I made several attempts to contact a Ministry Secretary during the month devoted to the commemoration of the Father of Free Education. On each such occasion, I could not go beyond the Secretary’s secretary, a stenographer. The official was said to be busy. I offered to call back if he was engaged in any specific work like a meeting. He had no such assignment but he was reported to have a lot of work. Asked whether I could speak to the Secretary later, I was told that he was going to be busy the whole day. Disclosing the fact that I was myself a former Secretary was of no avail. It was distressing to guess what chance an average citizen would have had to contact this official.
Debarred on the telephone, I went to see the Secretary personally but he was not in office. I was stopped at the entrance to the Secretary’s office and was told that she would come out shortly. There was a crowd waiting to see the Secretary. They surrounded the stenographer as she came out but I managed to tell her the purpose of my visit after several attempts. I was asked to wait until the lady contacted the Secretary about my problem. My intention was to ascertain what the Secretary had done about a paper that had been referred to him personally by his Minister.
As I waited the lady interviewed the visitors after getting them to form a queue. She sat at a desk while the interviewees spoke to her in turn. Although most of them appeared to be officials holding positions above the interviewer, none of them was offered a seat. As the lady was entering her room after the lengthy interviews, I walked up to her. I was again asked to wait until she contacted her boss. Nearly an hour later she came out to inform me that the Secretary had forgotten what he had done with the paper. I had no alternative but to return home disappointed, having wasted several hours and the cost of my travel.
A few days back I wanted to contact a Minister. He was not in his office but his Private Secretary readily gave me the mobile phone number on which his boss could be contacted. I dialled that number but rang off after about five rings, presuming that the Minister was busy. My phone rang within a minute of my call and I was surprised to find the Minister at the other end, asking me whether I called. He did not know my number which fact showed that the Minister would have promptly responded to anyone who wanted to draw his attention.
I recount these two incidents in order to showcase the diversity in the level of service extended to the general public by those who had benefited from the public investment on free education. Undoubtedly, not only the Minister and the Secretary but also their two Private Secretaries are products of free education. But their sense of social obligation was poles apart and probably the Private Secretaries reflected the values of their superiors. The diverse attitudes of the four characters were personal to them and evidently, the education they had received had had no impact on their sense of social responsibility.
This failure of our system of education is highlighted day in and day out in the response of our Public Service to their obligations to the people at large. Our doctors threaten to stage strikes at the drop of a ‘file’ mindless of the resultant suffering of the thousands of hapless patients to whose class many of them evidently belonged before they were elevated to their exalted positions. Transport services are brought to a dead halt for the reason that a crew member had been assaulted by an individual traveller, thus leaving thousands of commuters stranded on the road. Why do not these worthies exhaust the remedies available to them under the normal laws of the land, before they decide to hold innocent citizens to ransom, making a cat’s-paw of them to pull their private chestnuts out of the fire? This is thuggery at its worst.
The fault appears to lie with the quality of education that was made free. Education was exam oriented. The anxiety was to make students get through examinations as fast as possible and join the job market. It was a campaign to stuff knowledge into the young with scant regard to their character formation. This produced school-leavers who were lackadaisical about their duties. Consequently their commitment to service depended on their respective personal backgrounds, resulting in a generation of mostly self-centred citizens. The neighbour friendly values of our forefathers were progressively replaced by an alien system of education geared to an individualist society.
It is heartening to see the efforts of the incumbent Minister of Education to pull education out of the present rut. His Thousand Schools Project is bound to spread the benefits of free education to a spectrum twenty times wider than the original model. Equally important is the effort to align curricula to the socio-economic needs of the country. Hopefully the venture would pay serious attention to solving problems like the one highlighted at the beginning of this essay. A commitment to repay the debt of free education to the people at large, more particularly to the less privileged, is a value that must be ingrained deeply in the growing minds.
