2015-2019 yahapalana administration cannot absolve themselves of the responsibility) for Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016, are now advising the SLPP on how to manage the economy. Interestingly, the SLFP is a constituent of the ruling SLPP, whereas those who stood with the Treasury bond thieves, now represent the Samagi Jana Balavegaya. There is never a dull day in utterly corrupt Sri Lankan politics.

 

‘Government unable to bear continuing losses’

Lawmaker Gammanpila made two damning statements as regards the state of the economy – at the Energy Ministry, on June 3, and at another briefing, at the same venue, on June 11. Unfortunately, the former Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) heavyweight’s critical comments didn’t receive sufficient media attention.

Addressing the media, on June 3, at his Ministry, Minister Gammanpila admitted that heavily debt ridden and cash-strapped government and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) weren’t in a position to procure USD 3 bn loan (USD 3,000 mn) required for a new oil refinery at Sapugaskanda. Therefore the funding required for what Minister Gammanpila described as the country’s largest single project to be carried out following competitive bidding had to be external investment (read outside the government).

Declaring that the proposed refinery project will be the biggest ever industrial venture undertaken, Minister Gammanpila declared that all major previous undertakings had been carried out, sans competitive biddings. The declaration was made after he admitted that altogether the Hambantota port (USD 1,350), Norochcholai coal-fired plant (USD 900mn), the Mattala airport, and the Colombo-Katunayake highway, cost USD 2,916, whereas the proposed Sapugaskanda refinery project is estimated to cost a staggering USD 3,000mn. PHU leader Gammanpila’s admission there hadn’t been competitive bidding, in respect of previous major projects, is nothing but an indictment of the previous Rajapaksa administration, or the system in place.

Minister Gammanpila’s declaration that the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation Act (No. 28 of 1961) would have to be amended to pave the way for USD 3 bn investment, triggered accusations the government was planning to privatize the state venture. The lawmaker described the proposed Sapugaskanda project as a BOT (Build, Operate and Transfer) basis enterprise with it reverting to Sri Lankan ownership once the investor recoups his investment.

The ministerial claim that the government refrained from increasing fuel prices for 21 months is a grim reminder the public cannot expect the truth from politicians. Or did they keep quiet expecting a miracle rescue like their earlier faith in Dhammika Peniya (syrup) and the hocus-pocus of pouring contents of some earthenware containers into a river to tackle the pandemic?

At the June 11 briefing, Minister Gammanpila commented on the imminent fuel price increase, in addition to the proposed Sapugaskanda project. Gammanpila explained that the government’s inability to bear further losses against the backdrop of the pandemic driven collapse of the tourism sector, halt in foreign investment, sharp drop in foreign remittances, hence the hiking of the fuel prices with the world market price of crude topping USD 70 per barrel. The Minister declared that it would be quite a challenge to procure the required fuel, amidst the foreign exchange crisis.

Responding to strong JVP criticism of the Sapugaskanda project, Minister Gammanpila pointed out that the USD 3 bn estimate was based on a pre-feasibility report, prepared before him being appointed the Energy Minister. The forthright politician declared that once they finalized feasibility study a better understanding of the project could be had.

The bottom line is that the country lacked wherewithal to undertake a major infrastructure project.

 

Total collapse of revenue sources professed

State Minister Dr. Godahewa, during an inspection tour, on June 09, of Sarakkuwa and Dungalpitiya areas badly affected by the sinking of the fire-ravaged X-Press Pearl container carrier, didn’t mince his words when he explained the state of the national economy. Dr. Godahewa, who had served the private sector quite efficiently, before turning to party politics, explained the pathetic state of the national economy. What he said was simply frightening. Assuring the SLPP’s commitment to provide relief to those who had been affected, Dr. Godahewa declared that one fourth of state revenue had been spent on ongoing efforts to bring the Covid-19 epidemic under control. Dr. Godahewa asserted that the government faced the prospect of total collapse of state revenue. The State Minister’s assertion cannot be taken lightly.

