Sri Lanka’s Intelligentsia: A Clarion Call in 2015

Ranjith Senaratne, courtesy of The Island, 10 June 2015,

“All reasonable men adapt themselves to the world. Only a few unreasonable ones persist in trying to adapt the world to themselves. All progress in the world depends on these unreasonable men and their innovative and often non-conformist action”. George Bernard Shaw.

During the last presidential election, among the political parties and pressure groups, professionals and intellectuals made an impact in changing and moulding public thinking and swaying public opinion, which resulted in a regime change. An important feature in this scenario was that the public accorded hearing and recognition to what the intellectuals said. This healthy, emerging trend has to be managed properly for the benefit of the country and its people, without allowing it be exploited for narrow political and personal ends. In the current political context, the public has only scant regard for the most of politicians because of their misdeeds, misconduct and/or poor educational./professional background. In my previous article titled “Civic Responsibilities and Moral Obligation of Intellectuals and Professionals in National Development” in the Island on the 21st / 22nd April, 2015, it was clearly shown that the proportion of ministers in our cabinet with a Bachelor’s degree or equivalent qualification is much less than that even in Pakistan, India and Uganda. The situation could be still worse when it comes to our parliament. This is in spite of the fact that Sri Lanka possesses a much higher literacy rate than those countries, which is truly ironic.

SIRISENA 11 SIRISENA at pooja In the circumstances, it is conceivable and rational that the people are turning to and looking up to the intelligentsia for advice, guidance and direction. Here they should proffer guidance and direction in a spirit of impartiality and objectivity, and should serve as defenders of truth and justice, and challenge any unjust or irrational state of affairs and promote social justice irrespective of the consequences. This casts an onerous responsibility on the intelligentsia of the country as a whole. The intelligentsia in our country have received education and higher education free of charge; many have received further training including competency building and capacity enhancement overseas with state support. It is the common man who has been mainly paying for their education and training through the tax paid to the government. Therefore, in addition to their professional commitments, the intelligentsia have a civic responsibility and moral obligation to contribute towards the social wellbeing and common good of the people of the country.

Current involvement of intelligentsia in politics of the country

We observed that some professionals and intellectuals, individually or collectively as representatives of a body or association, came forward and supported the major political parties during the last presidential election in line with their political thinking and perspectives. However, such an engagement was mainly confined to the period prior to the election, and it started to decline thereafter and now it has almost disappeared. This is not what is required and expected of intelligentsia as such engagement lacked accountability. They need to follow up with the politicians and serve as pressure groups to make sure that the politicians elected to power deliver what they promised to the masses on the political stage. This is sadly not happening! Barring a few powerful voices, there is no whistle blowing on the part of intelligentsia as a whole, and the politicians in power carry on almost as usual.

For instances, good governance, elimination of corruption and fraud, and de-politicization of the public sector were among the key slogans on the agenda of the opposition parties prior to the last presidential election. Now the new government has been in power for only a few months, yet there are serious and unprecedented issues and allegations against the new regime. There is a wide gulf between the rhetoric and reality. Appointment of the Prime Minister in contravention of the Constitution, appointment of a foreign national as the Governor of the Central Bank disregarding locally available competent and able senior officers, legality issue of and the apparent political witch hunting through the Financial Crimes Investigation Division, alleged massive financial fraud in the recent auction of Treasury Bonds, reconstitution of many statuary bodies based on political affiliation, and not on merit, and appointment of a jumbo cabinet of 40 contrary to what had been stated in the election manifesto (25) are just a few glaring examples.

The previous regime was rejected by the people due to its alleged corruption and fraud, extravagance, abuse of power, politicization of government institutions and the like. The present government came into power on the promise that they would do away with such maladies and introduce “Yahapalana” (Good governance) and engender a new political order in the country. The new government has made some genuine attempt to introduce Yahapalaya through taking steps to establish a Constitutional Council, pruning the powers of the executive president etc., and to mend fences with the USA, Europe and India, which is truly commendable. However, its credibility is seriously at stake even within a short spell of 100 days because of the said irregularities and wrongful doings.

In regard to dealing with frauds and corruption in the past, all major cases and complaints received should be looked into and dealt with irrespective of political affiliation, rank or whether in the government or opposition. They should not be confined only to alleged frauds and corruption during the regime of the former President, but should go beyond that to deal with any misdeeds during the previous regimes as well if there are complaints or cases. There are serious allegations against some members in the present cabinet and government including some who crossed over after the election. So why not lead by example and put the house in order first? However, when one looks at what is happening at present, almost all the investigations being conducted by FCID seem to target the supporters, loyalists and family members of the former President Mahinda Rajapakse, thus they are politically motivated, which is contrary to the basic tenets of good governance. Such action seriously undermines the credibility of the government. Transparency is a key element of good governance. Therefore all complaints received should be catalogued in a chronological order and posted on a relevant website with the basic requisite details for perusal by interested parties. Then people could see for themselves what complaints have been made and when and how these are attended to, which will leave no room for any misplaced allegations and concerns.

