By Dr. Mahim Mendis
Response to the Article, “Shamelessness”,
by Prof. Sasanka Perera
Prof Sasanka Perera’s article published in The Island on 16 June, 2021, under the title, “Shamelessness”, helps us in “soul searching”, as to who exactly we are, ideologically, emotionally, and even spiritually. The only disadvantage right now is that the people are heavily burdened, as victims of multiple shocks by a regime that has no sense of dignity, public accountability, respectability, and credibility in addition to “shamelessness”, that Prof Sasanka Perera has added.
Prof Perera makes an enlightening statement with reference to Chinese Philosopher Meng Ke, that “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”.
Yet, what has gone wrong for us as a nation, to be devoid of these traits, when compared to another island nation like Singapore with its post- colonial background? They were in fact an insignificant port city in the 1950’s, when Lee Kuan Yew was elected. Extremely Visionary with a very strong personality, Lee was however, humble enough to gain inspiration from Sri Lanka; a nation with great stature, comparatively during the same period.
ARE WE IN A NATIONAL CRISIS WITHOUT PROPER ETHOS/GRAND CONVICTIONS?
One could argue that it is a shame not to be driven by a formidable ethos in life as without an ethos, a person or an entire nation will be like a “Rudderless Boat”.
As much as Meng Ke, it is important for us to make sense of shamefulness. Let me refer to the Greek Philosopher, Aristole,who explained that an Ethos refers to a man’s character or personality, especially in its balance between passion and caution. Today ethos is used to refer to the practices or values that distinguish one person, organization, or society from others.
Aristotle, according to Krista C McCormack of Washington University, recognized the inherent truth that we believe good men more fully and more readily than others. Furthermore, Aristotle recognized, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker, or the leader, may be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.
A fundamental question in the context of Sri Lanka is whether we are a people with a clear ethos as individuals, as a society and as a country? Do we know what we in fact stand for now and stood for in the past ideologically? Adding to this burden, I often meet university academics, including so called professors from the present generation, who have not heard about Sir Ivor Jennings, the founding father of the University of Ceylon, and how he perceived the University as an institution.
LYING AND WORKING AGAINST OUR CONSCIENCE
Aren’t we a people, who probably know what is right and wrong, but willfully implement what is wrong without any shame? We even tend to lie without principles. History records clearly how Justice Mark Fernando, in 1991, gave a judgment from the Supreme Court in the Impeachment Case of Ranasinghe Premadasa, that Lalith Athulathmudali was guilty of “Lies and Deception”.
Such a verdict could have been avoided by Oxford-educated Athulathmudali, if he had an honourable ethos. So to be without shame is not a recent trait, but an old trait that we carry ever since Prince Vijaya landed in this island, having been deported by his father for being immoral in his own land.
LACK OF CONSCIENCE AS A NATIONAL TRAIT: CASE OF SRI LANKAN LEADERSHIP ON ENGLISH EDUCATION
To give a random example, an elderly person asked me recently, how I perceive the way the late Solomon Dias Bandaranaike named his son, as Solomon West Ridgeway, in the presence of the British Governor West Ridgeway. He said that his own illustrious father, a distinguished product of St. Thomas, College that Bandaranaike himself attended, would not have done such a thing, as this is a shameless opportunism without a conscience.
He said that such a standard of opportunism also inspired the son, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (SWRD), who benefitted from the Western Protestant ethic at St. Thomas’ College, Mount. Lavinia, and the University of Oxford. As a politician, SWRD became the father of the Sinhala Only Act, while knowing so well that this policy would deprive the ordinary people, the model of education that made him a polished personality during that time.
These issues are raised in good faith to provoke the imagination of the readers as to what would constitute “honour” or “dishonour”, as our leaders should have been role models with the type of privileged education they received. Role models in influencing fellow countrymen to act with a conscience. Also role models sharing with the countrymen what benefited them and their children.
WORKING WITH A CONSCIENCE: CASE OF SINGAPOREAN LEADERSHIP ON ENGLISH EDUCATION
Writing to the Time Magazine, in 2005, Simon Elegant and Michael Elliott, described Lee Kuan Yew as, “The Man Who Saw It All”, as the founding father of Modern Singapore, transforming an insignificant port city as a model state for the world.
