17 October, 2018

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In Memorium: Emeritus Professor Laksiri Dharmasoka Jayasuriya (1931 – 2018)

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Emeritus Professor Laksiri Jayasuriya (Laksiri) who was Professor of Social Work and Social administration at the University of Western Australia passed away on April 20th 2018 in Perth. He was the founder of the sociology department at the University of Colombo and led an illustrious career in the Australian academia while contributing to government policy making processes in areas such as multiculturalism, ethnic affairs, immigration and citizenship. He nurtured cohorts of students under his care during his long career in Australia and continued to engage in scholarly activities and publishing after retirement. Professor Jayasuriya leaves behind bellowed wife Rohini and two loving sons Kanishka and Pradeep – both professionals – one in the academia and the other in medical field. His death comes as a great loss to his academic colleagues, particularly in Australia and Sri Lanka.  

Prof Laksiri Jayasuriya

Laksiri was born on 27 October 1931 in Ceylon during the late British colonial period. His father was a prison medical doctor. He was the eldest in a family of three.  His mother came from a wealthy family. He obtained primary and secondary school education from Royal College, Colombo (1945-1951). Among others, it was an institution that trained civil servants for the colonial government of Ceylon. Thus, he grew up with English educated elite in Ceylon and had access to a privileged background even though he did not belong to the highest caste. He participated in the debating team in the Royal College which included figures like Felix Dias Bandaranayake (later a Minister of Finance and Public Administration) and Mervin de Silva (later a reputed journalist). During the War, the school-named Glendale- moved to the hills and he was schooled in a residential facility for four years. It instilled British tradition and values in him while affording the opportunity to participate in sports. There he edited Glendale Gazette and took part in a mock parliament (David Walker interview 2012).

Following the trend at the time of the English educated elite to send children for higher studies in Cambridge or Oxford, he also wanted to follow the same path. However, through an encounter with Professor A.P Elkin – father of Peter Elkin an English professor at the University of New England, Australia – on his visit to Colombo, the opportunity arose for Laksiri to go to Australia for tertiary study. He proceeded to Sydney in 1951 to begin his degree course as a private student by a ship called Himalaya and became a resident of the Wesley College. At Sydney, he was with a cohort of students who occupied influential positions later in Australia and overseas (David Walker interview 2012). He studied for a Bachelor’s Degree with Psychology (Hons) between 1950-54 at the University of Sydney obtaining the degree in 1954 with first class and the University Medal.

Laksiri studied subjects such as history, psychology and anthropology. After completing the Bachelor’s degree in 1954, he was offered a Teaching Fellowship in the same year by the Sydney University. He became the first or second Asian academic at Sydney University. Laksiri was 23 years of age then. Most students he taught were returned servicemen who were in a different age group. He taught a first-year statistics course. Teaching lasted until the end of 1955 (David Walker interview 2012).

Laksiri brought with him a left orientation and political consciousness from his Royal College days. Sri Lanka had a strong Trotskyite group at the time. He had a close relationship with David Ross –a senior student at Wesley and the son of a Communist Party Trade Unionist. His contemporaries included Hedley Bull –later to become Professor of International Relations and Jim Wolfensohn who became President of the World Bank. His teacher Prof. W.M O’Neil had much influence on him in terms of ‘scholarship and academia than anyone else’ (David Walker interview 2012).

The class of people Laksiri interacted at Sydney University was well aware of the need for Australia to engage with Asia. Rev. Alan Walker was a critique of white Australia policy. He gained considerable understanding through involvement in university life. e.g. President of the Sydney University Psychological society (1953), secretary of the Sydney University International Club (1953), President of Sydney University Anthropology Society (1952-53). He orgainsed one of the initial Sydney film festivals. Later, he was to continue this interest in film when he took up his appointment at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka as it was then called. His work for Radio Australia called ‘Diary of an Asian Student’ which documented his response to or reflections on Australian life was exemplary. In the 1950s, he received several prizes including Frank Albert Prize and a University Gold medal

Laksiri accepted a fulltime, permanent academic appointment at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in 1956. Having trained as a social psychologist, he joined the Sociology Department which at that time included Ralph Pieris, Stanley Thambiah and Gannanth Obeyesekere. At the time, the department was  the best within the Faculty of Arts – an institution that was very well regarded in Asia. The campus was a site of creative intellectual endeavour as well as of robust debate over academic and political issues. Laksiri built strong friendships with reputed academics such as K N Jayatilleke – Professor of Philosophy and J E Jayasuriya – Professor of Education. He was an active participant in the academic debates and remembered fondly by his colleagues and students. 

