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Daily MirrorProfessor Rajiva Wijesinha, son of late Sam Wijesinha, Former Parliamentary Secretary General is a member of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka. In June 2007 President Mahinda Rajapakse appointed him Secretary-General of the Sri Lankan Government Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process, and in June 2008 he became the Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. In February 2010 he resigned from the Ministry and the University, and became a member of Parliament on the National List of the UPFA following which he was appointed a member of Parliament. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Professor Wijesinha speaks about the lack of control among ruling party leaders, the loopholes in the educational system and the civil service in Sri Lanka.

Q. Describe your entry into politics

qrcode.26633243I have always been interested in political history and I have done a lot of political writings. In fact one of my best papers was political philosophy. Basically I have been involved with the Liberal party of Sri Lanka. Liberalism means freedom and for freedom you need several factors. When talking about an executive presidency, about having too much power, ever since the time of Montesquieu, there has been an idea of the removal of arbitrary powers. But the first thing we should all realise is that in any government the most important and in fact the most powerful is the executive. You need to check that executive; whether it is a child, a president or a prime minister from exercising arbitrary power. Also what are the instruments that will control the arbitrary power of the ruler on behalf of the people?

Montesquieu suggested two institutions which needed to be powerful; the Parliament, whose role was to pass the laws and money and oversee the proper spending of that money-which was why the budget was such an important occasion in our lives. The other is the Judiciary, who should independently administer the law. Another extremely powerful institution that plays a role on behalf of the people is the media.  Another element is the public service. Increasingly the concept developed around an independent public service with no servants for a king or a minister.

The need for a free economy should be addressed. However, I am delighted by the fact that statism changed its phase after JR’s open economy was established. At that time I was writing for my PhD and by the time I got back I found him to be rather authoritative and I was horrified by the type of things he did.

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RW 16 Dec 2014 1Q. What was the concept of the Liberal Party?

We were the first people to say, “control the power of the executive”. Before the 17th Amendment, the President appointed anybody he wanted for anything. We were the ones who said that on a political philosophy it was totally unacceptable. We pooled in a lot of ideas then, which are now universally accepted. Chanaka Amaratunge had a deep knowledge about the constitutions all over the world. We said that the election system was mad and proposed for a mixed system. We said a lot of things and gradually people came to accept them.

Q. What do you think of this newly emerging ‘defection-culture’ and the political scenario as of late?

I think the country is pleased.  In my opinion, every individual who crossed over to the Opposition had a strong identity. I think Maithripala Sirisena is a very capable person, yet the cross-over by Tissa Attanayake is quite ineffective. The opposition need not be sorry that he is gone.

Q. Do you regret your transition from being an academic to a politician?

No. I have done a lot in academia and I was responsible for taking the initiative to transform university education, through the introduction of ‘co-courses’. The British education system relies on a very good school education. In America, students are taught basic skills in universities and this was initiated from Harvard in the 19th Century. What they said was that as soon as you came into a university you didn’t specialise, but you have to learn a little bit about science, mathematics and the like.

The Harvard by the end of the 20th Century had expanded the co-courses into 10 separate things and the students had to do a little of each. These courses included communication, inter-cultural skills, inter-personal skills and the like. When I went back, I introduced this system at the University of Sabaragamuwa. So every student had to do English and they also had to do both Sinhala and Tamil, because my Tamil and Sinhala students could not write anything. Along with these I also introduced critical thinking. At first they used to curse me for this but then later they said that this was what they got when they went for jobs. Also many of these students did not know how to use a book. For example, when asked to find the largest country in the world the whole class was busy turning pages, but of course there was a contents page. Therefore, I also introduced library skills. Since these skills were introduced, which I think are very important to any student, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has announced that they were mandatory.

In any society 80% has to go into business, technical work and you must educate people for that. You cannot educate 100% of a population. We see graduates coming unemployed and our rulers offer them jobs. The brightest minds in the country are going and sitting at the Divisional Secretariats as Samurdhi officers and when I ask them what they when I ask them what they are doing, they say ‘data collection’. When asked for the purpose, they keep staring at me. So we can see that no one has been doing anything about this mismatch in education. In fact I think what I did was quite useful. Read the rest of this entry »

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I referred some weeks back to the games being played by various individuals and institutions in Colombo with regard to the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, the political foundation of the German Free Democratic Party. This is a member of Liberal International, though its Liberalism is generally more concerned with free market economics, and does not have the same commitment to social equity as say the British Liberal Party. Still, there are enough people in the FDP, and also in the FNS, who understand our commitment in Sri Lanka to a more Gladstonian version of Liberalism, though sadly they have been in comparative short supply in dealings with South Asia.

I suppose this is understandable in that South Asia tended, at the time the FNS established itself here, to be committed to social equity from a more socialist standpoint, and it was free markets that needed nurturing. However this led to at least some personnel neglecting other aspects of Liberalism, as with the official who said he saw nothing wrong with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s assertion that democracy could be delayed, as in South Korea and other East Asian countries, until development had reached a satisfactory level.

This mindset has contributed to a generally hostile attitude to the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, though there have been honourable exceptions, including the Regional Director who encouraged my conducting workshops on Liberalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Sadly he was soon sent away from Delhi, though he has since contributed immeasurably to Liberalism in South East Asia, where the command model of an open economy held sway, and it was necessary for Liberal parties to argue for the restoration of democracy and social equity.

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In talking critically of those who now believe that we need to fall in line completely with the West, following the defeat in Geneva, I realize that there are those who think that I myself am a fervent proponent of a Western perspective. I would like to believe that they do not really think this, but use it as a stick to beat me with. However, given the way people trust their emotions rather than reason, it is quite possible they genuinely believe I too am in thrall to the West.

The reasons for this include my familiarity with Western philosophy, and particular Western political thought, as well as my facility with English and the fact that this makes it easy for me to get on well, whether I agree with them or not, with Western interlocutors. Ironically those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs which are committed to a purely Western agenda claim that I have in fact alienated the West. This is obviously not true, except for characters such as Paul Carter who tried to subvert our army officers into betraying their country. But people generally believe what they want to believe.

I suppose I should take comfort from being attacked on both sides as it were, but I have to accept that the criticism from the other side, misplaced as it is, can be quite damaging. Some of it springs from the confusion that prevails in Sri Lanka about Liberalism, which is generally confused with the Neo-Liberalism that dominated Western thinking when it finally triumphed in the Cold War. The privileging of market forces alone, without the provision of safety nets and welfare measures that enhance opportunities, is not Liberalism at all. Unfortunately, when excessive statism led to the Thatcherite reaction, the grand centre ground of British Liberal thinking was overwhelmed.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

November 2017
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