24 September, 2020

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Saman Kelegama (1959-2017): A Thinker Of A Think Tank

By Udan Fernando

Dr. Udan Fernando

The totally unexpected and devastating news of the untimely demise of Dr. Saman Kelegama on Friday 23rd June has left many people shocked and sad. I have not seen such an outpouring of messages of condolences from a wide spectrum of people on the death of an Economist. Indeed, Saman was a very gentle and amiable person who earned respect and admiration as a humble and modest human being. While saddened by the realisation of the fact that he is no more, as my professional paths crossed very frequently with Saman’s, I would like to reflect on what made Saman so well-recognised and respected as an Economist in the Sri Lankan context. While I join many people who grieve Saman’s passing, this note is not an obituary but an attempt to understand Saman’s role as a leader of a Think Tank.

Kelegama emerged as an Economist upon receiving an illustrious training at Oxford. His father, Deshamanya Dr. J. B. Kelegama, was an eminent scholar and civil servant who was much respected in Sri Lanka. As such, Kelegama had all the credentials and the pedigree to embark on his career as an Economist. However, he did not choose a conventional academic career, like his father nor did he join the Central Bank or the public service to pursue a career at a place like the Treasury. Instead, Kelegama chose to work for the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) which was called a Think Tank at a time when only a few people knew the purpose and function of a Think Tank. Kelegama’s name is intrinsically enmeshed with the IPS, the Colombo-based Think Tank, which he gave leadership to since 1995 until his untimely demise.

Dr. Saman Kelegama

I think it was Kelegama who made Think Tanks an operative term in the Sri Lankan context. In fact, it was not Kelegama who founded IPS. However, Kelegama was undoubtedly the singular person who made IPS so well-recognised in Sri Lanka, as a premier Think Tank that offers research and policy advice on economic affairs and related subjects.  The emergence of IPS marks a salient milestone in Sri Lankan contemporary history as a direct corollary to the water-shed transformation in Sri Lanka when an aggressive economic policy shift liberalised the economy in 1977. I am privy to an anecdote shared by Dr. Howard Nicholas, an eminent Economist of Sri Lankan origin, now domiciled in The Netherlands, about the conception of IPS. As I recall, the then Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel has stressed the importance of having an independent Think Tank to generate ideas  and offer policy advice to the new environment of the economy, business and trade under what was popularly called an ‘open economy’. Howard has been entrusted with the task of doing the spade work of this novel venture which took the name of IPS in 1988. Howard himself led IPS in the years of its infancy albeit maintaining a low-key.   

Kelegama joined IPS in 1990, initially as a Research Fellow whose work coincided with the last few years of the consecutive UNP governments since 1977, a period that witnessed the liberalisation of the economy and the Structural Adjustment Programme. Coincidentally or otherwise, Kelegama took over the leadership of IPS in 1995 in the immediate aftermath of another watershed in Sri Lankan contemporary history. The year 1994 marked the end of the seventeen-year rule of the UNP and the establishment of a new regime under the leadership of Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga  of the SLFP and a few small coalition partners. The significance of this period goes beyond Sri Lankan politics. This was the time of the reformist economic policies of the governments of Tony Blair (in the UK), Francois Mitterand (in France) and Gerhard Schroeder (in Germany) which took place along with the second wave of the drastic changes in the Communist-bloc and China. While Blair’s Labour went ‘pink’, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga’s new policy was popularly coined as an ‘economy with a human face’. This was essentially a continuation of the liberalisation of the economy promoted by the UNP government albeit with a few clams of reforms, probably to attract the electoral support and definitely to appease the Leftist parties who came as a numerically insignificant (perhaps symbolically useful) coalition of the so-called Peoples’ Alliance (PA) government. The most pertinent feature of this historical juncture was the continuation of the economic policy after a regime change and re-emergence of the SLFP which was till then largely Socialist in its economic policy, particularly in the period 1970-77.    