Laksiri pursued postgraduate study at the London School of Economics and Political Science between 1957-60 securing his PhD in Social Psychology. In 1969, he became the foundation professor in the department of Sociology and Social Welfare, University of Colombo and developed the academic program. He was particularly proud of establishing the workers education program in Colombo. Laksiri returned to Sydney in 1969 on a Leeverhulme Fellowship to the University of New South Wales. He lectured in the departments of Psychology and Social Work. This was after his time at Berkley on a Fullbright Scholarship. In 1974, Laksiri was appointed as foundation professor in the department of Social work and social administration (later social work and social policy) at the University of Western Australia, Perth. He was the first Asian professor there and one of the first Asians to be appointed to a professorial position at an Australian University. 

During his academic career in Perth, he held the positions of head of department (1971-90), Director, Centre of Asian Studies (1989-92). Between 1970-71, he was the Dean of Social Sciences faculty. He was a Fellow of the British Psychological Society, and the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and an Honorary member of the Australian Association of Social Workers. He became an Emeritus professor and a senior honorary research fellow at the same university in 1993 marking the end of his full-time teaching and research career. Between 1993-94, he served in the capacity of a senior fellow, development studies at Edith Cowan university, Perth. Laksiri was never one to slow down. He continued his academic work after retirement in association with the University of Western Australia in an honorary capacity until his health started to deteriorate. The energy and enthusiasm he showed on the subjects that he grappled with was extraordinary. He was truly blessed with an intellect and a vast reservoir of knowledge covering both the Eastern and Western social philosophies.

In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s Laksiri played an active role in various State and Federal Government advisory bodies and reviews in Australia dealing with areas such as multicultural education, language services, and ethnic affairs. He was appointed to the Immigration Advisory council by the Whitlam Labour government. During 1973-75, he was on the Federal Government Committee on Community relations as well as the Migrant Taskforce, West Australian Government. He was the chair of the National Advisory and Coordinating Committee on Multicultural Education(NACCME) (1984-87), and the National Multicultural Advisory Council (NMAC) (1996-97). Laksiri served on the Anti-Racism Reference Group of the West Australian Government(2001-2007). These roles highlight some of the key points of his significant contribution to policy making, review and advisory services. Through these roles he elevated himself to be a spokesperson for the immigrant and ethnic communities whose needs and interests had to be looked after by way of government policies and programs. He was one of the key architects of the multicultural policy in Australia. His policy and academic contributions emphasized the importance of a political conception called ‘pluralistic citizenship’ as opposed to a narrow and tokenistic conception of ‘cultural diversity’ associated with cultural, linguistic or ethnic identity.  

Laksiri’s Academic career at the University of Western Australia was a highly productive one in terms of teaching, supervision of postgraduate students, research and publications (1971-1993). He served on various Editorial Boards of reputed journals such as the Australian Journal of Social Issues, Contemporary Social Work Education, Journal of Multicultural Social work, and the Journal of Population. He was a member of the Australian Population Association, British Sociological Association, Australian and New Zealand Sociological Association, Australian Association of Social Workers. He was an elected fellow in the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, and The British Psychological Society. In recognition of his community and public service, he received Member of the Order of Australia Award (A.M) from the Government of Australia in 1984. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, Laksiri published papers and books on contemporary policy issues. He Co-edited a book on Legacies of White Australia focusing on Race, Culture and Nation (2005), and another book titled Transforming a White Australia: Issues of Racism and Immigration (2012). There are a significant number of book chapters, occasional papers and journal articles to his credit. During his long and fruitful career, he published books, monographs and articles focused on Sri Lanka dealing with social development, as well as Welfarism and politics (2000). The latter is a book used by postgraduate students researching about the way Sri Lanka turned away from Welfare government to one based on a neoliberal, free market economic paradigm.  

