For Lanka: Lessons from the Past and Lee Kwan Yew

Somasundaram Skandakumar’s Address to the Rotary Club in Colombo, July 2021 … as presented in The Sunday Island, 11 July 2021... with highlighting imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi …. with this title “Where we went wrong and the possible course correction”

Mr President, let me congratulate you and all members on the inauguration of Rotary Club of Colombo Port City and wish you every success in your noble endeavours ! I was born barely two weeks before Independance and like some of you listening in, lived through it all in my land of birth. What has transpired over those 73 years is common knowledge so let me share why I love my country as I do.

At a very young age in a geography class I looked at the world map to see where our country was positioned. I marvelled at the sheer beauty of its outline and location, unmatched by any other country or continent on that map. I reflected on its priceless resources as tea,rubber,coconut, and cinnamon, graphite and gems, and our climate, scenery, and arable fertile land with ready access to water, spread over a mere 65,000 kms and said to myself that it had to be a gift from above.

I listened to our national anthem and in particular the line ” eka mawa kuge daru” that we were indeed children of one common mother. I studied our national flag, and reminded myself that the four bo leaves representing Karuna, Meththa, Muditha and Upekha,  meant love and compassion for our fellow beings.

I took pride in our rich civilization, made possible by the teachings of the Buddha, who ended his profound sermons with the line ” May All beings be well and happy.” Yes the Buddha pointed out even then, that no one could build his happiness on another’s unhappiness. His description of human ego fascinated me as he referred to it as man’s biggest enemy. Our ego is a film over our eyes that blurs our vision, and it is only when it is removed will we see our way forward clearly the Buddha preached. What more did I need to feel blessed to be born in such an awesome country.

Came our Independance and the potential was huge. Regarded then as the granary of the East, we had a beautiful horizon ahead of us and a highway leading to it; all we needed to do was to traverse that highway and follow the rules. Tragically many in the driving seats had their ego as their companion and turned at wrong exits and completely lost their way with devastating consequences.

The line ”I stoped crying for a new pair of shoes when I met a man who had no feet”  told me that this world we live in was only intended to be divided between the fortunate and the unfortunate. This biblical line was meant to remind those of us in the fortunate category, to make a meaningful contribution to the lives of our fellow beings on the other side of the divide and help evolve an order of love and compassion to make the world a better place.

However, despite these meaningful religious teachings, blinded by sheer selfishness and insecurity we began to divide ourselves on ethnic and religious lines with disastrous consequences. We let it happen here only because we failed to place our loyalty to Country ahead of loyalty to the individual, and have paid a horribly destructive price.

Marginalisation led to radicalization,, while discrimination let to extremism and Sri Lankans throughout the Island, known for their  gentle and caring nature, were in some places being transformed by a feeling of rejection. Sadly there was neither the wisdom  nor the will to recognize and arrest this ominous transformation in its infancy.

Here I would like to quote a line from Lee Kwan Yew ‘s address to the people of Singapore to celebrate their Independance in 1965. He said ” Today we have the right of self rule. You are free to speak in Mandarin, Malay, English or Tamil: but never forget that you are first a Singaporean.”

I do not think I need to comment further on the profound nature of that statement or it’s impact on the well being of that Country and all its people. The real Illiterates of the world are not those who cannot read or write. It’s the educated who are unwilling to learn the lessons of history. My life has taught me many lessons. The most significant of them has been that when honorable intentions are matched by sincere action, blessings from above are assured.

Let me share my personaL experiences. My appointment as High Commissioner to Australia In 2015 was totally unexpected. Seven years into retirement, lost in the hills, a foreign minister whom I never had the opportunity to meet thought it fit to place his faith in me. That appointment gave me enormous pride to represent my country overseas, sincerely committed to national unity and equality. This was appreciated by our fellow citizens domiciled there who came together as one during the tenure of my like minded colleagues and I.

An invitation by the Australian Government to our then Prime Minister for an official visit in Feb 2017, the first in 65 years, was followed by another to our President just three months later. While that visit was the first ever official visit of a President of our country to Australia, the fact that it followed just three months after our Prime Minister’s was unprecedented in Australia’s diplomatic history and demonstrated the esteem in which Australia held us for our commitment to national unity and the friendship built over the decades on mutual respect and trust.

That year was further blessed by reciprocal visits by the Prime Minister and Foreign Ministers of Australia, to a celebration of our 150th anniversary of the tea industry at Parliament House in Canberra with both Houses in attendance, a blood donation programme by over a 100 Lankans domiciled in Canberra, to commemorate 70 years of diplomatic ties, and finally after two years of lobbying by the High Commission, the return of Sri Lankan Airlines to Melbourne. Yes, a diplomat’s dream year made possible by blessings from above.

