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The ‘new normal’: A participatory culture



Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.

Steven Pinker

by Susantha Hewa

Before Covid-19 struck us we scarcely thought that altruism could ever be partnered with selfishness. However, the plague’s deadly path of destruction has shown that you can no longer afford the luxury of considering altruism as a virtue to be summoned ‘at your convenience.’ In the present context, it has become a necessary ingredient in any recipe for survival.

The pandemic has turned the conventional view of altruism on its head by making it synonymous with self-interest; “to protect yourself is to protect the whole society.” If you want to give more punch to it you may rephrase it as, “you are not safe until everybody is safe.” Perhaps this may be the all-compassionate magic slogan which has eluded sapiens for millennia. It is worth being printed on all national flags, one may feel. At least it will make each of them appear an emblem of global solidarity although those who value uniqueness above solidarity may not like the idea much. However, the plague has driven home quite a different message.

Unfortunately, altruism is a rare quality among those who make us believe it to be their mission in life every five years or so. Perhaps the world could have avoided the present catastrophe if we had the spirit of that slogan enshrined in the two most influential social institutions: politics and economics. Incidentally, the powerful few who wield power in these two overarching fields seem to have been persuaded by a less altruistic doctrine. They may profitably quote Ayn Rand, Russian-American writer/philosopher who asserted that “if any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” You wouldn’t be accused of being pessimistic if you were to say that that those who control politics and economics do firmly believe in creeds like: “you are not safe until all the others are rendered powerless”; “you cannot be content till all the others are deprived”; “you cannot be happy until the earth is plundered to the maximum for optimizing profit!”

Most of us are convinced that the coronavirus has made it necessary for us to shift gear to a “new normal” in which we consider the lurking pathogen as a fact of life in order to ensure everyone’s safety- at least for a couple of years. The longer you take to realize it, the greater your contribution would be to inviting more deadly variants of the virus, and the greater the chances of your experiencing needless bereavements.

The pestilence also has other lessons. For example, it underlines that the dictum, “you are not safe until everybody is safe” can transcend health concerns and serve as a sound principle to ensure the safety of everybody- physically, emotionally and financially. In the present context, we all cooperate in varying degrees to keep the virus at bay. However, can this idea of participation for everybody’s safety be made to outlive the pandemic and extended to combat other insidious social viruses like injustice, discrimination, poverty, bigotry? What about combating the virus of ignorance that makes fertile ground for superstitious beliefs? It is time that somebody unravelled the strange ‘complicity’ between our high literacy rate and the corresponding irrationality rate! The onset of the pandemic has exposed in no small measure the superstitious character of the nation, which received state patronage and media backing. And the damage caused is for everyone to be comprehended according to his or her lights.

“You are not safe until everybody is safe” has relevance in multiple contexts. It is the most eloquent message the deadly plague sends us to help coax people into a participatory culture. It is also highly relevant in every important aspect of modern life: education, livelihood, relationships, social welfare, peace building, poverty alleviation, conflict resolution, environmental issues, economics and politics. In fact, the present catastrophe is to a great extent the cumulative result of lack of opportunities for active mass involvement in many of the above fields. Not in any of the foregoing arenas is there a viable mechanism to address the natural human urge to feel a sense of belonging by contributing towards our collective wellbeing. Instead, you are made to feel that the height wisdom is to mind your own business. Unfortunately, many institutions that ought to work towards the solidarity of people are true to it only in theory. Generally, we are hell-bent on discovering our differences and points of divergence.

George Monbiot, author of a number of books including How did we get into this Mess? and Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis, is a keen advocate of making space for all concerned people to participate in improving all aspects of social life, which he calls “the politics of belonging.” He suggests that people’s sense of belonging can be made more meaningful and pervasive by giving more and more opportunities for larger numbers of people to participate in deciding our ‘collective wellbeing,’ which is now in the hands of a few. Proposing the broadening of democratic space, Monbiot says that in a political system of belonging, “the language of government changes, allowing anyone to understand the issues at stake and the means by which decisions are made.”

Ironically, today in many countries including ours, people get a sense of participation only by way of protesting! The rulers’ notion of ‘the common good’ and that of the majority of the populace happens to be is in constant conflict during the greater part of every five years irrespective of whoever is in power, the election day being the only exception.

At present, the principle “you are not safe until everybody is safe” has no currency except with respect to health. “Success” is the buzzword and it is always personal and never collective success. It is unfortunate that nothing short of a disaster of the magnitude of Covid 19 had to urge us to think of personal wellbeing in terms of collective security. Wouldn’t there be the least chance of moving towards a more participatory culture in which we may seek to make the sense of sharing a more regular experience- a way of life instead of it being restricted to those occasional events of a cultural or familial nature like New Year celebrations, weddings and funerals?