In the later stage of his life, Laksiri focused on Buddhist Philosophy which his father also had shown a keen interest by publishing a book. He published an article on Buddhist Humanism for the Asian Century in the International Journal of Buddhist Thought and Culture (2011) and a book titled Reflections on Buddhist Social Philosophy (2014).  He had a keen interest on electoral politics in Sri Lanka also and analysed election results after national elections and published papers in 2001 and 2002. 

A significant part of his academic work examined issues of social policy and electoral politics in Sri Lanka and comparatively. He was particularly interested in the way social policies helped to shape new patterns of class formation and conflict in Sri Lanka. His book ‘Taking Social development seriously’ (2010) was a synopsis of many of his key ideas on these issues. He was interested – and disappointed in the way neoliberal policies over the last decades dismantled or impoverished some of these welfare programs.

Laksiri was asked to give the prestigious guest of honour address on the sweeping victory of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP),Sri Lanka  in 1970. This led to a very productive series of publications on Sri Lankan elections until 2010 and its broader social context. He published a book on the Changing Face of Sri Lanka’s Electoral Politics. He was the founding President of West Australian Buddhist Society and assisted Asian students through Australia-Asia House at the University of Western Australia.

His published work is available online through the National Library of Australia for anyone to access. It is a fitting tribute to a tireless academic, advocate on immigrant and ethnic rights, policy advisor, a humanist and influential figure in the Australian policy context. Condolence messages received from the WA Government and former ministers of Multicultural Affairs etc. reflect his standing in the Australian community. He was a giver as one of his friends has remarked in the Guest Book maintained by the West Australian newspaper.  

Laksiri is fondly remembered as an intellectual rooted in Sri Lanka and nurtured in Australia writing with high degree of integrity representing the interests of those on the margins in Australian society in the context of social theory, government multicultural and social policy, ethnic rights, equity and social justice.  

May he rest in Peace!

Sources

2012. Conversation with Professor David Walker. https://laksirijayasuriya.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/lj-david-walker-interview1.pdf

2014. Laksiri Jayasuriya Personal Biography. https://laksirijayasuriya.com

2018. Personal Communication with Professor Kanishka Jayasuriya, Perth.

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Latest comments

  • 1
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    He was a good man.
    May he attain nibbana.

  • 1
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    A very nice appreciation Dr Gamage. You may have not known that Laksiri was universally known as Katha a nick name he was given during his Royal College day’s.His father Dr WF Jayasuriya was I think either President or VP of the World Federation Of Buddhists and was well known for his Buddhist talks for the Servants of the Buddha group at Maitriya Hall in Laurie’s Road,Bambalapitiya.
    Mervyn de Silva was a humorist par excellence and he used to lampoon his school friend Katha through his weekly column in theSaturday Daily News under the pseudonym Daedalus. Katha was in today’s parlance “vertically challenged” and probably the driving force behind all of his enthusiasms. A good man he had no enemies and ever willing to assist. RIP Katha.

    • 0
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      Appreciate this additional information about the Professor. Yes I knew about the nickname but I thought it was because of his habit of telling side stories deviating from main topic during talks,lectures etc.? Importantly, he liked to talk,give lectures,seminars,interviews etc to different audiences and words seem to flow freely.