This they said because Lee’s actions were firmly grounded on an ethos that he should share with the people of Singapore, what he himself benefited from. To think in terms of the big picture where all would live with dignity on a level playing field, enjoying the fruits of public policies for the Common Good of all Singaporeans.
Ironically, Sri Lankan leaders believed in the opposite and sabotaged the progressive reforms of C.W.W Kannangara, even going to the extent of depriving him of the Education Portfolio, in 1952.
Lee who was almost 24 years junior in age to SWRD who was educated at Oxford, had his university education at the University of Cambridge. About English education, he states in “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey”, that, “We learn that there were four changes at the helm of the Education Ministry in four months in 1975. We learn that there were Chinese-medium schools in Singapore right up to the mid-1980s. We learn of the pain of “teachers who had to switch from teaching in Chinese to teaching in English, almost overnight”, and likewise that of students who were “caught mid-stream” in the transition from a Chinese medium of instruction to an English one.
As stated by a Singaporean analyst, “We learn why the National Day Rally of 1986, was a milestone and why he “was a proud man that day”: For the first time since Singapore’s independence, 21 years earlier, the Master of Ceremonies for the event did not have to use three languages – Chinese, Malay and Tamil – to lead the audience, as finally, English had become a language understood by all Singaporeans.
The lesson we should learn as Sri Lankans is that we should be sincere in heart and mind; in other words, decent men and women who will be objective enough to perceive issues without bias.
THE OPPOSITION LED BY SAJITH PREMADASA
The Opposition, led by Sajith Premadasa, decimating one of the oldest political parties that formed many Governments since independence, namely, the UNP, should be accepted without bias. SJB performance was a formidable achievement, that not even SWRD Bandaranaike was able to achieve after breaking away from the UNP, led by D.S Senanayake.
The JVP/JJB group, even with their vote base stagnating, continue to do their best, maximizing their own potential as a Left Wing alternative. To be fair by all, during the first year of the Gotabaya Rajapakse regime, with Covid- 19 dictating terms to all, they as an Opposition have been extremely active.
CYNICISM WILL UNDERMINE DEMOCRACY
In the case of the SJB, can any rational person say that he or she has seen the SJB functioning as a branch of the Government, as stated by Dr. Sasanka?
I would argue that to get out of this shameful political culture, we could achieve nothing by being cynical about the Opposition. All what we should do is to ensure that these parties represent an alternative socio-economic, political and cultural order to sustain democracy in Sri Lanka; not to undermine the democratic process and the parties vying for power.
In this context, we all know that Sajith Premadasa clearly represents a Social – Democratic alternative to the present regime, that will ensure economic development with the government and the private sector enabled to perform maximally. Today, with crony capitalism in Sri Lanka, no one can survive if one is not a close affiliate of the influential elements of the Government.
SJB also firmly believes in a foreign policy which is favourable, to relations with all countries irrespective of their ideologies, defined as “Positive Alignment”. This is driven by the national interest and the wellbeing of the majority, unlike what would happen for example, through the proposed Port City.
SJB’s policy on national security has much to do with social, political, economic and cultural security and not acute militarization of institutions that has today undermined the status of armed forces by taking over the functions of the trained officers of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service. Also to ensure that we would arrive at a viable political solution to the ethno-political crisis, by going beyond the 13th Amendment that the present regime threatens to abolish.
Similarly, the JJB believes in its own alternative. It would be dishonest to say that the SJB and the JJB do next to nothing as an opposition.
WAY FORWARD FOR GREATER DEMOCRACY
The role of the Opposition is to provide a viable alternative to the present regime with sound policies. The Government ironically with all the power it enjoys, continues to make a mockery of themselves, without a sense of direction.
Are we now saying that after one year of governance, the Government should be sacked immediately, and in this context, the Opposition has failed to organize street protests in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic?
If they did that, the same people would blame them for sabotaging the government. In my perception, we can be happy that Sajith Premadasa who polled 42% of the vote, against 58% by Gotabaya Rajapakse is not accused by anyone that he is sabotaging the work of the Government, as was the case of the Rajapaksa led constitutional coup, in 2019.
Let the people at this stage see for themselves and opt for a better alternative legitimately next time.