IPS was not the only entity that emerged in the aftermath of the economic liberalisation in Sri Lanka. The Social Scientists Association (SSA) can also be traced as a corollary to the economic liberalisation albeit as a critical force. The SSA was formed by a group of academics and largely Left-oriented intellectuals in 1977. This was followed by the emergence of another prominent organisation which can be called a Think Tank in retrospection, the International Center for Ethnic Studies (ICES) by Dr. Neelan Thiruchelvam, a lawyer and scholar. However, the ethnic conflict which unraveled since the eighties for nearly three decades, over-determined the Sri Lankan intellectual discourse. As such, SSA and ICES as well as a few pioneer advocacy-oriented research institutes such as the Center for Society and Religion (founded by Fr. Tissa Balasuriya in 1971 ) and Satyodaya (Founded by Fr. Paul Casperz  and Bishop Leo Nanayakkara in 1972) were preoccupied with conflict-related issues focusing on issues of human rights, devolution and ethnic harmony. This left the intellectual discourse on the economy in the hands of a very few actors such as the IPS, Sri Lankan Economists Association and individual scholars. Perhaps a precursor to IPS in a Think-Tank style was the Marge Institute which was established in 1972 by a prominent bureaucrat Dr. Godfrey Gunatilleke. He was in active public service and holding a senior position in the realm of development planning  in the initial years that liberalised the economy. Marga, for whatever reason, did not emerge as a ‘Think Tank’ on Economics in the new liberalised economic environment. It is in this context that IPS enabled stand out as a prominent Think Tank in the new economic policy environment and continue to maintain its prominence, recognition and acceptance. Due to the semi-governmental nature of its incorporation and legal status, IPS secured the credibility and patronage from state agencies and multi-lateral agencies as well as international financial agencies. 

Kelegama’s intellectual contribution unraveled in this ‘classical’ Think Tank environment with IPS’s unique interface with the state while ought to be intellectually independent but structurally quasi-governmental. I think Kelegama played a pivotal role carving a niche for IPS as a Think Tank by navigating this unique but difficult terrain. IPS’ policy-oriented research on trade, migration, labour, inter alia, filled the needs of state agencies, multi-lateral agencies and international financial agencies as well as the general public discourse. IPS’s hallmark annual intellectual product, the ‘State of the Economy’ occupied a unique position in the state policy environment as well as the private sector. Kelegama’s vision and intellectual acumen in conceptualising this particular policy-product alongside the Central Bank Annual Report and many such products of the Department of Statistics warrant due recognition and appreciation. Kelegama’s work did not undermine the routine products of the Central Bank and other state agencies, Rather, he built on them and brought out an analytical element as well as a thorough scrutiny from a policy perspective.

A systematic appreciation and assessment of the critical edge of Saman’s work is a task he leaves with us as he bids goodbye to us in an unexpected moment. However, at this stage, I can empathise with Saman on the challenge of performing the difficult role of a Think Tank while keeping the state as a key stakeholder. Given his intellectual prowess/integrity and his temperament as a gentle, soft-spoken person, Saman could play a somewhat balanced role as an analyst and a communicator. Saman’s messages found its way to policy circles and decision makers in both state and private sector. Though he had an able team of colleagues and an institutional framework, Saman, to a large extent, personified the IPS. He nurtured it, expanded the scope of it and took it to new frontiers within and beyond Sri Lanka. Creating a rationale, a need and role for entities called Think Tanks as a legitimate and constructive actor in society is, in my opinion, the largest legacy Saman leaves behind. As such, Saman has etched a prominent position for himself in contemporary history as an Economist and a Policy Analyst.

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Latest comments

  • 9
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    A sad loss indeed for the country at a time when there is clearly a dearth of educated , decent , men of integrity in positions of influence . Our condolences to his young family who must be devastated by his untimely demise.

  • 9
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    He was an asset to the country and passes away at the time when his service is urjently needed by the country .

  • 5
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    Deepest sympathies to the family and friends. Thanks Udan for this great appreciation. Dr Saman Kelegama was an outspoken person. I had met him at several seminars in the past. But as Udan says, “Indeed, Saman was a very gentle and amiable person who earned respect and admiration as a humble and modest human being.” In May 2010, when he was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE), I had occasion to work with him for a short while, as I resigned and left the country in early 2011. He was a great asset in all respects.

