A Political Leader through the eyes of a Public Servant In the shadow of professionalism
Posted on January 1st, 2017

Public Servants who have had occasional interaction with him entertained the misleading notion that he was a stubborn and unsympathetic PM/Minister. They assumed, he had no sympathy towards the public servant or the general public, perhaps misled by his less attractive looks and unsmiling face. Little did they know that beneath his rough exterior lay a heart that reached out for his people and the country.

In sharp contrast to those officials who had worked closely with him during his tenure as PM/Minister, he was the epitome of humanism, endowed with the highest levels of professionalism. His altruism and patriotism was evident through various actions and deeds shrouded in ‘secrecy’. They were “secrets” as they were accomplished without publicity.

Few incidents that took place during my two tenures with him; first as Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs and later as Secretary to the Prime Minister, serve as good illustrations of his generosity.

It was in the latter part of the year 1999, while at the office of the Ministry of Public Administration & Home Affairs, that I received an envelope addressed to me from the Minister. Inside I found a cheque for around Rs.340,000/- and a note wherein lay instructions that I should arrange the cheque to be credited to the National Defence Fund (NDF). When I inquired from the Minister as to how I should refer to donor, he advised me to simply mention, ‘Wickramanayaka of Colombo’. He further cautioned me that no one should come to know, that this donation was from the Minister. Later I came to know that the Minister’s donation was the entirety of arrears of salary be received consequent to a salary revision of Parliamentarians effected that year. His strict instructions were that ‘no one should come to know that he was the real donor’. He enjoyed such deeds silently. I believe this is so because he had no ulterior motive.

The amount of the donation to the NDF appears to be trivial. But what is important was the genuine feelings and thoughtfulness that bore towards the battered soldiers at the war-front for whose benefit the NDF was set up.

Another unpublicized project that the Minister undertook for the welfare of the Armed Forces was the refurbishment and re-equipment of the Operating Theatre at the Army Hospital. In early 2000 when the Minister visited the Army hospital, he was appraised by Army Medical officers of the dire need to modernize and re-equip the operating theatre to cope with the increased number of battle casualties who were ferried daily from the war-front. The Minister immediately started soliciting funds from friends, associates and well-wishers to finance the project. He was thus able to muster the numbers necessary who readily came forward to assist the worthy cause.

The modernizing and re-equipping of the theatre was completed in double quick time and upon completion handed over to the Army authorities without any fanfare. Thus he accomplished the task silently, bringing relief to those thousands wounded during the war.

When it came to the public service which was under his purview, he was genuinely concerned about the welfare and career advancement of public servants. He subscribed to the selection of candidates to Combined Services through competitive examinations and on merit. He never interfered in the selection process of candidates for posts in the Public Service. He had zero tolerance for political interference with respect to appointments. He did not discriminate against public servants on the basis of creed, colour or alleged political affiliation. He discouraged public servants from being dumped into the “Ministry Pool” based on unsubstantiated complaints and charges leveled against them – the pool being the undesignated space for those out of favour from services and those serving an unofficial term of office incarceration. He readily accommodated complaints and grievances of public servants and attempted to bring redress to them. He had constant interactions with trade unions to resolve issues and provide solutions to problems confronted by their membership.

The following two incidents revolving around two hapless senior SLAS officers testify to the Minister’s sense of justice and fair play.

It was the 3rd month of the year 2000; the Minister was in receipt of a letter from an MP of his own party requesting that a Divisional Secretary of the MP’s constituency be transferred out and in his place appointed, one of the MP’s nominees who had the requisite qualifications. The MP’s letter was passed down to me for study and report. After studying the case it was revealed that the incumbent Divisional Secretary (D.S) whose transfer was being sought had served in that area for over three years. There were no complaints against him. His career record indicated that he was a resourceful officer who had risen from the post of clerk to the rank of an SLAS Officer through hard-work. As the D.S. was to retire in two month’s time, I reported that he should not be shifted on the eve of his retirement but allowed to continue the balance period of his tenure so that he would have an honourable exist from the Public Service. The Minister agreed to my suggestion and the MP was informed accordingly that his nominee would be appointed once the incumbent D.S. retired in two month’s time.

Not being satisfied with the Ministry decision the MP concerned met the Minister in a few days at the office and requested that the transfer be effected. I was summoned to the Minister’s room. My Additional Secretary too rushed to the Minister’s room with the relevant file. The Minister explained to the MP the rationale behind the Ministry decision. The Minister politely impressed upon the MP that the incumbent DS needed to be humanely treated and be permitted to retire when he reached 60 years of age in two month’s time. Despite the Minister’s explanation, the MP kept on insisting that the DS needed to be shifted. The Minister was visibly annoyed at the intransigence of the MP. I together with my colleague watched the drama unfold and remained speechless.