“Our ethos is all that we currently hold to be true. It is what we act upon. It governs our manners, our business, and our politics”.-
Howard Zinn, American Historian, Playwright.
Building trust, a better investment
The government has allowed private companies to import chemical fertilisers. The farmers had been holding many a street protest against the government’s blatantly unwise policy of shifting to organic farming overnight, but to no avail. The Minister concerned and others repeatedly said that they would not change the government’s decision as it had been made for the good of all the people. The farmers had no problem with organic farming but insisted that the transition had to be phased out to avoid serious adverse effects. But no! The government never relented and tried to show that the street protests were instigated by interested parties including chemical fertiliser companies, to make the government unpopular. The government insisted that chemical fertilisers have caused many ailments including the dreaded kidney disease and turned a deaf ear to the farmers’ grievances.
However, hot on the heels of Mr. Modi’s U-turn last week, the Minister has changed track and tells us that the government, being one which is always ‘sensitive to people’s concerns’, has decided to make chemical fertilizers available through private imports, but would not import them on its own or change its policy of going fully organic. Questioned by journalists, another ruling party spokesperson quipped that the government’s decision came about neither due to the Indian PM’s ‘example’ nor in response to the loud protests. It is a result of the discussions held within the party, he assured.
However, it is unfortunate that the government had to wait for more than seven months to be ‘sensitive to peoples’ concerns’. If the ruling party members had only taken a few minutes to watch TV news headlines, they would have proved their ‘sensitivity’ months earlier, not waiting for Mr. Modi to steal a march on them, so to speak. To any reasonable person, the government obviously has responded to the rampant protests that were actually the climax of a prolonged process, which began with pleading, explaining their predicament, reasoning, chest thumping, expressing disbelief, which gradually culminated in loud protests, burning of effigies and threatening to come to Colombo in numbers. Surely, Mr. Modi didn’t make it any easier for the government to justify its ‘sensitivity’ to farmers’ grievances!
Thus, to any reasonable person, the government had actually responded to the unbridled anger of the helpless farmers, not to their grievances. What’s more, looking at how the government had handled the previous issues of a controversial nature, it is hard to recall any instance where it promptly responded to people’s concerns; it was always a case of responding to people vehemently protesting as a last resort- be it the Port City issue, Eastern Terminal, Teachers’ salary or Yugadanavi Power Plant issue, not to mention the pathetic state of innocent villagers being perpetually traumatized by wild elephant attacks often taking their lives wantonly. In each of these cases, the government, wittingly or unwittingly, seemed to regard the voices of concern, not as appeals worthy of serious attention, but as attempts at disruption or politically motivated interventions. This, surely, does not augur well for the government or support its claim to ‘sensitivity’ as regards people’s concerns.
The government’s decision to compromise on its strict chemical fertiliser ban, which has come soon after Mr. Modi’s reversal of sorts, allows room for the discerning public to make obvious inferences, despite the government’s claim about its decision not being influenced by that of the Indian PM. In fact, the government reps have nothing to gain by pretending to blush when journalists suggest that they perhaps took a leaf from their neighbour. Even at this juncture, people’s representatives seem reluctant to prefer sincerity to affectation; hence the government’s growing aloofness, which is causing a “severe trust deficit”- to borrow a pithy phrase from The Island editorial of November 19.
As the representatives of the public, what any government needs to foster are sincerity and empathy. It is this tacit bond between the people and the government, which will consolidate trust in the long term. Being the party that holds power, the onus is on the rulers to secure people’s faith. Instead, every party that has come to power since Independence has always helped the Opposition to make a five yearly ‘ritual cleansing’ in the eyes of the people. So, the wheel turns.
Don’t harass whistle-blower
Thushan Gunawardena, who alerted the authorities and the media to a serious fraud taking at Sathosa should not be harassed by the Police as it is clear that he has no political motives and has acted in the public interest.
The Cabinet minister concerned is attempting to show a conspiracy against him when he has failed to prevent such frauds at Sathosa and let it continue as there were benefits flowing to him in addition to his being able to employ family members and manipulate the system for personal profit.
It is patently clear that he is trying to take the investigation in a different direction and prevent changes that would clean up the mess that is contributing to the massive losses at Sathosa.
