By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Enemies of the President’s Promise: Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Grumpy 3
The Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunge, explained to me how it happened. In 2010 the President had wanted to put this brother too into Parliament, but he had scoffed at the idea and said the prospect did not interest him. However, he had added that, if the President wished to give him other responsibilities too, he would be pleased to look after Urban Development.
So, after the election, the Ministry of Defence was renamed the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development, and Gotabaya went, as it were, to town. Colombo, which had suffered both from neglect over decades, and from ghastly makeshift barriers for protection of important places when terrorist activity was in its heyday, was transformed, and began for the first time in the last half century to look beautiful.
Gotabaya was helped in all this by the hard-working military personnel he could employ. I had had some experience of this when, as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management, I found that I had to coordinate work with regard to the many canals that wound their way through the city. The care of these, and their banks, were allocated to a dozen different agencies, and coordination between these was not easy. It was only the navy I found that had fulfilled its responsibilities swiftly and effectively, and the stretches in their care were the cleanest and best maintained.
With the Ministry of Defence coordinating action in this and other areas, development was swift. Gotabaya also chose capable people to head the Urban Development Authority, and they were able to plan more coherently than most government departments, though it should be noted that there were still some shortcomings about coordination, especially when it came to working with local authorities not under the control of the government. Still, the UDA was quick to respond when difficulties were pointed out, and in this regard its work ethic was admirable.
This was a distinct advantage Gotabaya had over Basil, who was not a team player at all. Perhaps because of his military training, Gotabaya was able to identify and work with capable people. Of course in fairness to Basil it could be argued that he thought he had to do everything himself, because many officials he came across were inefficient, or incapable of taking quick decisions – unlike the military personnel Gotabaya had worked with, both in his youth and as he took over at the Ministry of Defence. But whereas Gotabhaya was also concerned with training, and with ensuring a new generation able to work effectively, such concepts were beyond Basil.
This was another area in which the capabilities of the forces were well deployed. They were asked to take charge of a pre-University training course since it was noted that those who were admitted to universities, perhaps because of the purely academic training they had undergone in the struggle to get good enough grades for admission, had no soft skills.
In the nineties I had in fact been in charge of what was termed a General English Language Training programme for pre-University students, and in line with what I went on to do in the university to which I went back some years later, I introduced other skills too. On the GELT, where we had limited time, we stressed thinking skills and public presentation skills, based on group work. My fellow coordinator, Oranee Jansz, was the main inspiration for the latter, through her concept of synergy which she was able to evoke productively through the many exercises she devised.
Gotabaya’s course, designed by Daya Ratnayake who was Chief of Staff at the time, was supposed to develop leadership qualities, in line with the modules in that subject covered in the military training schools. This led to charges of militarization, so that after the first year the course was done with less publicity, which was a pity since open discussion of its effectiveness would have helped the public to understand the shortcomings in the existing educational system which this helped, at least in small measure, to remedy. Certainly all students who followed the course enjoyed it hugely, and the opportunity to work together with others from different backgrounds, and deploy a range of skills in coordination with others, was much appreciated.
So, when the government introduced a graduate recruitment scheme, without any planning as to what the new recruits would do, and it was found that they were simply taking up space in government offices, it was decided to ask the military to train them too. Sadly this could not be done comprehensively, but those who did follow this Leadership course benefited immensely. During my Reconciliation meetings in the North, I found many complaints about the lack of purpose the new recruits were experiencing, but full appreciation in the few who had received such training about what they had received.
Unfortunately, given the failure of government to coordinate, there was no effort to introduce such skills into regular government training courses. Though the military made its training centres available to government officials, and some benefited from this, the Ministry of Public Administration did not take advantage of these developments to rethink its own training programmes. The patent need to develop problem solving and decision making skills through project work, and also promote teamwork skills and the ability to synergize, was not recognized.
This was a pity, because it would have provided an opportunity too to use for wider public benefit the skills the military still possessed, almost uniquely amongst Sri Lankan public institutions. Given the high educational standards military institutions maintained, I suggested deploying the military for a range of educational purposes, and was able, after a visit to Pakistan, where the body engaged in general education gave me a comprehensive overview of their work, to cite precedent from elsewhere. But that suggestion came to nothing, given that our governmental structures are so compartmentalized and so cannot develop initiatives that involve agencies taking on responsibilities in areas thought to belong to others.
I had suggested three forms of intervention. Most important I thought, given the failure over the years to treat vocational and technical education seriously, was the establishment of vocational training centres in areas currently neglected, particularly in the North and East. These could, on the Pakistani model, work with soldiers about to retire, to retrain them for civilian life, but they could also offer courses to the wider population.
Second, both for such establishments, but also for more academic courses, I thought the Kotelawala Defence University should offer external degrees, and validate bodies all over the country to conduct courses for these degrees. In particular it could easily increase the pool of trained personnel in subjects which the existing educational system was deficient in, namely English and Mathematics and Computer Skills, and also Sinhala and Tamil for those whose mother tongue was the other.
Finally, I also suggested interventions in the existing school system, on the lines of two initiatives Pakistan had begun. The first was the establishment of Cadet Schools, to cater to youngsters getting into their teens who might be thinking of a military career. These would cater not only to the children of military personnel, but could also be used to encourage students in areas which did not generally produce soldiers. Ideally, of course, there would be a few such Schools in the North and East, so that minorities could enroll and be in a position therefore to contribute more recruits to the military, which was seen as basically a Sinhalese institution. The incentive would be that these schools, while following the national curriculum and getting students through essential public examinations, would concentrate on important academic subjects and also engage in a range of sports and other extra-curricular activities that would develop personality and leadership skills. They would also function in the English medium, which would be a great incentive for the local population to enroll their children.