The Ceylon Civil Service


Leelananda De Silva

I refer to the article on the Ceylon Civil Service (CCS) by Dr. P.G. Punchihewa (Punchi) in the Sunday Island of 22nd April. It raises many interesting issues. Punchi’s views and mine are somewhat different on these matters.

About the abolition of the CCS in 1963, he quotes some gentleman (Hillary Pieris) writing to the Sunday Island on April 7, 2017 and saying that Felix Dias Bandaranaike (FDB) was the man who destroyed the Civil Service. We are not aware of the credentials of this gentleman. This kind of statement is an unfair comment on a highly distinguished politician. Let me briefly state the story behind the abolition of the CCS. There was much pressure from other administrative grades of the public service (DLOs, ACLGs, Assistant Settlement Officers) and DROs who had educational qualifications similar to those of the CCS to open up opportunities for them to move into higher levels of a unified administrative service.

Since 1948, the numbers in these administrative grades had increased. Many of them had been recruited from the same CCS examination which recruited members of the CCS. By 1962, these pressures had increased and many ministers and even members of the CCS were prepared for the abolition of the CCS. What the members of the CCS wanted was that they should be placed at a higher level than other administrative officers. The Wilmot A. Perera Salaries Commission of the 1950s recommended the abolition of the CCS. The Secretary of that Commission was Neville Jansz, CCS. Neville Jansz consulted various parties and one of his close advisors on matters of public service reform was Godfrey Gunatillake (GG), CCS and who was about that time or a little thereafter, was the Secretary of the CCS Association.

I had a discussion with GG and he was of the view that the abolition of the CCS was not something done suddenly at the whim and fancy of one Minister. It was recommended by a Salaries Commission. The Wilmot Perera report had a difficult time after it was submitted to the Government. One reason for that was in the year from September 1959 to September 1960, there were four Prime Ministers and four governments. There was considerable political instability. There were more important matters than implementing the Wilmot Perera report. When Felix was Minister of Finance sometime in 1961, he took some action. He sent a team of four officers – G. V. P. Samarasinghe, CCS, Godfrey Gunatillake, CCS, Dr. M. R. P. Salgado of the Central Bank, Mr. S. S. Silva, a research scientist from the CISIR – to India to study the administrative systems and to see what could be learnt in bringing about reforms. This was in preparation for the abolition of the CCS. By the time the team returned, FDB was no longer Minister of Finance. The Cabinet took the decision to abolish the CCS, after much consideration. India had abolished the Indian Civil Service in 1948 itself, and Nehru and Patel wanted a clean break from the colonial mindset of the ICS. Sri Lanka took 15 years to do that.

Another issue that has been raised is the relationship between Ministers and civil servants. Punchi quotes two "macho" civil servants – M. Chandrasoma and V. P. (Totsy) Vittachi who obviously did not like politicians. They have written their memoirs and some of the incidents are recorded. I would consider the experience of these two as entirely exceptional. The vast majority of CCS officers and other administrative service officers and of all other Civil List Officers (which includes doctors, engineers, the higher ranks of the Surveyor General’s Department) which might have run into about 500 in the early 1960s had relatively cordial relationships with most Ministers and other politicians. Reading the memoirs of people like Bradman Weerakoon and M. D. D. Pieris who dealt with many politicians from the Prime Minister and President downwards, the impression gained is of a friendly relationship, although it might be abrasive at times, as is natural.

Then there is this servant syndrome. FDB is reported to have said that he wanted servants and not civil servants. Was this a serious statement or a friendly quip with his own permanent Secretary, Shirley Amarasinghe. I knew and worked with both of them and they had a friendly relationship although they were not friends. FDB is well known for this kind of statement. He once said that Ceylon needs a bit of totalitarianism. He once told a visiting high level British human rights official that Sri Lanka loved the death penalty and the man was shocked. Felix did not want servants as his officials. He always selected the best for his Ministries. When he became Minister of Finance, he got Shirley Amarasinghe as his permanent secretary; when he became Minister of Agriculture, he got Baku Mahadeva as Secretary and Mahinda Silva as Director of Agriculture. When he was in Public Administration, he got D. B. I. P. S Siriwardhana. He wanted officials of high calibre, and not servants. This statement that the abolition of the Civil Service would lead to public servants being "servants" is comic and ridiculous. Were the members of all the other services included in the Civil List, "servants". They were also men of integrity. The abolition of the CCS did not destroy the integrity and the objectivity of all other services. What diminished the standing of the public service was the abolition in 1972 of the Public Service Commission as an autonomous institution, politicizing the public service.

I remember the episode where a Senior assessor of the Inland Revenue Department (Mr. Mithrasena), who rightly persisted with an inquiry into fraudulent activities of a member of the CCS and got him imprisoned, until the rising of court. The Inland Revenue Department was an icon of integrity. I remember Gerry Waas, a senior assessor, later a commissioner of Inland Revenue telling me that FDB, when he was Minister of Finance, wanted to come and see him about a personal tax matter. Gerry told him that he could bring the files and come and see him at the ministry. FDB insisted that he would come and see Gerry which he did and he was absolutely proper.

