More on the Mandarins

Proust, claimed that Madeleines dipped in lime blossom tea, unlocked childhood memories. Neurologists, attribute these to the tapping of long term memory, lying dormant in the hippocampus. Gamini Seneviratne’s feature article in your columns of 9th August was sparked by attending a recent get-together of the diminishing remnants of the CCS.

Gamini missed naming some civil servants who had contributed their writings. His most notable omission was that of Leonard Woolf. Woolf’s novel, Village in the Jungle, was about a disintegrating village in Hambantota facing challenges of modernity. Almost a century later, civil servant P. G. Punchihewa wrote of another such village confronting similar challenges in the adjoining district of Moneragala. Neville Jayaweera was an erudite civil servant, excerpts from his unpublished memoirs being serialised in the Sunday Island which also ran some of his other articles. Civil servants Gogerly-Moragoda and V L Virasinge too published their memoirs. Virasinge’s title, "I’ll to Fife" - a quotation from Macbeth - was intriguing. Macbeth had murdered Duncan- the king - to capture power in a coup d’etat. Duncan’s courtiers were in a quandary but decided to rally round usurper Macbeth to safeguard themselves - vassi paththatte hoyya being a universal phenomenon. One courtier- Macduff- refused to succumb to moral destitution, of being unable to distinguish right from wrong. He decided to go home to Fife, no doubt to face the eventual wrath of the newly empowered whom he had rejected. My own novel, Macbeth Daggers, which was about Macbeth in public management, would have preferred Virasinge’s title but was sadly gazumped out of it.

The Civil Service was abolished May 1, 1963, after a long campaign by those who had failed to be selected. Civil Service selection was through a competitive examination restricted to alpha male graduates between the ages of 22-24. Only three to eight were selected each year. The age restriction was a critical element of the CCS. Firstly, those selected, straight from the then only University of Ceylon, would have little experience of the corruptions of diurnal life. They were fresh and could be moulded into the mores of higher public management: all the higher posts were reserved to be filled exclusively by civil servants, public management’s rock stars. After all, it was to serve in these posts that they were recruited. Secondly, it is in this age group that a human’s dorsolateral prefrontal cortex achieves maturity, enabling the formation of an executive brain for planning the future, for controlling the emotional impulses generated by the medial prefrontal cortex and for resolving the paradoxical and conflictual moral enigmas thrown up by the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the brain fixes priorities and makes utilitarian choices. Thirdly, those selected, called cadets, were given a cognitive enhancing, top-up training which breathed in the public management gene - of being the guardians of the public trust, much emphasized by Chief Justice Sarath Silva’s court. After selection, their on-the- job experience was managed by a carefully prepared scheme of job rotation, serving in the districts, in public corporations, ministries and being part of ministerial delegations traveling abroad. When they were ready to assume duties as a Secretary to a Minister, they were well rounded individuals. The Minister/Secretary team is an organizational husband/wife relationship - an odd couple oddly coupled- the minister being the public figure, pretentious, publicity seeking and perhaps obese, the secretary, the hard working domestic, labouring behind the curtain, but in control of the ministry. The secretary kept his head down but his brains up. He was not a Brahmin- as many abused him - but a Mandarin- why, Gamini had explained in his article. He could also be called a consiglere in western terms, a purohita in Lankan terms or a saarathi in North Indian terms. Saarathi is a charioteer, not to be mistaken for a three wheel driver. He was an advisor, like Krishna was to Arjuna, their conversations forming the content of the Baghavad Gita.

With independence, there was a populist cry to abolish the CCS, not only in Sri Lanka but its equivalent in India. This service was considered a lackey of the colonialists, out of touch with the needs of a newly independent country. Nehru, called a lotus eater from Kashmir by Karaka- the editor of the widely read Blitz of Bombay- was an ardent supporter of abolition. But Sardar Patel stoically resisted the demand. He merely abolished the term - Indian Civil Service (ICS) - renaming it the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), but maintaining the ICS essence. Patel’s wisdom is now evident. One of the main structures of a united India is its IAS. Its officers are some of the best public servants found in the world. I had occasion to participate in many international seminars and, at every such event, was envious of the dazzling brilliance of the IAS officer participating in them. Not only were they the masters of content but the logical brilliance in their presentations were a rapture to listen. It was as if the IAS was manned entirely by officers of the calibre of our own Shirley Amerasinghe. In the demand for abolition of the CCS, the same slogans were mouthed like Karoake tunes- a colonial service, out of touch with the needs of the people etc. These were cant and incantations. These ignoble expressions camouflaged a hidden agenda- to make their own the higher posts which were exclusively the domain of the CCS. These officers had a point. Some of them, if they had been selected to the CCS, would have been excellent officers in it. A. few such names are Ivan Samarawickreme, Vassa de Silva, WWJ Mendis, V. T. Navaratne, "Lumpy" Fernando, S. Sivanandan, S. Rajendra, M. Priyasekera, K. Shanmugalingam, Stanley Kirinde, Dr. A. S. Kunasingam, K. Kulatunge, Merrick Perera, D. Wijesinghe, UB Wijekoon, Chandra Wickremasinghe, Dhammike Amerasinghe, T Thirulinganathan, Dr. K. Kamalgoda, MLM Perera, Dr. H. A. P. Abeywardene, S. Nadarajah, Dr. Dudley Dissanayake, Asoka Gunewardene, Austin Fernando, Nissanka Perera and some others, whose names do not readily come to mind because of a failing memory. They, who had missed the CCS examination by a whisker or age restriction, were permanently sidelined to boondock posts littering the lower executive levels of public management. The clerical service was treated better: it could get promoted into the CCS but to a lower grade than the CCS recruitment grade. These promoted clerical servants were entitled to the magic letters-CCS- which would be included in the first sentence of their obituary announcements.

