The Insights etched within Walter Fernando’s Autobiography of an Administrative Career

Gerald H Peiris, in The Island, 1 January 2020, where the title runs thus“Career Challenges of a Public Servant”

Among the treasures in my collection of books there are several biographical works received as gifts ―those of Ediriweera Sarachchandra, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Kingsley de Silva, Usvatte Aratchchi, Jolly Somasundram, Sudath Gunasekara and Walter Fernando. All of us belonged to the Peradeniya segment of the University of Ceylon in the 1950s which, over a brief and exhilarating spell, seemed to fulfill the expectations of its founders in epitomising the long awaited national resurgence, offering an acceptable blend of ‘intellectual’ and ‘utilitarian’ perspectives of higher learning. Since then we have travelled along different paths that merged and diverged at various times. Now in our old age we have shared memories of both joy and sorrow.

Walter’s recently published autobiography constitutes the core of this essay. His childhood experiences were, at least at the surface, almost identical to mine. His father, a Methodist pastor, and mother, a teacher, performed most of their career services, as my parents did, in the church-cum-school network established throughout the island in the ‘missionary phase’ of that Christian denomination in British ‘Ceylon‘. His parents (like mine) were transferred from one station to another ―Aluthgama (bustling township along the west coast), Bandārawela (enchanting hill-station of the Central Highlands), Godapitiya (verdant village in the Nilwalā valley), and Mākandura (agrarian market-town in the salubrious northwestern plains)―  were also among the areas to which my parents were sent. While having the benefits of home-life in an extraordinarily  wide range of contrasting ecological and socio-economic settings at roughly the same age-span of our lives, we became students of Methodist schools  ―Walter at Richmond in Galle, and I at Kingswood in Kandy― and entered the University in the same year. Thereafter, we had only snippets of information about each other, and hardly ever met, until he visited my home fifty years later at my mother’s funeral.

To proceed with Walter’s story, at an early stage of Walter’s school education his parents were able to secure a place for him at Richmond College, one of the most prestigious schools in Sri Lanka. They, like many other parents of that time, especially those serving at the lower strata of salaried employment, often sacrificed their own comforts and needs in order to ensure for their children the type of upward social mobility which English medium schools located in the main urban areas could facilitate. Moreover, hostel-life in such schools, supposedly designed to emulate that of the reputed public schools in England, while inculcating a sense of discipline and self-reliance among the boarders, ensured continuity of the students’ passage from primary grades to pre-university levels, uninterrupted by changes of the parents’ residence from time to time. The fact that, typically, school curricula were formulated by each school in accordance with its priorities, and were not based on standardised texts and tests imposed on the entire state-sector school system, underscored the significance of such continuity.

Walter was a Richmondite from 1944 to 55. That phase of life is indelibly etched in his memory as one of contentment, steady scholastic progress, enrichment of extracurricular interests and skills, and  inculcation of personality traits of integrity and steadfastness. He recalls the guidance and benevolence received in abundance from his teachers, the joyous camaraderie of his school-mates, and the opportunities that were provided for his participation in almost the entire range of literary and religious pursuits and sports activities of the school. Deprivations of living in the school hostel in the form of regimented daily routine and the frugal meals (five string-hoppers and coconut gravy at breakfast, the more delectable morsels of food grabbed by the big boys at lunch, dhal curry and bread for dinner) were trivia stoically borne. The references to specific events with which this part of his biography is embellished convey the impression that his intense gratitude to Richmond has remained undiminished throughout his life. (Gosh, I wish I could say that my recollections of Kingswood were similar.)

Selected for admission to the University of Ceylon in 1956 on the basis of his performance at the public examination conducted entirely by the university, Walter, like the two-hundred and seventy others who entered its Arts Faculty that year, began their undergraduate pursuits, somewhat bewildered by their non-entity status in the university community (unlike at school), with admiration for the savants who performed for them theatrically (unlike the teachers they had at school) at the Arts Theatre (the grandest auditorium in ‘Ceylon’ at that time). With nothing more than six or seven hours a week of drudgery in that arena, a thin scatter of light entertainment at ‘tutorial classes’, board and lodging superior to those at home, and with almost limitless freedom, life at Peradeniya was more OK than usual.

