“The PGI the country never had” – The Island

By Anura Gunasekera

All great leaders have one characteristic in common; it was the will to confront unequivocally the major anguish of their people at their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership – JK Galbraith.Dr. MM, through an inexplicable thought process, saw fit to classify my writing as – quote – “…. A reflection of a segment of Sri Lanka’s English-speaking middle class, confused and overwhelmed by the state of flux, or the terrible uncertainty that engulfs the nation as a whole. They often limit their criticism to private gatherings, while a few others speak out through newspaper columns with harsh feelings against politicians like Premadasa, whom they like to undermine” – end quote

First, my views on national issues have been exposed in the public domain, through newspaper articles, quite frequently over the past two decades. I don’t quite understand what he means when he says: “Members of this social class, according to the content of Mr. Gunasekera’s column, never believed in the ousting of Rajapaksas or of Wickremesinghe, because they easily adopt the status quo”. To clarify, I have been a steadfast critic of the abhorrent status quo that successive Rajapaksa regimes have represented since the day Mahinda Rajapaksa was first elected president, and I maintain that position to this day. I can also confidently say that I represent the point of view of a large mass of people, not all of whom are part of the so-called “English-speaking middle class”. If Dr MM has any doubts about my credentials, I suggest he check out the blog, ‘Rilawala Reflections’, or my media account – if he can find the time and inclination.

I do not “feel” (word of Dr. MM) the militant attitude of the university student federations and the other participants of the Aragalaya. It is not possible to confront repression without activism and firmness. But my concern, as an average, law-abiding citizen, was the descent of justifiable civil protests into violence, especially after May 9. Violence is frequently the result of civil protests around the world, and Sri Lanka was no exception. The occupation of Temple Trees, the President’s House, the Presidential Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Office was unnecessary, and the physical damage caused inside these premises was unacceptable. The damage and destruction of private property across the country was criminal and the killing of two men in Nittambuwa heinous, as was the burning of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s house. As far as I know, none of the leaders of the Aragalayainsofar as it has a definite direction, has publicly condemned these incidents.

Regardless of the correctness of the original purpose of the Aragalaya, which I wholeheartedly endorse, those responsible must be held accountable for these crimes. Approving the Aragalaya unequivocally means endorsing all these unacceptable acts. Dr. MM sees this position differently. Quote- “Anura Gunasekera has taken the typical stance often repeated by Anglophone elites…”- end quote. The call for law and order is common to all right-thinking people and is certainly not limited to “elite” groups. If Dr MM wishes to explore the evolution of my views on the Aragalaya and related events, I suggest he read my articles in The Sunday Island editions of 11 April, 17 April, 25 April, 15 May, 05 June and July 17. It is not necessary for me to go into details in this writing.

As for the “paternal advice to these young militants”, (words of Dr. MM), allow me to illustrate my position with a detailed and real episode.

In 1992 or around 1992, R. Paskaralingam, Finance Secretary of the R. Premadasa regime, summoned all business leaders and directors of private companies, asking them for a solution to the problem of unemployed graduates. He asked the assembled companies to provide appropriate in-house training, without pay, for a minimum period of six months, to make these graduates – in his own words – “employable”. However, Ken Balendra, then chairman of John Keells, insisted that all interns be paid and in order to maintain uniformity, it was agreed that each intern would receive an allowance of 3,000 per month. The Ministry of Paskaralingam provided around 6,000 names of unemployed graduates to the private companies represented at the meeting. I was present at the first meeting as well as all subsequent meetings.

At the final meeting, six months later, the late Lyn Fernando of the garment sector submitted details of the graduate training program at Paskaralingam. Of over 4,000 graduates appointed to training, less than 10% have completed the training program. On behalf of my company, of which I was then the Director of Human Resources, I interviewed more than twenty candidates and did not hire any, none being ready to attend training on Saturday. After exchanging notes with several of my contemporaries in the private sector, I found that my experience was reflected throughout the sector. The project was a failure entirely due to the reluctance of the vast majority of unemployed graduates, despite being given employment opportunities, to comply with the diligence expected by the private sector. Hence my “paternal advice” to unemployed graduates.

