Vignettes of the Public Service

Gamini Seneviratne


Your Editor’s request was for a series of reminiscences written in anecdotal form. The books by M. Chandrasoma and Victor Wirasinghe were mentioned as examples of what he had in mind. They are, of course, not quite comparable; their social background and predilections being different. Chandrasoma was a writer who had not lost his village; he had the eye and ear of a story-teller. Wirasinghe, in his writings, did tend to protest too much; he was Permanent Secretary, Home Affairs, when I was a mere Cadet in Badulla, and I cannot speak to his qualities in public management. Much later, sitting across the table when he was Chairman of Lewis Brown’s and I was Director of Industries, we found it easy to ‘do business’ with no waste of time. Chandrasoma I have met but briefly at gatherings of CCS men.

My style of writing, alas, is different from that of Chandrasoma, Wirasinghe, Totsy Vittachi, Tissa Devendra, Dharmasiri Pieris and such raconteurs. So, too, do my meditations differ from those of Mervyn de Silva, Thalif Deen, Neville de Silva, Rajpal Abeynayake, Malinda Seneviratne and other commentators on public affairs: the ‘Public Service’ must, necessarily, take cognizance of the state of public affairs at any given time. In the best of possible worlds that would have little to do with ‘party politics’ but it certainly has to do with public policy: public servants are - or were - trained to take the long view.

Anecdotes there are aplenty and you’d find them afloat in any gathering of public servants. Especially those not of ‘the old school’, i.e., say, those not much over sixty. The old school ethic forbade ‘tales out of school’, and it would take much for such tales to be told even among intimates.

Besides such anecdotes there are indicative examples of another kind relating to how public policy comes to be constructed. Considering the public image of the persons concerned, some of that ‘material’ is quite, um, embarrassing. A lot of it is ‘classified’: we will get back to that stream of reflection in due course, and hope it does not sour your Sunday breakfast.

If I were to ‘begin at the beginning’ - or even much later - there would be somber overtones that would be at variance with the tone called for here.

Let’s go. When the United Left Front (the SLFP led by Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, the LSSP led by Dr. N. M. Perera, & the CP led by Pieter Keuneman - the names matter) took office in 1970, the Ministry of Agriculture & Food was bifurcated. In cognizance of the strength of the LSSP and its long-held view that true Freedom required control over ‘the commanding heights of the economy’, a new Ministry of Plantation Industries was established under one of the co-founders of the LSSP and it’s first President, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva. By then, of my superiors in the Ministry of Agriculture, Neil Bandaranaike and Gamini Iriyagolla had moved out to the Milk Board & the ARTI respectively. Baku Mahadeva had been bailed out by Felix Dias and Mahinda Silva, whose checkered history we need not go into here, had moved up as Permanent Secretary. As Mahinda Silva’s deputy and the next most senior officer in that Ministry I was posted as Senior Assistant Secretary of its newly elevated segment, Plantation Industries. It was felt that continuity had to be maintained especially as the Minister and the Permanent Secretary (Doric de Souza), long as they had mulled over the subjects in its purview, were new to the business of running a Ministry.

As was to be expected, we started small: the staff consisted of Colvin, Doric, myself and Colvin’s Private Secretary, T. B. Dissanayaka (a former President of the GCSU). The Parliamentary Secretary, Albert Kariyawasam, drifted in from time to time. There were no ‘official vehicles’; when Doric’s Volkswagen and / or my Ford Anglia was out of commission, as they often were, Colvin would drive us round in his old Morris to meetings we had to attend on behalf of the Ministry.

My job, at that point, was to staff the Ministry and otherwise equip it for work. That did not take long: in less than a month the Ministry was able to get down to the business of revamping the administration of the subjects & functions assigned to it and move on to the more arduous task of policy making within a government made up of disparate groups.

What follows illustrates that problem and is no diversion. At a Cabinet meeting I had been required to be in attendance at, Mrs. Bandaranaike attended to her files while Ministers of the Left and the Right engaged each other in unarmed combat, interminably as it seemed to us. When she was done with her routine she looked around the table and said, "Gentlemen, have you finished? We will have to tell the people, ‘Sorry, we could not get anything done, we were busy arguing.’ They will hang us in Galle Face Green!"