Now let me refer to V. P. Vittachi’s memoirs as six of the 24 footnotes in Punchi’s article refer to this document. Vittachi refers to an interaction with JRJ, when he was in the opposition. JRJ had telephoned him when he was Principal Collector of Customs about some car which had been imported and he had to turn down the request. Then, JRJ had called M. Rajendra, Secretary to the Treasury and complained about Vittachi’s behaviour. I know about this incident. It involved a close lady member of JRJ’s family. The story is that when JRJ telephoned, Vittachi requested that this lady should come and see him. When she went there, he turned down the request, quite properly, although he had discretion to do something different. There was no call to M. Rajendra by JRJ.

JRJ is not the kind of politician to go behind public servants. One has to be careful when quoting these memoirs of self-aggrandizement. Then there is a reference to Dr. N. M. Perera, Minister of Finance, asking M. Rajendra to send Vittachi on compulsory leave. NM is not that kind of Minister. Contrary to what is said, NM had a cordial relationship with his permanent Secretary, M. Rajendra. NM was much more educated (PhD and DSc from the LSE) than most public servants. If he had so wished, NM could have got Vittachi transferred out of the Ministry. There is one little matter about Vittachi which I should mention. He was Chairman of ConsolExpo, the government’s export trading arm, in the 1970s. It had many lucrative contracts for tea exports. There were a few very bright young tea traders in ConsolExpo handling this business. They were not public servants and were on contract. At some point in time, they left and formed another private company and took much of the business away from ConsolExpo. Vittachi was made the Chairman with a substantial stake in the company. There was much litigation afterwards and Vittachi was very bitter. I wonder whether he mentions this in his memoirs. Was it ethical for a senior public servant?

Punchi refers to the family backgrounds of members of the pre-independence CCS. He is quite right in saying that they are from upper middle class families. At that time, and in that generation, the vast majority of professionals (medical doctors, engineers, lawyers) came from upper middle class backgrounds. They were the only ones who could afford an expensive education, and they mainly came from leading Colombo schools, with a few provincial schools chipping in. Let me refer to one town, Panadura, of which I know of, and which produced five members of the CCS. They were L. S. B. Perera (wealthy land owner, race horse owner, ambassador to Canada, and his wife owned the Private General Hospital in Colombo), B. F. Perera (later ambassador to West Germany), N. Q. Dias (Defence and Foreign Affairs Secretary and ambassador to India), G. S. (Glannie) Pieris (later of the Foreign Service) and C. A. Cooray (head of the Treasury).

They all came from wealthy backgrounds. Another interesting aspect is that they were connected to leading politicians of the time – H. W. Amarasuriya, Sir Susantha De Fonseka, Wilmot A. Perera, and Montague Jayawickrama. These were also well known philanthropic families. Many members of these families were in other professions, other than the CCS. To illustrate, Glannie Pieris was in the CCS, his brother B. P. Pieris, the lawyer was later Cabinet Secretary and the other brother, Freddie, was an electrical engineer and later head of the government’s Electricity Department. This is only the story of Panadura. There are many similar stories in Colombo and elsewhere. In pre-independence days, the upper middle class were the top people. Politicians and public servants got together not only officially, but also socially. After 1948, and particularly with the central schools, lower middle class persons came into all these professions including the CCS.

Punchi claims a symbiotic relationship for the CCS with the university. He is entitled to do so. The only problem with that is there are other services with similar claims. For example, the District Land Officer Service which was created in 1948 and ended in 1963 with its amalgamation with the administrative service had about 40 or 50 officers during that period and they were largely from the University of Ceylon. Two of the DLOs (Lionel Madugalle, G. J. Wijeytunga) became registrars (the leading administrators) of universities. So, can they claim a symbiotic relationship? Another issue is that the CCS excluded women graduates. Will the university be happy having a symbiotic relationship with that kind of institution? There is a reference to two members of the CCS (M. J. Perera, S. J. Walpita) being appointed Vice Chancellors. These two gentlemen were distinguished public servants. However, the government should never have appointed them as Vice Chancellors. The post of Vice Chancellor is reserved for an academic, and it is the highest academic post in the university. There were many academics who could have filled that post. However, this is a clear illustration of the government interfering with the autonomy of the university and appointing its own officials without allowing the university to do so. That is one starting point in the decline of university standards.

There are some who still hark back to a golden age when the CCS ruled the country. The CCS were the rulers. They ruled the country as part of the British Empire. They were a colonial bureaucracy. They were pretty good in their job at a time when government was not so complex and there was not much development. They were not fit for an independent Ceylon. In independent Ceylon, we were a democracy, not a bureaucracy. The politicians became the masters. In places like the UK, they are not shy to make the difference between political masters and their civil servants. (In the UK, all public servants are civil servants unlike the colonial relic of the CCS.)There were many public servants after 1948 who had been recruited under the British colonial government, who could not adjust to the new circumstances of an independent country run by politicians. They still behaved like the rulers of old. Their complaints should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. Today, the government is much more complex than in 1948. Specialists of all kinds have a role. A few generalists cannot run the country, although bright and outstanding generalists yet have a role.

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