By Mohamed Harees –
The song “Master Sir” which remained a hit in Sri Lanka for over thirty years is not merely a song but a powerful message that talks about the dignity of labour and social justice. The lyrics of the first verse speak of how the last salary increment of 8 Panam is enough to feed the protagonist’s child with some rice, but it is still less than what he deserves; and asking “Master Sir” to have mercy on him. The second verse covers how the colonial masters used to carry out Corporal punishment on the workers, and how they would be kneeling and shivering in fear when conversing with the master.
‘මට මතක් වෙනවා සුද්දා තැලූ පෙලූ හැටි
අපි කතා කලේ පන ගැහි ගැහි දනින් වැටී
මාස්ටර් සර් මගෙ හිමි තැන මට දෙන්න
අනේ සර් කරුණාවෙන් සලකන්න’
The chorus takes a more hopeful tone, exploring the Tug of war between master and servant, and whether it will end one day and the two will become friends. This Song aptly reflects the subservient slavish mindset of the Sri Lankan worker during the slave-driving days of the early 1900s. The protagonist also expresses a wishful hope that such a day will come. But will it? In a saying attributed to famous Voyager Robert Knox, ‘the injured spine resulting from a fall can be repaired; not the one resulting from a subservient mindset’. Judging by the subservient mentality generally prevailing among people in Sri Lanka in current times too – from the slavish electorate to the civil servants, law enforcement officers as well as some influential sections of the Maha Sangha – sadly dignified living, with the spines standing upright, may only be a distant reality, until, this slavish mindset is repaired, which the ruling class will always exploit to both gain and stay in power. How the Rajapaksa ruling dynasty and their cohorts are still enjoying ‘royal’ status in the minds of a substantial part of the electorate, despite the national wreck they have heaped on Sri Lanka, is demeaning to say the least! Particularly, the country cannot stand tall as a dignified nation when the administrators paid out of the public purse, sell their dignity and souls to the rulers.
The irony was that the singer Neela Wickramasinghe, who sadly passed away in Italy, had the call for mercy (in the song lyrics) being answered when the ‘Master Sir’ (in this context, Gotabaya) rewarded her for helping his election campaign, by appointing her as Sri Lanka’s consul-general. This undeserving appointment was widely condemned and considered as controversial by many. These types of political diplomatic appointments have become common, making them sycophants, going overboard with compliments, to gain various kinds of advantage.
This week, social media was also agog with a shameful story of the Director of Road Development Authority slavishly falling almost on his knees and worship the ‘Master Sir’ at the toll collection point during the opening of an Expressway. This subservient behaviour was way out of the usual respect shown to a superior officer as per Sri Lankan cultural traditions. This officer apparently re-enacted the scenario described in one of the verses of this song, denoting how workers shivered and knelt down in fear in front of the white masters during yesteryears. In the process, he demeaned the dignity of his position and office. These are just inklings of the degeneration of standards in Sri Lanka, and shows that it is just wishful thinking and hope that such a day where tug-o-war between the Master and servant will ever come to an end in Sri Lanka. In a tweet, popular cartoonist Awantha Artigala brilliantly articulated this subservient and sycophantic mentality thus:
Ceylon Civil Service, later transformed into Sri Lanka Administrative Service, has been a dignified public service. Even in recent times, there were many great men who adorned this strikingly distinct public service like Bradman Weerakoon, M D D Peiris, and Mahi Wickremaratne. There were also exemplary public servants too in the calibre of Dr Wickrema Weerasooria, Lal Jayawardena and Warnasena Rasaputra, whose legacy, in addition to their splendid work in their official capacity also included a total apolitical demeanour before the public. The grave damage that the likes of Rajapakse stooges such as DB Jayasundara, Lalith Weeratunga, and Anusha Palpita caused to the once-dignified public/civil service was colossal, comparable only to what Sarath Silva did to the dignity of the bench in Sri Lanka. Resultantly, the ‘once highly acclaimed’ public service is now gone and has become a derelict of the dead past. Today, bar some, most of the current crop of public servants who are dominating the upper echelons of the government are political slaves and sycophants whose professional standards seem to have fallen by the wayside. Adding salt to injury, the entire Rajapakse family is inside the government machinery, interfering with even day to day government business. Recently, so-called Dr. Rohitha Rajapaksa, the personal secretary to his father PM Mahinda, was seen flexing his muscles within the establishment.
