By Siri Gamage –
In my article on class domination in Sri Lanka, I identified two segments of the Sri Lankan Middle Class, i.e. English speaking vs. Sinhala speaking (we could easily add Tamil speaking also to the latter). In this paper, I argue that the SAITM controversy not only reflects this division, competing interests and discourses (language forms used for expression) but also the aspiration of the Sinhala speaking (or Tamil speaking) parents to educate their children and move their class status from Sinhala or Tamil speaking segment to the English speaking segment against many odds. This is a broader trend that is not limited to parents of these children who work hard for their medical education through public or private universities. It is a trend one can observe when it comes to the children of university academics, other professionals, journalists, artists also. Moreover, the same trend can be observed among the children of politicians, government bureaucrats, private sector managers, and technocrats also.
This trend has its roots in the colonial impositions on the Ceylonese/Sri Lankan society where the learning of English language and learning other subjects through English were considered superior to learning Sinhala or Tamil and learning through these mother languages based on the ‘dominant modernist paradigm’ and its assumptions. This trend which is rooted in Sri Lankan middle class psyche has far reaching implications for the education sector, Sri Lankan identity, loyalty to the country and diaspora living (via bifurcation of identity), family structures and parent-children relations, as well as the net economic gain or loss depending on the host and home country divide. I elaborate this argument further in the following pages.
It is a well-known fact that ‘modernist education’, in particular (free) higher education, produces and reproduces the middle class professionals out of various cohorts of young people who come to education institutions from a diversity of backgrounds with specific values, norms, outlook, perspectives and a worldview. These backgrounds can be as divergent as ethnic, caste, class, language, religious, and locality. Thus students who grow up in far away rural locations or born to parents of average income and wealth ‘succeed’ in their educational pursuits due to sheer commitment, hardwork, encouragement by parents, and sacrifices in personal life. They navigate complex academic and bureaucratic schooling and higher education systems and processes –sometimes manipulated by those academic and bureaucratic elites who make policies and decisions in these respective fields- during their learning years while trying to follow the norms and standards set by their superiors and teachers-supervisors or gate keepers. Given the highly hierarchical nature of Sri Lankan society, higher education is one avenue available for members of the deprived classes to aspire to be a middle class professional. Established parties preserve politics for the kith and kin of the established political families with access to money and recognition. Doing business requires capital, knowhow and networks.
Let me clarify the rationale for this trend where parents of Sinhala/Tamil speaking parents want to turn their children into English speaking middle class professionals some of whom depart for overseas destinations in search of greener pastures after obtaining medical degrees largely based on free education. As in any other country subjected to Western colonisation, in Sri Lanka also parents of these children have observed the ‘privileges’ that the English-speaking stratum of the middle and for that matter upper classes enjoy/enjoyed directly and indirectly. This provides them with some conception about an ideal pathway for their children to follow. To succeed in life in material terms followed by happiness of some sort, parents believe that their children need to be educated well subject to the structural limitations that the ruling class, professional elites and bureaucrats managing the higher education sector have imposed on education and educational processes. Thus, if you ask a Sri Lankan child in the primary or secondary school what they want to be when growing up, they will say a doctor. The ideal is firmly transplanted in the minds of even small children from lower class backgrounds, not to speak about the middle class.
However, the children who follow the path of public education face a different set of challenges and issues compared to the children who follow the path of private education including international education of various sorts. Both these groups of children are caught up in the ‘dominant education discourse’ informed by modernism and lately Neoliberalism. The advocates of the latter speak about the merits of employment orientation in education rather than broadly based citizenship education or knowledge for living and making a difference in the world through altruistic endeavours. Their rationale is that it is important to be oriented to make them potential functionaries in the global market place and global economy within which national economies are only a part with limited employment opportunities. With globalisation, opportunities for this have also opened up especially in the corporate sector. More importantly, having an education through the medium of English – as that provided by private education institutions – is a qualification to be able to compete against those who obtain similar education elsewhere in the world and be successful.
Such competition for globally oriented job market and migration opportunities is widespread in today’s world. With the availability of education and migration agents all corners of cities, the process has become somewhat easier though expensive. Both those who learn through mother languages (English as a second language) and those who learn through English (Sinhala or Tamil as second languages) compete in this market place for jobs. In some cases one group succeeds and in other cases the other group succeeds. There are many who fail in this competition also and find other ways of moving across national boundaries.
Thus, the ideology of parents –mostly upper middle class but also some from the lower middle class- who encourage children to pursue education as a means of social mobility do so with a somewhat vague idea and image about a conceptualised future for the children on the basis of their own experiences, knowledge, understandings, and aspirations. But the net result is that these children, once they go through the education process in a country like Sri Lanka end up being professionals in medical and other fields, uprooted from their own culture, language, literature, history, art, way of life and traditional knowledge substituted by subject knowledge and an appreciation of the Western culture, language, way of life whether they work in Sri Lanka itself or in a foreign country.