The glimpses of the university campus of the late 1950s provided by Walter include highlights such as Ediriweera  Sarachchandra, Siri Gunasinghe and Supiramaniam Vithyanandan guiding their flock towards refined forms of performing arts and literature; national champions and record-holders demonstrating sublime standards in the more popular sports of the country; political pedagogues of national fame arriving at the Arts Theatre to provide ‘Hyde Park’ type of entertainment to large and boisterous gatherings; and vibrant student organisations promoting a variety of extracurricular interests and affiliations including those of religion. A fascinating feature of Walter’s kaleidoscopic portrayal of the campus of his time is that, even well past eighty years of age, he has displayed an uncanny capacity to recollect specificities on so many of his contemporaries, not only while they were at Peradeniya but also in later life. This indicates, more than all else, his sincere care for those with whom he had come into contact. It is, indeed, a rare feature in autobiographic compilations (not those referred to above) where the norm appears to be the narrator performing the lead role in every scene.

The Arts undergraduates of that time were assured of salaried employment as teachers, administrators, bankers, lawyers, journalists or officers in the security services no sooner they graduate. Some among them, especially, those for whom earning a salary and thus becoming self-supporting (and procreate?) as soon as possible was an overarching consideration, opted to complete their studies at the university with a three-year ‘General Degree’ programme, even when their performance at the ‘General Arts Qualifying’ hurdle conducted at the end of the first year permits admission to a ‘Special Degree’ programme involving a further three years of study. Walter opted for a ‘General Degree’ which he obtained in 1959, and found employment, first and over a brief spell, as a school teacher, and thereafter, as a ‘Public Servant’ in government administration. This, in the definition I prefer to denote commencement of adult life ―namely, achieving independence from parental support― represented Walter’s advent to adulthood.

The ‘Labour Officer’ post to which he was recruited in 1961 ranked at the bottom of the barrel of executive cadres of state sector employment. Despite its laborious functions, its salaries were low and perquisites such as official residences and vehicles were not made available to those at that level. The only concession made by the employer was a modest loan to buy a vehicle for the extensive travel which a Labour Officer’s functions necessitate. Walter admits that the ‘car-loan’ was what induced him to apply for the  job. The reader should bare in mind that a salary, a car, and a spouse (not necessarily in that order) were among the prioritised early adulthood needs of the graduates of that time. The somewhat meagre prospects for promotion to higher grades might have been for him a supplementary attraction.

Over the next thirty-five years (March 1961 to June 1996) Walter was a public servant ―not an “obedient” one like the sahibs of the colonial bureaucracy―  but a servant to his deeply ingrained moral values. His career was one of remarkable achievement especially when examined against the backdrop of the fact that he served at a time of increasing dominance of all aspects of governance by politicians, alongside an exponential proliferation of corruption in the public affairs of our country. For some in the bureaucracy, the emerging coalescence of criminalised politics and politicised crime furnished opportunities to kowtow, conform and earn bountiful career rewards. Many hibernated in resentment. Others, especially those with credentials marketable abroad, left in disgust. Still others, probably a minority in the burgeoning bureaucracy, resisted any deviation from the straight and narrow, while gaining a reputation for efficiency, and survived mainly because there still remained a few in the political leadership who could recognise genuine merit.

Details of Walter’s career record ―ascending from the base to the apex of the administrative hierarchy, and from there, to a sublime plane in the diplomatic services―  leave no room whatever to doubt that he should be placed in that last category. His elevation in rank was achieved without becoming a political lackey or being propped up by external interventions (as, for instance, in the case of some of our dons who crept into diplomatic or bureaucratic posts and demonstrated the famous ‘Peter Principle’ by rising to their level of incompetence”).

