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Monday, January 7, 2008



This is our life in paradise

By Dr. B.J.C.Perera

Fancy terminology such as “The Pearl of the Indian ocean”, “Paradise isle”, “A land like no other”, “A terrain of unparalleled scenic beauty” and “A haven for tourists” are just some of the superlatives used to describe our much adored motherland. It is generally portrayed as something quite splendid and very special with a cultural heritage going back well over 2500 years. Sandy beaches, smiling people, traditional hospitality and a whole host of other virtues are bandied about quite brazenly to reinforce the claim that this land is singularly unique.
Yet for all that, at least for us the native inhabitants, this tear-drop shaped island has had a chequered past, an acrimonious present and quite an indecisive future. Political turmoil, unprecedented corruption, an unwanted war and virtual dependence on foreign powers for almost everything, are just some of the more important vagaries of these times. Add to this cauldron, the apathy, selfishness and lack of patriotism of many of the populace and one finds a definitive recipe for many of our social catastrophes.
The key elements that have undoubtedly helped to fire the essential element of progress in more developed countries in the Western hemisphere and indeed even the more fortunate areas of our own Asian region are pride in one’s own country and unmitigated patriotism. Those people absolutely love their countries of birth and are extremely proud of their own languages. Just look at Japan, China, Korea and even India for confirmation of this undeniable truth. In contrast, what happens over here? Given half a chance, many of our people would elect to leave this land and be domiciled and become even second-class citizens of an alien country. They call it leaving for greener pastures and securing opportunities. Many of our intellectuals have deserted this land in the hour of its greatest need. Yet, it is so infuriating that some of them are the very same people who are ostensibly “honoured” by the authorities of our own land for internationally acclaimed “achievements”. The honest men and women who have stayed put in Sri Lanka and strived through a lifetime to bear the unenviable burden of trying to uplift this land are generally forgotten. Those who have toiled silently over many decades in the crucible of general deficiencies to do their little thing for the land of their birth would in all probability be allowed to fade away and die silently as well. At least in this country, the axiom is that a prophet is never honoured in his or her own land. In fact, a proud nation worth its salt should consider those who have left the country for good as non-citizens.

English please

Furthermore, we tend to look down on our own beautiful languages. If one were to go into a shop or a hotel and speak in Sinhala, they would look at you as if it is something the cat brought in. It is very slightly and marginally better if one goes into a Tamil or Muslim enterprise and speaks in Tamil. Every single one of these enterprises would bend over backwards and sing hosannas if one speaks in the Queen’s English and for that matter, even disjointed and “broken” English would do. You will generally be treated like royalty and virtually as direct descendents of the British Royal family. Our two wonderful and colourful languages, Sinhala and Tamil are perhaps only for the “yakkos”. The adopted descendents of our colonial masters, the brown sahibs, must speak only in English, just to be understood by all and sundry.
This is not to say that English is not necessary. It is definitely essential for progress and development of our land. It is a fantastic international link language and is spoken in most parts of the globe. Some of the greatest mistakes made by the rulers of this land were the futile attempts made to virtually get rid of it from the legislature. However, our obeisance to English should not be at the expense of our own distinctive languages. The need of the hour is to teach our children all three languages in common usage in Sri Lanka. Children are extremely good at picking up any language and the powers that be should make an extra effort to harness this asset. Proficiency in all three languages would in all probability get rid of the misgivings and suspicion that is inherent in our culture and go a long way towards settling most of our conflicts.