Of late, some of our leading, but bankrupt politicians are following the theory of Joseph Goebbels, Reich Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, to sling mud and tarnish the image of political opponents. Goebbels spearheaded the misinformation and disinformation campaign of the Nazi regime to create hatred, prejudice and discrimination against Jews. People know what befell Goebbels when the Nazis were defeated by the Soviet Union. Goebbels and his wife Magda killed their six young children by giving them poison in their sleep, and then committed suicide themselves. Should our politicians take their cue from such creatures? Such conduct would never be endorsed or condoned by any civilized society. As a matter of fact, people have already started calling them Goebbels. It is heartening to hear that a code of conduct is being developed for the politicians.

There are over 100,000 professionals and intellectuals in our country with a sizable number of professional bodies and associations. Yet, there is hardly any whistle-blowing or bugle-sounding by any institution against such misdeeds and misconduct by the politicians . Intellectuals should step outside the confines of their immediate professional role, academic or cultural specialism, and apply their intellectual authority through commentary and intervention in the broader world of social, political and cultural affairs. However, such a response has not been evident, and we have seen only an appalling silence on the part of intelligentsia in the country, which is inimical to good governance, and it does not augur well for any government, any country or any nation. Had there been a robust intellectual body with a vibrant and independent voice in the country, even the regime of Mahinda Rajapakse – the person who gave the bold and brave leadership to defeat the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world, the LTTE – would not have succumbed to this fate. The professionals and intellectuals have failed in their commitment and obligation to the nation in a very crucial hour. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the intelligentsia to become a source of light, inspiration and direction to the nation and a whistle-blowing and bugle-sounding instrument of the country so that no government will suffer a similar fate in the future.

Lessons that we can learn from other countries

Finland with a population of around 5 million became a world leader in the production of eco-friendly paper and telecommunication equipment. Japan, after being devastated during the second world war, rose from the ashes to become a technological giant in the world within a period of less than 50 years. Their vision was to equal or surpass the USA and Korea’s vision is to equal or surpass Japan. Israel, which was born as a nation in 1948, is another classic example. It wanted food and water security in a desert-like country that is surrounded by hostile nations, and it had very little by way of natural resources. Besides, defense was also a high priority concern. Today they are world leaders in agriculture, (e.g. the highest milk yield per cow), food technology, military weapons including missiles. Countries like Singapore, Switzerland, Japan and Korea have become developed nations in spite of the fact that they do not have a rich natural resource base. However, they have properly tapped and harnessed the greatest and mightiest resource on Earth, namely human resource, for national development. They recognized the best and got the best out of the best. Intellectually people of all the nations are on par at birth or by nature (genes), but by nurture (upbringing and environment), they become different, which has made a world of difference between countries.

Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do”. In the West, irrespective of the position, you are held accountable for what you do. For example, imposing a fine on Tony Blair’s expectant wife for ticketless travel on the train would be simply inconceivable in Sri Lanka. In our country, the more “important” you are, the less answerable you become. Moreover, in the West, high professional standards are being maintained and people there do not generally let personal relations interfere with the professional dealings. For instance, they do not hesitate to give honest feedback about the incompetent work of a person though s/he may be a personal friend. Meritocracy is one important aspect of professionalism. Here no personal preferences or prejudices will affect the evaluation of an individual performance. As we have to benchmark ourselves against global standards, we need to embrace meritocracy.

Our problem is we have imbibed mainly the negative things from the West, but not the good things. Therefore while retaining our good values, we should assimilate those good values which will enable Sri Lanka to make greater progress in a globalized environment.

Sri Lanka is blessed with fertile soils, salubrious climate and outstandingly rich biological and ecological diversity and endowed with a rich cadre of intellectuals and professionals in a myriad of fields. Besides, it has a huge and almost untapped natural resource base, both terrestrial and marine. Now peace and stability have returned to the motherland after the conclusion of 3-decade long conflict. Thus conditions are conducive for economic development. Can we allow Sri Lanka to continue as a developing country? Can we allow our motherland to stagnate and remain subservient to powerful nations? Answer is an emphatic NO. Political independence has little or no meaning unless we can free ourselves from poverty, hunger, disease and ignorance. This is a gigantic task, but the challenge has to met. We would like to be a developed nation by 2025. It is not a dream or even a mere aspiration. It is a mission that we all should take up and accomplish. We all need to work together shedding our narrow differences to transform our “developing Sri Lanka” into a “developed Sri Lanka”. In this regard, the intellectuals and professionals of our country have an inescapable responsibility and a pivotal role to play.

Need for a vibrant voice from a robust, apolitical intellectual body

We celebrated the 67th anniversary of independence last February. Since independence, we have made good progress in many fields including education, health, housing, infrastructure development etc. Moreover, peace and stability have been restored in the island after a period of thirty years. We should pay glowing tribute to our political leaders for the above accomplishments and developments made.

