17 February 2016

Dr. Ajith de Alwis' 'Yes we can' conviction

My last clear recollection of Ajith de Alwis is of us meeting in the last round of the Major Division chess tournament at the Borella YMBA in 1985.  I needed a draw to emerge as joint champion with Thusitha Hettigama.  Ajith, at the time an undergraduate at Moratuwa University was a strong player and much better equipped with theoretical knowledge of chess openings than I was.  I remember playing a tough game, a draw offer, an offer accepted and some post-game analysis where he queried what I would have done had he played a particular line from the position at the end of the game.  

I might have met him once or twice but I cannot remember.  Last week, however, a mutual friend and one of his colleagues, Muditha Senarath Yapa, shared with me something that Ajith had written for the Financial Times, ‘Your nation is calling you; bring your talent home’ (http://www.ft.lk/2011/02/10/your-nation-is-calling-you-bring-your-talent-home).   The nimitta or let’s say ‘spark’ that lit this particular fire was a postcard. 

One of his colleagues (Muditha, I found later), had shown him a postcard he, Muditha, had received while he was completing his PhD in the USA.    Mistaking Muditha for an Indian (perhaps going by his name), a top Indian firm had sent him an invitation.  They had wanted him to ‘return home’ to serve the company and India.  Ajith’s observation is pertinent and I am honoured to extend its life and reach here:

‘The simple postcard reveals an interesting story of how a nation’s private sector wants to grow and serve its national interest too. The challenging opportunities and career prospects are all outlined in the company’s webpage. The information points to expanding organisations based on research and development. It is evident that these companies invited and enable individuals to make a mark on the world while savouring the joy of being home again.’

About twenty years ago, my friend Nanthikesan, then a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told me that my father, then Director, Manpower Resources, Ministry of Finance, had delivered a lecture on the subject at the University of Peradeniya (where Nanthi was then an undergraduate).  My father had been asked to explain the reason for the ‘brain drain’. Nanthi remembered the response: ‘poor leadership’.  That’s just one part of the story, true, but it is telling.  And, as Ajith observes, it is not just political leadership that was and is at fault but leadership in all spheres and at all levels.  Nation-building, he says, flounders on weak leadership, as does institution-building.

Ajith just completed 25 years of service at the Moratuwa University. Muditha returned upon finishing his PhD.  There is nothing to say that the ‘green’ of ‘Greener Pastures’ is dollar-made.  What works for A may not work for B.  A nation can appeal to its sons and daughters.  Men and women may choose to listen to the call of a nation or be deaf to it. 

The grass is greener on the other side of the fence, we have heard. That’s an idiom common to lots of nations. I’ve heard that in the Caribbean people say the voodoo magic on the other man’s island is more powerful.  Many who go don’t come back. It’s hard to put a number but ‘more than half’ cannot be wrong.  It is also true that when the World Cup starts next week, more than half of those who chose certain greens over others will want to know how Sanga and his Merry Men are doing. 

There are those who serve the nation by serving the world.  There are those who acquire the world and return home to share it with fellow citizens. There are those who stay at home and pine for the world and some of them even spit upon the earth they stand on. There are those whose bodies are located in other country and find that their hearts or least some parts of it including perhaps heartbeat are resident in the home they left.   There are those who want to help but don’t find the time or don’t know how to go about it.  Some have the money but don’t trust the government to put it to good use.  Some do not know that there are countless charities doing good and important work that a state like ours just cannot afford to do at this point, for lack of resources and personnel.  It takes all kinds to make the world. It takes all kinds to build a nation.  

Ajith, who is now Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, got his doctorate from the University of Cambridge.  He doubles up as ‘Science Team Leader’ at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute.  He is one who returned.  Like Muditha.  Ajith is convinced that we can become a knowledge hub.  Some lament, he says, that there are no opportunities in Sri Lanka to apply the knowledge they’ve acquired elsewhere.  That’s only partly true.  Sometimes you don’t have a state-of-the-art laboratory.  Well, neither did Galileo.  Sometimes you have to make do with what there is.  Sometimes you have to build from scratch.  

Ajith gives.  So too, Muditha.  I wonder if many of us can say the same.  

This article was first published in the 'Daily News', February 16, 2011  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com