Excerpted from the autobiography of Merrill J. Fernando
If the chokehold that British interests exerted on the local entrepreneur was not strong enough to stifle him, the additional pressure needed to hobble him further was created by the machinations of the vested interests within, both wittingly and unwittingly aided by a shortsighted bureaucracy and trade associations with self-serving agendas. My relationships with all these organizations have been contentious and confrontational. Over the years I have been unapologetically critical of many of their policies and strategies, which I considered to not be in the best interests of the local brand builder and exporter.
The Ceylon Tea Traders’ Association (CTTA) came into being in 1894, in the early formative stages of the tea export trade, to mediate on behalf of growers and exporters and to solve their problems. It was a creation of the British and given the nature of colonial dominance of the country then, it was but natural that protection of British interests within the industry would be its first priority.
The Ceylonese ‘native’ tea traders who were in the minority till the late 1960s, permitted this state of submissiveness to colonial domination to prevail for decades after Independence. Whilst the CTTA committee comprised equally of sellers and exporters, five representatives of each, it was still dominated by Europeans.
The general insensitivity of the CTTA to needs of locals was exemplified by an incident in 1968, when the committee refused to suspend the tea auctions for an hour or so, to enable Muslim members to visit the mosque, on an occasion when an important Muslim religious festival coincided with an auction day. I discussed this matter with the late Abbas Akberally, then Chairman of Akbar Brothers and tea exporter Amin Suby, who were both of the firm view that a change in the CTTA representative body was an urgent need. The resentment caused by this episode eventually crystallized in a changing of the guard in the CTTA, with the ‘native’ segment taking control of its affairs for the first time in its history.
For the first time the post of Chairman was contested, and Austin Perera from the Cooperative Tea Society was voted in. The next and even bigger shock was when all Europeans in the buyer segment, with the exception of George Willis, then Chairman of Lipton, were ousted and replaced by five local shippers: Co-operative Tea Society Ltd., M.S. Heptulabhoy & Co. Ltd., Merrill J. Fernando Co., Suby Tea, and Van Rees Ceylon NV. It was a ‘palace coup,’ which the ruling parties were ignorant of until they were deposed.
Despite the first successful Ceylonese incursion into what had always been a closely-guarded preserve of British interests, there were subsequent attempts by interested parties to dilute the local influence. In 1969, an unusually large number of plantation companies in the Whittall Estate Agency, applied for membership of the CTTA. I opposed this strongly on the grounds that plantation interests were already adequately served by the Planters’ Association and that it would be inequitable to permit the sellers to outnumber the buyers in the membership of the CTTA. The subsequent vote endorsed my view, with the support of George Willis, who was one of the few servants of British interests to objectively view the aspirations of local exporters.
An objective insider speaks
The relevant extract (reproduced below) from the book ‘George Steuart & Co. Ltd., 1952-1973, A Personal Odyssey,’ by Tony Peries, former Chairman of George Steuart, provides an illuminating insider’s view of this historically significant episode. In a few well-worded paragraphs, he also outlines the impediments and obstacles which then existed to the advancement of the local exporter, and to the cause of Pure Ceylon Tea, globally.
[QUOTE:] The Colombo Tea Traders Association (CTTA) made the rules under which tea auctions were held and to buy at the auction a firm had to be a member. More or less the same firms comprised the five buyers/ five sellers committee year after year, and Forbes and Walker was always the advisory broker who had no vote. The buyers, from memory, were Brooke Bond Ceylon Ltd., Lipton Ltd., Harrison & Crossfield Ltd., Heath & Co (Ceylon) Ltd., and M.S. Heptulabhoy & Co. Ltd. The sellers were Carson Cumberbatch & Co., George Steuart & Co. Ltd., Gordon Frazer & Co. Ltd., Colombo Commercial Company and Whittall Boustead Ltd. .
As many as 411 the sellers save George Steuart and Frazer were also buyers of some significance, but I never saw or even had reason to suspect firms with dual interests doing anything adverse to affect their selling side and if anything, they occasionally gave their own teas a bit of help. However, criticism of firms ‘on both sides of the fence’ was rife.
