This is how SWRD ‘gave the country back to its people’
Posted on August 30th, 2016

 By  Ranga Jayasuriya Courtesy The Daily Mirror

Former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga says her father the late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike brought the Sinhala Only Act to ‘give the country back to its people’ after centuries of colonial rule. She should sincerely be believing so, so do a sizeable portion of the Sinhalese majority who think the late prime minister was genuine. Ms. Kumaratunga vouches that her father’s move was not racist, though she now wishes that both languages should have been made official languages. That was achieved under the 13th Amendment, though some constitutional experts prefer to pick on the semantics of the wording, which states that the official language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala” and Tamil shall also be an official language.” However, making Tamil an official language could not satisfy Tamil political demands nor could that end a brutal terrorist campaign. Perhaps it was too little too late, or that the Tamil political campaign, in addition to real grievances, also lives on a host of imaginative and inflated grievances.
Back to late Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike; he could have been genuine or perhaps not in his i

ntentions. However, what matters is not so much the intentions, but the outcome. He aimed for the high heavens and produced a veritable hell for the generations to come. Much has been written about the ethnic dimension of his decision, and how it ignited the flames of a ruinous ethnic conflict that consumed this country for three decades. However, there is another element in his decision, which for generations had devastating consequences — the economic dimension which not only deprived the competitive advantage Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) had vis a vis the other countries, repercussions of which served to multiply a host of other grievances that enveloped this country in the latter decades.
To have an objective analysis of SWRD Bandaranaike’s legacy, one should look into not only the social economic dynamics at the time, but also, how they compared with the countries in the region and afar; that is our relative position vis a vis other states at the time.
At the time of our independence, and even when SWRD won the elections in 1956, we were doing fairly well. Per Capita income at $80 US in 1948, we were only behind Japan, which was a pre-war industrial power and Malaysia, which was still then a British colony with a strong commodity economy. However, per capita income comparison would not alone do justice to us for our social economic indicators were far above the others. Those achievements were a product of the welfare legacy that predated the independence. We had an impressive school system, comprising prestigious city schools and a network of thriving Madya Maha Vidyalayas which conducted classes in the English medium. Our students fared well above their counterparts in the British Commonwealth in competitive exams; we had a flourishing new university, which was then world class and an efficient civil service.
Of course, as most of us who were not born with a silver spoon in the mouth have learned it through hard way, a child’s familial economic and social environment mattered a greater deal in his or her educational, and later economic and social achievements. Thus those with different social backgrounds had to put different levels of effort to reach certain levels of achievements. It was so then, and it is the same now. And it is not unique to us. (Ox-Bridge universities still admit a disproportionately larger share of their annual student intake from British fee-levying public schools). The solution to those disparities is to increase opportunities for the kids from disadvantaged groups: Madya Maha Vidyalayas (Central Colleges) were indeed meant to take English medium education to the villages. Thus our relative strength at the time of independence and the projected glory (Opposition leader Sampanthan reminded in a recent interview that we were destined to be a Switzerland in Asia) were founded on the British legacy — its institutions, social welfare and above all, pragmatism.
Mr. Bandaranaike was himself a product of that legacy. He went to Oxford, ran for the Oxford Union and served as its treasurer. Instead of fostering the strength of that inheritance and making it accessible to the others, he chose to bring the whole edifice down. That, in some people’s eyes, would make him a hypocrite. Still to assume that he had sincere intentions; then, one could not ignore the other fallacy of his decision. He who brought down the entire institutional structure miscalculated with devastating consequences to the country’s ability to build an alternative structure which was equally efficient and upward mobile. SWRD alone cannot be singled out for that miscalculation for the compulsory Swabasha education was hatched by the father of free education, C.W.W. Kannangara, when he introduced the free education bill.
However, dethroning English by the Sinhala Only Act deepened the rot; universities opted to the Sinhala medium, churning out graduates who found themselves unemployable for economic consequences of the post- independent polices and the simple mismatch in the skills demanded by the market and supplied by Swabaha degree programs. Those grievances exploded with deadly consequences in three youth uprisings during the subsequent decades.
The Sinhala Only Act did not give back to people. Rather, it took back from the people, their chance to aim high. It deprived the children of average folks to give a real shot at the higher echelons of academic, professional and corporate sector. Today, Sinhala is the official language , but the corporate sector hires its executives on the merit of English rather than Sinhala or Tamil. In other areas, his policy saw the quality plummeted to rock bottom. See the mediocre performance of universities which hire Sinhala medium graduates as academics, whose promise for genuine excellence was robbed by the independent leaders even before the former was born.
There are ingrained constraints in native languages which multiply when the world moves forward. SWRD knew that. That was why he sent his children to English schools and later to London and Sciences Po. But, his polices deprived millions of other children to seek excellence and the country at large to build on the successes of the colonial legacy. That was a terrible mistake, for which we are still paying. See the contrast in the countries such as Singapore that chose to build on the colonial inheritance.
At the end, it was President Chandrika Kumaratunga who put in genuine effort to address some of the disparities created by the old folly. Her administration relaunched English medium education in some schools. Her government was fighting a ruthless terrorism at home, thus the resources were limited. However, her successors did not build on her initiative for they thought it was not politically advantageous. The real problem in this country at present is that the average folks, who know they are disadvantaged, are still confused as to what places them at the receiving end. One of the most determining factors is English language. A drop out from an international school is more likely to land in a corporate job than a Sinhala medium graduate from a local university. What the government should do is to channel an adequate share of the education budget (which it has pledged to increase to a 6 per cent of the GDP) to foster the initiative that Mrs Kumaratunga launched some fifteen years back –and to set a target that at least all Central Colleges within a set time frame would be able to conduct English medium classes. That is the only way to address an historical mistake. Lamenting over spilled milk would not help.