Australia, a country hundred times the size of Sri Lanka,  with nearly the same population as ours was indeed a revelation. The rigid application of the rule of law and mutual respect among the many diverse nationalities , ethnicities and religious faiths has made it one of the most sought after countries to live in. This in a country that was openly racist until 1973, when the White Australia policy was abolished. That decision demonstrated a nation’s humility to accept its faults and the courage to make the change. The ensuing benefits have been amazing.

Another landmark event in Australian history was the apology tendered to the indigenous people in 2008, for the discrimination, and cruelty inflicted upon them for over a century. One has only to read the text of that apology which is engraved and prominently displayed in the foyer of the foreign office in Canberra to understand the extent of the remorse that was felt.

Yes my friends birth is not a choice but a chance. To put it in the words of Warren Buffet the American Billionaire, “An Ovarian Lottery.” It is therefore unacceptable that any human life should be discriminated against on account of an event over which he or she had no choice. So if ever we feel inclined to look down on a fellow being, let it be that we did so only to raise him up.

I was privileged in my education both at Royal College and the University of Colombo. An education that took me not only to the top of the private sector but quite unexpectedly also the country’s diplomatic service .

I never forgot what I owed my country for that education and  so after serving the oldest business house in Sri Lanka, George Steuarts, for 35 years, a company that historically valued its integrity above everything else, I walked away from commercial life on retirement at age 60 in 2008 to devote the rest of my life to provide opportunities for the less privileged in whatever modest way I could. Thankfully, helped by generous like minded friends both here and overseas we have been able to support in a meaningful way, education, nutrition,  food for the destitute elderly, farming, access to water through wells, among other needs for those in that category.

The pandemic posed its own huge challenges particularly to those daily wage earners. When you realize that the daily wage just about meets their daily needs, you can well imagine the impact of prolonged lockdowns on the lives of their families. We were happy to alleviate that suffering to an extent.

With Government hospitals converting to treat Covid patients, two groups I am privileged to be associated with came together to respond to appeals from these hospitals to raise funds and to purchase urgently needed equipment for both the Jaffna and Bandarawela Hospitals. The generous response from like minded people was gratifying.

So to the emerging  generations in particular, whose entire life is ahead of them, let me remind them that ours is still a country gifted by God. All we need to do to invoke the blessings is to act honorably with integrity and sincerity . Remember the line from Abraham Lincoln’s letter to his son’s teacher: “Teach him that it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat.”

Our loyalty to our country must always supersede our loyalty to any individual. Servile individual loyalties are an insult to both your intellect and education. Also remember that Humility is the true hallmark of greatness. Do not be misled by anything else. Lord Buddha preached moderation and stressed the impermanence of life.

Each of us will reach a phase when our physical and mental faculties decline as we prepare to exit our time on earth. At that stage our only companion will be our conscience. The more at peace we are with it the more serene will be that departure and no amount of material things will ever buy that peace.

Show your own appreciation of life by bringing in an additional language for communication, the language of “COMPASSION”  which in Mark Twain’s words is one that helps the blind to see and the deaf to hear. Then the blessings will be yours. May God bless our beautiful country, all her people and each and every one of you.

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3 responses to “For Lanka: Lessons from the Past and Lee Kwan Yew

  1. Daya Wickramatunga

    As the Sri Lankan High Commissioner he performed his task extremely well. He brought all communities and people of all religions together.
    We have heard the success story of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. Why can’t we have a similar leader heading Sri Lanka, who would bring all communities together. Giving every Sri Lankan equal rights and opportunities. What a beautiful country Sri Lanka could be.

  2. Edward Upali

    Using a quote from Lee Kwan Yew is a bit ironical.

    After Singapore’s first election, Yew became the PM of Singapore and J.B Jeyaratnam (JBJ) became the Leader of the Opposition. JBJ was a Singapore citizen & a Lawyer of Sri Lankan origin. From that time JBJ was hounded by Yew, as a trouble maker, and put in jail on various false charges. JBJ was later released by Singapore’s Supreme Court, which said the charges have no merit. Undeterred Yew kept pursuing Jeyaratnam and jailed him several times until JBJ died a penniless man.

    If SWRD had jailed Chelvanayagam and others of the FP as trouble makers, who defaced gov property with their tar brush campaigns, SWRD might have been hailed as a hero who acted firmly.

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