By Shanie –
“See thou character.
Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar….
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”
– Polonius’ advice to his son in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
One of the outstanding legacies that the British colonial government left for us was a well organized and efficiently run administrative service. It was the second British Governor Sir Thomas Maitland (1805-1811) who organised the administrative set-up of the maritime provinces of the country, building on what his predecessor had begun in a loose sort of way. In the early 1830s, the Ceylon Civil Service was created and outstanding British civil servants were chosen by the colonial government to man the senior administrative positions. Around 1880, an open competitive examination was introduced for recruitment to the Ceylon Civil Service. This consolidated the elitism and social prestige of the service. Among the first Ceylonese admitted to the Ceylon Civil Service were Ponnambalam Arunachalam (who distinguished himself as the Registrar-General and organized the first systematic Census of the population in 1901) and C L Wickremesinghe (who later became the first non-British Government Agent and Land Commissioner). With the establishment of the University College and later the University of Ceylon, many outstanding graduates were able to sit for the open competitive examination, though only a select few were chosen. After independence, the Ceylon Civil Service until it was abolished in 1963 was manned almost exclusively by Ceylonese.
It was not just elitism and social prestige that marked the Ceylon Civil Service. The civil servants were men of outstanding ability and distinction. Dharmasiri Peiris, one of the former civil servants has written about his period in the civil service: “My special interests have been, and are institution building and the defence of institutions against their subversion deliberate or otherwise through personal and political encroachments. I also stood for the application of justice, equity and fairness in the conduct of public affairs and against the application of double standards or the bending of laws, rules and regulations to suit individual interest.” What Peiris has said is what would have been the stand of all civil servants. Even in recent memory, we have had civil servants who refused to bend rules or compromise on what was right and fair even when requests came from the highest political figures in the land.
Politicisation of the Administration
Even after the Ceylon Civil Service was abolished and was replaced by the Ceylon Administrative Service, senior CAS officers in the early years continued to maintain the tradition of a sturdy independence without succumbing to political pressure. But over the years, a rot set in, at first slowly, but has today has become a canker in the system. Politicisation has taken its toll and upright public servants who would fight against unlawful political pressure are the exception rather than the rule. Sycophancy is encouraged and no action is taken against politicians who publicly humiliate and embarrass public servants doing their lawful duties.
In recent weeks, we have had some resignations from persons holding senior public positions. Mrs Indrani Sugathadasa, a recently retired member of the Ceylon Administrative Service and spouse of the Secretary to the President, sent in her resignation from her post of Chairperson of the Securities and Exchange Commission. This followed some unethical dealings by some stock brokers in the scandal of the National Savings Bank purchasing shares in the ailing The Finance Company. We do not know the reasons for Sugathadasa’s resignation but it is understood that a group of brokers were trying to bring pressure on the President to intervene to cover up their dealings. Sugathadasa said she resigned because she did not want to compromise on her principles. Insiders seem to feel that this indeed was the position. If that is the case, she belongs to that vanishing breed of public servants with integrity who will not agree to bend rules to suit individual interests.
Only God knows!
But quite the opposite was the case when another recently retired public servant appeared as a reluctant witness on 5th June before the Magistrate at Homagama who was hearing the habeas corpus application of the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. At the last sessions of the UN Committee Against Torture held in November 2011, Mohan Peirs had led the government delegation and had told the Committee that he had information that Ekneligoda was living in a foreign country. The implication of what Peiris was conveying to the CAT members was that Ekneligoda’s case was not one of disappearance but one where the person had voluntarily left the country to live abroad. Back home after the sessions, when he was summoned as a witness in the habeas corpus application to provide the information he had, every ruse was tried to avoid appearance in court. Finally, the Court of Appeal ruled that he had to appear in Court.
The evidence given by Peiris, a former Attorney General, was shocking. He said he had no idea where Ekneligoda was and that only God would know. When asked from where he got the information to tell the CAT that Ekneligoda was living abroad, Peiris said he could not remember. It will be clear to any one that Peiris was not being honest either when he made that claim at the last CAT sessions or now to the Homagama Magistrate. Either way, he has disgraced both Sri Lanka in the eyes of the international community and the office of Attorney General which he once held. Any professional public servant with a conscience would have resigned from any public office he held. But he continues to be an Advisor to the Cabinet of Ministers. This also means that our Ministers either condone such conduct or worse, were a party to these double-faced statements.
The Ekneligoda case was not the only one that the former Attorney General referred to in his statement at the CAT sessions. He also referred to the Tissainayagam case and said that he had handled that personally and the President had given him a pardon because Tissainayagam had acknowledged his guilt and asked for a pardon. This was immediately denied by Tissainayagam (now at the Harvard University) who released the letter he had written to the President then. In it, he merely apologises to the President for any embarrassment caused to President personally but nowhere does he acknowledge any guilt of what he was charged with. Here again, Peiris was being less than truthful.
It is a pity however that the former Attorney General has failed to follow the principled stand taken by another former public servant Indrani Sugathadasa; even though the latter has not been guilty of any wrong-doing. Public servants must set higher standards if the image and prestige enjoyed by the Public Service until not very long ago.
Politicians or public servants?
Gotabhaya Rajapaks as Defence Secretary is a public servant. But he talks and acts like a politician. The fact that he is the brother of the President does not give him any additional rights that other public servants do not enjoy. We pay only lip service to democracy if we employ double standards where not only public servants but also journalists and civil society activists are treated differently depending on one’s connection to the politician in power.
Another public official who lets the politician in him get the better of him is the Governor of the Central Bank. We do not know what motivates him to accept assignments that have nothing to do with his role as Governor. But he has not enhanced the prestige either of his office or of his own. In the recent fiasco concerning the share dealings of the loss making The Finance Company, the Central Bank issued a statement giving the company almost a clean bill of health which was astounding by any standard of financial analysis. What is more, the charge had been made that the share investments in that company were contrary to the rules of the EPF. It was baffling that the Central Bank chose to remain silent on that charge until a few days ago, when it claimed that the rules had been amended in 2009. The ethics of changing that rule is another issue but the lack of transparency in this leaves much to ponder about.
We need to restore good governance in our country. Upright public servants can play a major role in this. They must not succumb to the temptation of short-term career advancement through sycophancy. In the long run, it is those who adopt the maxim of M D Dharmasiri Peiris who will rise in stature and earn the respect of their peers, the civil society and the people of our country:”Develop institution building and the defence of institutions against their subversion deliberate or otherwise through personal and political encroachments. Stand firm for the application of justice, equity and fairness in the conduct of public affairs and against the application of double standards or the bending of laws, rules and regulations to suit individual interest.”