How Sri Lanka missed the Chinese Path to the Cutting-Edge in Today’s World

G. Usvatte-aratchi, Sunday Island, 2 December 2018, where the title is “Sinhala and Tamil as languages of instruction and administration”

There have been several letters to the Editor in The Island, on these themes. I want to correct some mistakes that recurred in these interventions and present a perspective that has not been presented so far.

Solomon Bandaranaike had little to do with the language of instruction in school. The credit goes to J.R. Jayewardene and V. Nallliah who moved a resolution in the State Council in 1943 that the language of instruction in schools shall be Sinhala and Tamil. The resolution was carried. I read somewhere that the moving spirit for the initiative came from Jayantha Weerasekera, who was an official in the Sinhala Maha Sabha, of which at that time Jayewardene was a (the?) leader. Jayantha Weeraekere was a close friend and collaborator of Kumaratunga Munidasa, a powerful voice for Sinhala language. The Resolution was not acted upon until January in 1947.

  Jayantha Weerasekera  CWW Kannagara

Children who started school in 1947, sought admission to university in 1960/61 or later. The easy solution and the one that was accepted by government was that universities teach in Sinhala and Tamil. Alternatives are well worth exploring even now.

The consequences for society were enormous. With Sinhala and Tamil as languages of administration, Bandaranaike struck a powerful blow for democracy. There was no sense in a democratic society that the ruled be ruled in a language which the ruled neither read nor spoke. In early 19th century, both England and France adopted democracy as a form of government and ruled in English and French respectively, both very young languages. There was an upper crust in society, many in the Church, who knew Latin, a highly revered old language. But to the wise men of both England and France, the vernacular was far more important than Cicero’s Latin to govern ordinary people. Members of Parliament, though, often quoted Cicero in soaring Latin. (The closest that came to Cicero in modern times was Barack Obama whose rhythm and intonation were delightful to listen to.) Across the Atlantic, the rebel colonists had quietly ordained to themselves that they shall be governed in English. As a consequence, almost the entire vocabulary of democracy is either French or English, both of which went to ancient Greece and Rome for help in forming it.

People in South America, the natives, not the colons, are still governed in Spanish or Portuguese, languages completely alien to them. People in sub-Saharan Africa, where the common people mostly speak some form of Swahili, are ruled in English, French. Portuguese or Spanish. This is not democratic government, although there are genuine and severe difficulties of governing in the local languages mainly because there are many such languages in each country and each language, with many sharp variations.

In the Gambia, a very small country in West Africa, in the three main tribal languages, the word for President is ‘king’. An interesting and non-replicable solution occurs in North Africa, where some form of Arabic is spoken. However, each form of Arabic is not usable when leaders of all these countries come to parley. However, they all understand Koranic Arabic of the 7th century and so they conduct business in that tongue. In that sense there are no countries in Africa, where the ruled are governed in their own language.

To me the most significant effect the change in 1956 in the languages of administration was that we became a democratic society.

The effects of that change spread much further. Education in secondary schools began to spread widely. Colonial governments as well early post-colonial governments had tried hard to teach students at the secondary level in English, all over the country. There is an account in the Administration Report of the Director of Education in a year close to 1950 that the Department interviewed some thousands of applicants who wanted to teach English in schools and that they selected less than a few hundred. So, had Government persisted with their efforts to teach secondary school in English, there probably would have been a revolt in the country. In practical terms, there was no alternative to teaching secondary school in Sinhala and Tamil.

Let us not hide ourselves from the fact that standards of teaching and learning fell drastically. Sinhala had not progressed from 1,500 and new concepts in all disciplines were alien to Sinhala. In almost all disciplines, a vocabulary had to grow and usages well established. Many university teachers and school teachers toiled long and hard to generate a literature. In the faculties of science, teachers while helping the young charges to learn in Sinhala, switched to English in later years. There was no serious effort in universities to teach students English in the first year, so that they could learn in English. Students commonly learn Mandarin, Japanese, Russian or French with such ease when they go to foreign universities that teach in those languages. (One has to appreciate the difficulties in these languages, tones and script in Mandarin, verbs in both French and Russian, to learn how difficult it is to master them, compared to the simplicity of English.)