  • 7
    3

    what is the use of a think tank when the parliament is having 94 morons who have not passed the o’level.whatever the think tank thinks these morons will unthink it.

  • 4
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    Saman was the chairman of the committee that was negotiating the trade agreements with China and other neighboring countries. Hope GOSL can find a suitable replacement to lead this effort.

    Great loss to the nation and super trade expert.

  • 5
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    So good to read the POSITIVE comments, unlike the insensitive comment made by the GMOA, who are only sensitive to their dirty bucks.

  • 2
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    I share your sentiments, Udan, about Saman as a promoter of the necessity to develop think tanks as a prime intellectual consultative mechanism to provide advice on policy formulation. Still, I need to question how many leaders of successive Sri Lanka regimes have even been willing to consider such policy input. They do whatever they deem to fit to win over the next election. So, on the one hand, there is a gap between what think tanks input in terms of policy and what politicians feel what the grass roots need in the short-term to win the next election.

    I know Saman has been a consistent advocate of neo-liberal economics, which even by the nineties had created many socio-economic disasters in the developing world. The results can be clearly and prominently seen now even in the western world. The entities like WB, who have been advocating neo-liberal economics have even agreed on this disastrous situation.

    I have never agreed with Saman’s economic philosophy. In the late nineties, as President of Australia-Sri Lanka Association in Canberra, we invited him to speak on economic issues in Sri Lanka, at which he advocated neo-liberal economics as the solution. I raised my strong concerns about this view with the global experiences we had by then. He did not disagree, but took my concerns very politely. Yet, he remained in friendly terms even afterwards (usually isn’t the practice among our people).

    We share our deepest sympathies with his family and friends.

  • 0
    2

    despite his slfp background it never coloured his thinking
    he supported private medical universities and gmoa should stop trying to influence govt policies
    however it will be a greater tradgedy if ranil appoints arjuna mahedran to replace him

  • 2
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    Terrible loss for the country.RIP.

  • 1
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    His Untimely death is Great Loss To Our Nation which is in Path of Recovery & finding ways to recover its debt Trap .

    Nalin Perera

  • 1
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    This is a beautiful tribute Udan. I will always remember Saman as a person of extreme humility, willing to assimilate knowledge from all quarters to enrich his perspectives.

  • 0
    2

    What was the actual contribution of the deceased to the country? Pl. answer this question truthfully and objectively.

  • 1
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    Dr Saman Kelegama was a beacon of guidance to successive administrations. If these administrations had implemented his advice, Sri Lanka would have been a more prosperous nation. The new Finance Minister and the Treasury officials must make use of the researchers at IPS to overcome the challenges facing the country. My sincere condolences to the members of his family on his untimely death.

  • 2
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    Dr. Kelegama’s contribution goes beyond the boundary of Sri Lanka. He was an extremely influential voice who championed trade and economic integration in the South Asian region. Some of the institutional mechanisms created by Saman have made a deep impact in this direction. I came to know him over the past 10- 12 years. I felt intellectually enriched after each interaction with him. He was held in extremely high regard in the trade policy circles in India, particularly the think tanks working on trade and investment issues. His expertise, vision and human qualities will be immensely missed, not only in Sri Lanka, but in the entire South Asia region. May his soul rest in peace.

  • 1
    0

    I am saddened at the loss of a friend. A brilliant yet unassuming guy. Always had incisive questions be it about facts of life or issues pertaining to Sri Lanka. Could have easily fled the country and taken up a big position but he chose to return to Sri Lanka.

    I was so touched the way he helped a friend of mine who was from a Sinhala speaking Ratnapura rural family when that friend went to Oxford to get his PhD in Botany; that was his first time outside SL and he too was absolutely gifted in his field. I introduced him to Saman and Saman really welcomed him. We went to visit Saman at Oxford in 1987. He was a simple guy back then too. He was also our classmate at Royal and he finished his Olevels and Alevels in double quick time because he was brilliant. Saman did not waste time on trivial matters. He was a great leader at IPS and my younger sister worked under him and has tremendous respect for him.

