The Ceylon Civil Service (C.C.S) and the University of  Ceylon - a symbiotic relationship


 The beginnings of the Ceylon Civil Service (C.C.S)

Dr. P.G. Punchihewa

The beginnings of the Ceylon Civil Service go back to the time of Fredrick North, the First Governor of the Island. With eight officers who came with him from England, he had established the service to facilitate governing the Maritime Provinces , which the English captured from the Dutch. But it was only with the annexure of the Kandyan kingdom in 1815 that the entire island came under the English. However, initially the Kandyan areas were not directly administered by the English. It was only after the Colebrook recommendations that the entire island came to be one unit of administration.

The British ruled Ceylon with the all powerful Civil Service. ‘Rules and regulations controlled every aspect of life people with penalties for non compliance. Everything taxable was taxed.’1 The Island was initially divided in to five provinces and subsequently increased to nine, mainly to accommodate the demands made by the planters. The Government Agents - members of the Ceylon Civil Service - were    in charge of the Provinces.

As Leonard Woolf had said in his autobiography ‘Growing’, ‘the British were divided into four well defined classes: civil servants, army officers, planters and businessmen. The civil servant was socially in many ways the top dog; he was highly paid, exercised considerable and widely distributed power and with the Sinhalese and Tamils enjoyed much greater prestige than the other classes’2.

Although, with the Colebrook recommendations, the Ceylon Civil Service was thrown open to the Ceylonese, it continued to be more English than Ceylonese. However in 1938 the intake came to be entirely Ceylonese. One factor which made this possible was the opening of the University College in 1921.

‘Up to 1939 the Ceylonese cadets were recruited by an open competitive examination held simultaneously in Ceylon and London.’ ‘In 1943 the Civil Service Commission in Ceylon was formed and recruitment to the services was made by this Commission by an open competitive examination held only in Ceylon.’ 3

The Ceylon University College

 The Ceylon University College opened in 1921, was the precursor to the University of Ceylon. It had two departments of Arts and Science and prepared students to sit for the UK degrees. At the same time there were those who were sent to British Universities by their rich parents to obtain their degrees. Those who were successful from either stream and had the necessary qualifications, thus could vie for places in the Ceylon Civil Service through the examination conducted in the UK up to 1939. Some of them who entered the C.C.S with the first degree from one of the Universities in England were,

S.F. Amarasinghe (M.A.Contab), Walwin A. de. Silva, (B.Sc.London), K.Alvapillai (B.A.London), Shelton Fernando (B.A.Oxon), Jinadasa Hettiarachchi (B.Sc London), M.Rajendra      (B.A.London), Silva (B.Sc London), H.E.Tennakoon (B.A.London), and H.S .Amerasinghe (B.A.London).

 Most of them came from amongst the upper middle class that owned plantation land. L.S.B.Perera, Shelton Fernando, Walwin. A. de Silva and H.C.Goonawardena were among them. At the same time there were those who came from professional families whose fathers were doctors, or lawyers. C.P .de Silva’s father was a proctor. Chanda Cooray’s father a doctor.

The successful progeny thus belonged to elite stratum of society; in addition they also got the benefit of western education, opening the doors to prestigious jobs.

Those who were successful at the C.C.S examination were recruited as cadets and subsequently they filled the positions of the executive grades in the public service. They had to pass two efficiency bar examinations during the period of cadetship which included passes in tests in Sinhala and Tamil in writing, speaking and petition reading. Once the cadetship  was over they were provided with a multidisciplinary experience in being posted to Kachcheris, Government Departments , the Treasury, Ministries and as Magistrate /District Judge.(Annex 1) There was a time when they had  even to  pass a test in horse riding.

The sacred text of the Ceylon Civil Service was a Minute  issued by a former Governor, Sir Thomas Maitland in 1808 which stated that ‘ the true inte rests of Government never can be to harass the Natives with a view to immediate profit but that on the contrary, the sole object of Government is and always ought to be considered to be, to ensure the prosperity of the Island, solely through the medium of generally increasing the prosperity and happiness of the natives under his Majesty’s Government.’4.

Leonard Woolf in his autobiography ‘Growing’ states how hard he worked as Assistant Government Agent in Hambantota. To quote him, ‘In the two and three quarter years in Hambantota, it is almost true to say I worked all day from the moment I got up in the morning until I went to bed at night, for I rarely thought of anything else except the District and the people, to increase their prosperity, diminish the poverty and disease, start irrigation works, open schools…I set out to make the Hambantota District the best administered in the island and I succeeded.’5 Unquote. That was in 1911.