      Lack of enemies is perhaps a reflection of living according to true Buddhist values and etiquette,,

  • 2
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    I remember Professor Jayasuriya while a student at the Colombo campus. He was easily the most respected of the teachers at the Arts Faculty. It is well known that it was the second string of academics from Peradeniya that came to Colombo when the Colombo Faculty (also known as Aswa Vidyalaya) was formed. This added a chip on our shoulders. Since there is a reference to caste in Dr Gamage’s piece, it was also known as the “Fisheries Corporation” as the heads of department were all Karawe. “Katha” ( he was known by his nickname to his students as well) clearly was singular in that everyone knew that he was no second rank academic. Though short, he was tall in our eyes. He was loved and respected as such by Tamil students as well at a time when communalism was rife on the campus. He developed the Tamil side of his department with equal care and concern. He was too good to remain in the context of what was happening on the Colombo campus at that time. It would be interesting to delve further into the life of one of the illustrious academics of the country. He went East while most went West at a time when Australia had white Australia policies. The constraints on the development of his career would have been considerable but yet he fared very well. Dr Gamage had started an interest. His life could be seen as a life of a coloured Asian succeeding in white Australia. It should be written up at length.

  • 0
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    This appreciation gives a comprehensive narrative of Prof. Laksiri Jayasuriya’s social and educational background, and more importantly his academic orientation, thinking and substantial scholarly contributions. I always enjoyed Jayasuriya’s sharp analysis of political processes in Sri Lanka, and, for example, as Siri Gamage has recorded, his characterization of the ‘state transformation from welfare-state to warfare-state! Gamage has done a thorough investigation to bring these contributions to our attention and what might be useful in the future would be to draw further his ‘contributions on multiculturalism in Australia’ to enrich the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. Dr Gamage might be better placed to do so.

  • 2
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    Why do you bother about his caste? How many percentage of high caste? 2% of 100..
    Why bother about it

    • 2
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      I agree with Lankan that the reference to caste was not necessary and tend to spoil an otherwise excellent appreciation. Per haps Dr Gamage should note that obsession with caste is usually a concern of the so called “lower castes”.and tends to be more Freudian than rationalistic! After all in modern Sri Lanka caste is unrecognisable as the younger generation does not carry family names. Eg If earlier a man was Nihal Senanayake, today he may go as Nihal Sampath !

  • 1
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    I live in Australia. If he was larger than life figure as now trying to show by Siri Gamage the Australian media would have reported. There was not a word about his passing away.

    • 1
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      To say ‘there was not a word about his passing away’ is just not correct. In fact, there was an excellent Obituary (Appreciation) of Professor Jayasuriya in today’s West Australian, published in Perth. The piece titled ‘A model immigrant’ written by one John McIlwraith is a handsome tribute to him and his achievements.

    • 2
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      Brijesh
      Not a word about his death! You have to read to find out mate!

  • 0
    1

    “Laksiri brought with him a left orientation and political consciousness from his Royal College days. ” No Siri Gamage you are wrong. Royal College did not produce left oriented students at that time; Ananda did.

    • 1
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      Most of the leading left figures came from Royal eg Colvin, Pieter Keunemen, Anil Moonesinghe,Bala Tampoe, There was a staunch Samasamjist On the Royal College staff Dicky Attygalle who was an English master who inspired a lot of his students.

      • 0
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        and at Ananda, there was Mettananda. It produced funny type of leftists who were Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists.

  • 2
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    I live in Australia. To me, Siri Gamage is the best and most famous Sri Lankan professor in Australia. But, now, the same Siri Gamage states Laksiri was one better than him! What a humble man Dr Siri is.

  • 2
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    Dr Siri Gamage arguably the best Sri Lankan professor here in Aussie land that Sri Lanka has ever produced. Siri has come up with another masterpiece. What a brilliant guy this Siri! Bravo, Well done!!

    • 0
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      That is very subjective.

      There are lot more lanken professors in Austrialia in Engineering and other fields. How can you say that he is the best ?
      This is again typical lanken mentality.

      Anyways, he can be a good prof… but we cant tell that he is the best among all the profs living in AUS.

    • 0
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      While Siri Gamage may be a good teacher he is not in the same league as Laksiri and I am sure Siri will agree.

  • 0
    0

    Briallant writer Siri, why do you write so seldom?

  • 0
    0

    Now that our dear Laksiri is gone for ever I ask Siri Gamage to take the batton and run faster than Laksiri did.