English speaking countries also insist on those who immigrate to deemphasise immigrants’ own cultures, languages, ways of life etc. and integrate or even assimilate to the culture, language, etc. of the host country. This they do somewhat indirectly. Thus in a country like Australia, majority of Sri Lankan professionals who have migrated over the last few decades not only conform to the Australian culture, language, laws, way of life etc. but also embrace them with both hands. Only a minority of professionals and their families strive to maintain their own culture, religion, language, identity and way of life by organising various events, teaching programs, media activities etc.
This trend is not limited to Sri Lankan professionals. In Sydney for example, I can see many Indian, Chinese and other professionals who have come under the permanent migration program or the 457 temporary work visas moving about in trains and buses for work (I observed a similar trend in Dubai also). Parents who have come for temporary stays mind their children including taking them to parks, etc. Some parents who have retired congregate in the town square to while away time with those from the same country speaking same language. However, this habit is not visible among Sri Lankan parents who have come as such.
When children migrate to countries like Australia, the US, Canada, UK, New Zealand, parents who are left in Sri Lanka experiences certain challenges. However, some parents are able to cope with such challenges better than others especially if they belong to English speaking segment of the middle class. For example, those who come from an English speaking background are able to communicate with their children and grand children with ease. They can share the benefits of diasporic life and what goes in between themselves and their children, grand children with joy and a degree of unity in values, norms, expectations, and family integrity. However those with a non-English speaking background can relate to their children who become professionals to a certain degree but face difficulties with the grand children due to language differences etc. Nonetheless, they maintain relations with children and grand children at a distance by using skype etc though they tend to rely on the children left in Sri Lanka for their daily needs, support, spiritual exercises and more. Occasional receipt of dollar income from the children or occasional trip to the country where children work and live is a reason to be happy also.
In short, when Sinhala/Tamil speaking Sri Lankan child or a young person transforms himself/herself into an English-speaking middle class professional such as a doctor, there is an accompanying ‘culture loss’ whether the person lives on shore or overseas. In the case of those living on shore, they assume middle class mentality, associated attitudes, values, consumption patterns and aspirations among which maintaining a certain distinction between his/her class status and those below becomes an essential component. They do this by pretending to be or acting out a different persona in line with the professional and community ‘ideals’ of what this ideal life entails as constructed by the society, culture, profession and particular way of life. Obviously it includes having material possessions such as a big and luxury house, car, foreign travel, money, children in prestigious schools, clothing, access to networks of family, friends and colleagues.
The Sri Lankan medical association’s objections to SAITM seem to have an element of preserving doctor privileges from a stream of medical graduates who attempt to enter the practice in the country via an unconventional –from their point of view- but common avenue in many other parts of the world. Strict rules set in place by the medical profession and its regulatory authority for legitimising medical graduates have come into question by the SAITM graduates and their institutional leaders in recent times.
Some do not make this transition from the Sinhala or Tamil speaking middle class persons to be English-speaking middle class. They retain many of their traditional cultural attitudes, values, behaviour patterns, aspirations though they are also motivated by the material and professional rewards that the medical profession offers. They are contended with sending children to a school not necessarily considered as prestigious or that attracts competition from their peers in urban centres. Nonetheless, some in this group try to imitate their English-speaking counterparts for professional and social survival. This fraction may be having strong rural roots and inklings in life for such an attitude. Nonetheless, they support the professional body’s campaigns against SAITM and provide moral support. The controversy hides more deeper aspects of the social structure and change that Sri Lanka is undergoing today as the arguments and counter arguments are mounted by interested parties within a more narrow professional sphere with no attention paid to the sociological and critical dimensions.
The ability of the middle class professionals to be able to distance from their lower middle class and working class cousins derives from their ‘ability to exploit’ the professional privileges available to them for personal gain in extended fashion, in some cases far beyond what the medical ethics allow. Patients are seen as clients in this context rather than a human being seeking their advice, support, treatment and curing.
These professionals have their counterparts in upper class echelons both within the country and outside. Globalisation has opened up many opportunities for them to not only establish networks outside the country but also to migrate for work if they desire. Some obtain professional training for a few years as a requirement.
But the broader point I wish to emphasise is ‘the transformative process’ among middle class professionals such as doctors as described in this article. A similar process takes place among other professionals such as the university academics, engineers, business managers, accountants, bureaucrats, and many others who have access to modernist education as a way of social mobility. The point I wish to emphasise is also about the culture, language, tradition, (native) knowledge loss in this process. It is a process of transforming or changing from the native bases and parameters of life to modernist and neoliberal bases that follow consumerist and capitalist logic far beyond what it entails in normal human affairs.