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4 Responses to “This is how SWRD ‘gave the country back to its people’”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    This article is based on wrong assumptions and wrong timeframes.

    What was good in 1956 is not good enough for today as times have changed. That is not the fault of what was good in 1956.

    Sinhala Only (Official Language Act) of 1956 gave back to people what was taken from them. Making Sinhala the only official language enormously helped people. The fact that it was made the official language has nothing to do with teaching in Sinhala only (or Tamil only in the north). Medium of instruction in schools and syllabus was changed to local languages purely due to economic reasons. After WW2, western Christian and Buddhist education missions left the island. This was a severe blow to English teaching. Number of schools proliferated enormously making it impossible to teach in English. A decision was taken not to create a division between English educated and Sinhala and Tamil educated students. That was why underlined ending English teaching. By 1956, only 4% of the population was English fluent. Making it
    Sinhala only (and reasonable use of Tamil) in 1956 allowed more than 99% of the people interact with the government. That helped advance a higher human development (index) for the population. Quality of life improved enormously and even GDP per capita. Sri Lanka came to lead the entire South Asian region in both these vital indices. A clear victory for Sinhala Only. If English was the official language, most people would be shut out from government interaction.

    Sinhala Only also helped Sri Lanka avert communist uprisings. With high poverty and high education, Sri Lanka was a fertile ground for communist ideology. However, since people felt they were part of the government, thanks to Sinhala Only, communist uprisings didn’t have mass support. Therefore, they failed.

    Countries in the West Indies and Africa (Nigeria, etc.) continued with English as the official language and ended up with a much lower human development index and instability than Sri Lanka. This is despite resource advantage they had.

    It is untrue to claim studying in local languages deprived locals higher education opportunities in English, German, French or Russian. Evidence suggests otherwise. Although it was harder, it was not impossible for hardworking and wise students to master another language quickly. Even if they studied in English medium, Arts students would remain relatively more unemployed. Its an economic reality.

    However, what worked for 1950s to 1970s became unsuitable by 1980s. That is normal. As people’s quality of life was uplifted and education proliferated (thanks to Sinhala Only), their needs changed. English became essential in trade. Going for English medium was a very good initiative. It doesn’t mean Sinhala Only was wrong. It was the right thing to do in 1956 and English medium is the right thing to do today.

    This is the beauty of democracy. Government policy changes as people’s contemporary likes and desires change. It must be celebrated, not condemned. If not for SWRD Bandaranaike, someone else could have done it in 1956, 1960 or 1965.

