Public service in Sri Lanka: Grand old days

I entered the public service in 1958 as a Probationary Asst. Supdt. of Police on the results of a public examination and Viva Voce conducted by the Public Service Commission. The politicization of the Public Service had not begun.


by Edward Gunawardena

( October 6, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The top rung politicians of the fifties, sixties and early seventies were men of the highest integrity and erudition. They were role models for the younger politicians and even University Students and senior schoolboys aspiring to take to politics. Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake, N.M. Perera, Colvin R De Silva, Pieter Keuneman and several others were products of Oxford, Cambridge or London. Phillip Gunawardena the Lion of Boralugoda, only a few would know today, was the product of a leading American University and a hardened Marxist who had, avoiding security checks crossed the Pyrenees on foot to lend his support to the Spanish revolution

The relationship between public servants and their political masters has become a hot topic of discussion after the infamous Sil-Redi case. Many knowledgeable citizens have aired their views for example, on the plight of public servants receiving illegal orders from powerful and arrogant Ministers, the risks at which illegal orders are carried out etc. Surprisingly the immorality of illegal orders by leaders has not been given the emphasis it deserves. So called leaders are usually power drunk, depraved imbeciles. Regrettably their numbers are increasing.

Politicians who are in positions of power with ability to give orders to senior public servants are presumed to be men and women well educated and of good breeding to whom distinguishing right and wrong comes naturally and effortlessly.

To knowingly make a wrong request from a subordinate officer is dishonest and immoral; to compel one to carry out an order under any duress is criminal and totally unacceptable.

I entered the public service in 1958 as a Probationary Asst. Supdt. of Police on the results of a public examination and Viva Voce conducted by the Public Service Commission. The politicization of the Public Service had not begun.

The PSC was indeed sacrosanct. Interference in its affairs even by the Prime Minister would have been considered outrageous. Neither I nor my other two batchmates the late ‘Brute’ Mahendran and ‘Cosmo’ David had met or known any politicians.

The first time that the three of us came to know a politician was, as was the tradition, we had to pay a courtesy call on Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike at his Rosmead Place residence. Apart from the Prime Minister we had also to call on the Governor-General, Chief Justice, Attorney General, the Defence Secretary and External Affairs (SD & EA) and the Secretary to the Treasury.

Such was the pompous manner in which gazetted officers recruited direct to the police after a complex and transparent process was initiated to the elite public service.

Following this wonderful tradition that does not exist anymore, our mentors of the time DIG Sydney de Zoysa, and Superintendants Stanley Senanayake, Brohier and Jebasesan to mention a few, by pushing us to the deep end before we had even commenced serious training undoubtedly gave us the courage and confidence to command with authority.

Most importantly, these officers never failed to impress upon us that we had entered the Police Service on sheer merit and as such with obligations to none were in a position to act fearlessly and correctly at all times. That was to be our guiding credo throughout our entire service.

Younger politicians

The top rung politicians of the fifties, sixties and early seventies were men of the highest integrity and erudition. They were role models for the younger politicians and even University Students and senior schoolboys aspiring to take to politics. Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake, N.M. Perera, Colvin R De Silva, Pieter Keuneman and several others were products of Oxford, Cambridge or London. Phillip Gunawardena the Lion of Boralugoda, only a few would know today, was the product of a leading American University and a hardened Marxist who had, avoiding security checks crossed the Pyrenees on foot to lend his support to the Spanish revolution. He was indeed the most vicious thorn that relentlessly irritated the British Raj.

For politicians of this calibre, devoid of arrogance and endowed with natural humility there was no necessity to demand respect. They commanded respect. Public Servants as well as ordinary citizens had no qualms in openly expressing admiration for them. Respect was a mutual and reciprocal relationship. In this backdrop when decency was the keynote, it is unimaginable that politicians of this glorious vintage would have given an illegal or wrongful order to a public servant.

With equal emphasis it needs to be stated that public servants especially at the top were held in the highest esteem by politicians’ names of my contemporaries that come easily to my mind in this respect are Bradman Weerakoon, M.D.D. Pieris and K.H.J. Wijedasa. I am personally aware of the respect that Dudley Senanayake, Sirima Bandaranaike and R. Premadasa had for the above mentioned officers who were their Secretaries respectively.