A political revival
A research into the contribution made by free education to our political system is likely to lead to disappointing results. The normal tendency appears to be for the best products of free education to join the professions. They rarely take to politics except as a side-line. Products of free education do not appear to have given serious thought to evolving a political system appropriate to our circumstances. Those of them who have taken to politics have joined the existing Parties depending on opportunity rather than on principle. In fact the new comer has no intellectual choice as the two leading Parties are built on personality cults, being basically two sides of the same old coin. They are merely a continuation of the pre-colonial party system based on personal factors and not driven by any political philosophy. They might have remained as a single Party if nepotism of the Senanayake’s did not compel Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranayake to seek other pastures.
The original left Parties were based on theory but unfortunately they did not have the vision to temper the politics they imported from the west with indigenous culture. Their dress and address failed to win common favour and they have ended up as appendixes to the ruling Party with their theories confined to the library and thankful to their host for their survival. The first commoner who attempted to come to power through the parochial system was Mr. Premadasa but he had to fight a single handed battle as the system blocked him on all sides. Ironically even people who had come through free education cut the ground under his feet as they were not motivated by commitment to the national cause but to kudos that the system held out to them.
Socially the JVP had much in common with MR. Premadasa and together they could have ushered in a people oriented regime. Paradoxically the two sides became sworn enemies and the one that used mindless violence as the sole weapon of political change was neutralised by the other and another misguided champion of violence put an end to the latter. The present President also is a product of free education and has much in common with Mr. Premadasa. Both of them have a populist approach to government and the former being a master of tactics, and maneouver, it would not be an easy task to displace him for quite some time. Besides his success in demolishing the LTTE would stand him in good stead.
Though the LTTE has been vanquished, they have succeeded in decimating national leadership on both sides of the communal divide. Those that are left, except the President are debilitated by intra-party rivalry. In this scenario, the most urgent task before the nation today is to build up its future leadership that could succeed the incumbent President with acceptance. The new leadership should spurn antiquated politics based on personality cults and evolve a system that befits the culture and the needs of the people. That system has to entrench principles based on the following values among others:
2. Equitable distribution of power
3. Equality of rights
4. Respect for cultural diversity
5. Fair distribution of wealth
6. Equal access to means of production
7. End to exploitation
8. Eradication of corruption, nepotism and oppression
9. Preferential treatment for the disadvantaged taged
10.The Rule of law
12.Constitutionality in the use of state power
14.Bar on unscrupulous acquisition of wealth and power
The new structure may benefit from the experience of the rest of the world but it should be adapted to the cultural ethos of the people at large. It has to be home-grown with the participation of the people at grass-root level. People who have benefited from free education have a significant role to play in building up this structure. The obligation to participate should lie heavily on the conscience of those who would not have been where they were if not for free education. Unfortunately they do not appear to be alive to this responsibility as they hang on to power blocks regardless of their contribution to good governance.
Village leaders, both spiritual and secular, who have necessarily to be products of free education by now, should start a continuous dialogue on the most appropriate form of government. They should select their representative by consensus. At the electorate level these representatives agree on the candidate for the next election. This selection should have no connection to the existing hackneyed party system. Candidates identified through such a village based structure by consensus will naturally have a real chance to turn tables on the antiquated two-party system.
This system of bringing new political leaders to the fore is more easily said than done. It calls for a fairly established Party that has roots in the villages already. With all their problems, the JVP appears to be the Hobson’s choice for this task. Once they have sorted out their quarrels, they should go through a process of ‘samokritika’ and eschew their mistakes of the past, the worst of them being trying to stuff their dogma down the throats of the electorate without evolving an indigenous political system in consultation with the masses. Success in this endeavour should attract progressives hanging on to the major Parties for want of a better alternative.
According to the media one faction of the JVP has already gone to the villages to start their rejuvenation. Let us hope that they or their rivals would produce a people friendly team that could successfully challenge the minions of a parochial Party System at the next General Election. Demonstrations at the Lipton Circus or the Fort Railway Station, press conferences on shortages and posters against price hikes had become old hat long ago.
By Somapala Gunadheera