    English education must be given to all Sri Lankan students while Sinhala must be the sole official language. In fact, teaching English and English medium in all schools must be the government’s top development priority over building roads, ports and airports.

    In addition to English, adults should be given the opportunity to study other languages of developed countries including German, French, Korean, Japanese and Arabic.

    There is no contradiction in learning useful languages of developed countries and keeping Sinhala as the only official language.

  2. S.Gonsal Says:

    We can look at Singapore, official and unofficial.
    Most people operate in English now, 20-30 years ago Malay was used widely with Chinese and English by officials and where many ethnic mix people work. Universities used English and most schools, except there were Chinese schools those days. Malay schools have always been there to teach Islam, no Tamil schools. If you travel in the train (MRT) , you will hear announcements mad in English, Chinese, Malay and Indian ( meaning Tamil). Tamil can also heard in government offices where people queue up to get things done. However Chinese is heard more widely, which is natural , 70% population being ethnic Chinese. There are ethnic enclaves for Tamils and Chinese where people speak these languages.

    If we want to progress we too need to follow a similar path. Teaching Tamil to Sinhalese will be disaster and that leaves Sinhala people with less time to learn English properly.


  3. plumblossom Says:

    It is high time that a new political party is created. The symbol can be the ‘mal pohottuwa’ as just prior to the general election, a new political party was registered under this symbol. All those SLFPers who are totally fed up with this treacherous yahapalayana government can then join this new political party.

    It is best to do this as soon as possible in order to get ready for the local government elections, to counter the treacherous OMP Act, to counter VAT increases, to counter the low prices offered to rice farmers, tea growers, rubber growers, to counter any attempt to provide any more powers to provincial councils than they have at present especially police, land or fiscal powers and to prevent the illegal merger of the North and the East and any attempt to change the unitary status of the country via unwanted constitutional changes, to counter the signing of ETCA, to counter the building of the Hanuman Bridge, to ensure that no Sri Lankan Forces member is harassed by setting up of hybrid courts or even domestic courts and to safeguard Sri Lankan armed forces from bogus war crimes charges to be produced via the OMP.

    Also to counter the wide ranging privatization of state assets programme of the UNP which envisages privatising even healthcare, water, electricity etc., to ensure that the rice farmer is empowered and not destroyed as this yahapalanaya government is doing and to ensure that 2600 years of rice farming is not destroyed, to ensure that other crop growers get a fair deal for their produce, to encourage local industries and companies by taxing imports, to create and empower and rehabilitate local industries like the Valachchanai paper plant, Puttlam, and KKS cement factories, Kanthale and Pelawatta sugar factories, to build new tyre producing factories, to build new fish tin canning factories, to build new fruit juice, jam producing factories, to create a more efficient food storage and transport to market system including proper storage and refrigeration of vegetables, fruits etc., to encourage local companies by taxing imports, to encourage school leavers to take up vocational training programmes and to create a vocational training to youth employment creation programme where youth are helped to start up their own SMEs, to change our diet from a wheat based diet to a rice based diet, to encourage farmers to produce our own milk by encouraging the dairy industry and to build factories to produce our own powdered milk etc.

    Unless a new party is formed now, all those people opposed to this treacherous yahapalanaya government will have nowhere to turn and nowhere to go and if the disaffected SLFPers do not take up this opportunity to form a new party, others definitely will. Also once the yahapalanaya commits all treacherous acts possible and betrays the country , it will be too late to form new political parties since there will not be a country left to govern after all the treacherous acts are completed by this yahapalanaya government.

  4. plumblossom Says:

    Sri Lanka’s future will depend on whether a new party is formed now or not by the disaffected SLFPers. It is now or never. There is no point forming new parties once this treacherous yahapalanaya government has finished committing all the treacherous deeds they are committing at present like more powers given to provincial councils inclusive of land, police and fiscal powers and illegally merging the North and the East, charging our brave Sri Lankan Forces with bogus war crimes using hybrid or even domestic courts, privatizing everything, destroying 2600 years of rice farming, signing ETCA, building the Hanuman bridge etc.

    Once all this is done there will not be a Sri Lanka left to govern. Therefore it is imperative that a new political party is formed now before it is too late for Sri Lanka when it will be of no point complaining once all the treacherous acts are committed and completed.

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