In his first ten years after initial recruitment Walter served as a Labour Officer in the course of which he is known to have left an indelible imprint at the places and areas he served. He settled many labour disputes, some of it in situations of violent labour unrest. The same character trait of courage and tact were evident in his providing leadership to a concerted campaign by the all-island ‘Association of Labour Officers’ to obtain their just demands concerning salary anomalies and promotional prospects. It was only in 1972 that Walter, having passed a competitive examination for recruitment to the ‘Ceylon Administrative Services’ (CAS), obtained his own promotion to the Class II, Grade II of that cadre  ―a rank to which raw graduates were admitted since the reforms of the administrative services implemented in 1963 on the basis of a competitive examination from which Labour Officers were barred.

Walter’s biography indicates that in the course of his services as a CAS officer until he became a diplomat, he held, consecutively, thirteen different posts, entailing diverse executive responsibilities and functions such as those pertaining to agrarian affairs, local government institutions, ‘Peoples’ Committees’ (of the early 1970s), housing development, regulating the production and marketing of alcohol, monitoring a ceasefire of the ‘Eelam Wars’, registration of persons of Indian and Pakistani origin, management of lotteries, and immigration and emigration – i.e. roughly, an average of 20 months at each post!

This, of course, was a procedure that prevailed almost throughout the British Empire since about the mid-19th century one of the main features of which was entrusting a medley of administrative functions in different parts of the empire to ‘talented amateurs’ identified mainly on the basis of the quality of either their pedigree or their degree ― the latter obtained from leading British universities. In post-colonial Sri Lanka that procedure persisted for some time (Sanderatne, 1975:xii), and, as I have caricatured elsewhere, it was not unusual to find in our system of public administration “… ‘Philosophy’ policemen, ‘Geography’ bankers, ‘Sanskrit’ land administrators, ‘Classics’ tax officers, and ‘a Historian’ deciding who gets what from the Treasury (Peiris, 1995:112). There was never a doubt about the integrity and competence with which they served.  Nevertheless, there is an issue here that deserves a study of the comparative advantages of those recruited for administrative services being allowed to ‘specialise’ in one or another group of cognate fields, with the prevailing procedure of arbitrarily shifting them from one perch to another, each of short duration. In this age of increasing high-tech professionalism, there is a case for permitting at least a segment of the CAS (since 1972, SLAS) cadres ―those in administrative charge of public services such as health care, higher education, or commercial energy production― to remain in one or another generic set of functions, acquiring an understanding of the related technicalities, so that they would acquire the competence at least to understand the relevance of what the professionals prescribe in the form of ‘consultancy reports’ and ‘project plans’ in relation to the needs and possibilities in their respective fields of administrative authority, and to use that understanding to influence ministerial decision-making.

The need for brevity prevents me from recounting here even in condensed form Walter’s progress up the SLAS ladder, and the captivating experiences he had including his entertaining confrontation with the high and mighty. But to generalize on that part of his narrative, I see in it that the higher he climbed and greater the authority he had for decision-making on his own within the confines of ‘ARs’ and the ‘FRs’, the more profound was his impact in terms of both functional improvement of the institutions that came under his care as well as the efficacy of such institutions in serving the public. As a classic illustration of this generalization, I refer to his impact during the penultimate stage of his public service career as the ‘Commissioner of Emigration and Immigration’ (for about 3 years from early 1990) which earned him the unique distinction of  receiving a series of accolades from members of our parliament in the course of a budget debate. I speculate that the President’s decision in late-1992 to transfer him from administrative services to diplomatic services, offering him the prestigious post of representing Sri Lanka at Ottawa, encapsulated the recognition of his integrity and talents at the highest levels of government. It was obviously a crowning career achievement.

Yet the assignment offered was an awesome challenge. It was, I recollect, a time of escalating terrorist violence in Sri Lanka that continued to impel an outflow of political and economic refugees from the country for whom the Canadian government was invariably a cordial but misguided host. The ‘Black July’ convulsions of 1983 in Sri Lanka had remained fresh in the minds of the Canadian public (as indeed it did elsewhere), being inflamed further by incessant dissemination of falsehoods on reconciliation efforts that were embodied in the constitutional reforms of 1987 and the government’s continuing peace overtures thereafter. Thus, it was no surprise that Walter’s  presentation of credential to Canada’s Head of State took place almost two months after his arrival in Ottawa that frigid mid-winter. The Governor General’s formal response to Walter at that ceremony contained the nuanced pronouncement: “Our fruitful tradition of political and diplomatic exchange will doubtless continue, especially in areas such as human rights and conflict resolution”.

