27 May, 2019

Blog

Ranasinghe Premadasa: His Leadership Had Style

By Krishantha Prasad Cooray

Krishantha Cooray

As a young man interested in politics, there were people I looked up to. There were people I believed had unique qualities. Ranasinghe Premadasa was not one of them.

Indeed, my opinions about his policies and style of governance were a permanent source of friction between myself and his Press Secretary of thirty years, my uncle Evans Cooray. Much to the chagrin of Evans, I was openly critical of President Premadasa while he was in office, unable to resist the urge to contrast his brash and populist leadership style with the more learned and erudite ways of his political rival Lalith Athulathmudali.

In his frustration, Evans cautioned me with words that today are no less true than the inevitability of sunrise at dawn: “Some-day, when there are no more leaders like him, you will appreciate the leadership qualities and commitment of a man like President Premadasa. Today, you are so young and inexperienced that you take them for granted,” he snapped. I was confident that time will prove Uncle Evans wrong.

R. Premadasa | File photo

Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed exactly 25 years ago, on May Day. He is the only elected executive president to be assassinated. Some would no doubt say that he himself was to blame for one of his glaring errors of judgment was giving arms to the LTTE. The LTTE was not his only enemy. He holds the dubious distinction of being the only President in our history to have confronted a motion of impeachment by Parliament, one which he survived only through the most unprecedented and fortuitous political and constitutional maneuvering. One notes also, that among these firsts there is the fact that he is the last President elected from the United National Party, D.B. Wijetunga’s ascension being procedural consequent to Premadasa being assassinated.

Today, as I reflect on Ranasinghe Premadasa twenty five years after he was killed, the words of Evans Cooray haunt me. They haunt me because I know of leaders and leadership, and I know what’s lacking. When I reflect on such things, I remember Premadasa.

Premadasa was alone among elected presidents or leaders of the United National Party in that he, unlike anyone else, had to struggle for everything he ever accomplished. He did not hail from a political family, nor did he have the benefit of a first-class education. In his era, many held against him what was then known as his “caste”, a snooty reference to his humble roots. As with so many others around the world, it was in these flames of adversity and discrimination that the tenacity, determination and leadership style of President Premadasa were forged.

He saw the promise of the garment industry and made it a national priority for growth, taking radical measures to ensure that a fair share of the spoils of this thriving export industry made it to the villagers and workers whose skill and sweat allowed that industry to thrive. President Premadasa was the architect of the revitalized “Samurdhi” program, which is still today the backbone of our national poverty alleviation effort.

While many can better expound on his accomplishments than I, my intimate relationship with perhaps one of his closest confidants Evans Cooray, has left me with a unique appreciation for how Premadasa accomplished so much in so short a time.

He had an eye for talent, surrounding himself with none but the finest administrators and public servants of his era. He identified and brought into his circle rising stars such as R. Paskaralingam, Bradman Weerakoon, K.H.J. Wijeyadasa, Evans Cooray and Susil Siriwardena. These were dedicated, hard-working and disciplined government servants, who appeared to outsiders to exist for no other reason but to serve the institution of Premadasa around the clock. These are not qualities that they brought to Premadasa, but ones that they shared with him.

Ranasinghe Premadasa believed in discipline and hard work above all else. Rarely did he wake after 3.30am. Whatever he lacked in intellectual capacity and finesse, he sought to make up for with sweat. He knew that discipline involves sacrifice, and eschewed the luxuries and trappings of the presidency to spend his time building a legacy and achieving results. Whenever he was faced with adversity or disapproval, his solution was simply to work harder.

His loyalty to those around him was unparalleled but conditioned on performance, best exemplified by his daily morning phone calls to his closest advisors, which more often than not, were made between three thirty and four thirty in the morning. Every day, he expected progress on his directives from the previous day, and he spared no quarter for his ministers or advisors who failed to perform.

It was this ruthless pragmatism that won him the support of many “doers” in the country. People who could perform and deliver results were drawn to Premadasa, who found room for them in his ranks. Being known as a villager himself, surrounded by the trappings of Colombo, Premadasa prioritized poverty alleviation above almost all else. Under his direction, several amenities that were taken for granted in the capital were brought to villages across the country – from clean water, to pothole-free roads, schools and medical facilities.

As a leader, he held his people accountable for not just results but also for their conduct. Under no-circumstances would he have sanctioned a government where nearly every supporting member of parliament was appointed to the cabinet or given a state or deputy ministerial portfolio. He kept an intimate cabinet and expected the rest of his MPs to focus on delivering in their electorates, ensuring that they had access to the funds and resources to do so.

