Ajit Kanagasundram

The Elite we destroyed

The Yalpanaya government has been in power for three years, but despite the efforts of two sincere and honest leaders, nothing much has happened – why is this? My article will attempt to explain this phenomenon and trace its causes, which go back six decades.

How did the British rule an empire of 600 million people, on which the sun literally never set and which spanned all five continents – especially in an age before the steam ship and telegraph when communications took months? Not by military force certainly but by their administrative service, which became known as the Civil (as opposed to the military) Service. In the usual British fashion there was no grand plan – it evolved by trial and error over decades – unlike the French who had a plan under Napoleon to create an elite service from the graduates of the Ecole Superieres. The British Civil Service, as it had evolved by the late 19th Century had certain characteristics – you chose the very best candidates (usually from Oxford and Cambridge) by a competitive examination. This meant that very few Civil Servants were from the upper classes but from the solid middle class. Even remote colonies like the Sudan attracted the best of Oxbridge candidates. Then you sent them into the field, usually a small remote area where they were the only white man, with absolutely no training, to learn on the job. There was no such thing as a Civil Service handbook. You learnt what was the best course of action by looking at the precedents in the files, that were meticulously kept by the Chief Clerks, who were the ones who guided the neophytes in their first few months. They learnt to make their own decisions as there was no superior nearby to turn to and developed that precious ability known as judgement. Progressively they would be given more responsibility, and after seven years will get home leave, where they would often marry and bring back a white woman to help them relieve the monotony of a lonely existence. They never lowered standards, would invariable dress for dinner even in the tropics and any relations with native women would have led to dismissal.  They would usually send their children home to a boarding school at the tender age of eight and only see them during their home leave. But there were compensations – the British Government Agents had palatial homes with numerous servants. For those so inclined there was the opportunity of hunting, shooting and fishing. In the bigger stations there would be a club, the center of social life, with tennis, snooker and bridge. Somerset Maugham has immortalized this way of life in his short stories of the Far East.  Not a bad life if one was not inclined to the bright lights. The biggest compensation, however, was power. The power to improve the life of the people and dispense British justice. The power to do good. Real power. Power that Henry Kissinger called the ultimate aphrodisiac. But their performance and exercise of this near absolute power, their relations with the natives and their personal conduct would be rigorously evaluated periodically by their superiors and those who fell short of their high standards would be retired early with the gentle suggestion that they move to a commercial establishment! After thirty years they would retire, with a modest pension and the more distinguished ones with a knighthood, to a quiet English village where they would play golf and reminisce with other retired colonials and write their memoirs – which would usually be read only by other retired Civil servants, and engage with correspondence in the Times columns on obscure Colonial issues.

But with this simple system the British ran the most effective and benign worldwide administration for a century. More effective than the Romans, which was based on naked power and cruelty and far better than the rapacious rule of the French, Dutch and Portuguese, but which still served British commercial and strategic interests. Unlike them, they left viable administrations in their territories at independence and the intelligent countries like India and Singapore have preserved their Civil Service and in the latter case actually improved on it. The Civil Servants had to learn the language of the locality, and many, given their superior education, became scholars. The first translation of the Mahawamsa from the original Pali text, for example, was by a British civil servant, and there were genuine intellectuals like Leonard Wolf, who as Assistant GA in Hambantota wrote the classic Village in the Jungle that showed the hardship and travails of life in a dry zone village. After the first World War, partly due to government policy but more due to the manpower shortage as the flower of British manhood had perished in the killing fields of Flanders, they admitted locals, particularly in India and Ceylon which both had a developed education systems. But they did not compromise on their standards –  a stiff competitive examination to select the best, the long arduous training on the job and rigorous evaluation of conduct. These locals, who increased in number, especially in India and Ceylon through the thirties and were a majority by the forties were imbued with the ethos and code of conduct of their British counterparts – most important their standards of integrity and impartiality, together with the external trappings that caused them to be decried as “Brown Sahibs.” At independence Nehru called the Indian Civil Service “the iron band that holds India together.” Ceylon was similarly blessed with the legacy of the Ceylon Civil Service.