Making reference to Rs. 5,000 relief allowance paid to selected groups of people, on four occasions, the former Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission estimated that so far the government spent over Rs 250 billion for Covid-19 control/relief work.

Trade Minister Gunawardane, too, bitterly complained about the state of the economy in Parliament. His June 8 speech, in the relatively empty Parliament, underscored the pathetic situation. The government seemed quite helpless and in a deepening dilemma over the absence of wherewithal to meet daunting challenges. In his own way, Minister Gunawardane admitted that public finance was in quite a distressing position. The COPE (Committee on Public Enterprises), COPA (Committee of Public Accounts) and COPF (Committee on Public Finance) should take tangible remedial measures to redirect Sri Lanka’s from its disastrous path.

In spite of making quite horrendous revelations about waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence, the parliamentary watchdog committees haven’t been able to bring runaway corruption under control. Those who had been exposed at COPE proceedings continue in their nefarious activities with impunity. The national carrier, SriLankan Airlines is a case in point. In last week’s column, titled ‘How public sector corruption withers national economy: RJ’s insight,’ the writer dealt with the late Rajeewa Jayaweera’s damning reportage of the national carrier. RJ left SriLankan Airlines, in 2005, not in 1995, as inadvertently mentioned. RJ’s brother, Sanjeewa Jayaweera (SJ) brought the error to the writer’s notice. But, what really interested me was SJ’s observation that the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on SriLankan Airlines, Mihin Air et al prepared following 12 months of sittings during yahapalana rule hasn’t been released, nor any action initiated against the wrongdoers.

RJ’s 41 articles on the national carrier revealed how those who managed the SriLankan Airlines and political authority defied laws of the land and continue to do so. The accumulated losses suffered by the national airline now stand at a staggering Rs. 326 bn with the two-state banks – BOC and People’s Bank – continuing to bear the losses.

Minister Gunawardane explained the country’s economic woes, bluntly. Acknowledging that the national economy was in dire straits and if budget shortfall couldn’t be met, through domestic and foreign loans, there was no option but to sell-off assets. Having compared how a government and a family struggled to manage shortfall income, the former reputed economics tuition master recommended selling of national assets. The SLPP certainly owed an explanation whether Minister Gunawardane articulated its position.

Minister Gunawardane told the stark truth to the House that neither Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was also the Finance Minister, nor President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would bring money from Medamulana or Mirihana to solve the unprecedented financial woes facing the country. Emphasizing the responsibility of Parliament, in respect of public finance, Minister Gunawardena emphasized 225 members of Parliament (regardless of political parties they represented) were responsible for taxpayers’ money.

 

Sharp hike in fuel price amidst Covid time bonanza

Minister Gammanpila’s Friday announcement, on fuel price hike, came as quite a surprise. That move flabbergasted the public, as much as the shameless decision to procure 228 Toyota Land Cruisers did in late May. Of the 399 vehicles ordered, 225 were for members of Parliament, made up of SLPP 145, SJB 54, TNA 10, JJB 3 (JVP contested under the JJB banner), AITC 2, EPDP 2, UNP 1, SLFP 1 and OPPP, TMVP, MNA, TMTK, ACMC, NC and SLMC one each. Among the beneficiaries is the sole UNP National List member though yet to take oaths as an MP. Obviously super luxury Toyota Land Cruisers are ordered for 225 members of Parliament. If so, the government should reveal the lucky recipients of the three remaining SVUs. Such luxury vehicles for lawmakers, at a time the country is experiencing severe economic difficulties, cannot be justified under any circumstances. Now JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake has questioned the rationale in ordering SUVs for 225 members, the JVP should ask the Secretary General of Parliament Dhammika Dasanayake whether the three JVPers, in Parliament, were included in the list of those destined to receive brand new vehicles. Did the Finance Ministry submit a Cabinet paper that dealt with 399 vehicles, including those intended for MPs without seeking their approval? The JJB parliamentary group comprised Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Vijitha Herath and Dr. Harini Amarasuriya.