  • 1
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    the crux of matter is that Sri Lankan need new input to understand changing world situation by Tamil political “democracy” of separatism of Eealm which undermined nation norms of democracy by current UNP regime( RW, MS ,& CBK) in power since 2015 January 8th?
    In reality that anti-establishment politics originated and advocated by TNA and JVP?
    We have learn many lessons from Pro Laksiri ..Jayasuriya of his legacy of knowledge ?

  • 1
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    Thanks for the accolades and criticism about the use of caste in the article. Firstly,the article is not about me,, it is about a Sri Lankan-Australian who successfully navigated the world of academia and Government in Australia over decades when the effects of White Australia policy were still intact. The only other person similar in stature in Australia I can think of is late Professor Weeramanthry. They used the tools of education they acquired from Western institutions to bring about changes in the very society, systems and procedures(reminds me of the concept of proactive Buddhist!). These figures were humanists and human beings -not coloured by materialist attitudes, values and possessions. They had something of a vision for the society they lived in, the world, and those who are disadvantaged. They articulated ‘positions’ and ‘perspectives’ suitable for a non discriminatory,egalitarian,socially just society and co-existence. I am an admirer of both these figures who were much senior to me but had known personally during my career.

    Certainly we need to examine the late Professor’s work and contributions more carefully and systematically and find out what lessons we can learn from his life and work for advancing the cause of multiculturalism, equity, plural citizenship, co-existence etc. I am sure this will happen in one form or another in due course -both in Australia and Sri Lanka.

    Re: inclusion of caste in the article: This is something that late Emeritus Professor Jayasuriya himself told David Walker in the interview. Perhaps he did so to show that the Ceylonese elite stratum included contradictory elements such as different castes. Late Professor may have encountered situations of domination by the high caste figures in the school, academia etc in his early life but no such information is available publicly. OR he may have seen how the caste difference was an active factor in the allocation of power in Ceylon and later Sri Lanka, particularly among the elites. Otherwise,there is no reason for him to mention about his Caste in the manner he did. So I urge the readers to access the interview with David Walker for more..(https://laksirijayasuriya.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/lj-david-walker-interview1.pdf)

    An event has been organised by late Professor’s family and friends on 23rd May in Perth to celebrate his life.

    • 0
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      Thank you again for writing this Dr Gamage. He was a fine academic and a decent man. Caste unfortunately is a factor in life, more so, I believe among us Tamils, than among the Sinhalese. I hope you will write a longer piece about Prof Jayasuriya, weaving into the story other Sri Lankan academics in Australia like Weeramantry. May his family find solace in the fact that Professor Jayasuriya will be remembered by many hundreds of students in Sri Lanka and Australia. May he attain Nibbana.

  • 0
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    If Laksiri was a Leftist, my god he could not have been good

  • 0
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    Siri says Laksiri was a leftist. Agree. Australia will never give a prominent place to a leftist, So we have to concur he was a mediocre. Siri is just blowing the trumpet (exagerating)

  • 0
    0

    While the piece by Prof. Gamage is not exactly brilliant, it certainly brought out a whole bunch of what can be recognised as early-21st Century Sri Lanka pettiness and/or hypocrisy.
    Why, for instance, was the author taken to task for making reference to caste? If anyone reading this has any doubt about the existence of caste considerations in 21st century Sri Lanka I’d be prepared to send them an entire page from every Sunday Times newspaper in the “personals” of which there are extensive references not only to caste, but religion, financial status, height and skin tone among other attributes! I don’t know whether the manufacturers of Fair and Lovely sponsor some of these ads. but to pretend that those considerations, as abhorrent as they might be, do not exist is simply unrealistic.
    Is this refusal to accept the reality around us another manifestation of the “master race” complex?

  • 0
    0

    Professor van der Poorten,

    How can you expect brillance from a swabasha chap?

    You hold the crown in this forum as best writer with Sarath Alwis CLOSELY 2nd with Dayan Jayathillake last and Bopage one before the last

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