The March of Folly Oration for Dr P R Anthonis Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still.

By Rajiva Wijesinha

Vasantha Senanayake and I tried during the tenure of the last government to introduce an amendment to specify a limit, but he was strong armed into putting off the bill, and handed it over to the JVP, which promptly forgot about it. I could not then introduce it myself, though I did introduce other amendments including a Bill of Rights But of course these then get buried by government – the previous government as well as the government under President Sirisena – since there is no proper provision in our Standing Orders for private member bills to be taken up if government wants to block them. Needless to say my effort to change the Standing Orders in this respect as in others, to give more teeth to Parliamentary Committees, was also sabotaged. I did get consensus on many matters in June 2015, but then Parliament was suddenly dissolved, contrary to the President’s pledge to the Leader of the Opposition that that would not happen.

With regard to a limit on the size of the cabinet, this was introduced in the 19th amendment, but the other part of the manifesto commitment was traduced. The manifesto said that ‘The Cabinet will be reduced to 25 and with Ministries established on rational criteria. In order to promote efficiency and convenience of the public, subjects that require coordination will be combined’. Science and rationality went by the board and, though a limit was introduced, the amendment also provided for an exception in the case of what was termed a National Government after the next election. The Opposition then added to the disaster by saying that such a special provision was inappropriate, so now you can have a larger Cabinet anytime, provided you say you are forming a National Government.

Since no definition was included as to what a National Government is, and there is no likelihood of the Courts declaring what this really means, the gravy train will continue for ever. Ironically, we now have a government from which the parties that represent a majority of the Sinhalese and also a majority of the Tamils are excluded. But it continues on its merry way, with no regard for efficiency or the convenience of the public.

For, to put it bluntly, Cabinets now exist for the convenience of politicians, not for the public. Politicians are appointed to the executive not because they are able but because they are senior politicians. And whereas this also happens in other countries that follow the Westminster system, where some senior members of Parliament, however foolish, cannot be left out of office for ever, in such countries there are safeguards. As illustrated graphically in ‘Yes, Minister’, they have able civil servants to do the job.

In Sri Lanka however we have also politicized the Civil Service. The President’s manifesto pledged to restore its independence, but it has singularly failed to do this, and still keeps the appointment of Ministry Secretaries the prerogative of the President. It also has all Secretaries give up office when the government changes, which makes a mockery of the concept of Permanent Secretary, destroys continuity, and increases their vulnerability. I tried to change this, and indeed moved a constitutional amendment to this effect, but I found that even the President, whose instincts I had thought sound, did not understand the problem.

He claimed that it was necessary to keep the provision because of an appalling appointment to a Ministry which he mentioned, oblivious to the fact that it was precisely the current provisions that had made such an appointment possible. The Prime Minister meanwhile claimed that it had always been possible to bring in outsiders and cited the case of Ananda Tissa de Alwis way back in 1965. I knew of that case, when a new Ministry had been set up, and of course such exceptions are always possible, but the norm should be internal appointments through the Public Service, with security of tenure. There can of course always be exceptions, subject to a formal mechanism, instead of making all Secretaries vulnerable as a matter of course.

The fact that no one claiming to be a proponent of good governance bothered about this made it again clear to me that they were simply interested in their own agendas and predilections, and unconcerned with structural change, provided their desires, positive and negative, were fulfilled. So it was not surprising to find characters such as Upul Jayasuriya and J C Weliamuna also immediately feeding from the trough, and with nothing much for the nation to show for the emoluments they received.

Recently I was asked by the National Human Resources Development Council, which recognizes the problem, to chair a committee on devising new ways of working in the public sector (the report of which will appear as an appendix to the printed version of this talk). With sterling support from individuals representing agencies such as the Public Service Commission and the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, with excellent input too from senior Civil Servants of the past, we produced a report, but evidently neither the President nor the Prime Minister is interested. And the Chairman of the NHRDC is fearful of having a press conference to put the proposals on the table, without a go ahead from the Prime Minister – who will do nothing since he is perfectly happy with a ridiculous situation inasmuch as it permits him to indulge his passion for micro-managing everything he can lay his hands on. Indeed his contempt for systems is apparent from his failure to have a Secretary appointed to his Ministry for nearly six months, the chief executive of what is supposed to be the most influential Ministry in the land (with the Central Bank tucked under its armpit too) being until the beginning of this month a youngster who had been acting in the position since August.