In a society where ‘the market’ is idolized as the ‘supreme natural law,’ it is greed, not collective happiness, which makes people cooperate. Unfortunately, the existing system can only make alienation the rule and cooperation the exception for the vast majority. It only triggers cooperation among politicians, businessmen and vested interests who amass wealth at the expense of the common good. The historian Yuval Noah Harari says “most human cooperation networks have been geared towards oppression and exploitation.” We can only hope that the world leaders would make Harari more optimistic about ‘human cooperation’ after we have put the pandemic behind us.

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In Memorium: Daya and Alfred Wijewardena



Daya Wijewardena was many things to many people. These included, but were not limited to, being: a wife to her husband, Alfred; a surrogate mother to her nephew, Dayananda; a grandmother/great-aunt to Dayananda’s children; a teacher to countless students at Anula Vidyalaya; a trusted confidante to my mother; and a beloved aunt to my brother and me. In her later years, she greatly supported the work of her husband, spending many countless hours, being a sort of unpaid personal assistant charged with doing, things, like taking down dictation for his planned workshops. Her one complaint was about her own handwriting, which she didn’t consider to be very good since she had been forced in school to write right-handed, despite being a natural left-hander. It’s been a decade since her passing, but the void left by her absence has not diminished.

Alfred Wijewardena – or D.A. Wijewardena, as he was professionally known – was a multi-hyphenate Renaissance man, who lived by the motto ‘plan your work and work your plan’. A qualified Attorney-at-Law, with a Degree in Laws and a B.Sc. in Logic, he was also a Justice of the Peace, but in his early days he’d done a variety of jobs, including being the Game Ranger at Yala National Park and a teacher at Ananda College. He subsequently focused on administrative matters, becoming the first Secretary of the then newly-formed State Services Disciplinary Board (which had replaced the Public Service Commission, where he was an Assistant Secretary). He ultimately set up his own institution known as The Centre for Studies in Disciplinary Management. An avowed workaholic, he worked well past retirement, only stopping in the last two or three years of his life. When he had some free time, he enjoyed playing tennis at the SSC, where he was a Vice President for many years. He left us three years ago, but there’s rarely a day that goes by when we don’t think of or talk about him.

My brother and I called Alfred’s wife ‘Daya Aunty’, although in reality those two words tended to morph into one, creating a brand new descriptor specific to her: ‘Dayaunty’. She loved us abundantly, with that love even extending to our childhood puppy, Shiny, who similarly adored Dayaunty, particularly as she often brought Shiny a succulent bone to chew on when she came to visit. Dayaunty was kind, caring, nurturing and she loved to laugh, albeit very softly… She didn’t ever have a cross word for us.

We never referred to Dayaunty’s husband as ‘Alfred Uncle’, despite our multi-generational age gap. To us he was ‘Alfie’, because he was our pal: someone who was always on our level, someone we could relate to. For years he drove a Volkswagen Beetle, which we referred to as the ‘Alfie Car’. He was such a character that he constantly had us in stitches, giggling until our sides hurt, thanks to the yarns that he spun. Picture the perfect babysitter (or, from our perspective, a best buddy) and that was Alfie. He set the bar very high when it came to fun uncles.

Our childhood was enriched beyond measure for having Dayaunty and Alfie in it. When Alfie (often distracted by other thoughts but still wanting to be a part of the ongoing conversation) would say something grammatically correct but factually unfeasible — like his infamous “You spoke to him when he was dead?” line of inquiry — Dayaunty would titter almost silently, which naturally made us crack up even more.

Dayaunty had a sense of adventure and would have happily travelled the world if only Alfie wasn’t tethered to work. (“Inquiries, baba, inquiries” is how he explained his professional life to us.) So, a solitary trip to India on pilgrimage notwithstanding, Dayaunty had to make do with escapades in-country. These included one memorable visit to Yala during which her quiet chuckling threatened to actually form sound when someone, on seeing a herd of elephants, queried incredulously: “Why does that elephant have five legs?!” Dayaunty was much quicker on the uptake than the rest of us, but when the penny finally dropped, it was a wonder that all the wildlife in our immediate vicinity didn’t run for the hills, such was the laughter emanating from our vehicle!

On the singular occasion that our parents were unable to have us join them when they went abroad for a conference, they entrusted us into the care of Alfie and Dayaunty — and we had a ball. Even though we loved and were used to spending time together, and they treated us like their own children, both Dayaunty and Alfie must have felt the weight of responsibility that came with such a serious undertaking; however, we never saw any hints of anxiety from either.

When Dayaunty unexpectedly had a stroke 10 years ago, I thought she would soon recover. So, when Alfie called me to convey the news of her passing with the words “the firecracker has gone”, it took a long time for the reality of the situation to sink in. Dayaunty’s departure was a seismic event and it felt as though she took a part of our childhood with her when she went.