In the early forties, M. Chandrasoma, the Headquarters Assistant Government Agent, Badulla recounts during the Second World War, how he took the foot path from Siyambalanduwa to within five miles from Bibile – a distance of 56 miles in   six days through the thick jungle and tidy parkland in Wellassa to buy grain from the villagers who had been cheated earlier by the Muslim traders. Traders had paid 60 cents per bushel whereas Chandrasoma had paid three rupees a bushel, as promised by the government.6.

University of Ceylon

The University of Ceylon was established on July 1, 1942 by the Ceylon University Ordinance No.20 of 1942. With that, the University of Ceylon acquired the authority to grant its own degrees and its affiliation to London University automatically terminated. The  two departments of Arts and Science were now termed faculties and a new faculty of Oriental Studies was established ‘The genesis of the University of Ceylon was  actually a transfer of the entire academic structure of the UC together with its pedagogues, students, administrative organization, buildings, playgrounds, furniture, laboratories and all staff and equipment.’7.

From then onwards the Unive-rsity of Ceylon came to be the main supply source for the recruitment of officers for the Ceylon Civil Service. And a symbiotic relationship commenced between the University Ceylon and the Ceylon Civil Service.

‘The establishment of the Ceylon Civil Service Commission to conduct examinations in Ceylon could be described as a direct result of the establishment of the University of Ceylon in 1942.The inclusion of Sanskrit, Sinhalese and Pali as subjects for the examination immediately increased the number of students offering these subjects at the University.’8

First graduates from the University of Ceylon.

By 1946 the first graduates from the University of Ceylon started entering the Ceylon Civil Service. Among them were M.S.Perera, W.Pathirana, B.R. Devarajan. In 1947 a batch of 10 cadets were recruited on a salary of Rs 4,800 per annum. Among them were W.T.Jayasinghe, Charles Amarasekera, Ronnie de Mel, Nissanka Wijeratna, Andrew Joseph ,Buddhasara de Zoysa, G.M.Sparkes and C Mylvaganam.9.

About the same time the education reforms of the 1940s came into effect. This brought about the free education and the establishment of Central Schools. The cost of entering the civil service came down drastically enabling sons of lower middle class parents, like teachers, small time businessmen, traders and government servants to vie for places in the once elite service. More recruits came through oriental subjects. Dr. Ananda Guruge obtained a first class in Sanskrit from the University of Ceylon and entered the C.C.S. in 1948. The first graduate in Sinhala was recruited in 1951. From the three departments of Sinhala, Pali and Sanskrit, 12 graduates entered the Civil Service between1946-1956. From1957 -1960, 10 including two Tamil graduates were successful.10.

The graduates from the University of Ceylon who joined the CCS belonged to a new breed. Circumstances forced them to look east. Yet they took pride in joining the elite group. By then the Ceylon Civil Service had come to be accepted as an efficient, impartial, and apolitical arm of he Government with its own traditions and ethos. Gunnar Myrdal in his Asian Drama Vol. one states, ‘When political independence arrived, Ceylon had a larger and better trained indigenous civil service than that possessed by any other country in the region except India and the Philippines.’11.

In 1948 when the new cabinet was formed under the new constitution the majority of the Permanent Secretaries were recruited from the Ceylon Civil Service; among them were K. Vaithianathan, C.E. Jones, V. Coomaraswamy, A.G.Ranasinha, R.S.V Poulier, E.W.Kannagara, L.J. de S Seneviratna, C.J.D. Lanktree, K. Somasuntharam, R.H.Bassett, and J. N. Arumugam.12

As for the  political set up Myrdal says ‘When political independence arrived, the country had a relatively large number of politicians steeped in the lore of parliamentary democracy under conditions of universal suffrage with experience of executive action’13.There was the added advantage of both the higher echelons of the civil service represented by the Permanent Secretaries and  the  political leadership had similarities in social background, outlook manners and attitudes ‘It was this unity in cultural and social orientations which produced a cooperative relationship between the political masters and the bureaucracy’.14   No attempt was made to initiate administrative reforms although several newly independent countries had embarked on them.

 Battle of Titans

But the honeymoon was short lived. Wiswa Warnapala succinctly explains how this fissure came about. ‘The 1956 election brought to power a new political leadership whose cultural and social orientations were different from those of the civil service. The charge was constantly made that the new Government inherited a hostile bureaucracy which showed no sympathy with the aims and aspirations of the social classes which the 1956 regime represented.’15 It represented the so- called ‘panchamahabalavegaya’ representing sangha, guru, veda, govi, kamkaru (Buddhist monks, teachers, native physicians, farmers and workers).The regime change also had an impact in other areas. One which had far reaching repercussions was the conversion of the two leading Buddhist ‘pirivenas’ -educational institutes primarily meant for Buddhist monks-,Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara to University status. This was followed with the creation of another university in Colombo in 1967 in order to provide university education to a bigger percentage of student population of the island.