The contentious issue at hand is whether the Finance Ministry placed an order for SVUs for MPs without asking the consent of all members of Parliament, representing 15 recognized political parties?

Media Minister and co-Cabinet spokesperson Keheliya Rambukwella is on record as having said that though the Prime Minister’s Office announced the cancellation of the 399 vehicle order, against the backdrop of financial difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the government may not be able to do so because Letters of Credit had already been opened. Amidst the growing public anger over the squandering of public funds to acquire luxury vehicles for MPs, Minister Rambukwella, on June 11, declared that the Finance Ministry, and other parties to the Rs 3.7 bn transaction, following successful negotiations, has cancelled the vehicles for lawmakers.

It would be pertinent to mention that the Prime Minister’s Office on May 20 indicated the impending fuel price hike. A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office said that the government was seriously concerned about the rising price of crude oil in the world market from 2020 and an upward revision was imminent.

However, what really stunned the public was General Secretary of the SLPP Attorney-at-Law Sagara Kariyawasam questioning the fuel price hike. National List MP Kariyawasam asked whether the unexpected increase was meant to undermine the SLPP administration. The MP faulted Energy Minister Gammanpila for the situation.

Hiru presenter Chamuditha Samarawickrema last Sunday (13) ridiculed lawmaker Kariyawasam’s declaration. Samarawickrema, who had been recently embroiled in a controversy over make-up artist Chandimal Jayasinghe and Public Security Minister, retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, having functions at the Shangri-La hotel, on May 30 and May 28, respectively urged MP Kariyawasam not to stage dramas.

The Hiru anchor questioned Kariyawasam’s accusation that Minister Gammanpila did so to cause trouble for the government.

The government obviously is in deep trouble. It should explain why such expensive SUVs were ordered for lawmakers, in May, against the backdrop of the rapid deterioration of the nation’s financial position. The country got to know of the despicable decision to place an order for SVUs only after the Prime Minister’s Office through a public announcement claimed to have cancelled in the fourth week of May.

 

CPC saves USD 300 mn

COPE, PAC and COPF proceedings, since the last general election, revealed waste, corruption, irregularities and negligence. Inquiries that had dealt with public sector enterprises over the past two decades, exposed public-private sector partnerships in utterly wasteful and corrupt practices. So much so that today’s financial crisis cannot be examined without taking into consideration extremely poor management of state enterprises, and public and private sector cooperation, at the high level, to rob the country. Two such glaring examples are the Treasury bond scams, perpetrated in 2015 and 2016, by the Yahapalana administration, and the massive sugar tax scam, carried out by the SLPP. The JVP is on record as having alleged that the sugar tax scam is far worse than even the Treasury bond scams. The high profile sugar scam couldn’t have been executed without the issuance of gazette bearing No 2197/12 dated Oct 13, 2020 by the Finance Ministry. That resulted in the immediate replacement of Rs 50 duty on a kilo of imported sugar with a mere 25 cents. In spite of COPF Chairman lawmaker Anura Priyadarshana Yapa’s declaration, on January 05, 2021 that the consumers didn’t benefit at all from duty reduction the government has conveniently forgotten the matter. The SLPP should be ashamed of its role in such corrupt practices.

Perusal of proceedings of COPE, COPA and COPF underscored those in political authority as well as officials who ruined the national economy. As the writer mentioned before, the ruination of SriLankan Airlines is just one example. Both the SLFP and the UNP ruined the national carrier in style is certainly nothing to be surprised about. They dealt with all state sector enterprises in a similar way. The way procedures have been manipulated to rob the country is another story. Proceedings in respect of procurement of coal required by Norochcholai revealed unprecedented corruption. But, absolutely nothing has been done. No action whatsoever has been taken against corrupt elements, though shocking revelations have been made in Parliament.