Giants of public service

Another outstanding product of Peradeniya who adorned the public service about the same time was Dr. Sarath Amunugama who today as a politician has given some respectability to an otherwise ignominious political cocktail. Officials that could not hog the limelight but were of sterling calibre such as Chandi Chanmugam, Chula Unamboove, Elmo de Silva, A.R.M. Jayawardena, Francis Pietersz, Asoka de Soyza, Jolly Somasundaram, Leel Gunasekera and Chandra Wickremasinghe to name a few also added lustre to the Public Service.

I consider it a privilege to have known and even worked briefly at times with many of these giants of the public service during its sublime years, who have left behind for posterity a splendid Legacy of undiluted integrity and honour.

A development that demeaned the Public Service particularly during the last decade was the ad hoc appointment of a class consisting of somebodies and nobodies, more of the latter as ‘Presidential Advisors’. Hundreds of these worthless nincompoops with salaries and perks even better than such received by senior public servants veritably polluted the public service. Nobody knows as to what advice was proffered by them. It was rumoured that there were Wine Store Keepers and cattle rustlers among them. A story that did the rounds was that during a Presidential election campaign one of these Advisor suckers had visited police stations and Court houses collecting Kasippu kept as productions to keep the poster pasting hooligans in high spirits!

A fact that I should have mentioned earlier was that the respect and recognition politicians had for public servants during the fifties, persisted through the sixties and early seventies. An unforgettable encounter I had with a senior minister when I was in my late twenties is worth recalling.

When I took charge of the Kegalle Police District in 1963, Mr. P.B.G. Kalugalle was the MP for Kegalle and a very senior Minister in the Sirima Bandaranaike government. I had never met him before.

On or about the third day in my new assignment I received a telephone call from Mr. Kalugalle requesting an appointment to see me. I was nonplussed for a moment but replied, “Sir, you need no appointment to see me. Please drop in any time. I will be happy to meet you and have a chat with you either in my office or at home”.

However, as a feeling of guilt began to torment me I decided to visit the Minister immediately at his residence with the Kegalle HQI Alex Abeysekera. The latter knew the Minister well. This turned out to be a very cordial and pleasant meeting.

When I happened to relate this episode to a Senior officer two or three years back what he told me was, “Sir, today the politician of the area will visit the house of a heroin dealer and order the ASP to come there forthwith; and the latter would faithfully comply fearing a transfer!

Exercise of absolute authority

The politico-public servant relationship deteriorated to an abysmal, feudal Master – Slave relationship particularly with the emergence of the Executive Presidency. With ministers being able to pick and choose men and women, even their domestic servants for employment in the public sector, a culture of servility began to prevail. Running dirty errands became a sure way of earning undeserving promotions. This was glaringly obvious in the Police. With transferability and denial of promotions as the Sword of Damocles in the hands of the Executive President the police became a handy tool for the exercise of absolute authority. The ability to carry out the wishes of the President with ease either by acts of commission or omission allowed the cringing types even to create the opportunities for them to go places.

‘Cringe and prosper’ became the modus operandus of dishonest and cunning public officials at all levels. With handpicked personal security officers with even criminal records such as the desperado Baddegane Sunil always willing to slavishly oblige, incidents even of a horrendous nature, the harassment of artiste Rookantha Gunatilleke and his wife being a case in point, began to gather momentum in geometric proportion as the Executive Presidency kept on bulldozing its way.

The crashing of the Sil Redi boulder on its path has momentarily stopped it. One wonders whether the ‘meritorious’ act of distributing Sil Redi albeit with the peoples’ money has had the beneficial effect of halting the devastating march of corruption that has ruined the nation.

It is a pity indeed that the younger generations have been destined to put up with corrupt political regimes, a degenerate public service, the traditional professions that have lost their lustre, State Universities not listed even among the first two thousand in the world, a Parliament more often giving out animal sounds than sound speeches and debates worth listening to, and a once glamorous and internationally reputed Police force now in disgrace with a number of very senior officers behind bars for criminal conduct.

Perhaps all is not lost. In the words of Alexander Pope, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Sooner or later an end must come to the chronic leadership crisis that the nation is going through. Going by the hundreds of people who project sensible and practical thoughts on national television, this country is not short of leadership material. Most importantly with the media keeping the nation educated and informed as never before, the days that the electorate was taken for a ride by dishonest and corrupt politicians must also come to an end.

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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