Felix Dias undertook series of measures to modernise public service
performance - Dr. Amunugama
FORMER senior Minister of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government Felix
R. Dias Bandaranaike undertook a series of measures to modernise the
performance of the public service, said Finance Minister Dr. Sarath
"Felix Dias Bandaranaike was the first Minister to make good use of
the computer. In those days we had to send the data to the Central Bank
which alone was the proud owner of a large computer," Dr. Amunugama said
delivering the Felix R. Dias Bandaranaike Memorial lecture at the
Sirimavo Bandaranaike Memorial Hall, Colombo on Sunday.
Ms. Laxmi Dias Bandaranaike and former senior public servant Baku
Mahadeva were at the head table.
The Finance Minister speaking on Felix Dias Bandaranaike and the
modernisation of the Sri Lankan economy, before a distinguished
gathering said the results were startling.
"We were able to establish the job bank for clerical and allied
grades. Instead of the system of recruitment, which depended on
cumbersome and time consuming examination procedures, a new system based
on the allocation of marks on the candidates' GCE examination results
was introduced," he said.
There are many anecdotes about his scepticism followed by cutting
repartee when authority was thrust on him. While he could be very gentle
and even deferential with a humble Dompe constituent, he could be an
awesome opponent in the face of pomposity and privilege, Amunugama said.
As the Minister of Public Administration, Felix Dias Bandaranaike
pragmatism helped him to innovate, break traditions and rationalise so
that his contributions endure to this day. For instance he found that
Finance and Administrative Regulations were not codified, the Finance
"At a time when the public service was the leash pin in our economy
there were much needed innovations. Unfortunately the public sector has
become the achilles' heel of the Sri Lanka growth process.
Though Felix Dias Bandaranaike was out of power by then, the
Socialist world was overtaken by events which were the logical
consequences of the difficulties he had so clearly identified while in
the SLFP camp.
The Perestroika of Michael Gorbachev attempted to remedy these flaws
of Socialist enterprises, the Finance Minister added.
Dr. Amunugama said: "I consider it a great honour to be invited to
deliver this year's Felix Dias Bandaranaike commemoration lecture. It is
also a great pleasure to see so many of FDB's relations and friends who
admired him in his lifetime and now cherish his memory.
If I may be permitted to briefly go back in line, I recall with great
affection and nostalgia the happy days when we served as his officers in
the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs.
Felix, in fact, was the first to hold the Office of Minister of
Public Administration when it was hived off from the Ministry of Finance
when Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike formed her Cabinet after the victory of
He then had the pick of the Public Service at his command as well as
experts from the private sector. Among these officials were Baku
Mahadeva, D. B. S. Siriwardene, P. H. Siriwardena, Gamini Wickramanayake,
Francis Pieterz, R. M. B. Senanayake and H. S. Wanasinghe.
Though the press was prove to describe our Minister as a storm
disciplinarian and a hard task-master, we officials found him to be
extremely considerate and friendly though he expected the highest
standards of performance and probity.
I still recall his decisions on our minutes which had to properly use
legal verbiage. In his hardly visible minutes handwriting we would read
I agree with Siriwardene C.J. or I agree with Amunugama.
Many of us here will also recall those lovely birthday and Christmas
parties at Mahanuga Gardens or Gamini Wickramanayake's Farm in Navinna
where FDB went out of his way to make us all feel at home.
Those are memories we share of a colossus of the politics of his time
whose life was tragically cut short.
I have chosen as my theme FDB's contribution to the modernisation of
the Sri Lankan economy not only because he handled key economic
ministries such as Finance, Planning and Agricultural Development but
also because he stood out in his time as a practical and original
decision-maker who was hampered by the dominant political dogmas that
His highly rational approach to development quickly led him to the
conclusion that whatever theories were peddled at that time and however
pervasive they were, such theories did not provide a roadmap to
investment and growth which was badly needed at that time.
FDB proposed an adjustment of the subsidy and had to face the wrath
of the government parliamentary group. He then resigned his Finance
portfolio vowing never to return to 'growing grass.'
As Finance Minister, he was confronted with a very difficult economic
situation. The pro-population growth policies that all governments had
been following since the days of the State Council were leading to high
population increases in the late sixties and seventies. This growing
population demanded more and more allocation of public funds for social
National Budgets showed growing financial commitments for food
subsidies, free education, free health, welfare payments etc., which
drew away resources, which were badly needed for investment in
They were postponing the inevitable. The day would come when without
growth unemployment, poverty and an uneven distribution of wealth would
lead to a political and social crisis.
In fact, this day of reckoning came in April 1971 with the first JVP
insurrection. It is perhaps not well known that unlike many members of
the political elite at that time FDB took a very understanding view of
The manner in which Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and FDB handled the
insurrectionary youth of that time is in stark contrast to the mass
laughter that took place on both sides in the 87 and 89 period in our
We have to remember that the dominant idealogies of that time were
Statist and Socialist. All the developing countries in the immediate
post - independence period chose to follow a socialist model of
centrally planned economics, state enterprises in almost all sectors of
the economy and a bureaucratic control system which has been described
as the "license Raj".
There were of course different models of socialism that were part of
the ideological mosaic of those newly emergent nations. They ranged from
the Fabian and Dirigiste socialism of Nehru, Bandaranaike, Nasser,
Nknsot and Sukarno to hard Marzist formulations of Stataxists and
Trobkyites who played on important role both inside and outside
In such mixture of so-called progressive and socialist policies in
Sri Lanka it was Felix Dias Bandaranaike who attempted to clarify the
He became, perhaps at the cost of becoming the most, if I may coin a
term, 'unfavourite' SLFPer vis a vis the hard left, the best articulator
of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regimes concept of economic and social
He did not hesitate to distance his parties policies from those of
the hard left. I would like to quote from one of his parliamentary
speeches. It was part of his contribution to the 62/63 Budget.
Naturally such sentiments were not received with favour by some
leaders of the Marxist parties. This conflict finally led to the exist
of the LSSP from the ruling coalition. It must be mentioned here that
these differences were regarding economic issues. They do not pertain to
racial and religious issues which have unfortunately come to dominate
the political debate today.
Looking back now, it would not be wrong to describe FDB as the most
modern person in the Cabinet of his day. At a time when the ideological
temper in developing countries was decidedly collectivist and socialist
he had the intellectual acumen and social background not to be overawed
by these bookist theories.
His training as a lawyer made his question the validity of theories
which he was not willing to accept until his own thought processes and
practical experience had subjected them to scrutiny. It may have been a
psychological predisposition but FDB would take great delight in
questioning received wisdom.
The Central Planning System was replaced by a market economy. Loss
making state enterprises which pulled funds away from investment were
either reformed or shut down. Subsidies were either eliminated or better
targeted. Economics were made open for foreign investment. Given the
earlier mentioned pragmatism of FDB it is no surprise that he shared
that attribute with the modernisation of socialist economics.
In his 1976 Budget he proposed to introduce a new Foreign Investment
Law to encourage foreign investment. Together with Mrs. Bandaranaike he
laid the foundation of Tourist Development in Sri Lanka. If any meaning
serves are light even the idea of a Free Trade Zone was being pursued
when the government fell in 1977.
Many of these things have now come to pass. Economic concepts and
strategies have changed. It is fitting therefore that we celebrate the
life and chinoh memories of a man who could sense such a need for he
sought above all to help in improving the lives of the poor and
defenceless people of his country".