Sri Lanka- oft referred to as the ‘Asia’s Oldest democracy’ is in crisis, being mired in seemingly intractable problems at home, including social and economic issues and disparities, partisan fragmentation, lack of law and order, and increased fears of the “other.” The political sycophants and unworthy civil/public service appointees in high positions in the governments will have to share a major part of the crisis, the nation is facing. On the other side of the equation, many courageous civil/public servants have resigned from their positions as their professional advices were either ignored or they were victimised. Central Bank Governor Dr WD Lakxman and many Chairmen of public bodies resigned citing such reasons.
The civil service is required to be politically impartial, and able loyally and with equal commitment to serve Governments of all political persuasions. They should not engage in activities which call into question their political impartiality, or which give rise to criticism that people paid from public funds are being used for party political purposes. They should not of course, engage in political activities.
UK’s Civil Service World summary of comments made in late 2019 by ex-Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell throws light into the role of civil servants. Using the example of rugby referee Nigel Owens, Lord O’Donnell made clear that “the job of the civil servant is to be impartial, but not neutral”, which is an important distinction. While a referee would not “take sides”, it is also “massively important that they are absolutely firm about the way the rules are conducted”. In a similar vein, while civil servants “are of course politically impartial,” they also “need to take sides on policy issues”. “Our job is to apply honesty and objectivity to come up with clear policy recommendations,” he added. This does not mean that civil servants should be political sycophants and spineless. But why is this impartiality so important? According to Lord O’Donnell, there are seven key reasons:
1. Impartiality allows for continuity across changes of administration.
2. Impartiality is a bastion against confirmation bias.
3. Impartiality builds mutual trust between civil servants and ministers, which is vital if they are to work effectively together.
4. Impartiality enables the civil service to build long-terms relationships with businesses, trade unions, the monarchy, the judiciary and other institutions.
5. Many civil servants operate in delivery bodies, so if their senior personnel were to change every time there’s a change of administration, it would damage their effectiveness.
6. Impartiality makes the civil service a much more attractive career.
7. Impartiality leads to better decisions, as it ensures ministers are surrounded with people who are not necessarily yes men and women.
In their quest for legitimacy, democratic regimes find themselves having to balance two values that can be in some tension: fair and non-politically partisan public service delivery and, subject to the law, the responsiveness of public servants to the policies of the current executive. Impartiality and Neutrality, in the sense of political non-partisanship in public administration, are of course preconditions for ensuring that, regardless of their political orientation, citizens are treated fairly and in an equitable manner. Operationally it is delivered by emphasising professionalism, merit and competence amongst public servants. These values are important to the level of justice and continuity in public administration – arguably a significant determinant of how much trust citizens place in their system of government. At the same time public servants must be accountable to the government for the effective delivery of its programme, and responsiveness of the administration to the government of the day within the law and the constitution is key to the effective implementation of government policies.
Many international studies claim politicisation has increased over the years, citing a “thickening” with added layers of political appointees. Critics point to the negative effect this has on policy making. Politicians’ options become more limited when civil servants do not feel free to deliver free and frank advice and do not “speak truth to power” undermining the key “challenge” function in policy assessment. Furthermore, they argue, it makes career civil service less attractive since the lead is taken by more and more political appointees. It is said that while politics should be the prerogative of the temporary executive, civil servants should restrict themselves to the policy interventions.
As per an OECD 2007 survey , the principle that civil servants should undertake their duties in a manner that serves the collective rather than a partisan interest is espoused by all countries in the survey, either by entrenching the principle within the Constitution, a law or regulation, or by limitations on political involvement in administration, or by strong conventional or customary support. Nothing must be done to in any way jeopardise the impartiality of the civil/public service, as the current administration holds the civil service in trust for the next administration. The professional integrity of the civil service is expressed by its competence and provision of advice based on what is professionally justifiable, regardless of the sitting political leadership. This is important in order to maintain trust in public administration. The role of the civil/public servants at this challenging time in Sri Lanka’s history cannot be understated. By selling their dignity and souls to the politicians, they are actually selling the dignity and soul of the nation and abdicating their duties towards its people too.