20 July, 2024


Appreciation For Lionel Fernando

By Vipula Wanigasekera

Dr. Vipula Wanigasekera

Lionel Fernando was more than a public servant; he was a beacon of humanity and national integration in Sri Lanka. As a top official who held numerous positions in public service, local government, and diplomacy, his career was a testament to his dedication to his country and its people. My admiration for Lionel began long before our personal encounters, rooted in his transformative tenure as the first Sinhala Government Agent in Jaffna during the 1970s. His service-oriented approach endeared him to the Tamil communities, illustrating his commitment to bridging ethnic divides and fostering unity.

Lionel’s tenure in Jaffna was a remarkable example of national integration. Despite the prevailing tensions, he worked tirelessly to serve minority communities with fairness and compassion. His outspoken criticism of the adverse effects of the open economy on Jaffna’s farmers, although disregarded by the rulers of the time, highlighted his unwavering advocacy for the marginalized. The price the country paid for his principled stand was heavy, but it only solidified his legacy as a guardian of the underprivileged.

Lionel Fernando

My first personal encounter with Lionel was when he served as the Chairman of the Shipping Corporation while I was attached to the State Trading Corporation (Consol Expo). Both institutions fell under the Ministry of Trade and Shipping, then led by the late Lalith Athulathmudali. Transitioning into a private sector mode, Lionel was ever ready to develop the institution, working tirelessly around the clock. His leadership was a blend of vision, dedication, and a remarkable ability to inspire those around him.

A decade later, our paths crossed again when I was with the Tourist Board, and Lionel was the Secretary to the Ministry of Media, Tourism, and Aviation. His advocacy for media freedom, grounded in principles and a deep sense of consciousness, left an indelible mark on the ministry and the media landscape. Coincidentally, a few years later, I had the privilege of serving as his counselor at the Kuala Lumpur High Commission. Together, we set up a model to nurture integration, which illuminated the efforts of many organizations concerned with Sri Lankan affairs. Our integration programs, such as hosting the Tamil artist Kulaweerasingham and facilitating the celebration of Archbishop Dominic Vandergon’s 90th birthday, showcased Lionel’s unwavering belief that Sri Lankans could live together as one nation.

Our association continued when he became the Foreign Secretary and later the Ambassador in The Hague, while I was setting up the diplomatic office in Oslo. We visited each other , strengthening our professional bond and forging a deep personal friendship. Our families became close, and I even had the honor of working for his son-in-law, Prof. Chandana Aluthge, as a lecturer after I stepped down from Tourism Authority.

What truly set Lionel apart was not just the numerous top positions he held, but his profound humanity. He was always there for people in their times of need, whether the problem was financial or personal. When my daughter was gravely ill with dengue and in the ICU with dangerously low platelet counts, Lionel was there every day, every night spending time with me in the car park and ready to offer financial support had I run out of cash. His kindness and empathy knew no bounds.

Lionel’s generosity extended beyond personal gestures. He once spent his private money to bring a group of 20 children from Sri Lanka visiting Paris , hosted them at his residence, and got them to stage ‘ Toppi Welenda’ in the Hague. His ability to connect with people from all walks of life, his exceptional language skills in both Sinhala and English, and his egoless approach to resolving problems made him a truly remarkable individual.

He was a tower of strength for his wife, the late Somalatha Subasinghe—a renowned dramatist, actress, and playwright—and for their daughter, Kaushalya, who has taken up the mantle and is now leading the stage.

From Ampitiya Vidyalaya to Cambridge, and from humble DRO to Secretary, Governor, and Ambassador, Lionel’s journey was vivid and inspiring. He earned no wealth but left behind a legacy of friendships and heartfelt memories. Thousands who associated with him closely will remember him for his genuine kindness and humanity. Our family, too, will miss him dearly.

In remembering Lionel Fernando, we celebrate a life lived with purpose, compassion, and an unwavering commitment to the unity and well-being of Sri Lanka. His legacy as a humanist will continue to inspire us all.

( Write is former Diplomat, Head of Tourism Authority and currently a Lecturer for ECU, Author and Youtuber)

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Latest comments

  • 10

    He was a beacon of hope for whole of Srilanka. Sadly, our culture does not allow these kind of induviduals to reach the top leadership positions.
    Rest in peace!

    • 3

      Thank u for your comment sir

  • 1

    “……rooted in his transformative tenure as the first Sinhala Government Agent in Jaffna during the 1970s.”
    this is not correct. There were many, from my recollection, Neville Jayaweera, Vimal Amarasekare are few names. Please correct me if I am incorrect.

  • 2

    In my Peradeniya days students from Jaffna schools used to use the term OUR GA referring to Lionel Fernando………….
    OUR GA refers to so many other things than just an Administrative appointment.
    Winning the hearts and the minds of people in Jaffna is more difficult than winning the Wimbledon Championship…………..

    • 0

      Absolutely sir

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