Then, in 2018, after bemoaning his loss of productivity and his perceived lack of usefulness to society as a result of stopping work, Alfie decided to follow suit. Never again would we hear him recite ‘Inky, Pinky, Polly’ incorrectly, just to make us laughingly (and somewhat exasperatedly) exclaim: “Oh, Alfie, you don’t know anything!” Gone were the tales of his exploits on the tennis court (“I have bad knees now because my doubles partner used to make me run for all the drop shots!”) and his adventures in emailing (“I was worried about writing to you too much because I thought I’d fill up the computer!”). If part of our childhood went with Dayaunty, the rest accompanied Alfie.

How does anyone recover from — or at least mitigate — such grief, devastation and loss? One step is to remember the good times and focus on all the positive things that Daya and Alfred Wijewardena brought to so many people — in their immediate and extended families, amongst their friends, in their lives and in their careers.

As we mark, on successive days, what would have been Alfie’s 100th birthday (7th December) and 10 years since Dayaunty’s passing (8th December), we pause to reflect on two extraordinary lives that touched so many others in a multitude of ways. We will always love Alfie and Dayaunty, and we’ll be forever grateful for the roles that they played in our lives, particularly our childhood. We hope their sansaric journey is short. May they both attain Nibbana!

Dr. Mihirinie Wijayawardene

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Need for traffic lights at Pamankada junction



Now that the Havelock Road is open to traffic on both sides up to the Pamankada bridge, the Pamankada T-junction has become a real bottleneck, especially during the rush hours in the morning and again in the evening. There were no problems when it was one way. With unruly drivers manning private buses and three wheelers and the motor cyclists, it is indeed a hassle for the law-abiding drivers to manipulate their vehicles in a melee.

As Havelock Road has been opened to vehicular traffic both ways, there is a large number of buses belonging to the CTB as well as private buses on route numbers 120( Horana and Kesbewa to Pettah) ,162 (Bandaragama to Pettah), 135(Kelaniya to Kohuwala) and 141 (Wellawatte to Narahenpita) that ply up and down passing this T- junction.

It would be good before some serious motor accident takes place to install traffic lights at this junction. Every driver tries to get out of the melee as quickly as possible and ultimately all vehicles get stuck and take a longer time to move on. Installing the lghts would instill some discipline to the reckless drivers especially during the time that school children are transported.

HM Nissanka Warakaulle

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Lessons learnt from outrageous power outage



The countrywide power outage that took place on Friday 03 November, 2021, shook the nation.

As everyone is suspicious of everyone else in this country, most people suspected that it was sabotage masterminded by the Engineers of the CEB Unions. The engineers have threatened the government that they will resort to a strike if their demands, particularly on the subject of the New Fortress Energy agreement are not met.

It became quite clear that the 21 million Sri Lankans living in this country could be held hostage by the union leaders, even if, in this instance, they had not been responsible for it. Public spiritedness which has to be the basis of any national action had in any case been ignored by the CEB Unions when they threatened the government a few days back.

The situation has shown how delicate our predicament is. A small group of people could hold the entire country to ransom if they disagreed with the authorities. Both the country and the Government has now taken cognizance of this. This can also be a massive security risk.

Continuation of the outage could have even led to a violent uprising of the public against the Union officials who would have been targeted. Fortunately, the government held its nerve and better judgment prevailed on the side of the Engineers to correct the situation.

However, like with all adversities, several new opportunities have surfaced. One is how to diminish the monopoly that the CEB, which is a bane of the country. Here one option could be to decentralize the generation and supply of power to the districts. A study should be undertaken to enable every District to control it’s electricity supply and, over a period of ten years make it into a viable profit-making undertaking. This will be particularly endorsed and greeted by those of the Northern and Eastern Provinces who are agitating for more decentralised powers. Also, the other Districts will support this proposition. Engineers from the Districts will be able to use their ingenuity in working out techniques for cheaper and more cost-effective generation of electricity and giving assistance to the multiple industries that will commence in the future.

With regard to the security dimension of electricity supply it is imperative that the armed forces are made conversant with every aspect connected with the running of the Electricity facilities. In this way, the country can never be held to ransom by any group. The armed forces will be trained to move and take over the operations in case of sabotage or even if one day an attack takes place by external forces.

In all this it seems evident that the New Fortress Energy Agreement is not acceptable to the general public and not only to the Unions. The Government has to take this into account and if necessary call for a plebiscite on this issue. If Parliament and the people of this country want the government to proceed with it so be it. However, if the people reject it the government has a valid justification to withdraw from the agreement.

A. Jayatilleke

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