Sam Wijesinha, A Man for All Seasons, appreciated in Death and Life

SAM WIJ photoI. Tissa Devendra: “Sam Wijesinha’s Official Career Has Been Characterised with Absolute Integrity and Tempered with Humanity,” 2 September 2014, courtesy of The Island and **

Hon. Prime Minister, Mr. Sam Wijesinha, members of his extended family- stretching from Getamana in Ruhuna to Canada’s Great Lakes-, distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

It has been a great honour to be invited to speak at the launch of this fascinating book on Sam Wijesinha – celebrating his life of service to Sri Lanka, and Parliament in particular. It is also a wonderful tribute to the personal values he exemplifies in the civilized ambience of ‘Lakmahal’.

I was rather surprised at being asked to speak, as I had not been an insider within either of the institutions he graced – Parliament as Secretary General, nor Welikada Jail as President of the Prisoners’ Welfare Committee. However I must confess that , thanks to Mr.Wijesinha’s intervention I once escaped being hauled before Parliament for ‘Breach of Privilege’ and consigned to Welikada. So, after all, I did have a fleeting brush with both Parliament and Jail.

It was rather late in my life and career that I came to know Mr.Wijesinghe as most of my working life was spent in the provinces. Thanks to the newspapers, I had read of the significant roles he had played in Parliament and in the evolution of our Republican Constitutions. However, my acquaintance with him began in the Colombo University Alumni Association where both of us were in the Committee. His advice and suggestions went a long way towards the formulation of the Association’s own Constitution. He was a veteran alumnus of the University, one of the pioneer undergrads who bridged the transition from the University College to the University of Ceylon. He remains a good friend to that diminishing band of veterans . I am personally aware that when his good friend the perennial bachelor W.J.Fernando , legendary Commissioner of Ayurveda, passed away two decades ago, it was Mr.Wijesinghe who saw to the disposal of his estate and the welfare of his domestic staff, in keeping with WJ’s wishes.

Mr.Wijesinha’s official career has been characterized with absolute integrity. tempered with humanity. He was an exemplar of an administrative tradition where honesty and efficiency were ingrained in all officers. There was no need for the culture of sycophancy that seems to have tragically overwhelmed most public servants today – exemplified, on TV, by the servility of their body language when greeting their political bosses.To Sam Wijesinha, Mahinda Rajapaksa is no demi-god but remains ,basically, the young M.P. , from the village adjoining his own, whom he tutored in Parliamentary procedure and calls him ‘Uncle Sam’.

His truly phenomenal memory remains one of Mr.Wijesinha’s greatest assets.As Manik de Silva writes “Even today, at age 90, Sam Wijesinha is a repository of the political lore of this country He has names, facts and figures at his fingertips. He also has various publications he pulls out now and then to offer nuggets of information few are privy to.” He’ll lay his finger, unerringly, on any quotation, comment or incident in the relevant book in his extensive library. I had much to be grateful to him in this regard whenever I discussed with him the book I was writing on “Kachcheries and Commissions”. As well as entertaining me with many anecdotes about administrators of yore, he was generous enough to write a Foreword and loan me a valuable photograph of C.L.Wickremasinghe, his father-in-law, the first Ceylonese Government Agent flanked by a phalanx of Kandyan chiefs. With Sam Wijesinha around Sri Lanka had no need for a Julian Asange or Wikileaks. But , unlike them, he discreetly vetted whatever information he deemed improper or impolite – even in Hansard as Manik de Silva writes.He also says that Sam Wjesinha’s tremendous store of knowledge of government rules and regulation enabled him to “bend a rule where it would do some good” – as he did in the case of Daya Perera’s overseas leave and Jean Sivaprakasam’s passport.

Central to Sam Wijesinha’s way of life was the civilized ambience of ‘Lakmahal’ the Wickremasinghe home where, in his tongue-in-cheek phrase, he was a ‘binna’ husband. Reading the fond accounts of family and friends is a window into the leisurely, gracious life of Colombo’s elite before the trauma of 1983. Surrounded by neighbours such as the Coomarasamys, Pathmanathans and Uvais’ among others– the cricket on the lawn and birthday parties the Wijesinha’s led a truly charmed life. My great regret is that I met the gracious Mukta only once, when she visited Trincomalee, where I was Government Agent, to support my wife Indrani in setting up a GirlGuide Troop.

