Saturday, 11 December 2010
I write this primarily as a tribute to Lalith Athulathmudali on his 74th birth anniversary. However, if any of the present day politicians could take at least a single lesson from his life as a true people’s representative, it would be a great fortune.
Having worked so closely with the late Minister, I can vouch for his genuineness in being a people’s representative - and not a mere politician. He had his own system for dealing with and helping his constituents to resolve their problems.
He had declared three days of the week; Monday, Wednesday and Friday for people to meet him at his political office in Ratmalana. His office was open from 6 am and all his staff were required to arrive before him. This alone is indicative of his dedication to the people who elected him to Parliament.
The public days which were declared by him, had clear objectives; to meet the individual, to give a patient hearing and send the person off with a satisfactory answer. In order to achieve these objectives, time management was key. It was Athulathmudali’s idea that persons with major problems should come the day before. My task was to meet the person and get all the information with regards to the problem. The following day, in the presence of the person concerned I had to present the case to Athulathmudali, who wasted no time in taking action.
His services to people did not stop at his party supporters or those who voted for him. I remember that once he had given a recommendation for a daughter of a Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) stalwart, to get into training to become a nurse. Some of the local politicians from the branch organisations in Ratmalana area were unhappy about his decision for giving a recommendation for a non-party member. Some were raising the issue of the girl being unsuitable to become a nurse.
Athulathmudali, as usual kept his calm. He showed no signs of being upset that his staff were questioning his judgment and decision. One day he called the girl in question to his office. She was asked to bring her curriculum vitae and certificates. Keeping the girl in one office, he called in the local politicians who were having problems with her being selected, to his office.
He instructed them to interview the girl and go through her certificates to see if she is really suitable to go for nursing. They were rather embarrassed and were quick to realize that their complaints were based solely on the girl’s political background and not on her real qualifications. The matter ended there. It was rather interesting how Athulathmudali, instead of defending his decision, made them realize the importance of being impartial.
There were many other occasions where Athulathmudali was approached by party people to advise him on certain appointments. Once someone alerted him that Lakshman de Mel, a highly respected civil servant was a leftist. This was cited as a barrier for him to be appointed into a high rank in Athulathmudali’s Ministry. Athulathmudali’s response was; ‘ I do not mind if he follows any other political ideology as long as he can deliver the work”.
A similar concern was raised when T S Silva was to be appointed as principal of Hena Vidyalaya. A message was sent to Athulathmudali that T S Silva was a ‘blue eyed boy’ of late MP Vivienne Gunawardhene. Athulathmudali’s reaction was the same; that irrespective of political affiliations, if the person can do the job, that is all that matters. Frankly, Athulathmudali had no fear of other political ideologies or favour for his own party. He never worked thinking that only those who voted for him or in his party are most suited to take up jobs. We truly miss the days of Athulathmudali, where his vision was clear; right person for the right job.
Athulathmudali always led by example. His way of driving a message home was through very interesting and entertaining ways. During his time as the Education Minister, he sent out a circular to all schools stating how a school prize giving should be conducted and the maximum time duration for it.
Subsequent to this circular, he was invited by a leading girls’ school in Galle to be the chief guest at their annual prize giving. The function began with a welcome song, a dance and log and elaborate speech by the principal. I noticed that he was checking his watch constantly.
Knowing what was in the circular, I was waiting to see a reaction from him as the prize giving ceremony was bound to exceed the allocated time.
He called the girl who was compering the event and whispered something in her ear. The principal and teachers were curious to find out what his plan was. The girl announced the awarding of prizes on the instruction given by Athulathmudali. This, which was the last item on the agenda was thus moved up. He distributed the prizes.
Then he was called to deliver his address. At the podium, his speech was brief. He said that his circular on school prize-giving ceremonies gives a specific time frame and this time will be up in a few minutes. “I cannot break my own rules,” he said and wished all the prizewinners all success and ended his speech. I was amazed. It was important that he distributed the prizes within the stipulated time and did not embarrass the principal and staff publicly. What was most important was that following the event, he spent over 45 minutes talking to the teachers and having tea with them. He simply delivered his speech informally during the tea break and also made sure that the principal and staff understood the circular on prize giving.
Athulathmudali is someone from whom we can learn about professionalism. He was also fortunate to have very professional and knowledgeable civil servants in his team.
One such person that comes to my mind is late Gaya Cumaranatunga, Additional Secretary at the Trade and Shipping Ministry was one of the finest officials who worked under him. They had a unique understanding and a way of working between them. Particularly when it came to matters concerning high confidentiality and that of sensitive nature, Cumaranatunga would make his recommendations in Latin.
Athulathmudali would also write his responses in Latin. This way, both maintained a high level of confidentiality when it was required and left no room for speculation. Athulathmudali was a scrupulously honest leader and those who were in his top team were equally honest and dedicated to public service.
To be continued