Would you believe the statements issued by the Prime Minister’s Office and Energy Minister Gammanpila, as regards the status of crude oil prices, were contradictory? However, the Communication Department of Parliament recently revealed that the CPC saved USD 300 mn in 2020 due to the drop in crude oil prices in the world market as well as some other factors. This came to light during COPE proceedings, thanks to a query raised by SJB member S.M. Marikkar.

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Midweek Review

Shamelessness!

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By Sasanka Perera

Meng Ke (also known as Mencius), the Chinese philosopher, who lived between 372 BC and 289 BC, has been in my mind lately for what he said on ‘shame’ and ‘shamelessness’ all those years ago. According to him, “a man must not be without shame, for the shame of being without shame is shamelessness indeed.” Feeling shameful for doing something wrong is necessarily a core foundation for the emotional and ethical development of a person as well as the society in which he or she lives. Meng Ke’s thoughts came to my mind because of what has been happening in contemporary Lanka in all spheres of society for quite some time. We seem to be experiencing a virtual and concerted dismantling of all notions of shame as if it is a moment of national reckoning. And we seem to have largely succeeded too. This dismantling of shame is most clear in the multiple dramas that relentlessly unfold in the country’s public sphere. In these dramas, the stars, the supporting characters, script-writers, directors and producers are politicians, government officials, public figures, academics and so on. Simply look at a handful of examples.

It is truly mindboggling that a seasoned politician, supposedly representing what is left of Lanka’s Left, like Vasudeva Nanayakkara said in late May in response to the X-Press Pearl disaster that the country would receive a large package of compensation from the company that owned this stricken ship even as he acknowledged that the incident had impacted the country’s natural environment negatively for years to come. There was no mention of how a ship was allowed to come so close to the country’s shoreline when Lanka had no local capacities to deal with the kind of disaster that ultimately did happen. Besides, this is a country run by a regime whose war cry not so long ago was ‘national security.’ A few thousand dollars that may or may not come to the state coffers seems to make everything ok. Very clearly, Nanayakkara has lost both his commonsense and ethics while also shedding his ability to be ashamed.

Then, look at the case of the veritable ‘return of the mummy.’ That is, the decision taken by the United National Party after many moons of deliberation to send its discredited leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who led the party to an abject defeat in the last parliamentary election to Parliament again on the infamous National List. What is worse is Wickremesinghe’s complete lack of shame or guilt in accepting such a responsibility. Was there absolutely no one else in the party who could represent it in Parliament other than Wickremesinghe? But then, the National List itself has also become a list of shame through which incorrigible political nitwits from all parties creep into parliament, often after continuous years of nefarious lives and after lives in politics — barring a few.

The country’s entire COVID-19 vaccination programme is a public performance in shamelessness. It unravelled from the beginning simply due to crude politics of favoritism engineered quite openly by all sorts of politicians aligned to the state. Sri Lanka had inherited a reasonably well-tuned apparatus of public health over the years, learning from its engagement with the anti-malaria and anti-polio campaigns, among many others. What has been learned from decades of well-run elections could also have been used to build a fair and equitable vaccination programme, which by all accounts was in place. But from the very beginning, this has been unraveled by politicians taking over the programmes in their local areas, giving priority to family members, neighbours and political supporters not to mention the LKR 5000 per jab that was illegally charged in a number of places for something that is supposed to be free. The most recent and notorious example was the public fiasco created by the Mayor of Moratuwa when government officials were trying to implement the programme according to an approved plan. But the man wanted it to be done according to ‘His List.’ And again, the List.

And while all this is happening in broad daylight, public officials trying to protect the environment are routinely and consistently vilified by elected representatives of the people as anti-development agents. The Forest Officer in Gampaha was confronted not too long ago by the regime’s politicians and their supporters for trying to do her job. She was asked, “What is the use of oxygen?” (ඔක්සිජන් කන්නද?) And anything in the environment that can be raped for profit seems to be up for grabs, from deforestation to illegal sand mining. While these activities are reliably reported from around the country, the government’s main approach has been to muscle the discontent over these matters rather than to address the issues.