Walter continued undaunted by the lukewarm official welcome and the unconcealed hostility of the electorally influential pro-‘Eelam’ activists ―a medley that included a few veterans of Canada’s ‘Liberal Party’, scholars, professional, businessmen, and those of clandestine outfits such as the ‘Kannan Gang’ and the ‘VVT Gang’― who could well have been only a minority in the community of “Tamils of Sri Lanka Origin” numbering about 200,000 in Toronto alone (Davis, 1996). He visited the city many times to interact with influential politicians, diplomats and groups of prospective investors in order to lobby for Sri Lanka’s cause. His travels to outlying States of the Canadian federation also carried the same thematic thrust. He streamlined operations at his HQ, accelerating its pace of work. An estimate by the embassy in Ottawa at that time (cited in Davis, 1996) placed the monthly contribution of Tamils living in Canada to the ‘Tiger’ coffers at the equivalent of about US$ 730,000, suggesting that Walter’s embassy gathered useful ‘intelligence’ information as well. He was a formidable source of support for the efforts of the newly elected President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, to reach a negotiated settlement of Sri Lanka’s conflict. Perhaps Walter’s most phenomenal achievement in diplomacy was made known (and recorded in the Hansard) in the course of a parliament debate on the Appropriation Bill by Joseph Pararajasingham, a ‘Tamil National Alliance’ MP from Batticaloa District, an extract from which is reproduced below.

“Then Sir, I was in Canada last month, and there I met some of my Tamil people. They were full of praise for the High Commissioner for Canada, Mr Walter Fernando. … They told me that the High Commission in Canada was in a mess, but after Mr Walter Fernando assumed office three months back, the expatriates were in a position to obtain whatever assistance they wanted from this Mission.”

Note: This MP was assassinated in 2005 by the LTTE at the Christmas midnight mass of St. Mary’s church in Batticaloa in 2005 

Walter’s tenure in Canada was not curtailed by the ‘regime changes’ in the aftermath of the assassination of President Premadasa in 1993. Quite uncharacteristically, the new President, elected several months later, allowed him to continue his 3-year mission, probably being persuaded by Lakshman Kadirgamar, a statesman of rare worth, who headed the Foreign Affairs ministry. We thus see Walter returning to Sri Lanka in June 1996, with delightful memories and a heap of laurels from various sources here and in Canada for what he had achieved.

Though well past the usual retirement age of administrative officers in Sri Lanka, he did not rest on his laurels. He responded to invitations from several institutions by contributing his experiences and talents in administration and management to such institutions. More important than all else, being the devout Christian he had all along been, he accorded priority above all else to participating in the work of his ‘Church’, both as a celebrity in its flock as well as an exemplary layman well versed in Christianity. Since these invaluable services are of slender relevance to the subject of “challenges of a public servant” they need not be discussed in this article.

What I prefer to do instead is to draw the reader’s attention to an incisive and authentic sketch presented in the final chapter of Part I of Walter’s book (Part II consists of miscellaneous sets of information) in the form of a  “Then and Now” account of the essence of transformations in Sri Lanka’s Public Administration milieu over the past six decades. It reads like the release of pent up outrage by an insider at the tragic degeneration of this segment of governance. It must be read in its original form for it to have the profound impact it should surely have at the highest decision-making levels at present.