Stanley (Sam) Samarasinghe
A TRIBUTE TO A PATRIOT
Even with the prior knowledge that the end was near, when the news of the passing away of Sam on the 23rd of November 2021 was conveyed to me, it was difficult to bear. Though living the better part of his adult life in the United States, to those with whom he had regular contact and dialogue, he was ever present. He succumbed to an illness that he bore with courage and fortitude for several years. In that time his enthusiasm to live his life to the full did not diminish. Except family and close friends none had even the slightest inkling that he was battling an invasive enemy within.
I have described Sam as a Patriot, if its definition is “one that loves his country and zealously maintains its interests”, then it fits him well, as he did that in full measure.
Having schooled in Kandy at Dharmarajah College, Sam completed a special degree in economics at the Peradeniya University where his father worked. Having being accepted by both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, he turned to his mentor, Professor H. A. de S. Gunasekera, who had advised him to take Cambridge. He went there with his wife Vidyamali, whom he had met at Peradeniya and obtained his Ph.D. in Economics. They both returned to Peradeniya and Sam became a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Economics. He taught there until 1989, when he left for the United States with his wife and two sons, Mevan and Ranmal. He was appointed Professor of the Development Studies Programme at the USAID, a position he held for many years in Washington. But what is remarkable, is that he continued his abiding interest in the many facets of Sri Lankan life, especially in education and politics and of course, Kandy. He returned to Sri Lanka at least twice a year. While others would spend such breaks as a let up from work, Sam vigorously involved himself in many spheres of activity.
Along with Prof. Kingsley de Silva, he created the only intellectual hub outside of the Peradeniya University in Kandy at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). As Director, he secured funding for many academic projects that the Centre did. Sam was instrumental in the ICES buying its own place and then constructing a tarred road leading to the Center. The way he set about it will give the reader an idea of the man Sam was. The road served at least 12 houses. He arranged a meeting of all the householders and sold them a deal that none could refuse. Each household was asked to pay proportionately to the distance from the main Peradeniya Road to their house. At the end of the exercise. Sam refunded the excess in that same proportion!!
Sam was an academic, researching and writing extensively, sometimes collaborating with other academics such as Prof. Kingsley de Silva and Prof. G.H. (Gerry) Peiris. On several occasions, he brought out his post graduate students from the Tulane University, New Orleans (where he was Visiting Professor of Economics) to Sri Lanka and to Kandy, arranged field trips and had them interact with academics and professionals.
His particular interest in Kandy made him do a study of its traffic congestion and organised a public seminar with other experts on the subject. As the President of the Senkadagala Lions Club, Sam obtained funding for many of its projects. In fact, Sam had a penchant for writing up project proposals, an expertise he ungrudgingly shared with anyone who asked for it. He started a monthly local newspaper in 1994, the “Kandy News”, becoming its Chief Editor and its main sponsor. The last issue was a special supplement done in the run-up to the Kandy Municipal Council election in 2018.
When the tsunami stuck the country in 2004, Sam was the lead Consultant of a World Vision programme designed to make a qualitative assessment of tsunami and non-tsunami villages from Kalutara in the Western Province to Kilinochchi in the Northern Province. A task he successfully completed with his team under the aegis of the ICES.
He was an advocate for cooperation and harmony among the races. His involvement in the post tsunami work in Jaffna and Trincomalee with the Lions Club is proof of that, as much as it was when he asked the guests to the nuptial reception of his son Mevan, not to give presents but to contribute towards the project initiated by Mevan and himself in giving school books and equipment to the Tamil Primary School at the Gomorra Estate in Panwila.
My own association with Sam goes back to the time I ran for office as Mayor in 1997. He threw his weight behind me helping out in ways too numerous to mention. That friendship grew and grew and it embraced my family as well. He would ask me to criticise his writing especially on politics. He was a stickler for accuracy and uncompromising on facts. His opinions were rational, practical and unbiased. A bubbly personality, he was always a believer that there are better times ahead. His enthusiasm was infectious. His criticism of events and people were never personal. There is much to take from the life and times of Sam Samarasinghe.
We share his loss with his wife, the two boys of whom he was justly very proud of and his siblings whose welfare he always had. The country is poorer for his passing.
May he find peace in Nibbana!
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