Midweek Review
Reply to I. P. C. Mendis
Sri Lanka Foreign Service
by Bandu de Silva

One I. P. C. Mendis has responded (see The Island, February 14 issue) to my article that appeared in The Island under the title "Foreign Service: Quo Vadis?" earlier.

Reading his critique I was reminded of the oriental adage that the swan knows how to separate milk from water, but the crow goes for the garbage wholesale. It is the crow model that IPCM has chosen in the critique of my article. That is sufficient comment on the venom he has heaped on me and my views.

He was probably motivated through sheer pique or was offended because I had treaded on the corns of someone close to him in my reference to some former civil servants or non-career ambassadors. Anyway, let us not go into these motives though they help in understanding why a person resorts to polemics in engaging another in unnecessary detail.

The main points in my article he missed were, firstly, that the appointment of secretaries is the prerogative of the president and seniority in service was not a criteria; and secondly, my remarks about the new foreign secretary’s intention to introduce certain innovative methods of evaluating the work of heads of mission. When he agrees with me on the first in a passing remark, he contradicts himself as well. Minister Kadiragamar had no alternative but to tolerate any officer foisted on him when the secretary was the appointee of the president. He forgets that ministers had to suffer the secretaries imposed on them under our Constitutional framework just like Minister Anura Bandaranaike had to, not so long ago, and Minister SWRD had to suffer B. F. Perera as his permanent secretary of Bracegirdle notoriety until he found him a place in the London High Commission.

In his remarks on what he calls my "self-description" as "unorthodox" he fails to see that a profile is the prerogative of the Editor of the newspaper by way of introducing a writer. In this case did the Editor distance himself from my views by that reference? So, why does he pick an issue with me over that? I do not have to "self-describe" myself especially on the subject of the Foreign Service, in which I have been involved for four decades as an administrator responsible for recruitment, training, placement, and policy planning among other things. I do not know about IPCM’s credentials and competence in that respect but he writes as if he is a great expert. I had never heard of him in those circumstances.

Missed the woods

The details he concentrates on are not the hallmarks of a critic but of one who has missed the woods to the trees. He avoids the main point about new dimensions in policy analysis, like "Government Policy Life Cycles System for Quality Policies", which I said I tried to introduce in a small way as Director of Policy Planning. Dr. Kohona seems to be proceeding on these lines. The new Minister Bogollagama stressed on these new innovations (Daily News interview of February 15). Perhaps, that was like Greek to IPCM!

He dwells on my innocuous reference to Palihakkara performing a difficult job facing many challenges and bringing honour to the Foreign Service. What is wrong with that reference when everyone else who commented had paid more accolades? In fact, my remarks were far more constrained. Perhaps, the writer / ghost writer behind him seems to be having problems over that. His argument is that my "accolade" on the two officials exclude others who were in that position. Doesn’t he realise that my references were made about the current situation facing the country?

What is the "glowing" tribute showered by me on Dr. Kohona he writes of? I only said he had good credentials and introduced new dimensions as head of the Peace Secretariat and spokesman in a situation where the previous incumbents were not seen to be forthcoming. I raised no issues about their competence as IPCM assumes. What I said was that visibility was lacking, and I explained this as the problem of the public servant. He asks, what about Jayantha Dhanapala. Is he thinking of Jayantha’s reputation as an international civil servant? As for his role in the Peace Secretariat the public perception in the country may be different but I do not wish to join that discussion to let down a former colleague. I had done enough by pointing out that they (I mean both Jayantha and John Gooneratne for whom I hold the highest regard) faced the problem of constraint of the public servant. By dragging Jayantha’s name here IPCM has done a dis-service to him. I cannot help IPCM’s poor understanding!

Unnecessary polemics

His remarks about JRJ’s passport affair, my issues with Hameed, my reference to Tilakaratne, and Dixit as my mentor in W. T. Jayasinghe’s analysis are all unnecessary and irrelevant and prove poor understanding. He does not realise that Dixit paid Jayasinghe the highest tribute as a perfect civil servant! That itself proves the naivety of his arguments. It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing and fools rush where angels fear to tread!