In the midst of the continuing pandemic, where the virus now seems to have outsmarted the government, the regime has ordered hundreds of brand-new luxury vehicles at an exorbitant cost for members of Parliament while asking for public donations to fight the pandemic and restricting the importation of many goods – including ordinary vehicles of people. This was also the time that ordinary people were facing starvation, mounting unemployment and anxiety over their futures. To take a decision to import luxury cars in these conditions can only done by a group of people who cannot even be described by the word ‘vulgar.’ As shameless as our MPs are, the most outlandish reasons were given to justify this decision. But that is precisely what happens when shame has left our consciousness. It is a different matter that the vulgar performance in excessive consumption has been momentarily postponed due to the outpouring of loud public anger.

And where is the Opposition in all this? The main opposition led by Sajith Premadasa seems to have become a veritable branch office of the government. Its present role as Opposition gives us even more room to fear for our collective future. If this motley crew are to form the next government — again with a very short supply of shame and intelligence — what would become of us? And the JVP, with its stagnant voter-base admittedly utters everything right in Parliament and exposes acts of corruption and abuse of power like a good Opposition should. But no one seems to listen. In their single-minded lack of imagination, party members strut around in their little red caps and tiresome revolutionary rhetoric, which has steadfastly ensured their vote base will never increase beyond a point. Why? Because ordinary people fear that however honest they might sound, if in power, they might end up nationalizing their refrigerator, microwave oven while taking over their cars for a collective transport scheme and ban their kids from going to school in private transport. In this time and age, image matters, and an old revolutionary image does not help even though what needs to be done in the future cannot be achieved short of a radical revolution in ideas and attitudes at large. It is shameful when something this simple does not penetrate the gray matter of our comrades.

And as if this were not enough in the realm of national shamelessness, a well-known university academic with the aid of numerous national newspapers has found himself in the middle of a dubious campaign to claim that his Sinhala language movie has made it to the competitive rounds of the Cannes Film festival. The problem is neither the organizers at Festival or any other reasonable film portal seems to know anything about this seeming victory. Shamelessness is obviously not a simple matter of politics.

This is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to lack of shame in public life in our country. This is happening everywhere and at all levels. What exactly is going on? Things had not been this bad until the present dispensation came to power. The bottom line is that those with access to power do not seem to give a damn about the nefarious and clearly wrong or unethical activities they are openly engaging in. Why? Because more than any time before in our country, laws mean very little to the well-connected and trust in justice and fair play have significantly eroded. Clearly, there are no consequences for engaging in what is wrong in terms of the law and in terms of ethics. With this, what social utility would shame have as a deterrent? It seems to me that there are two related attributes that individuals lose when their overall sense of shame disappears. That is, their commonsense and their understanding and appreciation of ethics.

In this scheme of things, the public are expected to be mute viewers of the shameless dramas the powerful routinely engage in even though often, the public also become part of all this by living in blind faith right through these dramas. That is why many ordinary people, including close relatives and friends seem to have become card-carrying members of the shameless bandwagon. They hardly benefit finically by repeating the most mind bogglingly unintelligent excuses for the worst excesses. But they keep on repeating these lies. It seems, to acknowledge the reality is too much of a civilization burden to bear, and they somehow need to find a way to ensure that the flood of pubic shame sweeping us into inglorious eternity should somehow be made invisible and unnarrated — as if these things did not happen in the first place.

 