By 1967, the small Ceylonese firms, most of them dwarfed by Brooke Bond, Lipton type giants, far outnumbered the long-established British outfits on the CTTA membership list. The owner of one such firm was Merrill J. Fernando, who had started life at A. F. Jones & Co. Ltd., become a Director there, and subsequently opened up his own firm under his name. Among those smaller firms, the majority was owned by the Muslim community. Heptulabhoys was the most significant, but Jafferjees and T Suby were also well known and respected.
The local traders, identified by the expatriate community as ‘natives,’ -felt that their needs were ignored by the CTTA (the old diehards like George Savage actually wrote N’ for native in their catalogues as they could not bother with long local names like Heptulabhoy!) A typical example was the committee’s refusal to suspend the tea auctions for an hour or so, on one occasion, on, to enable Muslim members to visit the mosque on a particular festival which fell on a tea auction day, having initially refused to reschedule the auction date. That same year the small exporters worked together to throw out the previous committee, leaving only George Steuart from the old brigade.
It fell to Merrill to give leadership to the newly-elected committee. He was intelligent, articulate, and forceful. His main objective was to get on the committee of the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board (CPBT), where the CTTA had ex-officio sellers and buyers nominated by the committee. I had only a nodding acquaintance with Merrill and when the nomination paper came to me, I refused to endorse his nomination, which caused an awful stink.
My concern was that he lacked the knowledge to be on the CTTB. After some days of impasse, Arjuna Dias, a Tea Director at Somerville & Co. Brokers) and a close friend of Merrill, approached me with the suggestion that Merrill and I have a private meeting ng at which he would state his case.
I agreed and he very magnanimously came to 91 Steuart Place one evening, with Arjuna. Merrill’s argument was that the CTPB generated enormous amounts of money to spend on propaganda, as every pound of tea exported attracted a cess for propaganda (and research too) but that the control of that money was far too loose.
He certainly had a point, as in those days most of the propaganda money was, at the tea traders’ insistence, spent on generic propaganda, that is, tea advertised as tea and apart from the Lion symbol, which the packers were allowed to use on their packs, provided the blend comprised 50% Ceylon Tea, along with the legend `Pure Ceylon Tea, there was little done to promote Ceylon Tea specifically.
The pack contents of Ceylon Tea had to be unpoliced and the bona fides of the packers depended on a gentlemen’s agreement. Whilst I have no reason to believe there was large-scale cheating, the situation was really not very satisfactory as the major packers were in the excellent position of benefiting from tea (not Ceylon) advertising, at no cost to themselves. The CTPB ran ‘Ceylon Tea Centres’ in London and various other major cities but their impact was minimal and the London Centre, for instance, though it a fine location in the Haymarket, was best known as a good lunchtime curry house.
Merrill was by then selling some tea in Italy and other parts of Europe, but I remember Italy particularly as the CTPB representative there was a man named Egidio, who Merrill maintained was totally unhelpful to members of the trade. Merrill ‘s point was that the money spent on generic promotion and on promoting foreign-owned brands should now be expended towards helping the development of Ceylonese-owned brands.
When we met at Steuart Place we did not discuss all this detail, but I agreed to support Merrill’s nomination. We parted friends and have remained so ever since. Merrill is the one man who has over the years established his ‘Dilmah’ brand very successfully just about everywhere in the world. I am aware of how very difficult it is to get a new brand in to the Australian supermarkets, where Dilmah’ is now widely stocked, so he has taken a hard road and persevered in putting truly pure Ceylon Tea, packed in Ceylon, on the map. I am only sorry I ever opposed him. [END OF QUOTE]
I was very pleased that Tony considered the issues sufficiently important, for them to be given prominence in his memoir, written more than 30 years after the episode. After moving to Australia in 1973, Tony carved out a very successful career for himself in the private commercial sector in that
country. About eight years ago, when I was visiting Australia, he got in touch with me with a request to address a meeting of the Sri Lanka-Sydney Business Society, of which he was the Chairman. He had always been highly appreciative of the success of Dilmah and was very keen on my explaining to the gathering, my vision for Ceylon Tea and the success of Dilmah.
