‘I prepared my own budgets, budget speeches’


Two of a kind!   

It is Politics even in retirement for former Finance Minister Ronald Joseph Godffrey De Mel as he is captured by the writer reading Margaret Thatcher’s Biography in his vast Charles Drive, Colpetty residence library, flanked by the photographs of him with US Presidents George Bush ( Senior) and Ronald Reagan and wife Nancy. Ronnie was the first Finance and Planning Minister when Sri Lanka liberalized her economy in 1977 and he must surely be reminded of the quote from the father of the laissez faire economy- Italian priest- father Vincent Mc Nabb(1868-1943) whose melodious rant said: " Some men wrest a living on nature, this is called Work; Some men wrest a living on those who wrest a living on nature, This is called Trade; Some men wrest a living on those who wrest a living on those who wrest a living on nature; This is called Finance.  

Guinness Book record -holding Finance and Planning Minister Roland Joseph Godffrey De Mel reminisces his days at the Treasury, his life as a distinguished member of the now defunct  Ceylon  Civil Service, his political pursuits and his academic  benchmarks.

It was the London Matriculation Examination in 1941. A 16 year old stripling in his callow youth, a prolific form and subject prize winner in his Upper Sixth Form at S. Thomas College, Mount Lavinia, as "the school by the sea" had it then, was  aghast when the results arrived. After all, that was the examination for the entirety of the Commonwealth!

The formality at that time was to have the results of the successful candidates published in the newspapers of the day- the then Ceylon Daily News and the then Times of Ceylon. He looked at both morning newspapers with expectations to see his results missing!

Later, it transpired that both newspapers had erroneously missed out two whole two lines of candidates who had passed in the First Division. The error was rectified the following morning. His name appeared among the other successful candidates who passed in the First Division.

To add the spice, there was the congratulatory note from the then Education Department saying: "Our heartiest congratulations! You have been placed All Ceylon first in order of merit!"

"That was one of the few occasions or the only occasion that a S. Thomas’ College student emerged all island first in order of merit in any public examination!!", Ronnie chuckles That epic performance entitled him to a scholarship to either of the Ceylon University College or either of the two apex British Universities- Oxford or Cambridge….. By that time, he had also won his S. Thomas’ College Hockey and Tennis Colours as well, in addition to being the Under 16 cricket as well!

That, explicitly and succinctly, would sum up the childhood lifelines of the now 86- year old Ronald Joseph Godffrey De Mel, one of the most flamboyant yet controversial personalities in independent Sri Lanka’s contemporary history, as its 12th Minister of Finance and Planning, currently holds a listing in the much coveted Guinness Book of World Records for presenting a record uninterrupted eleven Budgets in any House of Parliament in the world.

Ronnie was passionate about Oxford or Cambridge, but the heart of the matter was that there were no civilians who could travel overseas from the then Ceylon. World War II was on. The only option was the Ceylon University College. There was no need to sit for the university entrance as he was exempt. It was only a few months following his entry, that the university college was transformed into a fully fledged University- the University of Ceylon- Colombo Campus.

Ronnie’s passion was for History. His first examination was in arts with the four subjects of History, Economics, English and Latin. The first examination in arts, corresponded to the intermediate examination in Arts of the University of London. He was placed first in order of merit in that too and with it the Gold Medal! Then a another scholarship to England, but the war was on. He was the Muncherji Fram jee Khan Prize, the Muncherji Framjee Memorial Gold Medal for Arts and the Pettah Library Prize for the best English paper submitted to the University. That was a key paper which everybody did unlike now. That was 1943.

Nothing succeeds like success. Ronnie pursued with his History Honours degree his passion, brushing aside all requests from the academics to pursue an English Honours Degree. He passed with first class Honours and emerged as the All Ceylon first in order of merit again! That made his emerge all Ceylon first in all three public examinations- the London Matriculation, the Intermediate in Arts and the History Honours Degree!! That too entitled him to the government scholarship in Arts to the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge but the war the stumbling block. "There was no way that I could have gone, and my mother would not have heard of it, unless I escaped in a submarine!!" Ronnie guffaws.