The net gain to the English speaking countries from this ‘brain drain’ of professionals is characterised by several factors. 1) The host country does not have to spend money in educating and training these professionals. They pick the best and brightest as a finished product subject to further certification via home country authorities about professional qualifications and skills. 2) Once domiciled, these professionals become consumers for their corporate sector, especially in the housing, retail, medical, education sectors. The latter as the children of these immigrants tend to attend private schools in many cases. 3) These professionals contribute to the society, in particular economy, through their services. 4) In some cases, they function as intermediaries that connect home and host countries in industry, professions, marketplace, and 5) as the children grow, they contribute to the population growth. In these countries, most citizens are becoming elderly.
Minimising Net Loss
How do we minimise the net loss to Sri Lanka of this process of producing English educated middle class professionals who leave the country for extended periods or permanently? I note that the Sri Lankan government has encouraged departed professionals to apply for dual citizenship? While this is appreciable, there could be more steps taken to address this issue.
This raises several fundamental questions. Primary among them is how to produce professionals and ultimately a middle class rooted in Sri Lankan culture, identity, language, history, art, literature, way of life and commitment to motherland etc.? Obviously associated with this question is whether it is necessary to do so in the first place? Another question is the role of language in education, which is a huge issue. While learning a foreign language or more is important to effectively operate in contemporary globalised world, the questionable proposition is whether it is necessary to conform to ‘a hegemonic world order’ that has been built by formerly imperialist centres/countries for their own economic and cultural benefit. While many professionals who migrate to these centres of hegemonic economic and cultural power experience the effects of such hegemony on their persona, children’s future and behaviour, life aspirations etc. they are not necessarily familiar with the way out. After encouraging children to learn and live in an English dominated world, many parents become frustrated when children reach adult years and observe the cultural dissonance between parental and children’s ways of life, priorities, values etc. Role of language in education is a topic that should receive attention of policy makers and political leaders.
Likewise, the nature of education provided to children through schools and higher education institutions should also be subjected to critical scrutiny. In such an exercise, the first thing to do is to develop an ‘educational philosophy’ or ‘vision’ suitable for the country having regard not only to the need for developing employment skills but also the country’s age old traditions, culture, identity, language etc. outlined earlier.
Identity is a tricky one in that various ethnic communities possess their group identities while a national identity has not been developed systematically based on a nation-building project. Large majority of people live their own lives defined by their respective ethno-cultural identities to the extent of even developing inter ethnic antagonisms, stereotypes, and conflicts. Consumer culture and middle class lifestyle bring together some of these diverse identity communities while public institutions also provide platforms to bring them together in a loosely defined fashion. However, no one, including the state or the education system define national characteristics of a Sri Lankan identity. None has bothered to research this subject to my knowledge, except a PhD thesis completed at the Monash University, Australia by a Sri Lankan candidate plus various theoretical contributions by a few Sri Lankan academics. Politicians are not keen to bring together people of different ethnicities via a feasible national identity or other means. Their survival depends rather on dividing people and keeping the tensions going.
Thus the SITM issue has to be understood in this broader context. Not necessarily as who is right and who is wrong? Because one cannot decide who is right and wrong until we analyse whether this trend initiated during the colonial period and embraced by some Sri Lankan parents followed by many more in the post independence period is suitable for our country’s future or not?
The process of making middle class through education and the subsequent loss of children who become professionals to the mother country (and some parents who are forced to live in home country) can become a net loss to a country like Sri Lanka unless far sighted educational, employment and other policies and programs are developed and implemented to harness their talents, commitment, loyalty and services.
Gamage. S. 2014. The ‘Post-colonial Grip’ and ‘Class Domination’: Sinhalese upper and middle classes, Groundviews, Colombo.
Milovanovic, D. 2009. DUELING PARADIGMS: MODERNIST v. POSTMODERNIST THOUGHT, Critical Criminology . Revised version from Humanity and Society (19(1): 1-22, 1995http://critcrim.org/milovanovic_postmod.htm (Downloaded on 26.03.2017)
Modernism vs. Post modernism https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/engl_258/Lecture%20Notes/modernism_vs_postmodernism.htm (Downloaded on 26.03.2017)
Dube, S. 2016. Modernism in South Asia, Routledge Encyclopaedia of Modernism, Overview. https://www.rem.routledge.com/articles/overview/tousled-temporalities (Downloaded on 26.03.2017)
 I have added some references to gain an initial knowledge about modernism and modernist paradigm. A paper on the effect of modernism on social sciences in the global south by the author is to be published this year.
 This is this is another topic worthy of exploration
 There are various critiques of this phenomenon. For example see, Perera, K. How GMOA Exploits Free Education? Daily Mirror 24.03.2017 http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/-Free-Education–126112.html
 When I was growing up in the far South in the 60s doing science was the preferred option in the high school. It was a time when science education was being expanded into rural schools. Then it became doing technology or IT.
 An early figure that alerted readers to this trend was Martin Wickramasinghe. Others followed this like Gunadasa Amarasekera.