I accepted with pleasure as that would have also given me the opportunity of meeting up with many of my Sri Lankan friends in Australia. However, having accepted the invitation, I realized, to my utter dismay, that the SLSBS event would coincide with a public relations event featuring 26 important journalists in New South Wales, in which I was due to appear. Eventually I compromised by making a short address at the SLSBS event and answering a few questions, before making an early departure.
Promotion of pure Ceylon tea, obstacles and pitfalls
The incisive observations of Tony Peries an objective and knowledgeable insider of the plantation industry reproduced in the previous chapter, clearly demonstrate the self-serving nature of the very organs established to assist the trade and the exporter.
The Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board (CTPB) became active in the early 1930s and was incorporated with the present Ceylon Tea Board, when the latter was established in 1976. The Chairman of the Tea Board was invariably a political appointee but the organization functioned under a full-time Director General. The first Chairman of the Tea Board was Ajith Goonatilleke, who had earlier been a Senior Estates Management Executive at the George Steuart agency.
There were also periods when the Chairman of the Tea Board and the Secretary of the Ministry of Plantations was one and the same individual, for instance the career civil servant Bradman Weerakoon. I believe that at the outset, Goonatilleke’s appointment as Chairman of the Tea Board and his substantive position as Secretary to the Ministry of Plantations, under then Minister Ratnasiri Senanayake, may have briefly overlapped.
Before the emergence of Ceylonese exporters as a force in the trade, most of the private trade representatives were from multinational companies, including Lipton and Brooke Bond. Therefore, understandably, British interests received priority support whilst there was no voice to promote Sri Lankan interests. I served two terms as a member of the CTPB, in the 1960s and ’70s, but several proposals I submitted regarding the establishing of Sri Lanka brands attracted little or no support, from the Board and the Secretariat.
I was deeply pleased by my appointment to the Ceylon Tea Propaganda Board, as it provided me a great opportunity to present to an important body, the views of a practicing tea trader. The Chairman was M.A. Bartlett, then a Director of Carson Cumberbatch, and the Secretary was Clarence Cooray, who had been with the CTPB for quite some time. The other members of the Board were chairmen of agency houses, brokers, and representatives of the smallholders.
At the very first meeting, when I spoke of the need for the promotion of value-added export of locally-owned brands, whilst Bartlett was very supportive, Maynard, Chairman of Brooke Bond, strongly vetoed the idea. His argument was that value addition at source would require blending from multiple regions and that it would not be practical.
Consequent to Bartlett’s term and Cooray’s retirement, Bertie Warusawitharana, a well-known planter from the south, was appointed Chairman, whilst Elmer Martenstyn, who had been Executive Director of the CTPB in the early 1970s, was appointed Director General and Victor Perera, Secretary. The then situation in that Board was such that Perera had filed an injunction against Martenstyn, and the two were not on speaking terms. Martenstyn was resentful of my inquiries regarding this issue but I was supported by two other Board members, Park Nadesan and Buddhi De Zoysa, the Treasury representative. Another member of the Board who supported new initiatives and new thinking was the late Stanley Jayawardena, then Chairman of Unilever.
The CTPB had within its ambit, both an overseas and a local marketing committee. The Commissioner of Domestic Marketing was one Arasanayagam. Inquiries that de Zoysa and I made revealed that although funds had been allocated for a tea promotion campaign in the east and the north, the tea had simply been handed over to some State institutions for distribution. Eventually, the Minister ordered the CTPB to immediately stop the “futile” campaign to promote tea locally (Ceylon Observer, 4 April 1969).
At the end of my first term, I found out that Martenstyn had privately requested Conrad Dias, then Secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, to nominate a less-confrontational individual. Much to Martenstyn’s displeasure, I was nominated by the Chamber for the second successive term.
The CTPB came in for severe criticism by the Minister of Plantations, Colvin R. de Silva, for its “disregard for promotional” work, its inappropriate appointments to the overseas Tea Centres, such as that of an Egyptian with no previous experience on tea to its Cairo office, and the employment of Kenyan girls at the London Tea Centre, despite the easy availability of Ceylonese girls in London (Ceylon Daily News, 2 July 1971).
Isn’t cleansing hearts a political issue?