There is little to suggest that our students at 17 or 18 years could not have mastered English in that time. The English Department in Peradeniya is not on record that they made any serious moves in this direction. Nor did the two new universities headed by learned bhikkhus see the importance of being taught in a language at the forefront of scholarly endeavor. Sinhala nor Tamil was one of them. They are still not.

Twenty years and more later we had the full effects of this change in the medium of instruction. Until 2005, the political leaders of this country were from Colombo. Two of them were graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. Two of them had attended St.Thomas’ College in Galkissa. Two of them, mother and daughter, had attended St. Bridget’s Convent in Colombo and the daughter had been a student in the most prestigious Sciences Po in Paris. Two had attended prestigious Royal College, the oldest government school in the country. One claimed that he had attended the highly esteemed St. Joseph’s College in Colombo.

The break came in 2005. He was from Medamoolana in the dry Hambantota district. He was not an alumnus of any well-known school or university. He was educated in Sinhala. In 2015, another man, this time from a colonization scheme in Minneriya, was elected President. He was educated in Sinhala in a local government school. These changes for persons outside the capital, away from prestigious schools in the capital city, away from British and French universities (or even local universities), away from learning in English are the salutary consequences of the change in the language of instruction to Sinhala/Tamil.

An accompanying result was that the prospect of a non-Sinhala speaker as President/Prime Minister has become quite remote. The closest we came to pick an ethnic Tamil as Prime Minister (under the 1978 Constitution) was when Lakshman Kadirgamar ran the risk of being nominated Prime Minister. The horse that won and was backed by Sirisena in that race was Mahinda Rajapaksa. He rides high again.

To deny that standards of education did not fall consequent upon the change in the medium of instruction is to hide in an open field under a blue sky in broad daylight. That fall is directly traceable to lack of reading material in the local languages. Teachers who are the output of the system reproduce its weaknesses, often amplified in each generation. The Japanese as early as the late 17th century started translating from barbarian languages and the mighty Tokyo Imperial University grew out of a translation bureau. The world’s good universities are now flooded with students from China. Classes in universities on the West coast of US have a majority of students from China.

I read a report that Cornell on the Atlantic coast is similarly populated. The number that rambles in my mind is that every year China sends in 500,000 students to US colleges and universities. The numbers to other European and Australian- New Zealand universities are similarly high and I cannot readily recall the exact numbers. These students pay full tuition fees and pay for their upkeep. The universities happily accept these students, as they provide much needed financial support to universities.

China spends this money happily because the rates of return are very high. The industrial might of China has been built on US technology, and some of it has been acquired legitimately in courses of study in these foreign universities. The initiative came from Deng Xiaoping who in 1978 said, ‘ We need to send tens of thousands (to foreign universities). This is one of the key ways…..of improving our level of scientific education.’ Of the 13 universities that submitted the most cited papers in mathematics and computer science 2013 -2016, Tsinghua in Beijing and Harbin (north of Beijing) Institution of Technology came on top. Stanford and MIT followed them and Princeton was way down sharing place number 13. Qian Yingyi (Columbia, Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Berkley) became the Dean of the Tsinghua’s school of economics and management. Shi Yi-gong who became the dean of Tsinghua School of Life Sciences came from Johns Hopkins and Princeton. (See The Economist, November 17th).

Yet apologists here keep badgering students who return here after education in good US universities. The faculty in Jaffna University recently turned down an application from a highly regarded professor of science from Boston for a similar position in their university. China now celebrates the development of high technology. But these are for prestige and not for reducing poverty, which is the monumental achievement of the Chinese government during the last 20 years. These armies of students will bring English language skills with them. We have failed to do that.