Ronnie- the eminent Civil Servant

The next best option was to join the Ceylon Civil Service. Hundreds sat for a handful of vacancies. Possibly five out of over 500 were selected. There was also another CCS member in Ronnie’s Cabinet, possibly ten years his senior, and that was the Secretary to the JR Jayewardene Cabinet, who was also Permanent Secretary – Ministry of Defence and External Affairs during the stewardship of Premier Dudley Senanayake - George Victor Perera Samarasinghe, who served as boarding house master at his alma mater Royal College at the time of sitting for his CCS exams, who with a First Class English Honours Degree, was one of the four selected candidates out of 256 who sat the examination, passed and applied!! It was the crème- de la crème that got into the CCS. That was the highest that a Sri Lankan could aspired at that time and they were those whom conscientious fathers looked forward to give their daughters in marriage to!!

With his entry into the Treasury as a junior CCS officer, Ronnie was contemplating whether his career was to be in the Treasury or whether it was to be in academics in a British University, Oxford or Cambridge.

He walked up to the then Secretary- a Knight of the British Empire- Sir Charles Collins and stated his case. Collins, listened to Ronnie patiently and remarked in a tone of arrogance: " Mr De Mel, we do not want Doctorates in our Civil Service! What we want are people who could go into the country, know how our agriculture is developed, how the irrigation in this country works, how the roads are done and telecommunications work in this country. If you are appointed as a Government Agent, we want practical people who can go out there because PhD people will not fit into this system. It is incumbent upon you either to either be with us or do your PhD and an academic life …." The pep talk continued!!

Long deliberations with the family and persuasions, Ronnie relented to remain in the public service. For two years, he was a " Cadet Officer" where he was bashed and trained to take over the administration of the country. He served short stints in Vavuniya and Puttalam and returned to the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands as Assistant Secretary in 1950 at a time when there were three Assistant Secretaries and a Permanent Secretary and a Parliament Secretary and to the then Agriculture and Lands Minister- three times Prime Minister Dudley Shelton Senanayake.

That was the decisive period in the development of agriculture and irrigation in this country where Minneriya, Parakrama Samudra and Gal Oya were developed, and from a nation which produced only 50% of the rice requirement, we became self sufficient in rice , Ronnie reminisced.

Having enjoyed his stint as Assistant Secretary to the Ministry, he also served his stints in the then Ministry of Agriculture and Food Minister M.D. Banda in the 1965-1970 Dudley Senanayake government as Director of Cooperatives, which was a Class One, grade One post then. He was then Director General of Broadcasting.

Some of the illustrious CCS members of whom Ronnie has nostalgic memories are: Nissanka Wijeyeratne, who was later his bestman and colleague in the JRJ Cabinet as Education Minister first and then Justice Minister. "We are the people who ruled the country under the general direction of Ministers," he said. Some of the others included Balakumar ( Baku) Mahadeva ( later Chairman DFCC) Dr Sarath Amunugama, Andrew Joseph who later on became a top UN Civil Servants, along with Shirley Amarasinghe later Treasury Secretary and United Nations Under Secretary for the Conference of the Law and the Sea.

"Civil servants were tossed like a football and were perceived as not only as the jack of all trades but the master of all. Politicians were there but it was the Civil Servants who ran the country," he laughed

Ronnie enters politics

Ronnie was not content. The CCS job was not fulfilling enough. Politics and political history were his hobby horse subjects in the University!! His father in law- Sir Leo Fernando was the MP for the Buttala electorate, which encompassed the entirety of the Moneragala District and half of the present Badulla District.