In his policy statement during the inauguration of the 5th session of the 9th parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe insists that the solution to the economic crisis lies in economic and scientific measures, not political ones. However, he draws inspiration from Confucius and urges citizens to introspect and cleanse their hearts, which can be seen as a political measure beyond being framed as moral or ethical. In the meantime, he has asserted that his government has achieved a significant transformation and provided a concise progress report, highlighting the remarkable recovery of the economy. President Wickremesinghe has emphasised that the economy, once in dire straits and requiring intensive care, has successfully emerged from its critical condition, exhibiting a robust V-shaped recovery. (See Table 1)
President Wickremesinghe claimed that this record-breaking breakthrough achievement in a brief span is truly a world record; he compared similar situations such as Greece, which took almost a decade to recover. Refuting allegations that he is engaging in secret agreements to conceal the true situation from the public, he has emphasised that every step taken was transparent, offering opportunities for discussion and debate both within and outside Parliament, with nothing hidden. The accuracy of this statement has to be verified by the concerned parties.
Going by confidence that people will eventually recognise and appreciate his decision-making, driven by the country’s growth rather than political gain, the President does not seem to have learnt from the defeat he experienced in the past including the last presidential election. Despite implementing relatively better governance with initiatives like increasing tax revenue and anti-corruption measures, the electorate prioritised different concerns, such as the “inna ratak” outcry. Consequently, they not only failed to acknowledge or appreciate these efforts but rejected the regime altogether, leading to the election of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2019.
The President appears aware of the risk of truth manipulation, deceiving both the nation and its people, yet he seems to take insufficient action to effectively prevent such occurrences.
Facing opposition from major media institutions, the President should proactively direct his media unit to implement a robust awareness program. Relying solely on the passage of time for people to become aware of his administration’s achievements is not sufficient. To effectively communicate the positive initiatives, the President and his government must engage in proactive efforts to counter the negative narrative. Failing to take assertive action may lead to a repetition of mistakes, as people are less likely to recognise and appreciate the purported “good” work without an active and strategic communication strategy.
· Recognition from international institutions.
· “Urumaya” program for land rights to over two million people.
· “Asvasuma” program improving living standards for 2.4 million poor individuals.
· 130% increase in tax network (from 437,547 to 1,000,029 registered taxpayers).
· Successful debt restructuring.
· Establishment of an economic commission.
· Eradication of corruption.
· Simplification of the investment process by eliminating bureaucratic hurdles and corruption risks.
· Social modernization.
· Target of attracting 5 million tourists annually.
· Emphasis on technological advancement, renewable energy, and establishing the International Climate Change University in Sri Lanka.
· Increase productivity of agricultural land in the dry zone (double or triple).
· Restructuring of foreign relations with non-aligned policies.
· Pursuit of free trade agreements with China, Bangladesh, and Indonesia (Singapore agreement already in full operation).
· Intent to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
· Diversification of economic activities away from the Western Province to cities like Jaffna, Trincomalee, Bingiriya, Hambantota, and Kandy.
· Plan to complete over 50,000 houses for low-income urban residents.
· Positioning the country as a service center and economic hub in the Indian Ocean by developing three new ports.
· Collaboration with India to develop Trincomalee as an economic hub.
Some of these objectives appear contradictory and need clarification. For instance, the goal of constructing 50,000 houses in urban areas, mainly in Colombo, seems to contradict the broader plan of expanding activities away from the Western Province. Additionally, there is a seeming contradiction in developing Trincomalee as an economic hub while simultaneously positioning the entire country as a service centre and an economic hub in the Indian Ocean.
The President has said that merely condemning and blaming the crisis without delving into its root causes is ineffective. However, this stance apparently runs counter to his plans for eradicating corruption and promoting social modernisation. The question is how he can conclude that addressing the economic crisis is solely dependent on economic solutions, and dismiss the relevance of political remedies. Many analysts argue that a political solution is primary, with economic solutions being secondary. Historical observations indicate that political changes, such as a regime change, precede the implementation of economic solutions by new political leaders. Without political change, the emergence of these economic solutions is challenging, if not impossible. These statements raise concerns about the possibility of individuals responsible for the crisis being absolved, despite the Supreme Court’s determination and punishment of those accountable and identification of root causes.