Not so long ago our country used to be what Tamler Sommers referred to in Why Honour Matters as an ‘honour culture,’ which relied on shame to keep its conscience intact. It is as part of inculcating ourselves into such an honuor culture that our collective sense of lejja (shame) and baya (fear) played a crucial role, particularly in Sinhala popular culture. That is, refraining from doing something wrong for the fear of being publicly shamed. But while the Sinhalas may have had a popular terminology for it, everyone else contributed to the ethics this sensibility entailed. But today, as Sommers note, in place of this idea of shame, what prevails “is an epidemic of shamelessness.” And our country, its leaders, its politics and its people with countless excuses to justify what is wrong and unenlightened, has become a textbook case of this epidemic. To survive and to be masters of this shameless and guiltless world devoid of ethics, one must master the art of not seeing what one does not want to see. I think Salman Rushdie explains this best in the Enchantress of Venice when he outlines the aftermath of Marco Vespucci’ death when he hung himself after being spurned by Alessandra Fiorentina: “His body dangled from the Bridge of the Graces, but Alessandra Fiorentina never saw it … because Alessandra had long ago perfected the art of seeing only what she wanted to see, which was an essential accomplishment if you wanted to be one of the world’s masters and not its victim.” It seems to me our leaders and their supporters have become highly accomplished local Alessandra Fiorentinas and opt to see only what they want. Those of us who are cursed to see what actually happens and are burdened with a conscience and a fear of shame might have no choice other than to embrace an end not too dissimilar to Marco Vespucci. And our end will be made further invisible by the erasing gaze of prevailing shamelessness.

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Midweek Review

On decolonising SL universities

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By Susantha Hewa

Whether we like it or not, the world is market driven, and business interests more or less impact all social institutions, education being one of the most important. This can be easily seen in most university qualified students’ primary concern about which degree programme will pave the way for getting a well-paid job as early as possible after university, as Kaushalya Herath (KH) correctly points out in her article titled “Decolonising SL universities” appearing in The Island of 8th June.

It is apparent that over the years the courses of study offered in our universities have increasingly been influenced by direct and indirect demands of the corporate sector which has resulted in the gradual sidelining of arts subjects. However, one has to agree that science has been put “in the service of humanity” just as much as arts or even more, as many would argue. Moreover, it is doubtful whether “critical learning, that produce[s] passionate thinkers, as well as contextually relevant knowledge” can be wholly credited to arts studies to the exclusion of science studies, as KH seems to suggest in the last sentence of the first paragraph of her article. One may find a whole host of critical and passionate thinkers among science scholars; Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell easily come to mind.

The problem lies, as KH herself correctly asserts, with the increasing tendency to use universities to produce “employable graduates” to cater to the global market economy. For example, it isn’t out of love for Shakespeare that university syllabuses have given the pride of place to “soft skills” (in English). The liaison between employability and English language skills is so firmly established that today hardly any undergraduate would be able to make a two-minute speech on “employable graduates” without using the term “soft skills.” Every conceivable professional is expected to be a glib salesperson who knows how to talk his way through.

In fact, the label “unemployable graduates” is being given ever more superfluous legitimacy in this context where undergraduates’ “soft skills” are becoming more marketable than their academic achievements. This becomes patently clear when, for example, today’s private sector employers show an unconcealed admiration of candidates who are glib talkers of English even if their academic records may leave much to be desired. As such, at job interviews for engineers, for example, students with relatively poor academic records stand a better chance of getting the job over those who have excelled in academic studies without sufficient English language skills to match. In short, be warned that if you want to succeed in becoming an “employable” engineer, your “soft skills” count more than your grades in engineering at the job interview! In other words, even science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM subjects), which easily outcompete arts subjects in terms of “status” in tertiary education are eclipsed by “soft skills.”

There is no doubt that gaining a good command of any language is an asset to anyone and is the primary purpose of learning a second language. However, elevating it to such a stately position in a university curriculum simply to cater to the needs of the corporate world is a textbook example of commercial interests prevailing over academic concerns. That the private sector appreciates a candidate’s language fluency solely on its acquired utility value in the market world shows why such recognition is not given to fluency in Sinhala or Tamil in the present Sri Lankan context. If Mandarin happened to be the “international language” in our part of the world any time soon, “soft skills” would automatically mean fluency in Mandarin.

