30 May, 2023


President’s Address & ‘Cosmopolitanism’

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Sri Lanka Parliament elected by the people at recent elections might not be considered completely ‘cosmopolitan’ by any means. But judging by the main trends, there is fairly a strong trend towards that direction. It represents main shades and shapes of society fairly, except in the case of gender, one might point out. Be as it may, will the Members of Parliament behave and act cosmopolitanly in delivering their duties and responsibilities to the people? In making the first official policy statement of the new government, President Maithripala Sirisena has highlighted a major challenge that the members would face as follows.

“As I see, you, the representatives of the people who legislate laws for the people have to face more challenges than any previous Parliament. Millions of Sri Lankans are now using new technological equipment [mobile or i-phone] which enable to connect with the whole world on their palms.”

Connection with the ‘whole world’ or ‘sense of it’ is one aspect of cosmopolitanism that the political leaders, the members of parliament or the people at large require in facing up to the challenges of the 21st Century, whether they be development, climate change, poverty alleviation, human rights, east-west differences or our own senseless internal ethnic or religious conflicts.

What is Cosmopolitanism?

This is the consecutive second time I am writing on ‘cosmopolitanism’ and therefore some explanation of the concept is warranted going beyond a formal definition which was given at the last occasion.

The Greek, but cynic philosopher, Diogenes, is considered the father of the concept of ‘cosmopolitanism’ in the first place. But his conception was a cynical and an extreme one. Diogenes used to travel almost everywhere possible in the Mediterranean in his ragged clothes and when he was asked ‘where he came from,’ he used to answer “I am from nowhere, I am a citizen of the world.” His cosmopolitanism was a negative one and represented extreme individualism, no good for anyone today.

MaithriThe enlightened modern philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, in the late eighteenth century was different. He turned cosmopolitanism on its feet. Therefore, modern political conception of cosmopolitanism traces its origins to Kant and not to Diogenes. Kant’s conception of a cosmopolitan is not the rootless traveler who picks cultural titbits from different countries. It is an enlightened attitude and a world outlook towards plurality and co-existence. As Pauline Kleingeld argued (“Kant and Cosmopolitanism,” Cambridge, 2012):

“It is an attitude and a world outlook based on recognition, respect, openness, interest, beneficence and concern towards other human individuals, cultures and peoples as members of one global community.”

Kant was not a person who had travelled much or travelled at all. He was living in his home town, Konigsberg, Germany, most of the time. With its sea port, university, government offices, international commercial traffic flaw, he believed that he could easily connect up with different languages and cultures and broadened his knowledge and be part of a ‘common humanity.’ Kant’s cosmopolitanism was not rootles or unconcern for one’s own culture or upbringing. Even Kant believed that cosmopolitans can or ought to be good ‘patriots,’ not the superficial ones like we saw associated with the last regime.

Being an island nation, situated in major sea lanes of east-west commercial routs, with a long history of foreign relations, Sri Lanka undoubtedly is a good candidate to become a ‘cosmopolitan country.’ Added to that now is the millions of young people who are, as the President said, connecting up with the whole world through that small ‘technological device on their palms.’

Ongoing Transformations

As I have argued in my last article, cosmopolitanism has already come ashore in Sri Lanka with the electoral victories in January and again recently in August, defeating pathetic national parochialism. The opposite of cosmopolitanism undoubtedly is ‘national parochialism’ or ‘parochial nationalism.’ If not for the modern youth with largely cosmopolitan in attitudes and commitment to democracy; urbanization and spread of university education, and the emerging professional groups; and associations and so much of vibrant civil society organizations that democratic political change could not have occurred. Democracy and cosmopolitanism are almost identical Twin-Sisters (not brothers!).

As the victory of the one, and the defeat of the other, have been quite narrow at the last elections, there are of course dangers of parochial nationalism re-emerging. The agents of that parochialism are abundantly represented even in the present Parliament. After the unanimous elections of the Speaker, and during the congratulatory speeches for his election, Udaya Gammanpila, for example, tried to raise the ‘specter of separatist armed struggles’ even quite unconnected to the occasion of the speeches. He was trying to raise the ugly head of discord, antagonism and parochial nationalist rhetoric even after they were defeated at the elections.