It is almost amusing to imagine how President Premadasa would have reacted to discovering that a number of his ministers and officials were gallivanting across the world with public funds at the drop of a hat, or spending our tax rupees on expensive furniture and adornments for their ministries and official residences. It is less amusing to recall that during his time, no public servant would have dreamt of participating in such abuses, which have become all too commonplace today.

Never satisfied with any particular accomplishment, Premadasa believed that a government, political party or individual had to keep growing in order to succeed. Not comfortable resting on his accolades, and despite lacking the formal educational background of most of his predecessors, he constantly struggled to adapt and surmount newer and greater political challenges.

As a man who struggled a great deal in his life, Premadasa was objective and practical. He had extraordinary determination. He believed that if you could see something in your mind, you could hold it in your hand. He never ever gave up. He was a tough man to work for but he would stand by his team members in a way no other leader would; thus did he secure their loyalty.

President Premadasa had a way with words. He was a disciplinarian who was effective because he was so disciplined himself. No president and no leader since has followed up on matters he had delegated to ministers and officials and agencies in the way he did. This is how, after being at the helm of government and the UNP for only four years, Ranasinghe Premadasa came to be recognised as a kind of demi-god by the country’s rural masses; and as the man who single-handedly lifted millions of Sri Lankans out of poverty and brought them dignity and hope.

Ranasinghe Premadasa had extraordinary energy, determination and skill. Indeed, in the words of Evans Cooray himself, Premadasa was not a man, but “an institution”.

Many years ago I did not have much regard for Ranasinghe Premadasa. Today, when I reflect on that fateful May Day in 1993 and what followed, I remember what Evans Cooray told me. If I made my uncle turn in his grave over my opinions of Ranasinghe Premadasa, I am convinced he will now rest in peace. He will rest in peace because today I am able to say with full conviction, that he was right.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 5
    0

    RIP RP. You deserve your place in Sri Lankan history whether it is for the right or wrong reasons.

    • 3
      1

      Smart comment Steve.

  • 4
    2

    Adoh Cooray,

    You have put on some weight. Are you force-feeding yourself with the Hilton buffet?

  • 6
    1

    People who worked directly under R Premadasa say that he was the first to be in the office. At worksites he had everyone on their toes demanding answers to difficult questions. He will go down in history as a hardworking leader. He was the only President who cared for the rural people. RP had an inexhaustible supply of common-sense.
    He had enemies and as to his assassin, an easy culprit has been named but insiders doubt this.
    .
    Krishantha Cooray says “…………the more learned and erudite ways of his political rival Lalith Athulathmudali………….”.
    Lalith only reinforced his bigotry in Oxford, Singapore etc. “Erudite”? Certainly not!

  • 5
    0

    R. Premadasa, even at the top most post in the country, he did not forget his past or the people. Once in Dam Street , just about 200 meters away from Sucharitha, Keselwatte Colombo 12, he stopped his entourage to talk to an oldman sitting on the payment – To see, this old man was known to him since precedent’s childhood.

    I don’t think there will ever be another.

  • 4
    7

    Premadasa’s vision was short term & flawed. He had the gift of the gab which appealed to the man on the street, just like Rajapakse (something which Sirisena is trying hard to achieve) but despite your comment on his humble beginnings, he claims to be a Josephian (if I remember correctly), although his academic achievements are none. He wasted public funds on erecting useless structures in his ‘Gamudawa’ programme, had his own set of cronies from Kili Maharaja to corrupt officials like Paskeralingam, armed the LTTE in his misguided sense & had his own goon squad to bump off anyone who he felt threatened by. He has to take responsibility for the murder of several policeman of a remote outpost who surrendered to the LTTE & Richard de Zoysa’s abduction & murder. Of course, he comes a close second to Rajapakse but I suppose Rajapakse learnt a lot from him.

    Premadasa was just another uneducated & useless snob with a chip on his shoulder who had the good fortune of becoming a President of SL by exploiting his ‘humble beginnings’ rhetoric which appealed to the village folk that felt were alienated by the capitalist UNP.

    • 2
      0

      Raj, unfortunately you know just this much of a great leader, Premadasa. If Premadasa promises something on stage, people knew it would happen, and there is no 2nd thought about it. I guess he never slept properly after becoming PM.

  • 2
    1

    There is Pramadasa’s son, useless to the core. Sajith is a dumb idiot a disgrace to his father a truly great man.

    If Hema or Dulanjali came to politics instead of Sajith they would have carried on with true Premadasa principles.

    Again, Sajit is so dumb he tries to imitate his father and each time he fumbles.

