Retired Ambassador and gadfly, Nanda Godage, has predictably taken up cudgels in this issue of the Sunday Island on ongoing attempts to amalgamate the Sri Lanka Administrative Service with the Sri Lanka Foreign Service. No final decision on whether this will be done or not has yet been taken, but the lobbies for both sides are hard at work, one defending its turf and the other looking for lolly. Given that foreign postings, certainly in the public perception and in the eyes of the aspirants, are too often gravy trains, the scramble to get a foot in through the door is unseemly at best and revolting at worst. In the context of political establishments, both path and present, generously ladling favours to friends and relations at taxpayers’ expense, rank bad appointments including, scandalously, the recent appointment of a high commissioner who is over 80-years old, are routinely made.
Time was when a competitive examination determined selections to the then Ceylon Civil Service and the Ceylon Overseas Service with the top of the heap being anointed into the CCS and the second best to the COS. Regardless of the marks these young graduates scored, high caliber recruitment was made to both services and the country did well with them as the recruits moved up the ladder, acquiring valuable skills and experience as they advanced in their careers. The passing of years saw the country hit by foreign exchange crises and scarcities, not just of imported goodies but also of essentials, abounded. In that context there was inevitable envy about foreign servicemen and women posted abroad earning hard currency emoluments and allowances. Other perks like bringing in a car free of ever-increasingly prohibitive duty at the end of an overseas posting also drew green-eyed attention. Naturally there were efforts by many, not all of them belonging to the SLAS, to share the spoils. There were more than enough political power wielders to spread the sunshine and plenty of takers to bask in its warmth. Today this situation has reached intolerable limits with patronage extended without the slightest heed to the constraints of a resource poor economy. Added to that are atrocious appointments that continue to be made making a bad situation infinitely worse.
The country undoubtedly needs a professional and competent foreign service just as much as it needs a first class administrative service. But do we have either? The British colonialists devised the Civil Service Minute which reserved certain appointments at various grades for members of that service giving them invaluable experience at various levels of the public service as they moved up the steps of the career ladder. That made them better able to do the more responsible jobs in the higher levels of the public service. The Foreign Service too was similarly structured. There is certainly merit in sometimes interchanging in a limited manner members of the Administrative and Foreign Services although it is doubtful that members of the Foreign Service will welcome such shuffling. The reverse would be true where the SLAS is concerned given the widely-held perception that the grass is greener beyond our shores. But such postings must be carefully done to suit the national interest rather than the interest of individual officers. Given the way that patronage operates in this country, few if any members of the public will have confidence that such a scheme will be properly worked. Who can blame them, given what they have seen in the past?
It would therefore make sense to stay with what we have, warts and all. Any amalgamation of the SLAS and the Foreign Service will see the pool of patronage-seekers expand exponentially with disastrous results. There were schemes in the past, such as the limited competitive examination, where able SLAS personnel could seek entry to the Foreign Service and some good men, including we believe the redoubtable Godage, were able to enter that service where they excelled. But people who long jumped without benefit of any examination are a completely different cup of tea. Some of them get foreign postings with just a couple of months in the foreign ministry where they are supposed to spend two years before being assigned overseas. Unlike the Foreign Service cadets, they have not acquired any experience of the work they will do at a junior level. They get catapulted into senior positions in the country’s missions abroad, with titles like Minister/Counselor and the pay and perks that go with them, without the least ability to do the jobs they have to do. The end result is that the professionals serving alongside, sometimes in more junior positions, have to take the slack.
Nobody will dispute that the Foreign Service has its own weaknesses, some of it rooted in deficiencies in recruitment procedures where patronage and string-pulling were not conspicuous by their absence. We have recently seen a minister’s son posted to head a new consul-general’s office in Frankfurt and a dual citizen, ex-SLAS, in Canberra. He was posted there as a ``local employee’’ when he failed to pass host government muster for diplomatic ranking. True, some of our best ambassadors have not been career Foreign Service officers. Shirley Amarasinghe stands out among them. Who can forget Sir. Oliver Goonetillake, who had a stint as High Commissioner in London? He did as well in that job as he did in the many other positions, including that of Governor General, he adorned. Academics like Prof. G.P. Malalasekera and Prof. Stanley Kalpage, politicians like Sir. Claude Corea and Mangala Moonesinghe more recently, journalists like Ernest Corea and many others who did not belong to the Foreign Service have done the country proud in diplomatic assignments.
Imaginative appointments can certainly be made but patronage is too often more powerful as demonstrated by Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera being moved out of Canberra to Jakarta to make way for a favourite. While good appointments from outside the service are desirable, a core professional service must be maintained without dilution and capable diplomats from its cadre afforded opportunities for career advancement to heads of mission rank in important capitals. It is also necessary to look at the usefulness of some of our existing foreign missions in cost benefit terms. Many of them do not make economic sense for a country our size and limited resources.