“You fellows have no hearts”, the Minister burst out and flung the file across the table from whereupon it slid and landed on the floor. The M.P. executed a hasty retreat out of the Minister’s room. My colleague and I also left the Minister’s room having collected the file off the floor. The Minister’s decision was not changed. He believed in justice and fair play for the public servant. He did not mind the wrath of his party colleague.

The next episode was in relation to a senior SLAS officer who was involved in political activities of the opposition in the 1999 Presidential Elections. He happened to be one of my Asst. Secretaries when I was Senior Asst. Secretary (SAS), of the Ministry of Education in the late 1980’s. He was a competent officer who won a scholarship to follow post-graduate studies overseas. On his return he was appointed Director of a Division of an important Ministry. While functioning in the post he was lured into politics by the main opposition party during the Presidential Elections. He was a popular speaker at political meetings of that party. Everyone knew he was a party activist. After the Elections he was unceremoniously removed from his senior position and was moved to an Asst. Divisional Secretary’s post in a remote D.S. Division. There too he was placed under a DS who was much junior to him in rank.

Under these circumstances he met me at my office few days following his appointment. Since the officer was known to me he took the liberty of making a confession before me. He described how he was foolishly enticed into party politics – an experience he deeply regretted. Upon his confession with visible pain of mind, I felt that he genuinely repented the colossal blunder he had committed, even though the right to actively participate in political activity is a citizen’s fundamental right. Tears were flowing from his eyes as he concluded his confession. I sent him away with the consolation that I would secure the Minister’s approval to rehabilitate him in an appropriate post.

A suitable position in an academic institution under the Ministry was found for the officer with the concurrence of the Head of that Institution. Having met the Minister I submitted a note giving the bio-data of the officer and recounted verbally the details of his confession and his involvement in active political work. The Minister listened to me attentively and remarked “this fellow is a real fool to have got involved in politics. However he regrets his folly. He appears to be academically well qualified”. “Appoint him to the post that you have suggested and give him a severe warning not to get involved in politics in the future”. Having made those remarks he wrote in his hand ‘Appd’ below my recommendation approving it. Such was the Minister’s sympathetic attitude towards the public servants. He attempted to correct them and entice them back onto the proper path.

During my two stints as his Secretary; first when he was Minister and then later as Prime Minister I witnessed in him rare qualities of a skilled professional. He believed in strict punctuality. Thus he kept his staff on their toes. He was very particular in giving directions/orders in writing to his officers. Even if he happened to give verbal orders he would follow them in writing so that officers had clear instructions. He took full responsibility for his decisions and directives and that was why he gave them in writing. His directions/orders were clear, precise and brief making it easy for officers to follow.

He believed in delegation of functions and duties to those officials whom he had assessed as competent and efficient. Once a delegation is made he would not interfere with the work of the delegates until the job entrusted to that person was completed within the agreed time frame.

When files with minutes/reports are submitted to him, he had the patience to go through them carefully and make his decisions which he conveyed in writing. That too quite briefly and in clear and concise terms.

The professionalism he displayed in the conduct of negotiations or chairing discussions, meetings or conferences have been quite impressive. When presiding over such events he conducted proceedings following a strict and agreed upon agenda. He guided the participants to stick to the main theme of the discussion/meeting and discouraged digressing and deviations in their presentations. As Chairman he often succeeded arriving at concrete decisions on conclusion of deliberations. The professionalism he had shown in conducting official business had impressed many a senior public servant who considered it a real treat to have worked with him.

His concern for frugality and economy when it came to expenditure of public funds was unprecedented. At the height of the Northern War, he, as Prime Minister, was commissioned to lead a number of delegations of security and intelligence officials to meet with Heads of State and officials of intelligence agencies of some east-Asian countries. This was to secure their cooperation and assistance to curb clandestine LTTE operations that were originating from those countries at the time. The Prime Minister was very particular in limiting the delegation to the barest minimum. His strict instructions were that accommodation for the delegation should be at modest hotels. His concern was to limit the Government expenditure to the barest minimum.

The PM’s deep concern for public funds was well demonstrated by an interesting encounter when arranging an official mission to the Boa Trade Conference held in the Island of Hainan, China in 2006. The delegation headed by PM was required to break journey in Hong Kong for an over-night stay before taking a flight to Hainan the following morning. With the assistance of the Honorary Consul of Sri Lanka based in Hong Kong, I arranged suitable hotel accommodation for the PM and the delegation. When the PM was informed of the arrangements he wanted to know the costs involved. After learning that the cost of hotel accommodation reserved for him was high, he insisted that he too be found a hotel room in the same hotel where the members of the delegation were accommodated. There, the hotel rooms were moderately priced. However much I insisted that he being our PM, should stay with reasonable comfort at the slightly more expensive hotel we have earmarked, he vetoed my suggestion. He was adamant that the hotel reserved for him be changed to a less expensive one. Thus the Prime Minister by example showed how concerned he was when it came to expenditure on public funds. His constant advice to us was “be mindful all the time to limit our expenses as they are public funds”.

