Colombo Telegraph

SAITM Crisis: An Ugly Symptom Of A Dreadful Socio-Political Syndrome

Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude” ~Alexis de Tocqueville

According to Wikipedia, ‘the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) was established in 2008 by Dr. Neville Fernando with the aim to provide tertiary qualifications in Medicine, Engineering and Information Technology, Management and Finance, and Information Communication Technology and Media. The institute was initially affiliated with the Nizhny Novgorod State Medical Academy (Russia), the Asian Institute of Technology (Thailand) and Buckinghamshire New University (England), awarding degrees through those respective institutes. In 2011 SAITM applied for recognition from the University Grants Commission (UGC) as a degree awarding institution, with the ability to award its own degrees. The UGC, in 2013, granted SAITM a degree awarding status despite protests from the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) and the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA). SAITM held their first convocation in March 2013, conferring degrees to ten students from the Faculty of ICT and Media and eighteen students from the Faculty of Management and Finance.’

Neville Fernando – photo via Facebook SAITM 

Today, SAITM is embroiled in a crisis-laden situation in which the two partners in the governing coalition are facing a decisive showdown, a showdown between two diametrically antagonistic socio-political schools of thought. While the United National Party (UNP) and its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe find themselves in the corner of private sector-backed open market economy, President Maithripala Sirisena and his Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) traditionally oppose private sector backed ventures in the sector of education, a subject they think has to be severely controlled and regulated by government with no quarter given and none asked for. The well-chronicled schools-takeover in 1962, its wholehearted support of Buddhist schools and portraying them as the vanguard of a nation determined to rise after 450 years of colonial rule, stands as monument to those socio-political policies in the sixties and seventies.

North Colombo Medical College, SITM’s de facto predecessor, another source of political trouble for any government, had one serious and determined backer in the then Executive President, J R Jayewardene. NCMC in fact made it a point to record its deep appreciation of those who helped to make the NCMC a fulltime working private Medical College. Aside from J R J, those who supported this novel education venture were Dr Stanley Kalpage as chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the then Secretary of Higher Education Prof Stanley Wijesundera and the academic staff of the University of Colombo. (Source: Wikipedia).

Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), at the time led by firebrand Rohana Wijeweera launched a pitiless attack on the NCMC since its inception. Wijeweera had the full support of the left-wing political parties in Sri Lanka at the time and this issue of the NCMC was a sharp weapon in his hand and Wijeweera used it in his failed attempt to topple the government in the late eighties in his murderous and vicious campaign which was mistakenly called the ‘second revolution’ by some social scientists. Wijeweera’s attempt to portray NCMC as an agent of the capitalist class ended up in a bomb attack on its administration building in 1988. Yet the Board of Management of NCMC conferred its own medical degree MBBS (NCMC) instead of the one from the University of Colombo.

However, it was the UNP leader, the then Executive President Premadasa In 1989, who appointed a committee made up of K.H.J. Wijedasa (Presidential Secretary), W.M.P.B. Menikdiwela (Former Presidential Secretary), Dr Ananda Guruge, a respected educationist and Bradman Weerakoon another high-end civil servant to look into the NCMC. Soon after, the NCMC was nationalized with the government sending the army to occupy the buildings. Its board was replaced by a Competent Authority, Prof. Carlo Fonseka. He continued as the first Dean when the NCMC was transferred to the University of Kelaniya as its Faculty of Medicine. Premadasa’s populist policies saw to it that a private sector venture was once agin placed in the government machinery. Ironically enough, it is this NCMC struggle where the current Health Minister, Rajitha Senaratne had his baptism in Sri Lanka’s politics. It was indeed a baptism by fire. Rajitha Senaratne at that time was at the forefront of the opposition’s bout against NCMC.

Twenty eight years later, this same issue, medical degrees accorded by a private medical school in particular and opposition to private sector-backed education venture in general, is irritating the government in power, this time a coalition between the very antagonists who fought vigorously against each other in the eighties. Once again a reformed Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, this time led by a non-violent Anura Kumara Dissanayake, is in the forefront to lead a campaign against SAITM and its very existence as an educational institution that offers recognized degrees. In a bizarre development, however, Vice Chancellor, Professor Ananda Samarasekera, is on a leave of absence, relating to his alleged involvement in the Wasim Thajudeen murder case. How more bizarre this case could become, one does not know.

Yet the central issue remains the same. Sri Lanka’s unproductive flirtation with government-run institutions and organizations continues, emphasizing an utterly destructive ‘anti-private sector syndrome’, a syndrome that has been imparted by the traditional left in the fifties, sixties and seventies and now carried out by the current JVP and its cohorts in the twenty first century. Our medical students who get into the university straight from high school are recipients of a fee education from lower kindergarten up to the university level. And even the university education is free up to a level, thanks mainly to Lalith Athulathmudali’s Mahapola scholarship scheme. Their opposition to others getting a paid-education and receiving an award of certificate to practice medical profession is a sign of a malignant mindset, perverted by false socialistic promises offered to them by politicians who are equally perverted by a false system of socio-political school of thought. Growing incapacity of the left-leaning politicians has crippled our political dynamic and caught in this vortex of incapacity, they use an extra-sensitive issue to malign a system that is already in a state of deep indecision.

To make matters even more malevolent, those who offered licenses and other go-aheads during their time in power to the same institutions are among the chief antagonists to the issue. Politics is playing its cruel ironies with the lives of our student population. The government seems to be in a grip of not knowing what to do. Lack of steadfast determination to settle an issue with all the sensibilities of a nation’s vulnerable segment is making the government justifiably unpopular with all segments of society.

In this context, it is pertinent to write here what a speaker at a convocation ceremony of the NCMC stated: ‘I remember, at the beginning I quoted Victor Hugo who said “No army can withstand an idea whose time has come” but I made a mistake, we were actually ahead of our time by over 1 1/2 decades. Today “private sector” and “privatization” are no longer dirty words in the vocabulary of nearly every political party. I wonder sometimes what would be the attitude of those who criticized us, if some group decides to start another private medical educational establishment in our country today. It will certainly make an interesting scenario.’ His words still echo in our private and public chambers of discussion and debate.

This country of ours has to wake up from this benumbing state of complacency. It has to clear its cobwebs of the dead past. It has to straighten its spine and say unto its own citizens that enough is enough. Clinging on to anachronistic socio-economic theories, however much they are covered with a veneer of social justice is not going to serve any meaningful purpose in the long run. The world has discarded socialism as a working economic system. The Mogul of capitalism has risen his head and never to bow down again. The so-called developing world is no longer categorized in that insulting way anymore. Second and Third-World jargon is fast disappearing from the world of international finance and economics. Corporate finance and corporate accountability is replacing government-held institutions. Those countries which are arguably the most corrupt and dishonest in their dealings, those governments which are essentially family-driven and henchmen-bonded are the ones which demand government interference into the world of global financing and global trading.

China and Russia may stand as exceptions to this rule, yet both these countries would have gone to the garbage can of history but for the fact they graduated from a slumping system of Marxist Socialism to regulated capitalism. While those very countries which dominated the cold war in the fifties, sixties and seventies, with whom countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, the Philippines and even India had romantic flirtations died a very sad and sudden death. Delivery of the utopia was not delayed, it was denied. Those leaders who led revolutionary movements except perhaps, in Cuba and Vietnam were eventually discarded by their very followers. In such a realistic and authentic context, why Sri Lankan leaders are scared of a paper-tiger of socialism is not comprehensible.

*The writer can be contacted at vishwamithra1984@gmail.com

By vishwamithra1984

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