Over the past five decades, until retirement in 2020, I have been directly involved, in every organization in which I have worked, with the management of human resources. During this period, I interviewed thousands of candidates. Therefore, I am fully aware of the problems with education standards, especially in remote areas, and the difficulties faced by graduates seeking employment. Contrary to Dr. MM’s assumption, I speak with reasonable awareness and knowledge of the relevant issues, particularly from an employer’s perspective. My knowledge comes from direct interaction with all levels of employment, from manual laborers to senior corporate executives.

My criticism of Sajith Premadasa is not an attempt to undermine him. I have no party affiliation, but I have voted in every election since 1977, voting on the basis of strong opinions on major national issues. I voted for Premadasa in the last presidential election because I considered a Gotabaya presidency abhorrent, for reasons I have explained in detail in other writings prior to the Yahapalanaya regime. In this case, promoting Dullas as an opposition to RW was, for me and many others who expected bigger things from Premadasa, a big disappointment for a number of reasons.

The rationale for promoting Dullas’ candidacy was likely the result of think tank deliberation, of which, judging by Dr. MM’s observations, he himself may have been aware. Given the content of my article in question, even without reference to any of my previous writings, it is utterly absurd for Dr. MM to ask the question, “Is Anura Gunasekera a peacemaker of the Ranil- Rajapaksa for having a serious grouse with Sajith? Premadasa for not accepting the post of prime minister under Gotabaya? Frankly, this proposal does not deserve debate.

Dullas A has been a Rajapaksa loyalist, meaning a lackey of Rajapaksa, for over two decades. He was the usual spokesperson for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the most incompetent leader this country has ever had. Until he suddenly developed a conscience and left the ranks of Rajapaksa – but only when the writing on the wall was clear to all – Dullas endorsed Gotabaya-inspired tax concessions, money printing, the organic fertilizer fiat, the sugar scam, the ban on agrochemicals and the 20th amendment.

In the above context, weeks after changing a decades-old loyalties, what makes him a better candidate for president than Premadasa? The nation faced the most crucial leadership vacuum since independence and, in my opinion, Dullas was not a choice. In his writings, Dr. MM detailed many issues in which Premadasa was involved and the initiatives he launched as leader of the opposition. But that is exactly what is expected of a Leader of the Opposition. Sober rhetoric and impressive rhetoric in parliament and other forums are, at best, poor substitutes for concrete action at the right time. The reality on the ground, as far as I’m concerned, is that he faltered twice at the final hurdle. Ordinary citizens like me are unaware of what is going through the minds of our leaders. We only see the results and obviously weigh them against our expectations and come to our conclusions. Sajith cannot expect to win by keeping a low profile, limiting his profile, and endlessly biding his time. In the words of another great crisis manager, “The nation will have a hard time admiring leaders, who keep their ears to the ground.” (Winston Churchill)

Dr. MM’s writings suggest a concern for the segment of our society which he terms the “English-speaking middle class” and, in a sweeping generalization, attributes to this group all sorts of socio-political and ideological shortcomings. There’s also a confusing reference, seemingly out of context, “to those who have proven they haven’t read any decent books in their own libraries”. As for me, although I now usually write in English, I am fairly fluent in Sinhalese and reasonably in Tamil. I also wisely seek the views of all language groups in the country and many of my views are informed by such discussions.

I understand Dr. MM’s desire to reinforce his position as a leader and I respect his point of view, while sticking firmly to my own. As for Sajith Premadasa, I pray, on behalf of a nation that desperately needs a viable leadership option in troubled times, that before long he will be offered that perfect opportunity he has been waiting for. If this is a popular vote, Sajith is assured of mine.

Dr. MM concluded his writings with a quote on “the importance of compromise in politics”, attributed to Kevin Spacey, an American actor and film producer, currently embroiled in a major sexual misconduct controversy. Let me conclude mine with a quote, attributed to another American, famous for his genuine greatness; “Almost any man can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power” – Abraham Lincoln.

Lynn A. Saleh