He has acknowledged the importance of addressing these issues but has not explicitly deemed them necessary. Perhaps, his emphasis on these matters is an attempt to garner support from the SLPP for his presidential campaign. However, it is crucial to note that he repeatedly emphasises the need to address root causes and hold those responsible accountable.
Finally, the President poses a series of questions: Why is it challenging to embrace an open perspective? Despite our diverse ideas, ethnic backgrounds, languages, provincial residencies, faiths, beliefs, and political affiliations, why can’t we unite in a shared vision for the country’s well-being and the future? Why can’t we collectively understand the benefits for our nation’s youth and join hands to reach great heights? The answers, for many, are not ambiguous. The rise to power by ultra-nationalists and corrupt politicians is often facilitated by divisive tactics. Many politicians faced imminent convictions, and without regime change, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, several could have ended up in jail. We clearly witnessed manipulation of emotions to set different communities against each other as a route to political power. To counter such tactics, he should advocate for the implementation of strong laws and systems to prevent the propagation of manipulation through mass media.
In conclusion, vital statistics illustrate a remarkable turnaround in key economic indicators, signaling progress under his administration. However, certain contradictions and concerns arise, particularly regarding the alignment of various objectives and the perceived emphasis on economic solutions over political remedies.
The President’s call for heart cleansing and unity, inspired by Confucian principles, highlights the importance of fostering a shared vision for the nation’s well-being. Despite the accomplishments outlined, challenges remain in navigating political complexities, addressing root causes, and maintaining transparency to win public trust.
The proposed initiatives, including eradicating corruption, social modernization, and economic diversification, reflect the administration’s ambitious agenda. However, the potential contradictions warrant clarification.
The assertion that the economic crisis resolution lies predominantly in economic and scientific solutions contradicts the notion that political remedies are secondary. Analysts argue for a holistic approach where political and economic solutions complement each other, emphasizing the need for effective governance and accountability.
The President’s reluctance to name the people, who are responsible for the crisis, raises concerns. This ambiguity may stem from political considerations or an attempt to garner support from the SLPP.
The reference to manipulation of emotions for political gain highlights the need for strong laws and systems to counter divisive tactics through mass media.
Hence, the President should address the underlying political forces that contribute to the root causes of the crisis. Cleansing hearts is not an economic solution; it is fundamentally a political issue.
(The writer, a senior Chartered Accountant and professional banker, is Professor at SLIIT University, Malabe. He is also the author of the “Doing Social Research and Publishing Results”, a Springer publication (Singapore), and “Samaja Gaveshakaya (in Sinhala). The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the institution he works for. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.researcher.com)
President needs to take up challenge of leaving a legacy
By Jehan Perera
Even as the date for the presidential elections approaches, there are increased speculations regarding those elections, not only who might win but also whether those elections will be held at all. There is also a debate being generated whether the presidential elections ought to be held at all. There are many who feel that President Ranil Wickremesinghe needs to be given more time to take the country to development. United States Assistant Secretary of State for South & Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, might be one such. He has described Sri Lanka’s economic recovery as one of the greatest comeback stories in the part of the world he deals with. On the other hand, there are others who argue in favour of abolishing the presidency as soon as possible. This would also do away with the need for a presidential election to be held.
There is indeed a strong case for the abolishing of the presidency which is generally believed in the country to be an institution that is over-powerful and prone to abuse by those who are elected to it. This argument has been made into an election campaign theme by some of the past presidential candidates at past presidential elections. But after they won the elections those who promised to abolish the presidency failed to do so, and instead made strenuous efforts to stay on as long as they could, which explains why the presidency continues to this day. There being little faith that those who win the presidency will wish to abolish it, there is an opinion being formed that the presidency should be abolished before the presidential elections. The fact that the presidential form of government led the country to economic disaster is another reason for the hurry. There is, however, a question as to the practicability of this proposition.