A deep sense of grievance lacerated these non-CCS executive cadres. They gained the ear of the two left political left parties- the LSSP and the CP - the slogan, colonial, instantly vaporizing any critical faculty these parties had. The campaign to abolish the CCS increased in animation and momentum after the 1956 election, reaching a crescendo when the examination date for the next year’s recruitment was about to be gazetted. But recruitment continued.

In mid-1961, the recruitment for the 1962 batch was about to be gazetted. Anti-CCS objections were renewed with vigour, with strong support from Felix Dias, a senior member of the government. Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranaike- having civil servant Bradman Weerakoon as her secretary and civil servant M. D. D. Peries as her assistant secretary- was the Prime Minister. Civil servant Shirley Amerasinghe was the Secretary to the Treasury (ST). At this time, public administration was a subject under the Ministry of Finance. Mrs. Bandaranaike, the aristocrat that she was- quite at home with these civil servants- invited a delegation of the CCS to meet with her to discuss the situation. She also had to be conscious of political factors. The delegation was led by Shirley Amerasinghe having representatives from the different groups, senior, mid-level, junior and cadets. I represented the cadets, my job description was not to be heard, only seen at the bottom of the table. Mrs. Bandaranaike expressed her concerns, emphasizing the political dimensions. ST, as spokesman for the CCS, made a brilliant presentation ending with, "Madam, if this proposal to abolish the CCS were to be implemented, I will warn with all responsibility, that, in thirty years time, the then government will have to seek UNDP assistance to re-establish public governance in this country." What clairvoyance! Mrs Bandaranaike concluded the discussion saying she will consider the question of abolition and give her decision in due course. She took the decision to hold the 1962 examination. Dr. Sarath Amunugama, Dr BS Wijeweera, Dr PAT Gunesinghe (all of whom obtained their Ph D’s after joining the CCS and not in academia), "Lokka" Dissanayake- who became the Governor of the Central Bank- were those, among others, recruited into the CCS through this examination. They would have been administrative foetus’, if the examination had been aborted! Alas! It turned out to be the last selection for the CCS, ending a distinguished institution with a history of over one hundred and fifty years. What happened? That was another story.

In 1962, prior to the gazetting of the 1963 CCS examination, the institutional leadership of the the Ministry of Finance changed. C P de Silva (a former civil servant) was appointed as the acting Minister of Finance in addition to his duties as Minister of Lands, a portfolio he loved. He suspected that this sideways shift was the first step to his being removed from the Lands Ministry. He quickly got himself reverted to his original ministry. He was succeeded, in Finance, by T. B. Ilangaratne, who started life as a clerk before switching to politics. Ilangaratne had a deep inferiority complex vis-a-vis civil servants, carrying a boulder on his shoulders, as he was dismissed from public service by one of them, after due process. It was also well known that Ilangaratne’s appointment was a holding operation, pending the substantial appointment of Dr. N. M. Perera, the head of the Marxist LSSP as the Minister of Finance. The writing was clear for the CCS: abolition was imminent. No respite could be expected from NM. With Ilangaratne’s appointment Shirley Amerasinghe left the Treasury, losing the CCS cause its sturdiest supporter.

Wisdom lies in facing realities whatever one’s emotional commitment. The CCS decided that it was a losing battle trying to perpetuate itself, though the CCS had super-brand recognition. The best option was to cut its losses, make a pre-emptive bid to get itself abolished on its own terms, for which it needed to strike a deal with the government, to optimize advantages of the post-abolition scenario. It insidiously got suggested to Ilangaratne that the CCS was willing to cut such a deal and Ilangaratne would be lionized for implementing this major act of de-colonialization. He fell for the bait. Felix Dias, who offered his highest regard solely to himself, feeling inadequate among these lordly civil servants, was over the moon. Mrs. Bandaranaike, though having feminine intuitive reservations, went along, as there was a beneficial political fallout. The government decided to abolish the CCS from May 1, 1963. The anti-CCS lobby was delirious in triumph.

