Sunday Times Sri Lanka: Corea – Last of the Mohicans

The Sunday Times Newspaper tribute on Dr. Gamani Corea –

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Corea: Last of the Mohicans

The accolades and plaudits for Gamani Corea, one of Sri Lanka’s most distinguished local and international civil servants continued to flow in on Friday, five days after he was cremated in Colombo.

While there is an appreciation on this page by a fellow economist and junior colleague of the humble Horton Place resident summarising the work and the breadth of intellectual connect that this ‘true son of Sri Lanka’ had in a long professional career in Sri Lanka and abroad, this commentary is meant to reflect on the ‘good old days’ when such men of standing and calibre exemplified the country’s public service.

In a way, Corea – until his death – was the ‘last of the Mohicans, a select band of people who were groomed, geared, educated and were unwavering in their task of serving the public.

Among the remaining few distinguished civil servants of the 1950s-1980s generation are Bradman Weerakoon, Dharmasiri Peiris and Tissa Devendra to name a few.

Those were also the heady days when straight-forward politicians separated politics from the business of running government. Here is an example capturing that era from one of the many comments on websites, acknowledging the contribution of this great patriot: “Dr. Gamani Corea was a true son of Sri Lanka who served governments of different hues with the same spirit of professionalism and objectivity in advice. Despite being a nephew of Sir John Kotalawela who was routed in the 1956 elections, the winning Prime Minister (S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike) appointed Dr. Corea to head the National Planning Secretariat set up under his government”.

Those were the days when public servants were uncompromising in whatever they did, sticking to the ARs and FRs (administrative and financial regulations), by the book. Such was the dominance of the public service, on the lines of the Indian civil service which has remained an independentinstitution unlike our civil service, that officials would not waver from a decision even if their job was on the line.

Humility was either acquired or came naturally to many public servants of a bygone era. For example, walk into the room of D.B.I.P.S. Siriwardena, one-time Public Administration and Home Affairs Secretary (in the late 1970s) and you are greeted with a smile. ‘DBIPS’ as he was popularly known, was a towering personality, simply dressed in a neatly pressed, white short-sleeved shirt and white trousers who sat at a table sans the mountain of files and paraphernalia now seen on tables of modern-day colleagues. “Whenever I get a file, I immediately attend to it and send it away. That’s why my table is (almost bare),” he once laughed when asked by a journalist on how he was able to maintain a ‘dignified’ table. The white shirt and white trousers was also a dress code of that era.

On the other side of the fence – in the private sector – there were similar examples. Walk into the room of the late D.S. Jayasundera, chairman of Hayleys Group and visitors were equally put at ease by this gentle giant in the corporate sector. His table too was bare for the same reasons!

In an endearing interview with the Sunday Times headlined “Flight to Destiny”, Gamani Corea recalled a memorable trip in 1945 to England in the company of former Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake before independence. They were travelling by ship and the young Corea was proceeding for studies to Cambridge University. That February 4, 2007 interview could be seen at http://www.sundaytimes.lk/070204/Plus/010_pls.html

As to when the standards of the public service deteriorated has been debated over and over again. Some argue that even in the immediate, post-independence era political interference was evident.

However there is little doubt that the standards worsened in the late 1970s and thereafter with political interference and meddling being the order of the day. Today public servants without any hesitation work for their political masters, not the people who they are meant to see. They are, as envisaged by British colonial rulers, ‘servants of the people’. But are they working with this focus and commitment in mind? More often than not members of the public would walk into the room of a public servant with a sense of fear, trepidation and worry.

ARs and FRs have been thrown aside and a joke doing the rounds in some circles is that after the ARs and FRs rule book, came the JR (rule book) and the MR (rule book)!

Corea belonged to a fading generation, by around the 1980s, of public officials who stood up for what was right and quit, if asked to bend, sway or disregard laid-down governance rules and structures. Quite contrary to the attitude and behaviour of today’s officials, who are unmoved even if strictures by the judiciary have been made against them.

Such was the talent and credentials of public servants of that generation that they were instantly grabbed by international organisations, before retirement or after with Corea reaching the pinnacle of success through his years as Secretary General of UNCTAD.
While times have changed, much water has flowed under the bridge and Sri Lankans live in trying times – recovering from 30 years of conflict -, an efficient and accountable public service is a sine qua non for a developing country racing ahead with reforms, to catch up on lost time.

A public service that the likes of Corea would be proud to join (if born in this generation) and truly serve the interests of the people; not their political masters and “henchiyas”.

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