The present system of government is called the executive presidential system on account of the central role in the constitution given to the presidency. It can be imagined that cutting out this central institution will be like a fatal wound caused to the prevailing structure of governance. It may be argued that through skillful constitutional engineering that the hole caused by the excision of the presidency can be filled. But the speed at which these reforms can be enacted is questionable in the absence of a political consensus that includes both government and opposition on the issue which is presently not to be seen. If there is to be an abolition of the executive presidency, it is very necessary for there to be consultation with the population and political parties about the new system that will replace the executive presidency. It must be one that meets the expectations and aspirations of the ethnic and religious minorities as well. There is no such consensus at the present time.
There have been deliberations on a new constitution and on constitutional reform on many occasions. However, constitutional schemes from the past cannot substitute for the need to consult people and political parties at this time, when circumstances have changed so drastically, having experienced the Aragayala protests and economic bankruptcy. There is also need for recognition that where there is no consensus, as on the solution to the ethnic conflict and the inclusion of ethnic and religious minorities into governance, change proceeds painfully slowly. This can be seen in the change of the electoral system to the provincial councils that commenced in 2017 and has still not been completed with the result that provincial council elections are overdue five years. It is also noteworthy that 36 years after being made part of the constitution, the provincial councils are in abeyance and there is a proposal pending to eliminate their police powers which, in any event, was never implemented. Fast tracking constitutional change does not seem to be an option especially when all eyes are focused on elections.
Public opinion polls are repeatedly showing that the opposition candidates are ahead in the presidential race by significant margins. If these poll results are anywhere close to reality it can be surmised that the vast majority of people are looking for an election. They would see that it is an election more than anything else that could dislodge the government which is entrenched in power under the leadership of President Wickremesinghe. Two years ago the weakness of the government was such that its leading members dared not come into the public as they feared the wrath of the mob. Some even faced heckling at weddings where people who had come for the happy occasion started hooting those whom they accused of bankrupting the country. Now they are able to attend public functions without fear and with reasonable confidence that their security personnel can handle any eventuality.
The prospect of losing power is never a pleasing one to political leaders with their sights on power. Even advanced countries such as the United States have faced this situation. At the presidential election held in 2020, incumbent president Donald Trump refused to accept defeat and claimed the election was rigged. The desire of those in power in developing countries would be as strong, perhaps even stronger, as losing power could make the incumbent vulnerable to revenge in which the system of checks and balances fails to protect them. The prospect of facing an unknown future in the aftermath of electoral defeat would also be unnerving to those in government, especially if the new government is composed of those with a very different political ideology.
The present government is for the most part a continuation of the government that had to face down the protest movement in which tens of thousands of people from all parts of the country participated. During those halcyon days, protestors young and old from far and near came on foot, on motorcycles, tractor trailers and improvised lorries to be part of a historic revolution they thought was near. The vision of a “system change” that motivated them to make big sacrifices to come to the various protest sites still lives within them, as indeed it must within all who want to see Sri Lanka politically awaken and rise to its full economic potential which is still a distance away. The main beneficiaries of the elections to come will be those who best hold out the hope of system change that will eradicate corruption and ensure a fairer distribution of the costs of getting out of bankruptcy.
The opportunity to effect governmental change will come in October when the constitutionally mandated presidential election falls due. Those in the government would prefer if those elections do not take place or are postponed for as long as possible. In March 2022, the government ensured that local government elections were not held by denying the Election Commission the money to hold them. The government’s determination not to hold those elections was high. It even disregarded the Supreme Court order to make the money available to the Election Commission to conduct the elections. This was a highhanded act that undermines the principles of democracy itself. There is concern that the presidential election will similarly be postponed on some ground or the other.
However, on this occasion, the President’s media unit has stated that the presidential election will be held within the mandated period and according to the current timeline. It added that the general election will be held next year and financial provisions will be provided for in the 2025 budget. The government has also stated that the Election Commission is responsible for conducting the elections and the government will be communicating with the Commission as and when required. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also reiterated to a group of MPs who met him recently that the presidential election would be held on time and there would be no abolition of the presidency. Speaking in a statesmanlike mode, the president said, “I have clearly stated several times that I have no intention to put off the presidential elections. Funds for that purpose are there. The talks about attempts to abolish the executive presidency were circulated by the main opposition.”
