‘Dr Manmohan Singh was committed to non-interference with Asian economies’

*Says Dr Mahathir Mohamed’s social re-engineering was at a time when the cake was growing- Retired Commonwealth Secretariat’s Director of Economic Affairs Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy reminisces


Sri Lanka has a been blessed with a diverse array of top rung academics and professionals who have scaled international benchmarks. There have been a plethora of all round sportsmen who have dazzled internationally, some as triple international sportsmen. There is at least one instance ,  of one skippering two  sports at international level and playing the third  also at international level.. There have also been members of the same family who have scaled global  academic  and professional benchmarks. However, that is as obvious and  as good as saying that grass is green and the sky is blue on a dry day!

However, what is awesome, sparse, idiosyncratic and worthy of emulation, is when all three facets of this sacred tripartite relationship is embedded into the same individual. Today, The Island Financial Review, profiles such a proud son of mother Lanka, who has brought international acclaim to his country of birth on several fronts. His name is Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy.

Retired Director- Economic Affairs of the Commonwealth Secretariat from 2001-2009 where he had access to heads of 54 Governments, Deputy Director in the Commonwealth Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku’s office from 1995-2000, Chief Officer – Economic Affairs from 1989-1995, Cambridge University Economics Graduate and Masters Degree holder, Sussex University Economics Doctorate, Central Bank Staffer in Economic Research and Statistics and Bank Supervision, Sri Lanka Rugby Football Captain whose team emerged as finalists in the Colombo Rugby Asiad to Ryozo Imazato’s Japanese in 1974, albeit gallantly going down 6-44 in a game where weight superseded skills, and Ceylonese Rugby and Football Club rugby captain, Tamil Union cricketer, Cambridge University cricket captain, Harrow cricket captain and Royal College Primary cricket captain at the tender age of eleven, might aptly  and succinctly sum up his rich and variegated career lifelines, who, at 62, now in almost full retirement, takes on assignments on a selective basis.

As for the family, his father- the late Raju Coomaraswamy, once a member of the once prestigious and now defunct Ceylon Civil Service, was in the Treasury and . and later a member of the United Nations Civil Service as Director of United Nations Development Program’s Regional Bureau for Asia and the Far East where he was endearinly dubbed as " Roving Raju". Grandfather Chelliah Coomaraswamy, also a member of the CCS, was one time Government Agent, Jaffna.

Only sister Dr Radhika Coomaraswamy, was Yale University Graduate, Harvard Master’s in Law and Amherst College Doctorate, and was later appointed United Nations Under-Secretary-General, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict in April 2006 and later, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (1994-2003). She is  also well known and needs no special introduction.

He also recalls with nostalgia, functioning as the Secretary of an Eminent Persons Group by virtue of his being the Director Economic Affairs of the Commonwealth Secretariat which had as its Chairman, subsequent Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, who visited London three times and had three meetings with the Group of two days each.

Dr. Singh is an extremely wise man who has held all the eminent positions in the Indian Financial circuit where he was Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Deputy Chairman of the Indian Planning Commission ( who is the head of Planning as the Chairman of the Planning Commission is the Prime Minister of India), Finance Advisor to Indian Prime Minister Atal Bheharee Vajpayee and also as Finance Minister and Prime Minister,

It was indeed a privilege to get some quality time to talk to him where I had to do some protocol for him like shuttling him between airports and hotels and he had all the time at that time as he was in the opposition, Dr. Coomaraswamy reminisced.

"He was an extremely positive vision of the world, despite being an Economist which was beneficial for not only India but for the world. He understood that it was India’s self interest for the neigbouring countries to be stable and prosperous and he was committed to non interference in the affairs of other Asian nations, in contrast to other Indian leaders. The report of the Group headed by him, formed the basis of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s work plan over the subsequent years.

He also said that one of the cornerstones of his experiences within the 20 years there was the diversity of the peoples whom he interacted with, through the issues were pretty much the same with nations within the Commonwealth spread over all the continents across the globe and unity in diversity as very much a part of the human existence. It is the challenges those unite us within these times, he remarked.

Commonwealth crisis

His role of Director of Economic Affairs of the Commonwealth was from the perspective of Development Economics when a large number of Commonwealth countries the was going through a crisis time in the 1990 s which was known as the Lost Decade for Africa and it was the Heyday of the Washington Consensus. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were prescribing very restrictive policies. Which in his view were in appropriate which was " One size, fix all" inappropriate of that time driven by the ideologies of US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

"Many countries were looking for different approaches to the Reagan- Thatcher formula and many of us within the Commonwealth Secretariat, tried to see how these policies could be tempered and adjusted to set the circumstances of individual countries where much of the work tends to revolve round Africa and small states, mostly some in the Caribbean and the Pacific, which have difficulties in getting to the radar screens of the bigger development organizations, and they found the Commonwealth Secretariat a very sympathetic partner," he reminisced.

Of course, there are the major Asian Commonwealth nations such as Sri Lanka, ( one of the founders of the modern Commonwealth in 1949 in the post colonial era ) India, Malaysia and Singapore, who were the major players in terms of resources and ideas, rather than mere recipients of assistance.

He has travelled out of London to 25-30 countries, ranging from Cyprus, Nigeria, Malta, Uganda among others for routine work and for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings ( CHOGM)..

One of the most interesting interactions was to listen to Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed explaining his policies due to their relevance to Sri Lanka in a number of respects. Particularly, when he pointed out during the Anti- Chinese riots in the late 1950 when it became apparent that one had to address the problems of the Malays. They were a disadvantaged group and this was what gave rise to the Bhoomiputhra policy, which allows positive discrimination towards the Malays.

The Malaysian  experience

What was most relevant to Sri Lanka from that perspective was Dr Mohamed saying that the Bhoomiputhra policy would be implementable only if Malaysia was able to implement rapid economic growth and they reached double digit growth within a sustainable period of time. " When they were at 10% growth, they were able to allocate 3% for their redistributive policy. The social re-engineering that Malaysia did through its redistributive policies from a context of positive discrimination was at a time when the cake was growing.

It was not a zero sum game where you could do the redistribution where all boots were moving forward. However, measures which were created to correct some of the distortions that were created in some other countries were made in a context of economic stagnation which complicated the social engineering which was an inevitable part of the post colonial dispensation, he remarked.

He said that some of the lessons which were learnt from the leaders from countries such as Singapore were very enlightening and strategic where they were looking for 10-15 years beyond where they looked at the action plan taking into consideration the regional and the global landscape. They have been able to reinvent themselves extremely well, initially as a low cost manufacturing bases and providers of services. They have now gone to the very high end of the manufacturing and services sector. The ability to be strategic and to be able to take a long term view is something that has characterized South and East Asian countries, he said.

South Asia has been driven much more by short term political expedience and populist policies. Therefore, the successes and the failures that you see in South Asia vis -a- vis, South East Asia to his mind, is explained to a large extent, by the capacity of our neighbours to the East to think strategically that to those of us in the South Asian region have not been able to do, he noted.

He also said that the relevance of the Commonwealth Secretariat to Sri Lanka was to host the Commonwealth Finance Ministers confab here in 2007, despite efforts by some parties to shift the conference venue due to the then hostilities. However, sanity prevailed and Sri Lanka did an excellent job, he recalled.

He said has three debts of a lifetime. The first, is to the Central Bank for funding his PhD, The second is to former Finance Minister Ronnie De Mel for the vast experience he gained in The Treasury. The third, above all, is to his parents who have given him a fulfilling education and the opportunity to shine as an outstanding all rounder.

(Pic by Ravi Ladduwahetty)

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...