Ronnie resigned from the CCS in 1962. Despite the father in law Sir Leo Fernando being a staunch UNP member, he joined the SLFP, being the socialist at heart. He worked as one of the administrative Secretaries of the SLFP under the stewardship of Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, but the turning point was the Party wanting him to contest the Devinuwara seat in 1967 under a bi-election against the UNP which was in power at that time, created due to an election petition of the previous member T. William Silva, a former Minister of Industries. He was unknown and was contesting lawyer and a Junior Minister PP Wickremasuriya. Ronnie was dubbed as the man who parachuted from Colombo to Devinuwara during the four week election campaign. He won.

Though a SLFP backbencher, but he created a huge impression. The opposition was strong with leaders such as Doctors r N.M. Perera, Colvin R De Silva, S.A. Wickremasinghe, along with Peter Keiuneman, Maithripala Senanayake, TB Subasinghe et al….

The three backbenchers were Ronnie, subsequent Fisheries Minister George Rajapaksa (father of Nirupama and uncle of President Mahinda Rajapaksa) and Habaraduwa MP Prins Gunasekera. That was the time that Bills were interesting and we used to sit through three days and three nights right along unlike now. Parliament was interesting and MPs took it very seriously then unlike now where they behave like hooligans, he noted.

Ronnie was re-elected with a bigger majority in 1970, but Mrs Bandaranaike overlooked him for a Cabinet portfolio. He was completely disillusioned with the SLFP.

With the death of Dudey Senanayake in 1973, JRJ became the party leader but also the Leader of the opposition. There was this garden party at the Indian High Commission and Ronnie found someone tapping him on the shoulder. Lo and behold!! That was JRJ himself!! Ronnie recalls JRJ verbatim: " Ronnie, why don’t we think of getting together? !! Ronnie said: "Sir, I can think of that but this is not the place! My father in law is also a UNPers and we can always discuss things like that later"

A few days later, JRJ and subsequent first lady Elina phoned and visited Ronnie at his Charles Drive residence over tea where he has been living in for the last 60 years. No Minister’s bungalows for him!

JRJ, being the diplomat, left the two ladies in the drawing room and went into Ronnie’s private study with him. A straight offer was made with the promise of the rightful place in a future UNP government and with it, one of the top three slots in the Cabinet. There were only 17 UNP MPs in Parliament at that time. Ronnie asked for a few weeks and told him at "Braemar", 66 Ward Place that he was willing to cross over!

The United National Party swept into power in 1977 with a landslide victory of seven eights majority and Ronnie was Minister of Finance and Planning.

Ronnie- the Finance Minister

Budget preparation in his time, was complex and arduous. The work with the officials commenced in January of a given year, though the presentation of it was in November The coordination with the line Ministries was around June. It was all my budgets in all the eleven budgets that I presented and even the speeches were mine which I drafted unlike now, where people read out what is prepared for them where they do not know what they are reading," he smiled.

One of those eleven budgets, Ronnie recalls, started at 2. pm and when he finished it was 8.30 pm , which was after a small tea break. By that, he also holds the record for the longest ever budget speech, surpassing British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who was also the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1870. The ritual was that soon after the budget was present in Parliament with Ronnie inviting the first citizen- President JR Jayewardene for a private dinner to Charles Drive.

Opening the economy

Barely a month after the UNP government assumed office in July 1977, Ronnie had to go on his fund raising drives – for Mahaweli, Ports, Roads, Housing Free Trade Zones. First it was British Premier James Callahan, Chancellor of the Exchequer Dennis Healey and Minister of Overseas Development Judith Hardt. James Callahan was in Sri Lanka during the war years and he was easy to convince and he agreed to fund Victoria which was a Sterling Pounds 100 million, then!

There were also German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who agreed to finance Randenigala, US President Jimmy Carter who agreed to finance the down stream development and Sweden agreed to finance Kotmale. Australian Premier John Howard , Indian Prime Ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, Pakistan Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto among a host of global leaders including Japanese Premier Takeo Fukuda.

At 86, and at the winter of his life, he goes for one hour walks at the Race Course and one of those who joins him at times, was President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself.

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...