Meanwhile with the increasing tension between the civil service and the politicians, the call for reforms in administration became louder and louder. There was more than one reason for calling for administrative reforms. The C.C.S with its limited cadre could not service the increasing demands that were being made by a development oriented administration. With limited or no promotions in closed departments non C.C.S senior officers in them were agitating for administrative reforms.

On the other hand Members of the Civil Service firmly believed that there was a clear distinction between matters of policy and matters of administration to which they had been used to for decades. ‘Those who joined the C.C.S were from entry, conscious of the traditions of rectitude, impartiality, political neutrality, and objectivity expected of them.

Most members of the service by and large were loyal to these standards’16. It resented political inroads into administration and the animosity between the politician and the civil servant was the outcome.

V.P. Vittachchi relates an incident about ‘a car imported by an Englishman without a permit and without payment and was in J.R. Jayewardene’s possession and run on garage plates by a member of J.R’s household which  Vittachchi had confiscated  and sold it by public auction.’ Says Vittachchi, ‘J.R. did not contact me but telephoned my Permanent Secretary (M.Rajendra) and asked him ‘What does this man think he is doing?’ ‘Rajendra replied, ‘He is enforcing the law’.17.

 At the same time he had his share of disagreements with N.M. Perera when the latter had wanted the Permanent Secretary to send him on compulsory leave. Permanent Secretary’s reply to the Minister had been ‘Minister, Mr.Vittachchi is a gentleman of the Ceylon Civil Service. You have no power to send him on compulsory leave.’18. At that time Vittachchi was the Principal Collector of Customs.

 V. P. Vittachchi recounts of a meeting Felix Dias Bandaranaike had with some civil servants, where he explained what he had in mind for public servants. ‘One senior Civil Servant had told Felix Dias that if he proceeded on the lines contemplated he would have no civil servants but servants. Felix’s paranoidal reply was ‘Yes that is exactly what I want.’ 19. He also had similar bouts with other politicians like T.B.Ilangaratna. Says Vittachchi ‘The Civil Service was one of the best assets the country possessed and from the beginning of independence it was hated  and resented by some politicians - only a few - but they were all politicians with a clout".20

Polticians hit back. Vittachchi relates an incident when he was the private secretary to G.G.Ponnambalam, Minister of Industries and Fisheries and  was asked to go to the port and clear the Minister’s  heavy luggage shipped from London . Vittachchi’s response had been ‘I am the Minister’s private secretary and not his clearing agent.’ Next morning when he reported for work the Permanent Secretary had showed him a minute he received from the Minister. ‘P.S. Get rid of my private secretary at once. G. G.P.’21

 Among the Civil Servants there were many who did not want to compromise with the politicians, when they acted within the rules. But this is not what they wanted. About M. Chandrasoma, another Civil Servant, it was said that his great failing was that he failed to understand the reality of the evolving politics of the country .That applied to most of them who joined the Service before independence.

So while some of them resigned, some joined the private sector. There were others who were sought after by the International agencies. They took advantage of the offer made by the government to retire prematurely. Sri Lanka’s loss was their gain.

The battle continued with the civil service losing ground every year and capitulated without even a whimper, in May 1963. Most of the politicians wanted it that way. Vittachchi states, ‘between them J.R and Felix killed the Ceylon Civil Service. But it was Felix who wielded the bare bodkin’. 20.

‘Ceylon Civil  Service was held in high esteem by the public and rightly so, because as a body of administrators it was trained to believe that they were useful and important in running the country and this gave them the right mindset. It was this cachet that made the great majority of civil servants fair minded and protective of the constitution and the laws of the country.’22

Chandrasoma who resigned from the civil service over a disagreement with the political powers at the time in 1957 had the following to say ‘It has to be faced that the Ceylon Civil Service is gone forever and there is little or no prospect of a Service with its conventions, qualities, and responsibilities, ever again coming into being in our motherland.’23

The Ceylon Civil Service lasted for 160 years. During this period it was subject to many changes and vicissitudes depending on the circumstances. It provided the very backbone of administration, with a set of officers who were well educated, well selected, well trained, apolitical, and impartial. However it must be surprising to many, that the initial salary of a cadet remained at Rs.4,800/per annum from 1946 to 1962!

Although the C.C.S. was abolished, for some time its remaining members continued to serve the government, mostly in very high positions. Now that the politicians achieved what they wanted they did not mind getting the benefit of the experience and wisdom of the former civil servants.

