The ambivalent viva voce


Vice Chancellor Ivor Jennings

by Rajeewa Jayaweera

A spate of recent articles highlighting the merits and demerits of the once admired Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) made interesting reading. They were of special interest to former CCS members, former members of other services and to those who lived during those halcyon days; also to the progeny of those involved, such as this writer and some other contributors.

It is but natural for those who succeeded in gaining admission to the prestigious CCS to defend the institution. It is also natural for those who failed in their aspirations to feel otherwise. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

HP Wijewardena, in his piece titled ‘Perspective on CCS debate’ published in Sunday Island on July 27 had written, Leelananda de Silva, one of the contributors, having scored the highest marks in the written part had scored less in the interview or the viva voce as it was known, resulting in his not being admitted to the CCS.

Viva voce is a Latin phrase literally meaning "with living voice" but most often translated as "by word of mouth." It is a must for a thesis defense in order for a candidate to demonstrate sufficient knowledge of his/her written submission. It also prevents the use of work not produced by a candidate. Viva voce can also be utilized to assess a candidate’s knowledge outside the realm of his/her specialization, especially in general knowledge. Cleverly formulated questions could also draw out traits of a person. These are some of the positives of viva voce.

The key negative in viva voce is the possibility to abuse the system. The CCS was a very hierarchical institution with a well-established pecking order. An interview panel consisting mostly of former CCS members would rarely succumb to political pressure but would be sympathetic towards a candidate who is an offspring of a colleague or former CCS member. It is more commonly known as ‘old boy network’ and is applicable to other services such as the Police, Armed Forces as well. It is rumored the first Permanent Secretary for Defense & External Affairs and SWRD Bandaranaike while in office, had on occasion, influenced the viva voce process for admissions to the Ceylon Overseas Service (COS).

Following is an episode narrated by my father, Stanley Jayaweera. It refers to making good use of the viva voce process, in the subjective view of a renowned former civil servant.

My father graduated from the University of Ceylon in 1949 with an Honors degree in Philosophy. He obtained a second/upper. His passion being teaching, he spent several years teaching in BTS schools while awaiting an opening for an Asst. Lecturer position in the Philosophy Dept. He was rejected twice during three years. During this time, he also exceeded the CCS age limit. At the behest of his younger brother, Neville, he applied to the COS. Written examination for CCS and COS being the same, both brothers sat for the same examination. Neville who scored slightly lower marks was accepted to the CCS 1955 batch.

The COS had two vacancies in the 1954 intake. The viva voce had been conducted by Permanent Secretary for Defense & External Affairs Gunasena de Zoysa, Vice Chancellor Ivor Jennings and two others. Jennings, who was aware of my father’s passion for teaching had commenced by stating "Jayaweera, what are you doing here" to which he had tartly responded, "Sir, you rejected me twice. I am too old for the CCS. What choice do I have?" One of the candidates (I forget his name) had possessed a brilliant academic record and an Honors degree with a first class. His selection, in the minds of other candidates, was a foregone conclusion. When results were announced, a candidate named DA de Silva had been placed first and my father, second.

After completing his familiarization, my father was assigned to the post of Personal Assistant to Gunasena de Zoysa. After some time he had enquired on the fate of the candidate with a brilliant academic record. De Zoysa had responded, "I asked him to look right into my eyes and tell me the color of the tie he wore that morning. He failed to answer. Besides academic brilliance, diplomats need observation powers. I failed him."

According to Wijewardena, Leelananda de Silva, despite scoring top marks in the written examination was deprived of admission to CCS due to low marks in viva voce. He was subsequently absorbed into the newly formed Ceylon Administrative Service, held several responsible positions in government and became an international civil servant.

This writer spent 35 years working in the private sector at home and abroad where things are done differently. During interviews, weightage is assigned to sports, other extracurricular activities and attributes such as communication skills, besides academic results.

It is left to the former CCS members and those deprived of admission to CCS due to failure in oral examinations to debate the pros and cons of the viva voce process.


Ponnambalam Ramalingam, the first Ceylonese to enter Christ Church, Oxford (second was SWRD Bandaranaike), after being called to the Bar, successfully sat for the Indian Civil Service (ICS) examination held in London and was placed first in the 1921 intake for six vacancies. Fourth position had been secured by Subhash Chandra Bose who later turned freedom fighter. Arthur Godwin Ranasinghe, having secured seventh position failed to gain admission. He was admitted to CCS based on his ICS results and went on to serve Ceylon with distinction. He held many positions including those of Secretary to the Treasury, Cabinet Secretary, Governor of the Central Bank of Ceylon and Ceylon’s Ambassador to Italy. Ramalingam had to leave the ICS in 1951 when Prime Minister Nehru decreed all non-Indians must leave the ICS. This was narrated to me by his son, Col. (Rtd) Ramalingam Harendran, who still has a copy of the official list of successful candidates of 1921 ICS intake and their respective examination marks.


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