Sam Wijesinha is truly a humane man. Many, many persons have benefited from his generous help – to admit a child to school , to build a roof, to surmount administrative obstacles and so on. His Buddhist background, and schooling in Rahula, Ananda and S.Thomas Colleges taught him easy tolerance. No more so than in the way he seamlessly fitted into the Anglican Wickremasinghe clan which nurtured a Bishop. Nihal Seneviratne tells the story of the great ‘dane’ he held in Parliament precincts to mark his 50thbirthday. Typically sensitive, he did not consider proper to have it in Anglican ‘Lakmahal’

May I end by quoting Sam Wijesinha on his typically open-minded thoughts on life and death “Mine is a Gandhian attitude which is embodied in the view that death is but a sleep and a forgetting, such a sleep that the body has not to wake again such a forgetting that the dead load of memory is thrown overboard. So far as I know, happily, there is no meeting in the beyond as we have it here.”

Let us all be grateful that we were privileged to know Sam Wijesinha in the here and now.

SAM W plus Former Secretary General of Parliament Sam Wijesinha yesterday presented the book titled ‘Sam Wijesinha, his Parliament, his World: 90 years at the Centre of Sri Lanka’ to President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees. This book is a collection of articles on the former Secretary General of Parliament. Sam Wijesinha’s son Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP, daughter Anila Bandaranayake and publisher Manmohan Bhatkal are also in the picture. Picture by Chandana Perera

II. Atapattu Bandara: “Sam Wijesinha, a Man for all Seasons” – Justice C.G. Weeramantry

Former Secretary General of Parliament and first Ombudsman Sam Wijesinha is a wonderful advertisement for Sri Lanka in its international affairs as he was a true gentleman, highly respected by the international community, former judge of the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Justice C.G. Weeramantry said.

He was addressing the ceremony at the launch of the book ‘Sam Wijesinha, His parliament, His World: 90 years at the Centre of Sri Lanka’ at Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) yesterday. The book launching ceremony organized by Parliamentary Staff Union was held under the patronage of Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne .

Justice Weeramantry further said Sam Wijesinha is a Man for all Seasons, a fountain of knowledge and wisdom and if one happened to speak to him it could be an encyclopaedic survey that would bring an all round knowledge on almost everything.

“His excellent memory power and outstanding character was exemplary and respected by all around the world . One who came with frustration to Sam would depart contented as he was very generous and treated everybody with kindness”, he said.

“His experience which spanned in many spheres for 90 years brought him glory and prestige as he was a genuine and committed individual with an unblemished character”, he said.

His modest and humble approach to anybody is outstanding, he further added.

“Though Sam is known by Sri Lankans as an individual who is a mobile encyclopaedia, he maintains an unblemished image among those in the international community as a scholar with great respect. Some international judges have commended his excellence with gratitude”, he pointed out.

Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy delivering a lecture said Sam Wijesinha is an excellent mentor who deals with all communities.” He is a friend of all communities and he associates with people from all walks of life without any obstacle”, he said. “There is a great deal for the younger generation to learn from Sam”, he explained. He is driven by a strong desire to help people and anybody who comes to him dejected would always be helped with cash and kind”, he said.

Tissa Devendra said Sam Wijesinha hails from a respectable family and he is also blessed with wonderful children who hold key positions in the country. “Sam Wijesinha is truly a humane person coming from a Buddhist background studying in key respectable Buddhist schools, such as, Rahula Collage, Matara and Ananda College, Colombo. His outstanding tolerance would have been due to his religious background he said.”

III. Editors’ Guild honours Sam Wijesinha for defending press freedom

The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka this week honoured former Parliament Secretary General and former Parliamentary Ombudsman, Sam Wijesinha with the Sepala Gunasena 2013 Award for defending press freedom in Sri Lanka.

Mr. Wijesinha who retired a few months ago as Chairman of the Dispute Resolution Council of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka was given the prestigious award in memory of the late publisher of Independent Newspapers Ltd., for his steadfast promotion of self-regulation within the print media since 2003 and his consistent support for media freedom.

The presentation was made at Mr. Wijesinha’s residence, ‘Lakmahal’ in Kollupitiya.

Sam honoured by writers guild Picture shows (from left) Siri Ranasinghe, President of The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka handing over the award to Mr. Wijesinha. The others (from left) are Manik de Silva, Editor of The Sunday Island, Sukumar Rockwood, CEO of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka and Kumar Nadesan, Chairman of the Sri Lanka Press Institute.

