Merril Gunaratne, in The Island, 10 October 2021, where the title is as follows “Susil Sirivardana: A Journey with the Have-nots”
Many articles extolling the virtues, integrity, erudition, intellectual brilliance and simplicity of Susil have flooded the print media upon his demise. We have to laud those who wrote in such a vein, and yet express sorrow that this country and many political establishments had abjectly failed to fully tap the unique talents of such a man for the benefit of Sri Lanka.
Susil’s reputation was well known in professional circles. His precious worth described in the eulogies, stand testimony to his repute. Perhaps the reluctance to offer recognition, except by President Premadasa, who utilized his talents to the maximum, to a public servant of such calibre is both a malaise and a malignancy with us.
Success to many in the public service depends on their acquisition of influential and powerful patrons to back their greed for positions, promotions and recognition. This sad syndrome has had iniquitous implications, for not only has it provided a conducive environment for mediocrity to flourish over merit, but has also placed those seeking undeserved recognition, under obligation to patrons who helped them.
Susil Sirivardana, humble and fiercely independent, was cast in a different mould. He abhorred, like a mere handful of retired state officers who are yet among us, such a pernicious practice; and this perhaps explains why his inestimable services had not been sought by many political establishments. Most of those who refused to canvas influence and interference to acquire positions, often found recognition elusive.
I consider it a privilege to have been closely associated with Susil from 1989 to 2012, and am sad that the same proximity of contact could not be maintained subsequently. But meeting him regularly in those halcyon days not only made me appreciate his inestimable qualities, but also provided an insight into his competence and familiarity with a wide range of fields and subjects.
He was a genuine and thorough professional. He was quick to capture the essence of a problem, and for such reason, was also blessed with the capacity to offer simple yet lasting solutions to seemingly intractable issues. He had versatility, being at home with subjects such as national security, policing, defence, finance, foreign relations, economics, industry, agriculture, reconciliation and diverse cultures. He therefore had an extremely wide reach.
His sheer brilliance and creativity were patently visible. Such limitless capacity was born out of experience, close communication with the depressed and the downtrodden, commitment, reading, pursuit of academic interests, and most of all, an innate affection for justice, righteousness, virtue and ethics. When his views and advice were sought, he was totally objective at all times, looking endlessly for the right solutions. In such pursuit, he treated expedience, opportunism, bias and exploitation with total disdain. His discipline and commitment were of a unique kind, not commonly seen in the public service.
Meeting him frequently as I did in better times was a continuous learning experience. I had embodied some of his suggestions in novelties and innovations practised by me in the police. The establishment of a ‘Task Force’ of government and non government organizations to contend with vice and violence in Negombo in 1990 which paid rich dividends was just one instance where I benefited from his advice. I also recall how Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe once asked me for names of persons of eminence who could be considered to engage in analysis in the field of national security, when I served as an Advisor in the Ministry of Defence in 2012. I responded with three names: Dharmasiri Peiris, Susil Sirivardana, and Jayanath Rajepakse. Their names came easily to mind. They were undoubtedly eminent administrators and intellectuals.
Susil did not fuss over frills and trappings. He was born to considerable wealth, but shunned extravagance and publicity. He did not crave a “place in the sun”. Genuinely modest and simple, he dressed in the simplest national attire, and was always seen with his “malla”. He carried these habits into the SLAS where he topped his batch, and imbued with idealism, showed great empathy and sincerity for the poor and the downtrodden. He placed his skills and talents at the feet of the have nots. His vision, exemplified by his writings, speeches, and his work as a state officer, was to bring the state administration and establishment as close as possible to the people, for he considered such a prerequisite necessary to foster mutual trust and confidence across the great divide.
Transparency was always a cornerstone of his character. He always cared for those who suffered discrimination and persecution. We have to shower limitless admiration for a person born to wealth, but chose to sacrifice comforts and luxury in order to share the plight of the poor and the persecuted. He was a solace to them. His commitment to the needy and his sacrifices for them were laced with intense idealism and altruism. His consistency with such convictions characterized not only his career in the public service, but also his relations with society outside it. His candour was not cosmetic. Susil was a synonym for simplicity.
Except for a relatively short period of recognition, Susil went to his demise unsung. He was blessed with the potential to have had a perpetual niche in the top administrative caucus in the country. Those who have been eulogistic about him in death have been persons of stature in the country. They have in unison voiced the view that Susil possessed unique and remarkable skills, amply supplemented by moral courage, ethics, values and sincerity. We have to ponder why and how political establishments time and again failed to recognize and exploit his skills for the service of the country.
He was a visionary and sage, not easily matched by many. President Premadasa alone recognized his talents and virtues, and Susil responded to such recognition by leaving his imprint on the Janasaviya programme, a poverty alleviation concept which acquired permanence. He also contributed substantially to the Housing Projects of the time. These contributions reflected his commitment to the poor.
Susil Sirivardana wrote the ‘Foreword’ for my book ‘Cop in the Crossfire’. He offered words of wisdom for my first book as well. When this book was launched in 2011, I expressed the view that Susil should have had a permanent niche in the inner sanctum of the Presidential Secretariat at all times. He was amply equipped to assist governments in formulating policy at the highest level in diverse fields, and would therefore have excelled in contributing to national policy making bodies. If called upon to play roles in policy planning, he would never have betrayed the interests of the people. A man of strong convictions, he always believed that the establishment should be told the truth at all times.
Being extremely innovative, mere mundane roles may also have restricted scope and space for Susil to give full expression to his vision, energy and enormous creativity. Sadly he had too often been been ignored and overlooked, like a small coterie of retired officers from the CCS, the Foreign Service and the SLAS who are yet around, and did not have to masquerade to make claims for competence. Susil’s name deserves to be etched as one of the best in the pantheon of administrators and visionaries who have done Sri Lanka proud from the time of independence. If only his services could have been harnessed to make this country a better place to live in, this incomparable son of the soil would have left the world in the consciousness that he had fulfilled his mission.