The extent to which the needs of the global market influences the mindset of students can be seen in the way science stream students choose their subjects from STEM- science, technology, engineering and mathematics. How many AL mathematics stream students seeking university admission would select science and mathematics in preference to engineering and technology? Or, for that matter, how many AL biology stream students would select bio-science over medicine? The fact is even if universities were to offer only STEM subjects and eliminate arts and humanities altogether from their curricular, students wouldn’t be free from the all-pervasive influence of corporate interests. Obviously, engineering and technology would beat science and mathematics hands down in a contest designed to lure corporate giants. As such, it is little wonder that arts and humanities cut no ice with any profit-oriented system of economics.

The term “employability,” despite being the buzzword in producing graduates today, cannot help giving you the uneasy feeling that higher education is a way of ending up being hired by someone-a cog in a giant corporate machine. It would be a hopelessly inadequate ending if we were to consider education as a major contributor to civilization. Instead of originality, excitement and vitality that tend to accompany a more informed notion of education, “employability” seems to associate conformity, tedium and lethargy. Such negative feelings would be the complete antithesis of what education can and should bring about if it were to realize its full potential. Yet, such a gross incongruity is unavoidable when education is pared to be nothing more than an endless supplier of “hands” in an all-encompassing profit earning venture.

Commenting on the world’s fixation with boosting the speed of Internet connections and the efficacy of Big Data algorithms, historian Yuval Noah Harari says: “We are now creating tame humans that produce enormous amounts of data and function as very efficient chips in a huge data-processing mechanism, but these data-cows hardly maximise the human potential.” Even those who would not necessarily agree with Harari’s views on the advancement of human civilisation would not have any difficulty in seeing the relevance of this contention in the context of today’s market oriented tertiary education.

If we were to agree that education could do more than spawning technically-skilled people to be employed as tools to sustain economy, it had better change gear to tap more of latent human potential. However, it would be nothing short of fantasizing if one expects an education essentially moulded to cater to the dynamics of a globalised market economy to change track in favour of initiating broader human interests that are not marketable.

It would be futile to think of separating university education from its glorified mission of providing “employable graduates” until all of life’s concerns remain subsumed by the cash nexus and consumerism. It is true that humans have been breaking away from myth-regulated small bands and forming ever expanding communities under more general “banners” throughout history. However, since money came to govern all man-made systems, we have not been able to break free from its spell. To what extent hunter gatherers depended on hunting skills for survival, to that extent do we depend today on what is now made available as education for our upkeep, however more sophisticated it may be than the life in the wild. The raw link between what you learned and how “securely” you lived in those days has proved to be resistant to date defying all historical and cultural changes. Surely, what you choose to learn today and your success in it guarantee much more than three square meals. However, “hunting” remains to be name of the game with money skulking around; a minority merrily hunts for “excess” while the majority still continues to hunt to keep the wolf from the door.

The notion that natural sciences are at war with arts is rather misleading. Both arts and sciences are equally important products of human potential and are helpful in making societies more and more refined. Some students are truly passionate about natural sciences while others are fond of arts and humanities. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with either inclination. Furthermore, critical thinking and philosophising are not unique to either stream. The problem is that the corporate world favours STEM subjects as they are grist to its mill and, as a result, has produced an unwelcome hierarchy between the two equally human friendly streams.

KH seems to be optimistic that “develop[ing] mechanisms to understand and theorise local knowledge systems” and “indigenis[ing] knowledge production” will be helpful in minimising the commercialization of university curricular. Such changes alone do not seem to serve the purpose because our country cannot function in a “vacuum” and our political and economic systems are not any more favourable to a chaste academically oriented education than those of other countries.

Even if we entirely replaced the existing tertiary education with “indigenous systems” it would not be possible to prevent the new system from being absorbed by the global economy since separating our politics and economics from the rest of the world is unthinkable. Knowledge systems wouldn’t be either innately “good” or “harmful” depending on whether they are produced here or elsewhere. Hence, to slip into excessive “nationalism” by being trapped in a self/other binary in knowledge production might prove more harmful than productive. KH implies this when she says, “How the universities can decolonize and indigenize knowledge production without going into the other extreme of nationalism is a bit tricky and will require dialogue and reflection.”

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