Of a glorious Public Service: Leaders and men of
character and substance

Having read contributions by Dr D Chandraratna, former Public Servant GAD Sirimal, and Danny De Silva, I was tempted to contribute my two pennies worth.

Pre-independence Public Servants had only colonial masters. They did not have to obey improper directives given by politicians. It took some time for Public Servants, especially the highly thought of Civil Service Mandarins, to accept their new masters, local politicians who had replaced their colonial masters. Meanwhile, they functioned with the AR and FR as their Bible at work, besides tradition and integrity as their guiding lights. Tradition in the service kept the occasional dishonest and incompetent Public Servant in check to a great extent.

As most other things after independence, the Civil Service too had to recalibrate to function under the new masters who had replaced the Governor General and Colonial Secretary representing the British Raj. Many of them, proficient only in English language, were ill prepared for the task at hand. A Government Agent requiring an ‘Aarachchila’ to communicate with a Sinhala or Tamil speaking farmer may have been acceptable during colonial times, but had to give way in order to add meaning to so called ‘independence’ received on February 04, 1948.

The incidents I have narrated hereunder are episodes told me by my father Stanley Jayaweera (SJ), an officer of the Ceylon Overseas (Foreign) Service from 1954 till 1988.

During the period 1962 – 65, SJ functioned as Senior Asst. Secretary Defence (Citizenship Division). It was a time when positions such as Directors, Directors General and Additional Secretaries were unheard of. During the time the SLFP, LSSP and CP coalition was in the making, the Counsellor of the Soviet Embassy in Colombo had barged into SJ’s office at the Defence Ministry without an appointment. SJ had requested the Soviet Official to leave the premises and obtain an appointment before calling over. SJ then kept his immediate superior, the eminent civil servant NQ Dias, Permanent Secretary Defence & External Affairs (SD&EA) apprised of the incident. His response had been ‘well done Mr Jayaweera, we must not allow these Soviets to walk slipshod over us’. A few days later, after a meeting of senior defence ministry officials, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike had requested NQ Dias and SJ to remain. After everyone had left the room, she had turned to SJ and asked, ‘Stanley, why have you thrown out the Soviet Counsellor from your office. The Ambassador has complained to me’. SJ had explained he had not thrown out the Soviet Counsellor but had merely informed him to obtain an appointment before calling over. He had then said, ‘madam, do you think our Counsellor in Moscow, let alone walking into the office of a senior Defence Ministry official would be even allowed to set foot in their Defence Ministry without an appointment?’ She had stared at him for a few seconds, nodded and had left the room. No more was heard of the incident. Subsequently, the Soviet Counsellor had telephoned and requested an appointment which had been granted.

The second incident happened in 1971. SJ had been posted to the Ceylon Embassy in Moscow in January 1971. He was deputy to former Senator CDS Siriwardena, a 70+ years old lawyer by profession, who had assumed duties as Ambassador two weeks earlier. After the presentation of his credentials, SJ advised Ambassador Siriwardena he should endeavour to pay a courtesy call on Prime Minister Alexi Kosygin. A request for an appointment was sent to the Soviet Foreign Ministry followed by several reminders, but the Soviets kept fobbing off on one pretext or other. After three months, SJ, with the permission of Ambassador Siriwardena, sent a note to the then Prime Minister’s Secretary MDD Peiris, with a request he apprise Prime Minister Bandaranaike of the status quo and a recommendation, the Soviet Ambassador in Colombo be advised at the earliest opportunity that it would be difficult to accommodate his frequent requests to meet Prime Minister Bandaranaike till such time her ambassador in Moscow is granted an appointment by the Soviet Prime Minister. MDD Peris had acknowledged the letter and advised, the Prime Minister had taken due note of its contents. In less than two weeks, out of the blues, the Soviet Foreign Ministry confirmed the long-awaited appointment at an ungodly hour of 7 in the morning. It is noteworthy to mention the appointment lasted less than ten minutes and not even a glass of tea (Russians offer glasses and not cups of tea) was offered.

Both incidents reflect a totally different approach on such matters from current times by both Public Servants and leaders.

Different millennia, different times; different leaders, different men.

Rajeewa Jayaweera

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