When he says that the former civil servant whom the former president appointed as secretary was sent as an ambassador to a European country that does not take away the validity of my argument that his appointment to the Foreign Secretary was a colossal blunder. Yes, even BF had not one Ambassadorial appointment but four! Both SWRD and Mrs. Bandaranaike kept him away from the country. IPCM says my remarks about this officer (Foreign Secretary) are due to personal pique because my daughter could not apply for the Foreign Service. Here he moves away from his earlier position of doubt to a specific assumption. More on that later.

See how he connects an alleged "bemoaning" by me about retiring ambassadors not being "utilised". What I said actually was that there is no system to tap the experience of retiring ambassadors. Anyone with an iota of knowledge on foreign office practices knows how governments make use of the services of retiring ambassadors. That is very much the case in India. What is there to bemoan about it? So what is the issue about it?

Civil servants in missions

He assumes that I am on a tirade against former civil servants being appointed heads of missions. This is a figment of his imagination. It is not me, but Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who wanted N. J. L. Jansz removed from the ministry before noon one day when he pleaded ignorance of the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. I wrote of that in some detail the last time. Five of us new recruits rescued Jansz by preparing the documentation not for a radio announcement but for the PM to follow a policy outline. Bandaranaike’s action saw the beginning of the new system of dialogue between missions and the ministry that was introduced to which I referred.

Who else in the civil service did I refer to? Yes, BF of course! How could one avoid reference to such a legendary figure about whom even Sir Senerath (R. S. S Gunewardene) was eloquent?

One cannot forget that there were some excellent heads of mission from the former Civil Service like Gunasena de Soyza, M. F. de S. Jayaratne and Tilak Gooneratne who showed much concern and affection towards co-workers and junior officers under them. I have even received protective care and attention under both de Soyza and Jayaratne, who were almost paternal. Tilak became a good friend of mine and we worked together to obtain textile quotas in the EEC. There was no need for me to refer to them in the context I wrote, nor to give them character certificates. That was not my intention. Shirley Amerasinghe who joined the Foreign Service was in a class by himself. IPCM has turned the issues to a debate between the civil service and others. I had no hand in it. Let him continue.


How could I have avoided such a lovely story about an academician like Saracchandra who abdicated all expectations and the high regard we had and threw away the chance for intellectual surroundings in Paris and at UNESCO for the pleasure of playing ping-pong with his female private secretary? Who is the ambassador he refers to who fell flat on the floor? There were several, one wearing coat and tail and all that in that [holy] city of Yangoon (ask Moorthy); another in Cairo (ask Jayanath Rajapakse) and I knew one in Paris too to "look after whom" I was sent there. There were others from that profession.

This is not to forget an academician like Dr. Malalasekera who stood on another plane and provided inspiration to subordinates.

I can only refer to the observations made in a US symposium where it was argued that non-career men come with the belief that they can perform better but when they are exposed they accuse career men for their failure. That was exactly so in Sri Lanka, a situation which ICPM has defended when he says officials should take the rap for breakdown in reporting!

English proficiency

Ironically, IPCM comes to patronise the younger career officers, in the end defending them saying I am belittling their handicap in the English language and makes insinuations about the "kalu sudda" mentality. Does he know my record as Director Overseas administration when I objected to the idea of introducing English as a compulsory paper for the Foreign Service examination? My suggestion was language training after selection. I was neither born with a silver spoon in my tongue, nor wore satin-breaches like "Kele John", which role IPCM assigns to me, but a "Gamerala," born and bread in the village and educated in village schools throughout.

At the end IPCM puts the onus on reporting on Foreign Service officials attached to missions when he says that if there is a breakdown in reporting they (alone) should take the rap (not the heads of missions). Has he understood how a mission works and why ambassadors alone are given high remunerations and provided with official transport? Other officials can provide only complementary services.

Post-July 1983 situation

He assigns the blame for the breakdown of the information system on inactive career officers who have been inefficient or turned a blind eye to the situation after the July 1983 events in some of the most important missions (the first time he refers to them). The allegation about inaction and turning a blind eye may be true to some extent; but not the grounds of inefficiency. The career officers, Tedchana Moorthy in London, Nadarajah Balasubramanium in Paris (my seniors), Lakshmi Naganathan in Bonn (my junior), Gunasingham in Singapore and Izeth Hussain (seniors) who were manning our key missions in July 1983 were diplomats of excellent quality of whom any Foreign Service could be proud of.