    But unlike certain PhDs in SL who are bloviated thin skinned egos this guy never threw tantrums or announced themselves as brilliant: there are some who do that these days. He went to St. Catherines. Brilliant guy. Actually very accomplished until others who try to tell us all everyday that “Maa hari ugathaa, Maa hari jagathaa”..”I Am so smart I am the best”. NOPE Sir , Saman did not suffer from that cursed illness. It was an honor to have known him outside his sphere as a classmate.

  • 2
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    Saman joined us in Grade 6 after he returned from The Gambia where his father was posted as an Economist. His father too was brilliant and low key. Not like those Political Phds nor others even with Economics PhDs who are promoting themselves. He came to us from an English speaking stream class but set it upon himself to learn Sinhala really fast too. In 6th grade, we were asked to write an Essay/Rachanayak and read it to class. He was still new and did not speak nor write Sinhala well. That is because he had been abroad in the Gambia and also at a Prep school in English. HE WANTED to learn his mother tongue. He wrote an essay in English about The Gambia and I was asked to come in front of the class and translate his short essay in 1970(6th grade). That is when I learnt that “Ground nuts” is the same as peanuts and that it was one of “The Gambia’s” major Exports.. That little factoid has been stuck in my head since. Not sure why it was always The Gambia and not Gambia.

    • 0
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      Bicycle Kadde politician!Why did he not tell you other than definite and indefinite article-CBK eskole master?
      The country was called “The Gambia” in order to differentiate it from Zambia. Today, there are only two countries in the world with the article “The” in front of the country name. The Gambia and The Bahamas.

      “We do have a letter dated May 1964 from the Gambian prime minister’s office which instructed us that it should be The Gambia with a capital T. One of the reasons they gave was that Gambia could be confused with Zambia, which was a new name to the international community at the time.”- Becky Maddock of the Permanent Committee on Geographical Names (PCGN), which advises the UK Government on “the proper writing” of place names.

  • 0
    0

    Many of commenters well aware that late Saman Kelegama’s personalities and qualities of habits of personal life and capacity of intelligences good at , which that I too appreciated .The an issues is not that. The crux of matter is different one?
    But late Saman K…. was not aware of Asian changes are not that like European and USA moribund monopoly capital has lost Global trade and investment as whole.
    Indeed Saman.K…. was young in aged he died( compared of ongoing Medical Care system has more advance than past) but he was living in Old Economic Order was founded in 1945 Bretton wood era.
    He was too late to realized shifting old into new Global economic phenomena during his-life time.
    The sustainability of capitalism is not Neo-Liberalism ,while political-economic which he followed by is more or less Old school of thought of IMF and WB treatment by an “OPEN ECONOMY SYSTEM”.
    Which is Saman K…not an independent think-tank by his ideology which is not relevant to or suited to Sustainability Development of our soil.
    That is why he advocated ECTA with Republic of Indian without review of FTA between Sri lanka and Indian since last 16 years. Well place documents said that FTA between two countries trade balance is almost having Rupees of Three and half billion imbalance to Sri lanka. He was intentionally dodge imbalance WTO review policy of FTA between Sri lanka and India. That was conflict interest of Sri Lanka.
    In search of new data’s I founded that last year Global private wealth grew by 12% or US $ 17.5 trillion to reached US $ 164 trillion –stocks, bonds saving and cash by BCG a consultancy.
    The Asian where private wealth grew by a whopping 29% compared to 5.6% in North America and 6.6% in Europe. Asia is now richer than Europe. By 2019 the region’s wealth(Asia) is hope to reach US $ 75 trillion to compared to US $ 63 trillion in North America. Indeed sorry to say late Saman was not permitted to live see world of the new development and changes of New world Order in coming couples of decades .
    We want new ideas and line of thinking tanks in our soil that unfinished task left by Saman to be unaccomplished by late Saman Kelagama.
    He will attain Nirvana .

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