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Thursday, 13 January 2011






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Finger-pointing and moral high ground

Higher Education Minister S B Dissanayake recently stated that all undergraduates who have accepted admission to the university system will have to undergo a course of leadership training in the Army. The Convenor of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), Udul Premaratne reacted to this announcement by saying that all State officials should similarly be trained before the Ministry focuses on students.

The contention is not surprising and neither is it preposterous. No system is perfect and the imperfections of unit, process and personality are too numerous and apparent to be too dismissive of Udul's point.

There's indiscipline, lack of initiative, arrogance, reluctance to admit error, corruption and inefficiency. There are also huge human resources problems, inadequate remuneration, much sacrifice and over-stretching of personnel.

There is the good, the bad, the ugly and through it all a surprisingly high degree of delivery. Much to worry about and a lot to be thankful for.

Government officials

The key word here is perspective. It is important to point out error. It is as important to have a sense of proportion. Finger must be pointed but finger-pointing should not preclude self-reflection, acknowledgment of wrongdoing and humility.

There is no doubt that in general there is much to be desired in the training given to Government officials. Not all professions and occupational categories require 'leadership' but I would assume that being exposed to regimented instruction as such one would expect from a military establishment would help one acquire some idea about discipline. In the very least it would teach punctuality.

If one were to obtain a better understanding of systems and requirements of the individual to make systems work, a commitment to detail, a sense of command-chain and the importance of doing justice to one's salary paltry though it may be, it naturally enhances efficiency. Moreover, it puts the individual on a stronger moral platform when it comes to agitating for better contractual terms. In this sense, relevant authorities would do well to pick up Udul's comment divested of course of its wryness.

Mahapola Scholarships

But what of Udul and the IUSF, though? Perfect? What of the general student population in universities? Are they disciplined, endowed with a sense of responsibility to their parents, families, communities, society at large, one another and indeed themselves? Do they do justice to the citizenry whose tax money seeks to educate them? When they complain about the lack of facilities such as hostels or the inadequacy of the Mahapola Scholarships, have they already asked themselves if they've made adequate use of the facilities that are provided such as libraries and laboratories? Do they understand that when they vandalize walls and architecture the cost of repaint and repair has to be borne by their parents? Do they think about children from similar backgrounds who do full time jobs earning small salaries while taking weekend classes to obtain diplomas and degrees for which they have to pay? Do they count their blessings?

It is perfectly alright to point finger but only if one has the moral high ground. The IUSF is the JVP's cat's paw and has been so for decades.

Role models

Nothing wrong in students believing what they want to believe, even if they are dead wrong about their assumptions. On the other hand, Udul Premaratne and the IUSF cannot point fingers at anyone in order to justify their anti-intellectualism, propensity to quell dissent through thuggery, readiness to vandalize public property and their manifest lack of qualms about exploiting the fact that the average student on account of being focused on education is not inclined to organize and therefore oppose the IUSF.

The IUSF has never earned the sympathy and support of the general public and if Udul wonders why it is mostly because his outfit doesn't have the moral high ground for all the reasons mentioned above. Until such time the IUSF recognizes this, it will remain a spoiler, a vandal and in the final instance a counter-productive proposition.

Udul Premaratne and the IUSF might find some use in reflecting on the teachers that left a mark on their lives and the role models they aspire to emulate. They might find that one of the striking attributes that separated such individuals from the crowd was not just skill and dedication but an uncompromising fidelity to ethics and discipline and the rarest attribute of all, humility.

Student movement

Leadership is not made only of an ability to turn phrase, courage and being able to read the relevant political equation accurately. If Udul looks back at the history of the student movement he might notice that the best student leaders are either dead or have had the humility to acknowledge error and move on.

Governments and Ministers are not perfect, true. Indeed they are closer to imperfection than perfection. This does not give licence to sloth, error, arrogance, indiscipline and thuggery except in the most superficial sense. Wittiness is fun and earns a few laughs. Doesn't further one's cause.

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