So when Ceylon needed a Foreign Service after independence, there was Sir Kandiah Vaithianathan, a Civil Servant Permanent Secretary to set up one that was a model for other newly independent nations. When D S Senanayake need an able administrator for his pet project Gal Oya, he turned to my father who was then 39 and the first Ceylonese Land Commissioner. When SWRD Bandaranayake wanted to set up a nationalized, nationwide bus service, there was Vere De Mel to set up the CTB. When we needed an able administrator to run a fledgling airline, Air Ceylon, there was MFDS Jayaratne to do so without any drama and the corruption that has dogged the airline since his time. All these projects were done effectively, with minimal publicity and with no hint of scandal or drama. The politicians had only to take the decision and the Civil Service was there to implement it. This was as it should be and still is in countries like Singapore. What a legacy the British left us and how blithely we proceeded to degrade and destroy it over the next seventy  years!

Let me first say a few words of the Ceylon Civil Service. From the 1920s Ceylonese were admitted with the same rigorous selection and training process as the British. There were a large preponderance of Tamils in the Civil Service, given that they had had an earlier access to an English education due to the activities of the America missionaries in Jaffna from the 19th Century. It was said that at Independence four of the six permanent secretaries were Tamils, but this would have corrected itself in due course as the benefits of free education permeated its way throughout the country. There was no reduction in the rigorous selection process and every year after the examination and viva, there would be a merit list and the Secretary to the Treasury would announce how many vacancies were available -there were in some years only 3. In 1933, the year my father joined the CCS, my father was placed first in the merit list and eight candidates were selected that year– the eighth being C P de Silva the future Minister of Agriculture. My father, who had previously been awarded a first class Honours in History at King’s College , University of London, had also been offered a Fellowship for a year at Baliol College, Oxford and being only 20 he decided to take up the Fellowship and sit for the Civil Service examination the following year – age 21 being the maximum age to sit. His Professor at the University of London, Professor Pakeman, brought him down to reality. “Young man – don’t be arrogant. This is a competitive examination and how do you know that next year there will not be three candidates better than you?” Thus humbled my father took the Civil Service appointment in preference to the Oxford Fellowship – such was the prestige of the Civil Service in those days.

The thirties saw a stellar cohort of Civil Servants recruited. In the year following my Father, Herbert Tennekoon was placed first in the merit list. He went on to hold every senior job in the service ending as the Secretary to the Treasury, Ambassador to Japan and the Director of the Geneva based General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. His final assignment was for eight years as the Governor of the Central Bank, which he ran with firmness and independence (as provided for in the Monetary Law Act) despite every effort of the Finance Minister Felix Dias to interfere –subsequent Governors were to a greater or lesser extent Government stooges till the present one, Indrajit Coomaraswamy, who upholds the old traditions of impartiality and independence.  Another was Shirley Amerasinghe, who was my father’s Resident Manager at Amparai in the Gal Oya Board – what a team, the original Dream Team! Shirley went on as our UN Ambassador to negotiate the Law Of the Sea Treaty signed and ratified by eighty eight nations and by some measures the most effective UN Treaty ever. Andrew Joseph of the Civil Service became  the UNDP Director. The most famous Civil Service export to the UN was Raju Coomaraswamy (Roving Raju) who was an Under-Secretary General. There were other Civil Servants who went on to high UN office such Deverajan. (Raju’s son Indrajit is the current Governor of the Cental Bank). There was M Rajendra – known even within the corruption free Civil Service for his prickly independence and integrity.  Chandrasoma ran the Customs, a service highly susceptible to  “influence” with no whiff of scandal. There are many other instances that I am not aware of – I merely relate those I know of from first-hand knowledge. Most of the Civil Servants were not from wealthy families but from the lower middle-class and were educated at the University of Ceylon which is free of tuition fees. Some like my father and Herbert Tennekoon were fortunate enough to be sent to London for their final year after their parents had scrimped at saved and mortgaged all their property. They certainly were not elitist except in the intellectual sense. To be sure not all Civil Servants were paragons of virtue as is to be expected in any group. I will give two examples of these from my father’s vintage. There was GVP Samarasinghe, who did a lot of President JR’s devious work and NQ Dias who was a blatant racist and bigot.