It is in the above context that what President said about some of the prospects for the future of the future generations are important to highlight again. He said:

“While we went to school taking a slate for writing, our children and grandchildren are going beyond taking laptops and iPads to school. The era in which they [all] do it may come before the end of the tenure of this parliament. I like to tell you that the people have selected you as lawmakers in an era of transformation like this. Accordingly, everybody has the responsibility to build this country for that era to be dawn and the ambitions of new generation while protecting the values of our culture which binds us as the Sri Lankan nation.”

The era of transformation that President was talking about is basically technological, but it is also the basis of transformation from parochial nationalism to enlightened and egalitarian cosmopolitanism linking different languages, cultures and peoples within and across countries with equity and justice. He has said, “I like to tell you that the people have selected you as lawmakers in an era of transformation like this.” Most important was his emphasis that “Accordingly, everybody has the responsibility to build this country for that era to be dawn and the ambitions of new generations.” His insistent is also important in “protecting the values of our culture which binds us as the Sri Lankan nation.” Because cosmopolitanism that we talk about here is not a rootless one without any social anchor. It is imbibed in the ‘notion of nations as communities,’ without senseless parochial nationalism.

Consensual Government

Cosmopolitan government can be consensual government. Cosmopolitanism is a value addition to good governance and vice versa. Noting that past coalition governments in the country have primarily been between ‘a major party and minor parties,’ President has delineated the norms for the proposed national government between the ‘two major parties,’ the UNP and the SLFP, taking the example of South Africa and others. Perhaps what is absent in that equation is the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is a stakeholder in the past conflicts and even present disagreements. At least the TNA should be given the position of the leader of the opposition, not for acrimony but for constructive engagement. As he has rightly recounted, after South Africa ended the regime of racial discrimination, the main political parties of that country established a “consensual government to eradicate the racist divisions of political parties and to achieve a rapid development for the country.”
His main outline for this conceptualization was as follows.

“The most important task of the consensual alliance, formed with the unity of the two main parties of the country, based on the concept of national government is to build reconciliation among communities and take the country towards speedy socioeconomic progress and human development so that local and international challenges in the new world dawning in 2020 could be faced successfully.”

There of course have been previous attempts at national governments of this nature in the past in Sri Lanka which were not successful. There was this Ranil-Chandrika Liam Fox Agreement in April 1997 which didn’t take root, even after formidable attempts. Then there was the more substantive SLFP – UNP Memorandum of Understanding signed in October 2006 which became sabotaged or abandoned. Maithripala Sirisena himself was the signatory of this 10 point MOU on behalf of the SLFP.

A significant difference then was that Mahinda Rajapaksa was the all-powerful executive president. Therefore, its fate was somewhat sealed. The present incumbent hopefully could make a difference this time as he appears to be genuinely committed to consensual politics. More important might be to work out a broader conceptual framework to make reconciliation or consensual governance workable and successful. Moving the communities and the country through dialogue and education towards more cosmopolitan perceptions and perspectives might be one strategic way of doing so. Sri Lanka is ripe for that development and evolution today, within a favorable international environment. Most important is to defeat the parochial nationalism, ideologically. There are indications that the President has understood this task consciously or instinctively.

However it should be noted that ‘consensual politics’ is not or should not be the ‘lowest common denominator’ of all political programs as the speech seems to indicate at one juncture. It is a dynamic synthesis which should be created through dialogue, negotiations and of course ‘give and take.’