  • 2
    1

    Excellent article and profoundly expressed.
    We are unfortunate to miss that leader.
    In comparison with others he is the best.

  • 3
    3

    Premadasa was a person of “Adu Jaathiya” (low caste). But let me tell all the fellas here that although I come from a high caste, when Premadasa was my Commander in Chief, I would never disrespect him along caste lines.

    To me, he was a great man. Who rose against social prejudice and many hardship to become a Sri Lankan President.

    Caste should not be used as an excuse to put down a person, like what Premamdasa endured during his lifetime. Rather my belief is that caste (of higher caste) can be used to keep a person at elevated status but never to use a low caste persons status to keep him down.

    • 0
      0

      Rtd. Lt. Reginald Shamal Perera, I did not ever think, that in these modern times the expressions used by you, would ever be used- be it in public or private.
      This had been the bane of our society.
      I do not blame you,. it starts at the Dalada Maligawa with the two so called Mahanayakes, who have no ability to be either Maha or Nayakes.

  • 2
    0

    A Man in a Million no doubt.

  • 7
    0

    If Babu a supposed LTTEer who was RP’s cook and errand boy wanted to kill RP, he had ample opportunity and could have done so without having to commit suicide. The fact that he went to deliver a parcel that was handed to him by obviously someone close to RP, whom Babu knew very well obliged to do so. So he got on to his push bike and he managed to catch up RP near Armour Street. RP’s personal security allowed Babu because they knew him closely. When Babu got within range some one around detonated the bomb that Babu carried unknowingly. Immediately after, it was speculated that RP succumbed to a suicide bomber wearing a Suicide jacket. After speculating it dawned on them that the Govt Analyst will not find traces of a suicide jacket. They immediately got the place washed by the Fire Brigade. Who else could have got this job done in a jiffy other than the longest standing Mayor of CMC, who wielded power over CMC. This same person was responsible for the assassination of Lalith Athulathmudali, much against the advise of RP not to do so, because RP was trying to build his image as Mr. Clean making use of Bradmon Weerakoon to write about his past. Did he fear that RP will let him down at the May Day Rally a little while later that day?

    • 2
      1

      gamini

      There was a report in which Lalith had said his life was in RP’s hand and RP’s life was in his hand. Do you know anything about it?

      Babu was a Bramin, according to Brahminical code a dead person should be cremated within a short period of time probably less than 24 hours. Babu’s relatives some how had persuaded the police to release the torso less head and cremation took place the next day.

  • 0
    0

    Today even RW is enjoying Premadasa’s sweat, not JR’s

  • 2
    1

    RP had been very passionate about soccer at a time it was considered the poor mans’ sport in then Ceylon . I am told he had very close ties to soccer clubs like Saunders FC , located around the Pettah/Hultsdorf area. He himself had been a good player .

    Perhaps this was his entry to public life.The fact that he had empathy for the poor and the down trodden is beyond dispute. Far cry from the present day ‘haamu mahaththaya’ types who walk around with their noses in the air .

    • 1
      1

      Soccer is still played by poor people, rowdies and rif-rafs. I will never ever go to watch a Soccer match. Once in 2006 when SL played a Cricket game at Lord’s, I went to watch it. Now that’s what class is all about.

      What do you mean Haamu Mahaththaya types walk around with their noses in the air? May I ask you very politely what’s wrong with that anyways? And that would none of your business in the first place.

      Don’t ever think common rif-rafs can tell us how to walk with our own noses.

      • 0
        0

        Rtd. Lt. Reginald Shamal Perera
        You a vacuity

  • 0
    1

    Ganeshlingam was the Mayor of CMC during the time Premadasa died. Did he trigger Babu’s bomb by remote control?

    • 1
      1

      Vasithi Kolonne

      “Did he trigger Babu’s bomb by remote control?”

      Ganeshalingam was also the treasurer of UNP.
      You must go after paper trail, might be able to prove his motive for the murder/assassination.

    • 0
      0

      No Ganeshalingam who became Mayor of CMC worked as an article clerk for Panditharatne a Chartered Accountant who held an important position in the UNP during JRJ’s tenure. I do not he ever fully qualified as a CA, but was regarded as such.
      He became Mayor of CMC due to fortuitous circumstances merely because he was at the right place at the right time. Premadasa was no enemy of his, and used Ganeshalingam’s proximity to the UNP leadership via people like Cyril Mathew and such others. Premadasa was not a rabid racist, he had a few select Tamil friends he confided with, like a Tamil lawyer in Hulftsdorph. He saw to their welfare during the 1983 communal holocaust.
      In fact when he admonished and requested VP Singh PM of India at the behest of the LTTE’s leader’s directive to withdraw the IPKF, saying Tamils and Sinhalese are brethren and as Lankans will settle their differences between themselves, he really meant what he said. But all that was only for the purpose of achieving his own immediate objectives.
      That is the same Lankan stance which is continuing as Yahapalana policy even today. Just ’Boru Kathawa”, and that is just
      what is the grain of sand in CM, CVW which irritates the TNA’s shoe.