One frequent criticism of the Civil Servants was that they were “Generalists” and “Arts” graduates (a derogatory term today when we churn out thousands of semi-educated Arts graduates) but in those days “Arts” and the chance of getting into the Civil Service attracted the best brains and they were given a rigorous education). But this precisely misses the point –  they were so effective precisely because they were Generalists and not narrow specialists. Winston Churchill once said – “You need Scientific experts on tap and not on top.” A good Arts degree (what the Americans call a Liberal  Arts education) trains you to evaluate alternatives based on incomplete and fragmented information. A scientist or engineer needs “hard data” to make a decision and is stymied when this is not available outside the lab. The real world is messy with incomplete, often contradictory and fragmented information but projects and administrators still have to make decisions. This requires “Judgement” and this presupposes a first rate mind, training and experience – this was the special ingredient that the Civil Servants brought to the table and this precious and rare commodity is what we have lost.

In my own field of computers (which I specialized in despite being an “Arts” graduate in Economics), the true innovators were not computer scientists but liberal arts graduates (not even completing their degree) like Steve Jobs (calligraphy), Bill Gates (mathematics) or Larry Ellison. Even Churchill chose a journalist and newspaperman Lord Beaverbrook to head wartime weapons production where scientific superiority was crucial and Hitler chose Albert Speer his favourite architect.

The Civil Service did not exist is a vacuum. They were the apex of a system of administration where you had the District Land Officers  (DLOs) specializing in land use and alienation, and District Revenue Officers (DROs specializing in revenue collection issues.  A very effective system where the cadres in these services could build up knowledge and experience in their fields. However the plum jobs – the Government Agents and Permanent Secretaries were usually reserved for the Civil Servants. All these services worked well together and created an ecosystem for an effective administration.

How were the Civil Servants able to be so independent and corruption free – this was not due to their pay, which did not compare to the commercial sector. It was because their service offered them protection – entry was strictly on merit through a competitive examination ( even the powerful Secretary to the Treasury Sir Arthur Ranasinghe could not get his son into the service when he just missed the cutoff point), promotions and transfers were according to the strict order of merit and controlled by the Secretary to the Treasury and the Public Services Commission – unlike today where politicians do their will. Also, although nearly all Civil Servants came from a lower middle-class background ( I can only think of only two exceptions – Glennie Pieris, who was the scion of a landowning Panadura  family, and the father of the former minister G L Pieris. And Baku Mahadeva, who was from the elite Arunachalam clan), many married into serious money as it was the ambition of every rich man to have a “Civil Servant “ as a son-in-law. For example my father came from a poor family but my grandfather was for many years the highest income taxpayer in Ceylon. This was true of nearly all his colleagues, except Shirley Amerasinghe , who was a gay bachelor known for his romantic escapades! This gave them an independence as they were not dependent on their salary and they were beyond the temptations of corruption.

How did the degradation of the service begin. It started with the abolition of the three services I have mentioned and the  amalgamation of the Civil Service and the DROs and DLOs into the Ceylon Administrative Service under the Sirimavo SLFP government in the 1960s. This was done for ostensibly egalitarian reasons to remove “elitism” and the “Brown Sahibs.” The Civil Servants at the time did not object too much as they were given enhanced positions in the new amalgamated service. But the old way of creating an elite service that attracted the best talent in the country was lost for good. The amalgamated Ceylon Administrative Service has since produced no one of the caliber of the old Civil Servants – the only exception I know of is Tissa Devendra, who as GA Jaffna and Trincomalee and later as the Head of the Public Services Commission, upheld the old standards of effectiveness, independence and integrity. Only one lonely exception when the need of the hour is so great! After the abolition of the Civil Service  the politicians started to interfere more and more in the workings of the administration, and the nadir was reached with the UNP government under J R Jayawardane in 1977, when all vestiges of independence and integrity in administration was arrogantly cast aside for short term political expediency.  This has gone on with every subsequent government to varying degrees and although the present government has tried to reverse the trend it is now too late – there is nothing left to salvage.