In spite of the above developments, corruption, fraud, waste and extravaganza, mismanagement, indiscipline, tax evasion, divisions along ethnic, religious and caste lines, conflicts, political interference, abuse of power by uneducated and unscrupulous politicians, dethroning of meritocracy, crime and violence and the like have been gradually eating into the vitals of the country over the past several decades. Now they have become rampant and deeply entrenched in the country, and as a result, its social fabric has been torn asunder, thereby posing a serious threat to the socio-economic development of the country.

Successive governments in Sri Lanka have done precious little since independence to address those issues or they have been ineffective in combating them. However, the blame for the deplorable state of affairs cannot be solely pinned on the politicians because the intellectuals and professionals in the country have an inescapable civic responsibility and moral obligation to fight against such ills. In actuality, the intellectuals and professionals in the country have left the governance of the country totally in the hands of politicians, and they have been only sitting back and criticizing while some professional groups have been running after politicians collectively and individually. If we are to prosper as a nation, the intellectuals and professionals of the country ought to provide professional leadership in the task of nation building. This is particularly important as the educational and professional background of the politicians of Sri Lanka is rather poor when compared to that of the other countries, in the region and outside.

Today, many politicians choose to focus on short-term issues and current crises rather than address important looming crises such as escalating crime and violence, climate change, indebtedness, economic disparities and social inequalities. They pay attention mainly only to short-term vote grabbing initiatives in order to ensure their re-election. Intellectuals as a body could alter such a tendency for short-termism by providing a platform for discussion and reflection on high priority long-term national concerns and problems. With the present-day Parliament almost incapable of serious debate, informed discussion and civilized discourse, the nation desperately needs such a body that can promote intellectual dialogue on public and social issues and trigger public debate on matters of national interest.


How to make such a body effective and impactful?

As stated before, there are over 100,000 professionals and intellectuals in the country with a large number of professional bodies covering a multitude of fields including Engineering, Medicine, Agriculture, Architecture, Management, Marketing, Accounting, Banking and Surveying, to name a few. Jean Monnet, the architect of EU, said, “Nothing is possible without people; but nothing is lasting without institutions”. Therefore we propose to mobilize the professionals and intellectuals in Sri Lanka to create a unique national level high-profile, high-impact and apolitical robust institution of intelligentsia in the country, which will serve as a guiding force and lodestar for the national development and nation building with the ultimate objective of transforming our “developing Sri Lanka” into a developed Sri Lanka” within a reasonable period of time. This is a gigantic task in which the intelligentsia will not work in water-tight compartments, but in concert with the politicians, proffering the requisite technical advice, guidance and direction. This involves bringing together the professionals, intellectuals and scholars from diverse disciplines in the public and private sectors under one roof and welding them into a cohesive, close-knit and formidable force to advance the said cause.

This institution, “Voice of Intellectuals and Professionals (VIP)”, should have an inspiring and powerful vision which will excite and energize the prospective members and awaken their professional conscience and intellectual passion. Therefore crafting a noble, lofty, aspirational and compelling vision and mission and articulating it to the prospective membership will be of paramount importance. Identifying a set of core values such as dedication, excellence, integrity, objectivity, social responsibility, solidarity and inclusivity proves useful in improving its strength and impact. We will build a new cadre of professionals of steel who will not ask for sops from the government and genuflect before politicians, but lead by example in integrity, accountability, discipline and commitment in order to usher a better tomorrow for our motherland.

The objectives of the proposed institution were outlined in the previous article. Its activities will not be confined to Colombo, but will be spread throughout the country with branches in each province. Therefore it will have close links not only with the political institutions at national, provincial and village levels, but also with the community leaders as well as community-based organizations. That will enable the VIP to get a commendable grasp of the issues and problems of the common man, which in turn will help it address them effectively. This institution may not have any formal authority as such, but with its organic links with the community and its core values such as discipline, objectivity and social commitment and professionalism, it will develop moral authority over the people. That will facilitate implementation of a people-oriented programme by VIP.

Because of the encouraging response to my previous article from Sri Lankan professionals and intellectuals at home and abroad, we are hopeful that the passionate commitment, technical competence and intellectual prowess of our intelligentsia coupled with their patriotic passion for the motherland would translate our dream into reality. We would like the VIP to emerge as the brain trust, intellectual power house and the biological compass (trim tab) of the nation and be a strategic partner and a catalyst in transforming our “developing Sri Lanka” to “developed Sri Lanka” before long.

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come” said Victor Hugo. Therefore we propose to launch this institution shortly. Any constructive comments and ideas will be gratefully acknowledged.

Professor Ranjith Senaratne…… (




Leave a comment

Filed under authoritarian regimes, cultural transmission, democratic measures, economic processes, historical interpretation, language policies, legal issues, life stories, modernity & modernization, politIcal discourse, power politics, Presidential elections, press freedom & censorship, propaganda, sri lankan society, world affairs

Leave a Reply