The president is also reported to have said that “People of this country know better than the opposition that the abolition of the executive presidency cannot be done in a hurry. There is a procedure to do that. We should not fall into their trap. Do not waste your time on this. You speak of the economic revival programme that we are carrying out.” Likewise, President Wickremesinghe can also seek to address the country’s most intractable problem, the ethnic conflict by ordering the full implementation of the 13th Amendment which would make it easier for the victor at the next election to find a mutually acceptable solution. Whether he succeeds or not he could feel contentment that he did what he had agreed and undertaken to do.
Silence in the classroom: Confronting the dynamics of ‘deficiency’
by Ruth Surenthiraraj
I remember, with unusually vivid clarity, the first time I really noticed the presence of silence in the classroom. One of the lecturers, who was taking our undergraduate class, had assigned us reading to be done ahead of time, parts of which were quite tedious and had to be read twice/thrice over to be grasped. In true happy-go-lucky undergrad spirit, my classmates and I turned up having ‘skimmed’ the articles and nurturing the fervent hope that someone else would pick up the discussion in the event that any questions were raised. As you would imagine, it went horribly wrong. The lecturer posed a question that required some thinking, and we suddenly and silently went into panic-mode in a bid to offer something akin to an answer. A few of us tried to start things off by giving noncommittal responses in the general direction of the question and were kindly asked to explain ourselves further – at which point we fell silent once more because we felt that we hadn’t thought things through. The lecturer, instead of berating us for not reading adequately or making us feel like we were bad students, simply invited us to embrace the silence so that we could get our thoughts in order.
In recalling this incident, I remember the strong sense of discomfort that we felt as learners. It wasn’t, however, something that stemmed from the lecturer or their handling of what must have been a frustrating situation. Instead, I now read that feeling as the acute discomfort of learners who had been trained to view silence in the classroom as something negative. That incident – apart from giving me impetus to never turn up to my classes without completing my assigned reading – also invited me to begin exploring the role of silence and its presence (or absence) in our undergraduate classrooms.
Although silence in teaching and learning is still fairly under-researched and is rarely a nuanced consideration in mainstream conversations around the dynamics of a classroom, there are still broad arguments that have attempted to imbue silence with meaning. For one, our multiple religious traditions seem to have strong tendencies towards silence as a form of retreat to assist deeper reflection even though these traditions often sit in direct contrast with current trends to be constantly producing and documenting aspects of life. Conversely, there is often a ‘culture of silence’ (much bemoaned by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire) that surrounds those who are socially, economically, and culturally vulnerable – a way in which socialisation teaches people to not interrogate their realities. Linguistically speaking, silence often assists us in distinguishing speech units (i.e., the silence that marks a pause in or completion of an idea/thought), but it can be further categorised as playing various functions in establishing relationships between participants in conversations. The possibilities of interpreting silence are myriad.
In the classroom, however, I think we are often limited to viewing silence as a negative indicator. As educators working with undergraduates, we assume that learners’ silence signals a disinterestedness or a disengagement from the critical approaches that should ideally frame undergraduate classroom discussions. At an even more basic level, we often consider silence to signify a lack of knowledge and we then attempt to fill that assumed void with speech that appears to address this lack of knowledge. As a result, we educators often view silence as a thing to be disliked at best and dreaded at worst. But what could silence really mean in a classroom of learners attempting to engage with new knowledge?
Firstly, it is very likely that the learners in our classrooms are expressing a deep-seated, culturally taught fear: the fear of giving the ‘wrong’ response. Sad as it is, it is still common to find educators who berate students for giving unacceptable answers. Instead of engaging with why the answer might not best reflect the desired response, we often shut students down when they don’t meet our (sometimes undefined) expectations. We rarely realise in the moment, though, that learning is a process in which ‘mistakes’ are as important as so-called successes. In fact, mistakes and errors often pave the way for deeper understanding of how what works and why. When learners begin to internalise the message that they don’t know enough to answer, they will simply opt to remain silent despite having a working knowledge of a subject. On the contrary, our classrooms should be safe spaces for ‘stupid’ or partial answers that encourage the students to reflect on why those responses require more thought.