There are still some members of the public who hark back to the good old days of the Civil Service even after a lapse of more than 50 years. A writer to the Island on April 7, 2017 had the following to say ‘Felix was the architect to destroy the much recognized Ceylon Civil Service, as the service was then known .This service attracted the cream from our University system, when there was only one such service that administered the country, where Financial Discipline was enforced rigidly, and politicians, birds of passage more ill equipped were unable to do as they pleased. The presence of such men was a hindrance to an arrogant politician, and he with all the power he wielded abolished the service.’24

Last Days of the University of Ceylon

University of Ceylon continued to service the C.C S. with new recruits almost every year. There was another link between the University and the C.C.S. in that the Vice Chancellor of the University chaired the interview board which selected the successful candidates. The practice continued from the inception of the University with Sir Ivor Jennings chairing the interview board from 1946-1954 and then onwards by Sir Nicholas Attygalle upto the time of the abolition of the C.C.S in 1963. For the period from 1946 to 1962, the number of civil servants recruited came to 114. In 1960 , when the writer and his seven colleagues met the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, S.F.Amerasinghe, on their first day, they were asked what subject they studied at the University. After listening to the new recruits he said, ‘It is no matter what you studied at the University. What is of interest is that you have gone through a training period successfully.’ That resonates what Sir Ivor Jennings had said on University education. He had said that ‘University education is to produce educated men and women in the fullest sense of the phrase, men and women who as fulfilling any function in the world that may fall to their lot, citizens of high intelligence, complete moral integrity and initiative.’

The University of Ceylon provided this. Except for a few who had their degree from the University of London, all others recruited to the C.C.S came from the University of Ceylon.

There were also few occasions when the C.C.S provided a back up service to the University as when its two highly experienced Civil Servants ,C.J.Walpita and M.J Perera were released as Vice Chancellors.

The fifties was the golden era of the University. Renowned scholars  such as Professors G.P.Malalasekera (Pali), O. H. De. A.Wijesekera (Sanskrit), Das Gupta (Economics) D.E  Hettiarachchi (Sinhalese), H.C.Ray (History) S.Paranavitane  (Archaeology), K.C.Nadaraja (Law), K.Kanapathipillai (Tamil) K.Kulartanam (Geography) and E.F.C.Ludowyke (English)  adorned the academic staff. 

That was also the time when there was hardly any student unrest. No varsity politics. Ragging of students was mild. No infighting, no street demonstrations. More than anything else it was residential. Every undergrad had a room for himself/herself or had to share a room with another. In the Common Rooms undergrads mixed freely with one another. They played games together, went on hikes, arranged trips, took part in plays produced by such greats as Sarachchandra, enjoyed the recitals organized by the Gandharvasabha, listened to celebrities from overseas as well as local, frequented the library and also met their future partners. Prof. Malalasekera who was the Warden of Jayatilake Hall, once while addressing the residential students said, ‘You learn more in the common room than in the lecture room.’

But that was also the twilight before the sunset. The University of Ceylon Act No. 1 of 1972, replaced it with the University of Sri Lanka with four campuses Peradeniya, Colombo, Kelaniya and Jayawardenapura. In 1978 it was separated into four independent universities. These were the University of Colombo, the University of Peradeniya, Vidyodaya University and the University of Vidyalankara

As much as the Ceylon Civil Service, University of Ceylon also thus became part of history!


1.Victoria Glendinning  Leonard Woolf  page 80

2. Woolf Leonard        Growing  page 16.

3. Warnapala Wiswa     Civil Service Administration in Ceylon page 120.

4. Victoria Glendinning, Leonard Woolf  page 80

5. Woolf Leonard , Growing  page 180

6. Chandrasoma    M.   Vignettes of the Ceylon Civil Service 1938-1957 page 46.

7. Goonasingha. A..   Island , August 2010

8. Warnapala Wiswa     Civil Service Administration in Ceylon page 121

9. Government of Ceylon    Civil List 1948

10. Warnapala Wiswa     Civil Service Administration in Ceylon  page 292

11. Myrdal Gunnar        Asian Drama  Vol 1 page 344

12. Government of Ceylon    Civil List 1948

13. Myrdal Gunnar        Asian Drama  Vol 1 page 344

14. Warnapala Wiswa     Civil Service Administration in Ceylon page 157

15. Ibid   page 241

16. Lanerolle  James   Island, Sunday March 31,2002

17. Vittachchi V.P  The Fretful Porpentine and Other Essays  pages 12,13

18. Ibid      page 31

19. Ibid      page 13

20. Ibid    page 15

21.  Ibid   page 08

22  Ibid     page 11

23. Chandrasoma    M.   Vignettes of the Ceylon Civil Service 1938-1957 - Preface

24. Pieris Hilary .The Island April 7, 2017

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