  • 2
    1

    Lt Gen Shamal Perera, please do not lie here. The whole world is laughing at you. I know who you are and your family. I do not want to throw out dirty linen here but you aren’t from a posh caste like govi or radala. Sir you are from Karawe caste. True you are one better than Premadasa’s dhobi caste, but way below my Govi caste.

    • 1
      2

      Shiromani Manage

      Leaving the spit polish women sniffing shameless Perera aside, tell us are govi and radala blessed with twice the number of private parts compared to Karawe as they seem to be in the top notch/rank in the caste hierarchy?

      • 2
        2

        It is the upbringing Native Vedda it is the upbrining.

        You ask any govi boy and girl – they are taught good manners at home and constantly reminded we are of superior caste. It is like Royalty. Royal children are taught to behave decently and associate only with similar clan.

        There is an unwritten commaradary between govi people, no one dare say or display that. I am sure your Karawe and Hali clans have the same.

        • 0
          2

          Shiromani Manage,

          You are a Woman, am I right? Well, that says it all doesn’t it? I don’t need to go any further than that, do I?

          • 0
            3

            Shiromani,

            Manages are Berawaya Minissu (Drummers). LOL! Nothing to be proud of when drumming your rear-ends off at pageants. Govi my foot. Ask any expert on Caste.

        • 2
          1

          Shiromani

          Native Vedda is absolutely correct. If you stand nude against a Karawe or any other caste no one can tell the difference. Are you ready for the challenge ? So where is your superiority ? Talking about good manners it will be interesting to know how many in Parliament are Govi. You would have heard the language and watched the brawls. The hate speeches we hear almost on a daily basis are coming from which superior caste ? So respect all human beings and stop this Caste rubbish. The world is a small place and we only live once.

        • 0
          0

          Shiromani Manage,

          Who says Govi is higher than the rest? They are no nobles but farmers. The true nobles of the higher casts were the Radalas. Which no prominent family is in existence as of now. The British had seen for that. Govis have ascended the social ladder by aligning with the British and taking the spaces let vacant by the Radala families.

  • 3
    0

    There were few people who worked for Premadasa like slaves. Evans Cooray is one. Others that come to my mind are Sirisena Cooray, Hudson Samarasinghe (Hudda), Rathnasiri Rajapakse, Alec Robertson, AJ Ranasinghe and Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi. The Cooray clan was powerful. Nandasena was a Member of CMC, he introduced younger brother Sirisena to Premadasa. Nandasena died prematurely, his son Chanaka came to politics for a while and gave it up. I am sure Evans belong to this particular Cooray clan. They all came up in life thankful to Premadasa. But, Premadasa never encouraged corruption (oppostite of JR). I f they were corrupt, that must have been behind Premadasa’ s back. I think Chrishanta was able to get foregin education due to the family’s links with Premadasa. It seems the young Chrishanta lad hadn’t had gratitude to Premadasa during that time., but now very much regrets about it.

    Yes, I have met Premadasa.

  • 1
    0

    Thanks krishantha for a very good and sincere article. When someone writes an article sincerely and genuinely it should be appreciated. It looks like this Indrani has a personal problem with Sirisena Cooray and Evans cooray. You should comment about the article without unfair assumptions. At least the writer is writing under his real name unlike Indrani who is hiding his or her real name. Once again thank you for a great article which will be appreciated by independent readers.

  • 0
    0

    Amal

    What is wrong with my article? I have not attacked Chrisantha Cooray, I reiterated what he stated. Read the line before the last line.

    Why are you saying I am giving a bogus name? How do you know? Is your name Amal or Chrisanta? Even if you are Amal, your surname? I have given my surname too.

  • 2
    0

    Manages are good solid govi minissu, we provided bath to everyone from our thun korale paddy fields. You are the one who dragged castisms even saying you are of high caste. Why did you say that.

    Aren’t you ashamed, you say you are a retired Lieutenant, to demean a former President’s cast and uplift your own caste?

  • 1
    0

    Pereras are not good. hali or nawandanna

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 300 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically shut off on articles after 10 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.