By Emil van der Poorten –
Emil van der Poorten’s speech to Association of Ex-Planters on September 22nd, 2012
When Malcolm Dias, asked me to address you today, I told him he might regret having ever made the request! That said, let me say at the outset that if you are expecting some truly inflammatory rhetoric that will bring a convoy of white vans to this place even before you reach your dessert, I hope you are going to be disappointed!
Let me start with something totally unrelated to what is going to be the essence of what I have to say today, some personal information – verging on gossip, if you will – that concerns Malcolm and me.
Unless you are a particularly assiduous collector of TCK trivia, you will not be aware that I was on the College boxing teams during C. E. Simithraaratchy’s final year and Norman Walter’s first year as Principal of what its old boys, at least, call “the best school of all.” I didn’t cover myself with glory and I didn’t even win “colours”. Shortly thereafter, having reached the point when I truly hated the smell of pugilistic leather laced with sweat, I dropped out of boxing completely. However, when another house competition came along, Lemuel House was, as usual, scrounging for entrants and I was approached to make a “comeback”. Having already represented the school, I decided to give boxing another “go” and foolishly determined that since there were no other boxers with competitive experience in my weight, it was going to be a cake-walk, not requiring any preparatory training or practice. I was in for the surprise of my life because I came very close to having my clock cleaned and, to this day, don’t have any recollection of the third and final round of a defeat which didn’t encourage any returns to the ring thereafter! There are no prizes for guessing who gave me that lesson in humility. It was Malcolm Ranjith Dias.
Anyway, back to talking about the here and now.
It has been many years since TCK boxing rings, Kandy Sports Club rugger, Mahagastota Hill Climbs, breeding sheep and all that kind of stuff. I’ve been back in Sri Lanka for about six years now after more than three decades in Western Canada where I did many things that I’d never dreamt of doing when Malcolm and I were being educated at Trinity.
It’s interesting though, that the primary reason for Malcolm inviting me to inflict myself upon you is that which caused me to leave Trinity prematurely in the first place – a compulsion to dabble in journalism.
While I was very politically involved during my years in Canada, inclusive of managing election campaigns at a Federal, Provincial and Territorial level and helping establish a Provincial Political Party at one point of time, journalism was not among my pursuits.
It took a return to Sri Lanka and a growing apprehension about our current “reality” to provoke pangs of conscience about the need to do something about a state of affairs that obviously left a great deal to be desired. I liked to write and knew I wasn’t too bad at it. So, why not use my keyboard to try to change the status quo?
For those of you who know me as the columnist in The Sunday Leader who writes under the by-line, Renaissance Man, let me enlighten you about the fact that I had already been published in Lakbimanews, the Sunday Island and Montage magazine, sometimes pseudonymously, for a few years before Frederica Jansz invited me to write for the paper she had begun to edit subsequent to the murder of its founding editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge. In fact, I had what was supposed to be a regular (pseudonymous) column in the Sunday Times until that paper, seemingly decided my rhetoric was too inflammatory and quietly “tapered off” my column on one pretext or another!
I have fielded my share of abuse and invective for my journalistic contributions over the past few years, most of it couched in rather poor English grammar and syntax at the quality of which my old teachers at TCK would have thrown up their hands in holy horror!
I have been threatened with all kinds of unkind fates inclusive of, on one occasion on Colombo Street in this very town when I was told I “was being watched for writing against the President.” Many friends have appealed to me to “shut up, sit down and join the hallelujah chorus in the pursuit health, wealth and happiness!”
While there certainly is an element of logic to these threats and appeals, let me say that there are other elements to human existence – self-respect, justice, fairness and all those moral elements on which you can’t place a simple monetary value but which you can’t avoid without surrendering your identity as a human being.
In terms of silencing criticism, let me give you the information that Frederica Jansz quit as the Editor of The Sunday Leader yesterday and that you will, probably not be irritated by my column in future. However, suffice it to say that I do not intend to be silenced and am looking at other alternatives.
While you can’t place a rupees and cents value on any of the above, if you take them out of the equation, you end up reducing people to the animal kingdom from which they are supposed to have evolved, red of tooth and claw, surviving only because they are the most unprincipled and violent, not “the fittest” as is often claimed.
I have also heard the perennial argument that the forces of evil are so vast and powerful that, to put that old saying in polite language, it is like matching human flatulence against thunder!
Superficially, yes, this might be so, particularly in the short term. However, it is a historical fact that corruption and violence have not gone away of their own accord, but have only been moved by people standing up against those elements of darkness.
At minimum, if we so much as pretend to follow the principles of any religion or any of the great atheist or agnostic moralists or ethicists, we have to stand up to be counted, in whatever way possible, and always.
By speaking with one’s neighbours, by writing letters to the editors of papers, by initiating or signing petitions regarding public issues, by marching in protest and in a myriad other ways, we need to have our voices heard.
You say, “But no one listens to us and no one cares.” Perhaps, at the beginning, but you WILL be heard, particularly if you join hands with people of like mind to have your voice heard. Remember that old chestnut that used to appear in Autograph Albums of our generation, “Little drops of water and little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the mighty land?” As romantic as that sentiment might sound, it’s true. And in terms of people changing their minds, I distinctly remember a friend I met at a meeting of this very organization at the Kandy Club some years ago, suggesting that I was wasting my time in being critical of the status quo in Sri Lanka because of the power of those I was critical of. Let me suggest that he seems to have since changed his mind about the efficacy of complaint and protest. Otherwise I don’t think I would be giving you indigestion today at his invitation, would I? If you want reinforcement for that thought consider what the greatest anthropologist of our time, Margaret Mead, had to say, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
So, my friends, you who worked in a profession with a very proud history of independence, endeavour and success, often under very difficult conditions, need to have your voices heard, either singly or collectively. No matter how powerful and ruthless those arraigned against you might seem, you will prevail. Let me close with a quote from one of my heroes and a martyr of the Apartheid era in South Africa, Steve Bantu Biko: “The greatest weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” Be not afraid, speak power to truth, never give up, my friends!