Very true that Britain was an imperial power from about 1800 to 1945. China well recalls the opium wars, the suppression of the Boxer rebellion and the flight of the dowager Empress Cixi from the Forbidden City, unequal treaties and humiliating treaty ports, but does not foolishly allow that awareness to prevent them learning from the rich experience of those countries. Again, it is true that in both China and Sri Lanka, we have had great intellectual and technological advances millennia ago, the Chinese distinctly more generic. But they belong in those centuries and here we are in the 21st century with a leader shouting ‘apata samskrutiyakthiya nava’, whilst contriving all sorts of diabolical and hair brained schemes to undermine normal life in this chaotic land, all to lengthen his political life. What a price we ordinary folk pay!

The public service is inhabited by the output of government schools. That 52% of them are women is again thanks, in part, to the change in the medium of instruction from English to Sinhala/Tamil. The fall in standards of competence and quality of service come from the output of this education system. The fall in standards of competence was blatantly evident in the shoddy piece of legislation, of the most important kind, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution and even worse, its translation into Sinhala. (How about the Tamil translation?)

In sum, I applaud the decision to teach in schools in Sinhala and Tamil. I see no alternative to that if we sincerely wanted government by the people and for the people. I deplore the failure to teach in English in universities as that cost us what Japan and China achieved: accept and adopt advances in science and technology and use that knowledge and technology to eradicate poverty in a short period of time and eliminate superstition so widely poisoning our life and secure prosperity.

In a book of essays I will publish next month, I will explain briefly in Sinhala the achievements in Hebrew and Japanese in the 19th century to develop as languages and bring science and technology to work for the people.

****  *****

A NOTE:  The writer was educated in English in a government secondary school (which also taught Sinhala and Pali) in a little sleepy townlet by the coast, now notorious as a tourist centre where narcotic drugs are common currency and crime is stock in trade. He graduated from Peradeniya, happy that he had learnt to learn. Later he worked, on invitation, in the Secretariat of the United Nations mostly, in New York City for 20 years, and gained proficiency in French and some familiarity with Mandarin. He came back in 1996 to live in Colombo and soon joined Hela Havula, an association of Sinhala Language enthusiasts, first set up by Kumaratunge Munidasa. In 2010, he joined the Editorial Board of Samskruti on invitation by its founder Editor Amaradasa Virasinhe. Samskruti was the foremost journal of literary criticism in the country from 1953. The writer edited several issues of the Journal. He writes in both English and Sinhala and his third book in Sinhala is scheduled to be in print in December, if he is not distracted from reading its final proofs. He is not arguing artlessly that an education in English provides a magic pill that makes people competent in government. Those interested in the argument may read his lecture before the National Heritage Trust in July 2017. This indecent boast is written simply to show that secondary (and university) education in English in a remote little townlet did not prevent students from gaining competence in Sinhala (and any other language for that matter). It is the shortsightedness of ignorant politicians, the lack of imagination and clear thinking on the part of bureaucrats and the intellectuals who rode donkeys of emotions to chase away reason to the wilderness that a ‘pearl of great price’ was not thrown even before swine. And here we are in the current smelly codswallop of dysfunction created by the whims and fancies of the output of the present schools system.

A COMMENT from KEN MONCRIEFF of Australia** submitted by Email, 4 December 2018: …… The “difference” is that of “thought” within peoples according to the ethnic background and indoctrination, particularly the latter. And when one group is confronted by any situation, event or comment, their immediate way out is, to nail the messenger, and to brand him/her as racist in their reaction.  Any analysis of what they believe usually shows  they fail the validity/verification test, as with all religions, yet those very beliefs they pass off as facts are based on myth and supposition, yet they act out these as part of their culture and life-style. That has occurred continually throughout history to the present day and is re-enforced by their ego-defence and -identification with it, and their inability to escape or at least step back from their own indoctrination  to view “reality” objectively.

** Ken Moncrieff in Queensland (?) has corresponded with me on Australian issues on a few occasions and I have seen Letters to the Editor published in The Australian newspaper on occasions. It is good to see him taking an interest in Sri Lankan affairs.

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