What lies behind this reluctance to change the system, even though its adverse consequences are clear to all? There is no doubt that much money is spent on perks, much money is wasted on the appointment, to permanent pensionable jobs as well as support positions, of hangers on who contribute little to benefit the country or the Ministry. And all these appointees hanker after unsolicited projects from which many of them derive personal benefits – and the Prime Minister accordingly, after introducing a paper to ban unsolicited projects, promptly sought approval for one from the Cabinet.

The argument is that the government has to keep parliamentarians happy, else they will topple the government. In the present case, the odd couple, realizing that neither component would go down well in the country on its own, thought the solution was ensuring protracted union. This has meant keeping even larger numbers happy, though sadly in the case of the SLFP this means the less capable members of the younger lot, who contribute nothing whatsoever to governance.

In passing I should note that it is certainly something the President should consider, that all the bright and capable youngsters in the SLFP are firmly with the opposition. This does not bode well for that party if it takes over the reins of government under the President – though that is not likely to happen, since it requires him to put the interests of his party first and engage in sensible negotiations, based on the principle I noted above, not a determination to have his own way, or the way of his less salubrious hangers on, in everything.

With regard to the need for structural change, it is true there will be unhappiness if some are Ministers and others not. But the answer is to have a constitutional bar to excessive numbers so that those who decide on the Cabinet can explain clearly the need to be selective. At the same time, more authority could, and indeed should, be given to all members of parliament, with regard to contributing to development in their own areas. Such contributions should not be simply through financial subventions, but should be based on sustainable projects, with careful study of what would benefit constituents. Now however parliamentarians are not even expected to engage in analysis of what would help the people, and the support they have to do their work is quite ridiculous. Symptomatic of what is intended through salaries for staff was the provision to pay this through the MP if required, which allows as I have noted for hiring of family members.

I am deeply sorry then that the President has done nothing about most elements in his manifesto. I should note that I do not think he was hypocritical when he made all these pledges, but he simply has not bothered from that time to this to work towards fulfilling his promises.

But surely he must realize that, in the short term too, but certainly in the long term, if he fulfils this pledge as well as the one about electoral reform (which he does seem to have thought about more), he would do much more to set the country on the right path. This would make more sense than engaging in the witch hunts which those who pressurize him want him to concentrate on. After nearly three years of working with admittedly a more sophisticated crooked crew, he must realize that corruption is general and the best way of dealing with it is reducing opportunities.

This can be done by

  1. Reducing the numbers of those who have opportunities for plunder, by implementing the manifesto promise. This will also make it possible for Ministers to set clear work targets in their areas of responsibility, without the difficulties of coordination that we now have. And more able Ministers can be chosen, who will try to concentrate on outcomes rather than incomes.
  2. Reduce the need for Members of Parliament to make lots of money, by implementing the manifesto promise about changing the electoral system. If electioneering is confined to electorates, and against a limited number of opponents, expenditure will necessarily be much less. That the President should have failed to work on this, despite his evident interest in the subject, suggests that he needs more effective staff to take forward his own agenda.
  3. Strengthen Parliament oversight systems by giving actual powers to Committee chairs who should not be part of the executive. But for this to be effective there should be senior and able people outside the executive on the government side too, since these committees need moral as well as theoretical authority. And the Freedom of Information Act should be properly implemented, without permitting underlings such as the Secretary to the Prime Minister to create the impression that the government is not serious about basic principles of good governance.


I have looked thus far at what might be termed the more obvious betrayals, the areas we all know about in which reform was urgently needed, was pledged, and was then forgotten. But there are other important fields in which changes are also needed if we are to cease being, as the Economist once described us, an under-developed country that continues to under develop.

First and foremost we need to halt the rot that set in in education when the visionary reforms of C W W Kannangara were sabotaged by the elite. For this purpose we need to understand exactly what happened, and to dismiss the myth that compulsory mother tongue education was imposed by Mr Bandaranaike as part of his 1956 Official Languages Act. That was a bad move, though it must be remembered that the 1956 election was called early by the UNP to get a mandate to introduce Sinhala only. This had been decided on at its January 1956 sessions in Kelaniya when Sir John Kotelawala’s pledge to have Tamil also was repudiated by his party.

But the abolition of English medium education, the straitjacketing of the vast majority of our children in monolingualism, had happened over a decade earlier, when J R Jayewardene in one fell swoop destroyed the egalitarianism in education that Kannangara had initiated through his Central schools.