 IV.  Sanjiva Wijesinha: In Appreciation of my Father, Sam Wijesinha: 21 June 1921 – 31 August 2014″

My father passed away on 31st August 2014.

Over the past week we have been staying at home, reflecting on his life and meeting the many folk who have come to condole with us. It is the traditional seven day period of mourning observed in Buddhist cultures – similar to the seven day period during which my Jewish friends observe the custom of ‘sitting Shivah‘.

While I was reflecting on my father’s long and fulfilling life, I was reminded about the conversation I had some years ago with the Ven Getamanne Saranapala Thero, the Chief Monk of the temple in my father’s birthplace of Getamanne, a small village in Sri Lanka’s deep South. The venerable monk had been my father’s classmate when they were little boys attending the village school. They used to walk to school together, my father from the big house that overlooked the village and his friend from a not so affluent house down the road. They were school friends and playmates from the age of six.

“Even at that young age” the monk told me, reminiscing, “Your father was always interested in his studies,  always reading, always wanting to know more. From those days itself he understood the value of education”

Then he added with a chuckle, “He would never eat of the food that his mother had packed for him without sharing it with me. Even a thalaguli or a piece of pol dosi would be divided into two, half given to me before your father ate the other half.”

Then his face grew more serious. “Another characteristic I remember about your father is that he disliked bullies. Obviously, being Don Aelias Wijesinha’s son, nobody in that village would ever dare to bully him. But if he saw anyone being bullied, especially if that child was weak or of low estate, he would step in to protect them”

It is interesting how these childhood qualities of my father noted by his schoolboy friend shaped the values he later displayed in adult life – a love of learning, the desire to share with those less fortunate than himself, and accepting responsibility for protecting the underprivileged.

As a boy, I remember my father repeatedly reminding me ‘Knowledge is Power’. (usually when I was seated at my desk , unenthusiastically studying). He not only ensured that he and my mother gave Anila, Rajiva and me every encouragement to study and further our education – but this love of learning and desire to help others to educate themselves spread to the children of his siblings, the children of his cousins, the children of his village, the children of his friends and the friends of his children – in fact anyone in whom he saw the potential for education so they could better themselves.

He was a past master at finding places at good schools for deserving children – and scholarships for his staff as well as his nephews and nieces. I must explain here that for my father and mother, their nephews and nieces were not all related by blood or marriage. They had surnames as varied as Rajasuriya, Reid, Pathmanathan, Uvais, Mirchandani and Bhatkal – but he considered all of them his nephews and nieces, and so believed that he had every right to encourage and assist them.

When he was appointed Secretary General of Parliament, he commenced a scheme to provide free school textbooks for the children of his staff – obtaining money for this by selling all the old newspapers and outdated multiple copies of Hansard that had accumulated for years in the parliament storerooms. It was a method that did not perhaps comply with the government AR and FR, and probably would not have received the approval of the Treasury – had they ever been told about it. But he started that fund with about a million rupees – collected entirely from the sale of “parana paththara” (old papers) – and ensured that the children of his staff had the textbooks they needed for their studies. He would be so proud in later years when one of these children who had been helped by his free text book scheme and had graduated from university or obtained professional qualifications and was doing well in life came to see him.

He spent a lifetime not only encouraging people he knew to spend money on their children’s education – but in situations where he felt they could not afford the cost, he quietly delved into his own pocket to pay for their education.

The second quality that characterised my father was his belief that because much had been given to him by birth, education, personality and position, it was his privilege to use these resources to help others. Just as he used to share the piece of pol dosi with his school friend, he would freely share his time and knowledge – and even make use of his connections – to help others. He was not a rich man – but many were the occasions when he would pay out of his own pocket to help folk who he believed needed to be helped – for example to purchase their first house or to travel abroad for further studies.

After he retired as Secretary General of Parliament his appointment as national Ombudsman allowed him to continue exercising his belief that bullies should not be allowed to bully. The post of Ombudsman was established so that the public would have an independent and respected public officer charged with representing the interests of the ordinary citizen by investigating and addressing complaints of maladministration or violation of rights. He used not only his vast knowledge of the law but also his natural ability to mediate as well as his connections at the highest level throughout the country to protect individual citizens from being bullied, so assisting them to obtain redress of their grievances. Red tape and rigid Government regulations were creatively and pragmatically interpreted (sometimes even bent) so that someone deserving would not suffer injustice. As he once told me “Rules, son, are created for the guidance of intelligent people who appreciate the spirit of the law – not for blind and unwavering obedience to the letter of the law!”