*                    *                    *

This comment on the “treasures” mentioned at the outset is intended to rationalise my treating all of them as autobiographies. Sarachchandra, Jolly and Usvatte, among the authors referred to, say that their writings (listed below) are works of fiction. Jolly, making a categorical (but tongue-in-cheek?) disclaimer in that regard states: “though influenced by a few actual events, Macbeth Daggers is a work of fiction”, and adds that “individuals, places and events described in (his) novel are from a fictitious country, they are imaginary (and) any resemblance to living persons, except named public figures, is pure coincidence”. Usvatte  says that his Aluth Māthanga is a composition based on social transformations witnessed in Sri Lanka from about 1940, although what its reader is more likely to find is an admittedly fascinating life-experience of a person at different stages of his upward social mobility. According to the ‘Foreword’ of  Gamanaka Mula in which Amarasekara displayed his masterly creative skills is a novel depicting the childhood of ‘Piyadāsa’ whose saga is continued in a series of other novels that I find somewhat less fictitious. Pin Ăthi Sarasavi Varamak Dennē, says the maestro Sarachchandra, is not autobiography, presumably because it does not reveal the whole truth about himself  ― but then, who has, or who will? Certainly not Bertrand Russell venturing into unfathomed depths of  his own illustrious life (Russell, 1967) which our guru has referred to as an ideal work of that genre. Sudath’s journey from a remote hamlets in the Central Highlands to the ‘Ivory Tower’ at Peradeniya, and from there, to the portals of the ‘Public Service Commission’ at Colombo in his youth, recounted in Viya Siduren Ahasa Dutimi, evokes the same admiration generated by Usvatte’s biography, especially for the social distance they had traveled, the heights they had reached, and the trials and tribulations they had surmounted. What Kingsley has produced is an all too brief sketch of his experiences in formal learning which eventually elevated him to the summit of academic affairs in Sri Lanka. The Making of a Historian authored by him, and Walter’s Challenges of a Public Servant encapsulate their own unconcealed career experiences.

All these authors are well known public figures in our country whose lives have touched those of many among the literati in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Taking this into account, and in the context of the fact that innumerable works of fiction also contain revelations of varying clarity of their authors’ lives, I am sceptical about the necessity for the autobiography-novel distinction insisted by some of them.

WRITINGS REFERRED TO IN THE TEXT

Amarasekara, Gunadasa (1984) Gamanaka Mula;  (1985); Gum Doren Eliyata;  (1992) Inimagē Ihalata;  (1993) Yali Maga Wetha;  (2001) Duru Katharaka Dukata Kiriyaka;  (2010) Gamanaka Aga,  Boralesgmuwa: Visidunu Publishers.

Davis, Anthony (1996) ‘Tiger International’, Asia Week, July 1996: 30-38.

De Silva, Kingsley (2015) Making of a Historian, Kandy: International Centre for Ethnic Studies.

Fernando, Walter (2019) Career Challenges of a Public Servant, Colombo: Homsa.

Gunasekera, Sudath (2009) Viya Siduren Ahasa Dutimi, Nugegoda: Sarasavi Publishers; (2013) Ratata Ahimivana Ran Ākara, Colombo: S. Godage

Peiris, G. H. (1995) ‘Faculties of Arts and Oriental Studies at Peradeniya’, in The University System of Sri Lanka: Vision and Reality, eds. K. M. de Silva & G. H. Peiris, Kandy: International Centre for Ethnic Studies: 110-129;  (

Peiris, G. H. (2002) ‘Secessionist War and Terrorism in Sri Lanka’, in The Global Threat of Terror, eds. K. P. S. Gill & Ajai Sahni, New Delhi: Institute of Conflict Management.

Russell, Bertrand (1967) Bertrand Russell, London: Allan & Unwin

Sanderatne, A. E. H. (1975) Glimpses of the Public Service of Ceylon During the Period of Transition, 1927-1962, Colombo: Kandy Books.

Sarachchandra, Ediriweera (2003) Pin Ăthi Sarasavi Varamak Dennē, Nugegoda: Sarasavi Prakāshakayõ.

Somasundram, Jolly (2008) Macbeth Daggers, Colombo: Nakeeran Publishers.

Usvatte-Arachchi (2010) Aluth Māthanga, Borella: Wijesuriya Grantha Kendraya.

****  *****

ALSO SEE ……. Leelananda de Silva: “A Public Service in Decline,” Island, 13 July 2019  …………….. http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=207371

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