Before Kannangara there were a few elite schools, in the big towns, that taught in English, while all others studied in what were termed vernacular schools. Those elite schools had initially been Christian ones, apart from the government flagship, Royal College. But early on intelligent adherents of other religions realized the value of good English medium education, and set up Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim schools of similar quality. The regard in which Olcott and Navalar and Marikar (who was supported incidentally by Orabi Pasha to found Zahira College) are held testifies to the importance of their contribution to providing a level playing field for adherents of other religions.

Kannangara took this further by setting up centres of English medium excellence in other areas. There is some confusion in the narratives we have about education in that sometimes Central schools are associated with the reforms that happened in the mid-forties. But the website, for instance, of Bandaranayake Central College in Veyangoda, one of the first central schools which started in 1941, stated the position clearly. Its Wikipedia entry notes that ‘The main medium of education had been English, however with Sinhala becoming the official language. Since 2002 English has been reintroduced as a medium of education at the College. Students may select one of the two mediums to conduct their studies in.’

I should note however that the claim is neither grammatical nor true. English medium was abolished, not when Sinhala became the official language, but in the forties when J R Jayewardene introduced a bill to make Sinhala the compulsory medium of education in all schools. His seniors upbraided him for leaving out Tamil, at which point he accepted Tamil as an alternative, and memorably claimed in his speech on his proposal that in Sri Lanka there were ‘two different nations; one nation learning Sinhalese and Tamil and speaking in Sinhalese and Tamil, and the other speaking and learning English.’

His motion was defeated but it was accepted that at primary level the medium of instruction should be compulsorily Sinhala or Tamil. Inevitably, within a decade, when Eddie Nugawela was Minister of Education, this was extended to secondary level, not through legislation but through a Ministry circular. As a result, those rural children who had been receiving an English medium education and been able to compete equally with the elite lost out, and as we know have had difficulty since in competing for jobs which require wider knowledge of the world.

When I first found out what had happened, I thought Jayewardene’s proposal had been part of his effort to establish a nationalist identity for himself, on a par with his abandoning Christianity and western attire. But I now suspect that there were more sinister motives, namely a desire to restrict entry into the charmed circle. That alone can explain the opposition the present Prime Minister too evinced towards English medium when Tara de Mel and I reintroduced it in government schools in 2001, as the Bandaranayake MMV account notes. He told Karunasena Kodituwakku not to go ahead with the project, and even wanted it stopped after a couple of years, though fortunately the Minister had more sense and promoted its expansion into even more schools than we had started with initially in the January of 2002.

But all this should have been accompanied by better teacher training, and by more professional production of materials. All that was allowed to lapse. There has been no effort to produce more and better English teachers, even though all studies suggest that English is one of the principal requirements for both lucrative and productive employment.

A recent ILO report put it graphically – ‘Going by recent sector-wide skills assessments, it appears that Sri Lanka’s general education system is failing to develop the cognitive skills of large numbers of its graduates. It has also failed to impart several urgently needed technical skills such as the ability to write and communicate clearly in even the mother tongue, let alone English. Therefore as a first step, the general education system needs to be overhauled in such a way that it shifts out of the business of imparting facts and moves into building the skills necessary to process and analyse facts, make connections and see the big picture, and then communicate the analysis clearly and succinctly through presentations and report writing.’ But I suspect no one in the Ministry of Education has read the report, let alone thought about it. And if any further evidence were needed about care for one’s personal interests, and no care at all for the country at large, we need only consider the appointment of Akila Viraj Kariyawasam as Minister of Education.

We also have a complete misfit as Minister of Higher Education, a portfolio now for the second time combined with Highways as though to make quite clear its secondary nature. So instead of efforts to reach consensus on the principles on which our educational policy should be based, we have relentless confrontation, combined with even more blatant efforts to influence appointments than we ever saw in the past.

Fortunately we had and still have a Minister of Vocational Training who does study his briefs and tries to effect at least some reforms. But it is difficult to take these forward without the coordination the President pledged in his manifesto. So for instance we have now developed teacher training programmes, both for Technology and for English, but the Ministry of Education has not taken advantage of these (though I should note that the imaginative Secretary to the Ministry is trying to introduce some of the concepts we had developed through a course in Working Mathematically and Education).

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