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Tuesday, 14 February 2012

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A notable among Asia’s Finance Ministers

In the spotlight today is the versatile Ronnie de Mel, an all round and talented individual and remarkable personality. A product of S.Thomas’ College Mount Lavinia, he was once a student of the University of Ceylon and a member of the Ceylon Civil Service and a Cabinet Minister of Finance from 1977- 1988, a record for a local Finance Minister.

“I totally enjoyed my life in school. Very often we used to get out of the boarding in the night and go to both Ladies College and Bishop’s College and try to serenade our girlfriends in those schools. I remember one Royal Thomian match day when we all stormed Ladies College in two cars. We entered the place at 11.00 am in the morning before the match started and went through the roads which were passable for a car inside the college to the consternation of the Principal and some of the teachers in the school,” said de Mel.


Former Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel

He also said that he had many interesting escapades often getting into trouble. On one occasion he was even asked by Warden Canon R.S. De Saram to pack up his things and go home. “I was being too much of a nuisance in the boarding but anyway he relented and allowed me to remain. So I was quite a mischievous young lad during my school days.”

Ceylon Civil Service

Ronnie also related the time when school was evacuated from Mount Lavinia to Kandy and to Gurutalawa during the time of the war. “Our entire school was taken over very suddenly by the British Military and we were packed off to Kandy and Gurutalawa. We had to start a school in some temporary buildings and also in Kingswood College Kandy. Kingswood had their classes in the mornings and very graciously they gave us the use of their classrooms in the evenings. We were boarded in several houses which were rented out by the College. It was all a makeshift arrangement but we enjoyed the whole experience thoroughly.”

At university he was second to none. He was president of the union; he played in the tennis team and the hockey team taking part in almost all university activities and coming first in every exam in the university. “I came first in the entrance examination to the university, the Intermediate in Arts examination, and the degree examination with a first class honours in History winning the Arts Scholarship for that year from Sri Lanka. I would have gone on the scholarship to either Oxford or Cambridge but unfortunately I got into the Ceylon Civil Service and that was the end of my academic career.”

The Ceylon Civil Service was a very prestigious institution at that time. “It was the Ceylon Civil Service that really governed the country under the leadership of a board of 10-12 ministers. The ministers and the cabinet decided on all the main matters of policy. But the entire execution - everything that was done in this country was in the hands of the Ceylon Civil Service. So in one sense it was really we who governed this country in the first period after independence. However, things began to take a different turn. The Ceylon Civil Service was abolished in 1962 and after that power passed over completely to the politicians,” said De Mel.

Indian politics

Asked as to what he thinks of Liberal Arts being taught in the university, Ronnie had this to say: “I think there is much to be said for Liberal Arts and I would be a very sad person if Liberal Arts were completely abolished from the university curricula. Job-oriented and technical oriented courses are all very useful. But I think a degree in the Liberal Arts is something that is of tremendous benefit to any country. In fact it is people who have graduated in Liberal Arts who govern many countries in the world. If you analyze, for example, the British Parliament, 75 percent have graduated in the Liberal Arts from Oxford or Cambridge or one of the British Universities.”

Ronnie de Mel was instrumental in changing the Sri Lankan economic policy in the late 1970s. “Almost all the work of the period revolved largely round the Ministry of Finance and Planning because we had to change the whole economy from a closed economy, almost a semi-Marxist economy which had been in this country for several years into an open market economy. So it was a complete change from one economy to another. So I had to guide and lead this change from one economy to another.

This I did during the course of several budgets. It could not be done in the first budget, though the most decisive steps were taken in the first budget of 1977. This process was carried on to the budget of 1978, 1979 and so on. The whole country changed from a semi-Marxist state into an open economy during that period”, explained de Mel.

So Ronnie de Mel presided over a most significant period of Sri Lankan history, of course, under the leadership and guidance of President J. R. Jayewardene. “If not the free market economy we would still be having scarcities, queues and we would be struggling like North Korea today. It was because of this change that everything in this country blossomed and developed.

Finance Ministers

De Mel had the fortune of associating with the very cream of Indian politics. “I have the highest respect for the Indian leaders with whom I was fortunate enough to have some acquaintance. Although I have met Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, I still did not have any working relationship with him because he passed away long before I became a minister in Sri Lanka. After that I had a short spell when I had close association with the government of Moraji Desai who had been Finance Minister in India before he became Prime Minister.

I have very fond memories both of Mr. Moraji Desai and the Finance Ministers of his period, for example, Mr. H.M. Patel who was himself an old member of the Indian Civil Service before he became Minister of Finance in India,” stated de Mel.

Ronnie de Mel had a close relationship with Mrs. Indira Gandhi and even more with her son Rajiv Gandhi. “I met Rajiv Gandhi long before he entered politics when he was a pilot in Indian Airlines. In fact he once piloted my plane from Calcutta to Delhi and I developed a strong personal friendship with him which proved very useful to Sri Lanka when he became Prime Minister long afterwards,” de Mel said.

Reflecting on the war in Sri Lanka, de Mel said he fought to bring about peace right throughout the time he was a Member of Parliament and minister. “I was called the ‘Dove’ by various newspapers in the country. I fought for peace because I knew what damage the war was doing to Sri Lanka. Either we had to win the war quickly, bringing it to an end or we had to make a settlement with the Tamils. Neither of this was done and we suffered for 30 years. Sri Lanka really went back by 30 years. Most of the work which is being done today by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government could have been done in the 1980’s or 1990’s if not for the war”.

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