Education in disarray

Another primary need for advancement of any country is its system of education. This is the key that will unlock most closed doors and open up vistas of unlimited opportunities for the people of any land. Lo and behold, what have we got here? In paradise, it is in complete disarray. Interference, political and otherwise, has pervaded the system to the extent that it would need a major overhaul for it to become even moderately functional. Parents would lie through their back teeth and get up to all kinds of tricks to get their children into the so called reputed schools. That hallowed profession of teaching has now been degraded to the level of a spectacle of commercialism. Countless numbers of young people who qualify for higher education cannot enter the universities as the slots available are so very limited and totally inadequate to satisfy the needs of the country. However, those who have been fortunate enough to enter the universities are the very same people who cry foul when even feeble attempts are made to provide higher seats of learning in private institutions to accommodate the less fortunate ones. There you have selfishness at its very zenith and depravity at an absolute nadir. The commonly used argument that it would only help the rich is not at all tenable as steps could be taken by the state to help those who qualify but cannot afford it.
Selfishness is evident even on our roads. The general chaos on our roads must be seen to be believed. The very same lack of discipline in the day-to-day life has pervaded into the roads as well. We are a nation of horn tooters going nowhere. They are all in a hurry, cutting across traffic lanes, steam-rolling all else and just getting there no matter how. Even the most rational and sedate individuals are sometimes transformed into demons when they are put behind the wheel of a vehicle.
Corruption in practically every sphere of life is a blight that has pervaded the social structure to the extent that it is almost considered to be the norm. Even to get a file moved from one desk to another in a public enterprise, palms have to be oiled. It has permeated through and through from the highest levels to the lesser mortals. The original “10% commission” has now reportedly gone up to as much as 40% in certain instances. This is also a manifestation of selfishness and self-preservation. Make hay while the sun shines seems to be the order of the day. Sadly enough there are stories of its spread even to the epitomes of integrity such as the police, armed forces and even the departments that are supposed to mete out justice.
This is indeed a strange country. Generally speaking, the powers that be are hell bent on getting work done but are there rewards for doing something well or productive hard work ? If at all, they are very few and far between. Many people accuse our white rulers of yore of many a sin but the work ethic in our country has changed perceptibly from those colonial times when substantial rewards for diligence and efficiency were the norm. As a result what is operative in our land is the much quoted clich‚ “more work means more trouble, less work means less trouble and no work means no trouble”. To many authorities, the word “reward” is an alien one. A worker who has diligently performed his or her duties for a period of 35 to 40 continuous years gets very little by way of rewards at the end of it all at retirement. That person does not even get a duty-free permit to import a car while a parliamentarian who has put in just a few years would get one to import a super luxury vehicle. It is a curious feature that this situation is initiated and perpetuated from childhood onwards. A child in this paradise isle is often forced to do something well, with the threat of punishment at the end of it all if the task is not undertaken properly. How often do we see a child being rewarded, even just by a gesture, a hug or a word of praise for doing something unusually well ?. Child psychologists would rave and rant about the undesirable elements of coercive behaviour patterns but to no avail. Many people prefer to remain deaf to such pontifications.

Hard working people

It is indeed a great pity that this state of affairs is prevalent in our society. We have our own fair share of potential world beaters. Undoubtedly, there are hard working, diligent and brilliant men and women in our land. Yet, no human being is likely to work for nothing. The prospect of ambitious advancement and rewards at the end of the tunnel would be the factor that could spur individuals on to go through that tunnel and accomplish unbelievable achievements. It is one of several motivating factors such as monetary rewards, career advancement or just plain prestige that would keep one going. These facts are probably a scathing indictment on all of us as a nation Facts have to be faced, however unpalatable they really are. Most of us, especially the politicians, would rave and rant about our heritage that is centuries old but such sentiments alone will not in any way be sufficient to spur development and advancement. The need of the hour is for someone to take this country by the scruff of its neck, shake it into shape and put some sense into the populace. Rogues and scoundrels must be rounded up and punished, public and private sector enterprises cleaned up, merit and reward schemes set up, education streamlined and patriotism rekindled. We will all have to tighten our belts for a few years but it will not kill any of us. We will have to put the shoulder to the wheel and collectively take this country to the far distant Promised Land. Such a manoeuvre would definitely keep our closest competitors in the region just standing in the race for development and survival. Then, and only then, would we be entitled to be happy and contented with our much bandied notion of a proud history and a three century old heritage.

1 comment:

Rebecca Mackay, Edinburgh said...

Dear Dr Perera
Many thanks for your candour. As having been a visitor to your country - twice - it isn't difficult to see the rift between hard working discipline and apathy and ( one would surmise) some forms of corruption, but upon reading your article, I must say that SL then, is really no different from the rest of the world, esp the UK. Read and replace any Sri Lankan refeerences to the educational system and corruption, and government, and the selfishness you describe as well as bolshi driving as : this is the UK, such is the case over here. Corruption? You bet. Selfishness? Britain is one of the most selfish countries in the world. But I had witnessed so much goodness in people and generosity, when I was in Sri Lanka, that would make other places pale in comparison. Corruption and selfishness are everywhere, but it is not paralelled or even outshone, as much by goodness and discipline as it is, in Sri Lanka.
I noticed people in many top positions as well, took much pride in their mothertongues, whether it was Tamil or Sinhala. The pearl only needs to be polished a little. After having been a little dulled out of neglect, it needs to be worn more near the heart to regain it's lustre, and I believe there are many people in yoru country who are taking this on board.

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