If there is a single line from the Bible that epitomized my father, it is this verse from the Epistle of St. James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to assist orphans and widows in their affliction”

He was not enamoured by religious ritual but he was a very spiritual man who knew, respected and could readily quote from the Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Talmud and the Buddhist scriptures of his childhood.

At his funeral, many were the folk who came up to me or my brother or my sister and said “I don’t think you know me – but it was your father who helped me …” and  then go on to tell us how in various different ways he had assisted each of them and helped change their lives for the better.

My father was an avid cricket fan, and he knew the value of having a good partner when one is batting. Hobbs and Sutcliffe, Hayden and Langer, Sangakkara and Jayawardena – each of these cricketers were great individuals in their own right who became so much more successful because of the partner with whom they batted. Having a reliable colleague at the other end, who understood, supported and complemented the man facing the bowling, allowed each batsman in turn to score confidently while the other held their end up. My father was fortunate in this life to have as his partner our mother Mukta. Throughout their lives together,  my parents formed a great partnership – and I am that sure without the freely given support of the other neither of them would have been able to do the great things that each of them did.

During the week before he died, he was watching the  Sri  Lankan captain Angelo Mathews scoring 93 in a one day international cricket match at Dambulla. His faithful attendant Chamara – who did so much for him during these last years of his life – was watching with him, and when Mathews got out Chamara said “Sha, thava tikkak hitiya nang, seeyakma gahanna thibuna, ne!”(meaning “Tsk, If he stayed just a little longer he could have scored a hundred, no” ) at which observation my father just smiled.

Like Angelo Mathews, even though my father got out at 93 and didn’t get a century, he batted brilliantly for that 93, he played an innings that was extremely valuable for his country and his people – and he eminently displayed the qualities of a bold leader whom we could all admire, be proud of – and look upon as our own.

There are some lines by the American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson that could well have been written about my father:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.”

V, The GUARDIAN of UK honours SAM with an Obituary from his son Sanjiva,*** 17 Septmber 2014


My father, Sam Wijesinha, who has died aged 93, was a former secretary general of Sri Lanka’s parliament and subsequently national ombudsman. He had a distinguished record of public service in Sri Lanka and was considered an authority on parliamentary procedure in that country.

He was born into an old aristocratic family in southern Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), the youngest son of Don Aelias Wijesinha in Getamanne, a small town in Hambantota district. Having received his early education at the Getamanne rural school, he went on to Rahula College, Matara, at the age of nine – and later to Ananda College, Colombo, and S Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia.

He graduated from London University in 1944, after which he entered the Ceylon Law College and qualified as a lawyer. He became an advocate of the supreme court of Ceylon and a barrister-at-Law, Middle Temple. Undertaking postgraduate study at McGill University, Canada, he earned an LLM in aviation law. He was appointed Crown Counsel in 1948 and served in the attorney general’s department until 1964, when he was appointed clerk to the House of Representatives.

In 1972, when Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka, he played a major role in helping to draft the new constitution. With the establishment of a unicameral legislature he was appointed the first secretary general of parliament. As clerk and secretary general, he represented Sri Lanka at many Commonwealth conferences and visited the UK many times with parliamentary delegations.

Retiring from parliament in 1981, he was appointed Sri Lanka’s first national ombudsman. He served in this capacity for 10 years and retired for the second time in 1991. He was later appointed chancellor of the Open University.

He accomplished much in life, being a role model and mentor to many, well known for being generous with his time and his knowledge. A firm believer in the value of education, he often delved into his own pocket to help others who could not afford to undertake higher studies.

His wife, Mukta, predeceased him. He is survived by me and by my sister, Anila Dias Bandaranaike, and my brother, Rajiva Wijesinha.

** Sam Wijesinha, Former Secretary General of Parliament and Ombudsman passed away at the age of 93 on Aug 31st in Colombo. An address by distinguished civil servant Tissa Devendra on the occasion of a book on Mr. Wijesinha being released when he turned 90 is published here as tribute)

*** Sanjiva Wijesinha, MBBS (Ceylon), MSc (Oxford), FRCS,FRACGP, is Associate Professor Sanjiva Wijesinha Department of General Practice, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University, 270, Ferntree Gully Road, Notting Hill, Victoria,  Australia 3168.

Author of Strangers on the Camino

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