When the small print of the abolition was published, there was consternation. The new service- called the Ceylon Administrative Service (CAS)- absorbing all executive management groups, was to be established with five grades. The rules were such that all civil servants were to be absorbed into grades One-Four, including the most junior. Some of the senior civil servants obtained a bonanza higher grade to that it had before abolition. A very few non-civil servants- most of them forming the anti-CCS lobby- too were placed in grade four but the overwhelming majority were in grade five, the equivalent of the recruitment grade. If they had to be promoted, they had to sit a stiff competitive examination to the next higher grade, that of grade four, where they found the most junior civil servant already well established, senior to them and much younger too. All civil servants were also given the option of retiring on abolition of office terms, within the next ten years. Before abolition, non-civil servants were not eligible for higher posts; after abolition, these posts became beckoningly available but- like for Sysyphus-out of reach. They were not senior enough to hold them: the selecting authority- an immovable Secretary to the Treasury- strictly following seniority. Abolition was a Pyrrhic victory.

Abolition turned out to be a policy disaster. CAS officers found that efficiency and work were foreign concepts in the new management culture. If they had to get ahead, the political route was their best bet. Many opted for this alternative. This approach acquired legitimacy with Colvin R de Silva’s abolition of the independent Public Service Commission in the first Republican Constitution. Open season began for political witch hunting in the public service. Every public servant realized that, if they were to survive, they had better quickly acquire a political patron.

It could be a matter of curious speculation, if the CCS had not surreptitiously induced its own the abolition, whether the CCS would have been abolished ever. Hindsight is foresight that arrives too late; and it has 20/20 vision. As expected, Dr. N. M. Perera did become the Minister of Finance in 1963. But he could not establish himself. The right wing of the governing SLFP ensured the eventual downfall of the government, purely because of its dalliance with this leftist party. The next government was formed by the UNP in 1965 which would never have abolished the CCS. The CCS would have lasted up to 1970 when a new government was formed with a Marxian coalition. Felix Dias became the Minister of Public Administration, which subject was now excised from the Treasury. His animosity onwards the CCS continued unabated, though he could not do much about it. He showed his diminished power by removing the concession of retirement on abolition of office terms given to the remaining civil servants. It was a similar act of perfidy to that of Indira Gandhi, abolishing the solemnly promised civil purses to Indian princes. Curiously enough, this breach of promise affected only the post-1956 intakes - which the SLFP claimed to represent- since the earlier intakes had the option of retiring under the language provision. If the CCS had not been abolished in 1963, it would have been abolished in 1971. The pre-emptive action of the CCS was vindicated.

Of the suggestions offered to restore public management, one brave one was made in the 1980’s by Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, advised by civil servants Lakshman de Mel, Gaya Kumaratunge, and Harsha Wickremesinghe. It was in effect to establish a new separate (renamed) Civil Service, based on principles laid out in para three above, they being age restriction, limited numbers of recruitment, training and systematic job rotation. Cabinet did not accept this proposal because it felt that that this would be radical overt change. A similar scheme could now be implemented, from future intakes, within the existing structure and salary. It will not affect serving personnel or even their batchmates, as their promotion prospects will not be affected. The selected few could be given accelerated job responsibilities but not promotions, since promotions would disturb the existing structure. In ten years time those selected, receiving special attention, will grow enormously. A Queen Bee is an ordinary worker bee. Once it is selected and fed royal jelly, it develops a royal status in the bee colony. Similarly, these special selectees, grown on special attention, could be given acting appointments to higher posts, and, later, be preferential choices as Additional Secretaries and Secretaries to Government. By this means, at least in twenty years time, there will be some assurance that a top policy making cadre will emerge to advise ministers. Presently, the policy advisers to government are international financial agencies - the IMF, The World Bank, the ADB. The future is bleak.

Sarath Amunugama, the present Minister of Public Administration, is a distinguished civil servant, well aware of the distinct role that a public service plays in complementing the work of the elected leaders of the country. As much as Sardar Patel was responsible for revamping the Indian Civil Service to form the IAS- and India is harvesting its benefits – Dr. Amunugama could do so for Sri Lanka. The initial daily management of this small but growing group cannot be vested with the existing SLAS. It would require a highly respected and innovatively thinking retired individual, acceptable to the existing public service. The minister has one such available in civil servant M. D. D. Peries, who was also present at the get-together Gamini Seneviratne refers to. Sarath Amunugama and M. D. D. Peries could provide a duo which offers some hope for public management in Sri Lanka.

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