In a constructivist view, learners are not blank slates which we fill with information: rather, they are intellects with existing knowledge structures (schemas) which are formed based on their experiences in life. When these existing schemas meet new knowledge in the classroom, the learner is required to make some adjustments in order to accommodate the new knowledge. This accommodation requires time and the capacity to be reflective, which in turn enables a more integrated worldview. Indeed, if education is meant to be transformative, repeated opportunities to integrate new and existing knowledge structures must be offered to learners within our classrooms. In short, I believe silence could also indicate an unspoken request for space and time to contemplate the significance of new knowledge. Sometimes, we give our students too little time to fully turn ideas around in their heads before requiring them to respond to us. I’ve observed many good educators allowing their frustration at silence to compel answers from students – resulting in responses that might be superficial rather than actual reflections of learning. A better way to undercut our impatience with silence would be to invite learners to hash out their fledgling ideas among themselves before attempting to articulate a holistic and/or individual response. This preliminary discussion often assists in integrating new and existing knowledge in the relatively safer space of peer groups.
Over centuries, educators have also played directly into the problem of sanitising education – separating theories and practices from the contexts in which they originated or detaching them from the sociocultural impacts they may cause. In turn, learners gain an ‘education’ that is removed from its everyday consequences. This also makes it difficult for learners to assimilate such unrelatable concepts, leading to more awkward silences in our classrooms as they attempt to collect seemingly detached pieces of knowledge.
Finally, silence is further compounded in classrooms where students are expected to respond in their second languages. With increasingly more undergraduate study programmes opting to shift wholesale (and almost overnight, in some cases) to the English medium instruction, many more undergraduates are going to be struggling to articulate their thoughts in a language that is not part of their repertoire. Educators (especially those other than language teachers) must be doubly attentive to these unspoken difficulties when interpreting silence. There are a heartbreakingly large number of stories where perfectly articulate and knowledgeable students are deprived of their classes (not to mention jobs) simply because they have not mastered the art of the second language yet. In wrongly categorising such students as ‘below par’ or not having the requisite ‘skills’, we relegate them as incompetent rather than critique our own skewed standards. I have often admired a student in my class for her comfort with awkward pauses as she attempts to construct a sentence that accurately reflects her thoughts as well as ‘acceptable’ language structures. But this is also possible only because I have now taught myself to never rush learners as they navigate new knowledge in a language that they are not fully familiar with. As a teacher of English as a second language, the tendency is to jump in with the necessary vocabulary so that the silences/pauses cause minimal discomfort to the learner. Yet, how will our learners ever be comfortable with the pauses that are inherent to language use and language learning if we do not (want to) confront our own discomfort with silence?
Learner silence, therefore, could act as a signifier of multiple underlying processes and problems. I am not in any way suggesting that silence cannot be associated with a lack of knowledge or with disinterest. However, to boil nuances in learner silence down to either a lack of knowledge or a sense of apathy regarding their discipline is to view learners reductively; we rob them of their right to be considered and accommodated as complex intellects in our classrooms. In rephrasing our questions (to better shape the silences in our classes) or in simply limiting our impatience at the lack of sound/response, we begin to create an atmosphere that is supportive of deeper engagement with our disciplines.
(Ruth is a teacher of English as a second language at a state university.)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
“Operation ‘Yukthiya’ will persist despite pressure” – Minister of Public Security
SLNS Samudura leaves for Maldives to take part in Exercise Dosti – XVI
“Sri Lankan unity paves the way for rapid national development” – President
‘Dates have the highest sugar content to fight Coronavirus’
Sunday Island 27 December – Headlines
#Sundayisland Sunday Island- 31 January- Headlines
Features4 days ago
PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN THE KANDY AREA IN THE LAST CENTURY
Foreign News1 day ago
Nebraska zoo extracts 70 coins from white alligator’s stomach
Business3 days ago
Huawei unveils expansion of its talent development programme in Rome
Features4 days ago
Recollections of Law, Order and Discipline in the good old days
Features4 days ago
Asian Elections and Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s India visit
Features3 days ago
Africa’s ‘flying presidents’ under fire
Features4 days ago
Transformation, Reinvigoration and Reinvention: The Art and Life of George Keyt (1901 – 1993)
Foreign News1 day ago
South Korean doctors strike in protest of plans to add more physicians