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WIJEPALA TUDOR JAYASINGHE (1924-2009)

A giant tree has fallen in the woods. And the sound will reverberate in the hearts and minds of all those who are here and well beyond. For Wijepala Tudor Jayasinghe was a giant among men – not just physically with his telegraph-pole height towering above us all but also intellectually and morally. And yet he was disarmingly humble and almost naïve in his simplicity. I have never known anyone who had all the reasons to be proud of his achievements but in whom I never ever saw a single trace of egotism. His instructions for his funeral are symbolic of a man of no ostentation and yet of great consideration for all around him.

All of us gathered here – family and friends – have had our own special links with WT. For me he was, first of all, an illustrious old boy of the school we both went to in Kandy where in the words of Rev. W.S.Senior "..river, lake and mountain meet our boyhood days surrounding". I read his name on the Boards in the school auditorium as the winner of almost all the academic prizes that could be had. His fame filtered through to my generation as a brilliant First Class in Western Classics who then confessed, in typical self-deprecation, to having to sign gun licenses as a Civil Servant. Fittingly the old boys awarded him the Trinity Prize for Public Service – an accolade that he accepted with touching gratitude and enthusiasm having earlier declined a national honour offered to him by a Prime Minister. In later years we swapped cherished memories of getting high marks for précis-writing from that great teacher of the English language, R.R.Breckenridge, whose lessons WT never forgot as he admonished me for writing long reports from my posts abroad. His own minutes were always a model of precision and concision.

Anecdotes about WT’s own laconic style, scrupulously simple dress and self-effacing qualities preceded our first meeting when he was the Controller of Immigration and Emigration. He did not seek promotions and was consequently overtaken in the rat race by those who were favoured by the party in power. Our link as public servants was then superseded by his becoming my boss as Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs from 1972-77 and thereafter the first Secretary of the newly created Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1977-89.

Never was there a more popular non-career Secretary among the career diplomats. Viewing us quizzically as a strange tribe at first he got to know us - warts and all - as we confided in him revealing our frailties but also our strengths. He was the hub in a wheel of many diverse spokes. His room was our refuge from the injustices of a temperamental minister and a politicized public service. His administration was always tempered with a human understanding of the impact transfers had on family life and the schooling of children. He suffered the venality of the politicians with the stoicism of a Seneca allowing himself to be the victim of many acts of discourtesy which made us squirm. But it was he who emerged unscathed and unbowed while the politicians grudgingly conceded the respect that was his due.

International affairs became for him an enduring interest as he witnessed the eternal verities of Greek and Roman history re-enacted on the world stage. Averse to protocol and shy of speech-making he let diplomacy claim his son for its own. He was a wonderful traveling companion on delegations from Pyongyang to Havana and eagerly sought out films on cowboys and Injuns when he travelled West. After retiring as Secretary he remained in the Presidential Secretariat to offer his wise counsel for a few more years before finally relinquishing public service. Not for him the sinecure of a political appointment as a Head of Mission.

The evidence of his work for Sri Lanka is recorded in two books he was encouraged to write in retirement. They record two diplomatic triumphs of the late Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike in Sri Lanka’s relations with India – the resolution of what was described as the Indo-Ceylon problem and the defining of the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka. His hansiputuwa in the rear verandah of his Spathodea Avenue residence was where he received his friends to discuss the latest book he had read or the current events in international affairs. He frequently said that he had overstayed his lease of life as old age restricted his walks (on which no one could keep pace with his long strides!) and his travel abroad. But all of us were drawn to bask in his friendship by visiting him at his home.

On the day of his death I was informed that WT had told his daughter, Neloufer, to remember to read Lucretius the fist century B.C. Roman poet-philosopher. Not even my great affection for WT would persuade me to read De Rerum Natura or The Nature of Things overnight but I did find a quotation from it that would have pleased WT. Lucretius wrote that "It is great wealth to a soul to live frugally with a contented mind". That was WT - a contented mind – unambitious, considerate of his fellow-men, transparently and translucently unselfish to the end asking us all to resume our lives following his funeral 24 hours after his death.

To the public servant of today W.T Jayasinghe should be the model of integrity and honourable conduct to emulate. All of us who knew him have had our lives enriched. Sri Lanka and the world are better places for the well nigh 85 years WT lived here.

(Based on remarks made at the private funeral of W.T.Jayasinghe)

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