Other Aspects

As an official statement of government policy, there are many other aspects the President’s speech has touched upon, with or without much relevance to cosmopolitanism or consensual governance.
On the question of a ‘new constitution,’ the main task as it has been emphasized is to reform the electoral system in order that democratic system is deepened and expanded. A constitution of a country is described ‘as the foundation of its self-identity’ in the speech. The question of ‘self-identity’ however is not only of the past, or the present, but also of the future. A constitution is both a mirror and the mold of a country. It should have a strong future vision. That is how a constitution could last, although no constitution could be faultless or perfect. A constitution has to be broad enough to accommodate an evolving future directions or trends. Otherwise it may be discarded within few years like what happened to the 1972 constitution or like the present one which had sixteen amendments within first ten years (1978-1988), mostly back and forth.

The 19th Amendment undoubtedly is a great achievement under President Sirisena which not only curtailed the draconian presidential powers but brought the country near a parliamentary system both in theory and practice. The most exemplary is the reinstatement of independent commissions. However, there are other regressive elements in the 19th Amendment, and one in particular ‘disqualifying dual citizens’ contesting elections. Dual or multiple citizenship today is a common and an accepted norm of evolving cosmopolitanism of the world community. Dual citizenship does not mean that those citizens have a lesser commitment to their countries of origin. Apart from abolition of such restrictions, there are other ways of a future constitution becoming more cosmopolitan both in content and spirit.

The speech gives a pertinent attention to ‘economic development’ in the country within a global and cosmopolitan context. That is commendable. Importance of ‘income re-distribution’ and ‘balanced development’ between and amongst regions and provinces are also emphasized. Cosmopolitan attitudes or values among people cannot evolve within underdevelopment, let alone poverty or malnutrition. The cosmopolitan changes that we have witnessed so far are also a result of economic progress that the country managed to achieve in the recent past however lopsided they have been at the end. Economic development is also one way of defeating ‘parochial nationalisms’ and ‘communal antagonisms’ of all sides. Cosmopolitanism as a ‘social philosophy’ or ‘public policy’ also has its own contribution to make for such developments although all aspects cannot be discussed here.

There is a clear cosmopolitan perspective within the speech when President articulates the government’s foreign policy in the following terms.

“Today we are living in a globalized new world. In that context, every country in the world is important to us. There are many things we can learn from them and they can learn from us. As a result of that openness and friendship between the countries will remain as the foundation of our foreign policy. I have also previously mentioned that we have entered into the Century of Asia.  Accordingly, I will state that my Government will pay more attention towards a foreign policy which is an Asia-centric middle-path policy.”

There is nothing wrong in any country or any leader in the world community in articulating its own identity (or affiliation) within globality with ‘openness and friendship.’ Cosmopolitanism does not mean giving up or submission of one’s own identity or culture within a country or internationally. It means ‘recognition, respect, openness, beneficence and cooperation with others towards common good,’ nationally and internationally.

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Latest comments

  • 1

    It means ‘recognition, respect, openness, beneficence and cooperation with others towards common good,’ nationally and internationally.

    You and those cosmopolitans will do this except Udaya Gamanpilla and those who share his view. Of course Minister Ranawaka has made the change for the better. I take it you will not display beneficence and respect to the 5.8 million.

  • 1

    Dr. Fernando,

    you have explained it very clearly.
    However, some feel that MS has been changed from his initial stand to this date. May be to some extent – why he got close to MR during the convention and last few days – or MR approached him adds us all thoughtful moments.
    Why MS allowed defeated ones to have listed- is that because he thought even if they got defeated by voters – they still deserve senior positions etc.. then questions arise why then at all the purpose of holding elections in general? All in all those who supported him have been drawn to rethink all these. Even if the situation is better than had been prior to Jan 8th, but we the supporters proxy Rajapakshe free country- would not feel any steps taken harming intial motives (that is to rebuild this nation again – towards the civlized status).

  • 0

    I saw only two Cosmopolitan Dudes there …Batalanada Ranil and Galleon Ravi…

    All the rest were in old Ariyan Whites including our Dravidian cousins .

    And it looked cool..

    What was Abraham wearing?..

  • 0


    Since August 17th you are fast becoming the Palestinian orphan. With the clean up operations of the Israeli occupation army, those orphans are finding it difficult to find the stones to throw. You too.

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