My present anecdote, and its accessories!, begins with a routine matter. The daily ‘tappal’, the incoming mail, was opened by the Chief Clerk (we had one by the time this story opens), and sent up to me. What I thought was important enough to require their attention would be sent up to the Permanent Secretary and/or the Minister with such comments as were appropriate. I would refer others to the relevant Staff Officer, with or without some instruction, or attend to the matter myself.

Came a printed letter announcing an FAO Regional Conference to be held in Canberra with a draft agenda that included several matters that concerned that Ministry. I put it up to the Minister with my comments/explications and suggestions as to the positions that may be articulated at the Conference and asked for directions. He told me, "You must go."

I inquired of the Ministry of Agriculture, which is our ‘link-agency’ with the FAO, and was told, a bit sniffily, ‘No, we aren’t sending anyone - this is a Regional conference’. Nevertheless, as soon as I reached Canberra, I cabled that Permanent Secretary for a brief on matters that fell within its purview. And received the cryptic reply, "See the ‘Sunday Observer’ of (this) date".

Quite early in the conference, the generic subject of ‘crop diversification’ came up. I said that though the FAO recommends it, we have no intention of diversifying land use from a crop (tea, rubber) that was said to be ‘in crisis’ into others for which the prognosis might be even worse. In order to make clear that ‘conceptual’ point, I added that we had asked the FAO for an expert on commodities who would help us do that kind of homework with us. The FAO’s Regional Director took me up on that and, with the spurious politeness that marks these meetings, said that ‘the Distinguished Delegate of Ceylon may not be aware that a Commodities Specialist was already in Colombo’. I waved my flag but the Chairman, Doug Anthony, then the Australian Minister of Primary Industry and Deputy Prime Minister, chose not to ‘recognize’ me. As that session ended he announced that he had to attend a Cabinet Meeting - and invited ‘the Distinguished Delegate of Ceylon’ to take the Chair.

That was quite out of custom or convention - the rotation of the Chair went by seniority. I was a podian in a company that included Ministers, Fakruddin Ahmed of India and Mohamed Haroon of Pakistan among them, Ambassadors, High Commissioners and Secretaries. Chandra Arulpragasam, ex-CCS, of the FAO in Rome headquarters, advised me to decline the honour or stay mum; Chandra Fonseka, also ex-CCS, of the FAO, Bangkok, said, "They are trying to silence you. I think you should take the Chair - you control the buttons - and say your say".

That is what I did. I had been associated with the ‘Crop Diversification’ project proposed by the FAO from its inception and was able to inform the conference that I was aware that a specialist in ‘commodities’ had indeed been sent by the FAO - but only because we had refused to accept their expert personnel - or indeed the project, until that was done. Evidently, the Regional Director, along with the Australian newspapers, had decided that I was the yakko’in the pack: the Minister of Agriculture in the new Revolutionary Government of Ceylon!

That impression may have been created by an earlier incident: I had referred to the ‘Distinguished Delegate of Vietnam’ as "my friend", (we had been trying out the boomerang the previous evening), "the young man from Saigon". It might have ended there. But the representative, Distinguished Delegate, rather, of the USA chose to object to that: he said: "Maybe the Distinguished Delegate of Ceylon did not consider the conventions of address important, but I must remind him of them." I responded that ‘my Government’ had taken certain diplomatic measures with respect to the recognition of the administrations in other countries, and this embarrassment would not have occurred had the Credentials Committee done its job.

All that was followed by other hiccups - which would be a somewhat long tale to tell and fall somewhat outside what your Editor had in mind.

These events occurred before the Internet could bring newspapers to you on a screen as soon as they hit the streets. The ‘Sunday Observer’ arrived by mail in due course, about the time the conference ended, and it did supply an enlightening ‘brief’. It was an interview with Colvin in which he had expounded the grave issues that I was to take up at the conference, and was virtually a verbatim report of what I had suggested we should say. The story was by a promising young reporter of that time, Manik de Silva.

Gamini Seneviratne