They were officers whom the Civil Servant Jansz recommended to new comers to emulate. Unfortunately Lakshmi joined hands with the opposition tarnishing that image. What could they do when there was a pogrom against the Tamils in the country and the president was sleeping and could not be disturbed while Colombo was burning! This is what Cabinet Minister Nissanka Wijeyeratne told me when he drove his car to the president’s house amidst the chaos that night: Ambassadors whether they were career men or non career men could not invent lies.

President JRJ was only responding to political demand when he replaced these persons in Europe with hand picked men including myself, Tissa Jayakody, Stanley Jayaweera, Arthur Basnayake, Chandra Monerawala and others. Rebuilding the country’s image needed a much sustained effort. As I said we were on our own. IPCM is just mouthing popular allegations in levelling accusations at the men and women who held the posts around July 1983. Where was he? How can he speak of those days as he was on the scene?

Examination muddle

Finally, he defends that horrendous error committed by the Foreign Ministry under insensitive officials who were neither familiar with the country situation nor the requirements of a foreign service, in holding an examination on the eve of the universities announcing the final year results, some even after a backlog of several years, despite public protest by parents and prospective applicants (my daughter was not the only one). He says recruitment cannot be synchronised to afford opportunities to those expecting favourable results. His argument is that confusion would be confounded. Who created the confusion?

What does IPCM mean by saying "paper qualifications, looks, interests, and connections political or high profile, are not the be-all and end-all in selections." Then what? Political pull? This is where the crunch is and the ghost writer behind ICPM appears.

My daughter’s qualifications were not just "paper qualifications", which IPCM generalises about. With my experience in preparing criteria for selection and even sitting on interview boards for selection, I could say what my daughter possessed were plus factors which could gain 100 per cent marks at the interview, which was an integral part of the examination scheme.

Today, people go even to the institutions to find out who the bright students are for recruitment. In France they go to the "Ecole", "instituites" and "Politechniques: to select candidates for the Foreign Service and other higher placements. Isn’t that what Prime Minister SWRD did when he devised a new scheme of recruitment doing away with the written exam (read Hansard of August 1956) and again when Hameed had spotted a few persons to be taken into the Foreign Service despite the exam? Even a Frenchman asked me when I was Ambassador in Paris how this was possible. IPCM had down-graded my daughter’s record. However, I have written of her qualifications in detail in The Island before. By the time the Foreign Service examination was held she was already a graduate (the minimum qualification, although she held many other qualifications) of the Colombo University with an upper Second Class in English, International Relations, Sociology and Journalism.

Disappearance of values

The secretary did not have the courtesy to reply my letter nor to respond to letters published in newspapers by concerned parents and others. When I called on the Ministry, the Additional Secretary, an officer promoted from the Administrative Service refused even to recognise my presence and kept me standing in front of him for nearly fifteen minutes while he was "wallowing" in the reflected glory of his office. It was a case of asking who this man was to question the Foreign Service examination schedule of which he was probably the author. That was obvious from the several whiteboards on the walls surrounding him! That was the level to which the administration sank under that particular latter day civil servant in contrast to the situation from the days of Sir Kandaiah Vythanathan to W. T. Jayasinghe. I know with what respect they treated former ambassadors and high state and judicial officers. We in the Foreign Service learnt lessons from them to extend courtesy to visitors who had held office earlier as ambassadors, high state and judicial officers and others.

I am not the only one who says that. There was even a review of admissions and another set of interviews was held by the short-lived UNF government because of the many complaints received. Certainly, I had reason to be upset. I do not hide that. How can I speak in favour of his administration which bungled the recruitment and which did not even show courtesy to a former ambassador and director general even by offering him a chair and by speaking to him? A mafia had gained control of the Foreign Ministry!

Am I not right then in saying that the Foreign Ministry overlooked the opportunity of getting the best material apart from denying the rights to a large number of prospective applicants who were qualified before the examination was held? That was worse than insensitiveness to the country’s university examination situation. It was gross inefficiency, sheer stupidity and the height of arrogance on the part of officials, civil servants or otherwise. Can the existence of a tremendous backlog of unemployed graduates be a reason for closing the door to a backlog of candidates whose results had been delayed at universities? Wasn’t an age limit applicable to applicants? Whom is IPCM trying to hoodwink with lose talk?

(To be continued)


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