The present government is honestly trying to keep their promises of better governance and creating more employment – but this needs FDI ( which require an infrastructure of industrial parks) and to implement the Megaplolis, which requires an administrator to lead, organize and co-ordinate the work of an army of town planners, architects and engineers – a Mahaweli project on steroids and precisely the type of project that needs the abilities of a seasoned Civil Service type. The Minister Champika Ranawaka has done  an excellent job in articulating the concept but that is not enough and till that  missing ingredient is put in place the project will be a Megalomaniapolis ! We do not have the caliber of an able administrator who can direct and co-ordinate the work of hundreds of architects, town planners, engineers, construction compamies and businesses.

 The Government , despite its good intention is like a car with the engine disconnected from the wheels, or to mix  metaphors, a ship without a rudder. At the mercy of the wind and tides and drifting. They are trying to correct this and are clutching at straws – they have brought into the Prime Minister’s office Paskaralingam one of the last of the old Civil Servants, who is in his eighties and was also a key figure in President Premadasa’s government. He was described to me by a former high official in the World Bank subsidiary IFC  as “the single most effective developing world administrator I have come across.” But what can one man alone achieve? Bradman Weerakoon played a similar role for two Prime Ministers – Dudley Senanayake and Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranayake.

My answer is for us to change course and set more modest but achievable objectives. We now cannot emulate Singapore or even India for that matter and aim for FDI and industrialization. We should focus the Government efforts to do a few things well – primary and secondary education, health services (preventing dengue and organizing garbage disposal for instance), law and order and the judicial service. Outsource everything else to the private sector, starting with that major drain on the taxpayer – Sri Lankan Airways. The private sector will run these for a profit and not for the public good but at least these will not be a burden on the Treasury. The private sector has not lost the ability to implement projects. For example, John Keels is building a mega complex of hotels, apartments, offices and a convention center in their former office land in Slave Island – the largest private sector investment project since independence. One can question the wisdom of this investment given faltering tourist arrival and FDI but can one doubt that it will implemented on schedule and without corruption.

In fact we have no alternative as over 90% of Government Revenue now goes on debt servicing.  We should devolve as much as possible of day to day administration to the Provincial Councils. The focus of development should then be on agriculture, both paddy and fruits and vegetables. Thailand exports $ 3 billion worth of fruit and vegetables each year, $1 billion to China alone – up from $ 250 million just five years ago. This will not be easy and will require a focused multi-generational effort but it has the virtue that it does not require a super administrative machinery, but rather a network of agricultural extension stations and political leadership at the National and Provincial levels –  If we can achieve even half of Thailand’s agricultural export volumes using our abundant resources of soil and water, particularly in the partially developed Mahaweli areas, we would have solved both our foreign exchange and employment problems. As I said in an earlier essay – I would like to paraphrase Bill Clinton’s aphorism when he won the 1992 Presidential election – “It is Agriculture (the economy), Stupid”. We have reached middle income status on loans which have been largely wasted on useless infrastructure projects like the Mattala Airport and Hambantota Port. The loans will have to be paid back soon. When Greece faced a similar situation last year, the conditions the creditors and the IMF imposed on that unfortunate country led to a 30% fall in the standard of living. We will face the same situation within five to seven years and in our case this will probably be accompanied by social unrest, strikes and maybe communal violence – this time against the Muslims as there are no Tamil targets left.  We have no other realistic alternative and should act before we are faced with this situation.