Another incident is worth mentioning here to illustrate the Prime Minister’s large-heartedness. On his way back from Australia where he led an official delegation in early 2006, the Prime Minister stayed two days in Bangkok on the request of his second son who happened to be in that city at the time.

When the PM returned I found that he had borne expenditure for two days on accommodation and meals of the two Security personnel who stayed with him in Bangkok. When PM was informed that this cost could be reimbursed, his response was “You just forget about it”. I failed to convince him that it Was quite in order that public funds could be expended to provide security to the Prime Minister. He was large-hearted when spending his personal funds on others.

Another interesting encounter I had with the PM was when arranging his trip to Trinidad and Tobago in 2009 when he led the Sri Lanka delegation to CHOGM which was held in that country that year. When the PM was requested by the Presidential Secretariat to undertake the mission he was not too enamoured by it because of the long hours of travel involved which amounted to over 23 hours, from Sri Lanka to Port O’Prince, Trinidad. To facilitate comfortable travel I suggested that the PM could break journey in London where he could rest for two days before taking a flight to Trinidad. This suggestion received the PM’s approved and I got in touch with our High Commission in UK to find a suitable hotel for the PM’s brief stay over there. After finding hotel accommodation, the PM was furnished with details of the hotel. The PM was anxious to know the costs involved for the two days. When he was told about the costs he was insistent that he would foot the bill and that Govt. money should not be expended for his personal comfort in London. I had to use all persuasive skills in my command to convince the PM that it was within Govt. rules & regulations that our PM could be accommodated in London at the expense of the Govt. as his stay there was necessary in the course of accomplishing an official mission. He agreed to go by my suggestion when he was told that Ministry of Foreign Affairs too approved our arrangements. Going by his past actions, I was convinced that he was determined to personally foot the hotel bill. Such was the honesty and sensitivity of the PM who did not want to be an undue burden on the tax payer.

Having served under the PM for close to six years, I experienced on several occasions his sense of fairness and reason in matters requiring decision making.

When he was convinced by plausible facts that decision or order that he had given was flawed, he had the genuine humility to accept that he had erred on such occasions and he did not hesitate to withdraw his decisions or orders. That was a rare quality in him that we rarely witnessed among leaders who generally coerce their subordinates to toe their line whether they are right or wrong.

The Prime Minister had the habit of giving a patient hearing to the view points of others and objectively assessing such varied views before making his final decision. He did not force his ideas/viewpoints on others. These were indeed excellent qualities in him that we all could appreciate.

The PM quite scrupulously avoided using Govt. vehicles and property for his personal or political work. He made use of vehicles strictly within the guidelines approved by Government. At the last Provincial Council Elections, the PM’s elder son came forward as a candidate of the Kalutara District. At the height of the Election Campaign there was an anonymous letter sent to me with a list of vehicles, purported to be from the PM’s office, which were supposed to have been deployed in Election related work in the Horana area. When I perused the list given in the petition and cross checked the details with the vehicle register of the PM’s office, I found that that was a bogus list. None of the office vehicles had been taken out of the office. When I mentioned the anonymous petition to the PM, he was all smiles and remarked, “None of your office vehicles have been taken for our work. We have our own resources for our elections”. True to his words he did not tap Government property and resources for personal political activities. The PM in this manner endeavoured to uphold good ethics and practices in the discharge of his day-to-day functions.

Some may think that the actions and deeds of the PM/Minister recounted in the foregoing pages are not of significance. But to me they were clear examples of genuine feelings and empathy towards the public servant and the general public at large. What is important is that the creditable acts he performed were devoid of any publicity. He sought no praise or honours for the acts and deeds he silently performed. This is why I recognize him as a genuine leader who felt for the people and the country.

This is not to say that he was infallible. As a normal human being he would have had his frailities and shortcomings. But, his altruism and patriotic acts silently accomplished over the years stand tall surpassing human weakness had he had any.

Many examples that portray his unique character had to be left out due to space considerations.

It is time and relevant that these revelations with respect to our former PM be made public so that the people may come to realize that we have no dearth of leaders in our country who are genuinely committed to serve the country and the people, silently without expectations of cheap popularity.

One Response to “A Political Leader through the eyes of a Public Servant In the shadow of professionalism”

  1. aloy Says:

    This article is being published at a time when attempts arebeing made to assasinate the characters of Sinhela leaders by news papers. I suspect that our enemies want to incapacitate them to defend the nation at crital times. Nobody is perfect and some may get involved on various indulgences. Our people should ignore these for the sake of defending the nation.

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