15 February 2016

The degree of fit in transferring guilt

The term 'yahapalanaya' (good governance) is something that many of the yahapalanites hadn't heard of a mere 18 months ago.  It's something that it's staunchest advocates don't seem to understand.  The confusion is understandable.  It can be described in a simple equation:  yaha-paalanya = ape-paalanaya (good governance = our governance).  Anyway, five years ago, I wrote in the Daily News, about issues that Mahinda Rajapaksa could ill-afford to ignore.  He did.  The issues didn't leave with him. They have been lovingly embraced by his successors.  The writing, then, is on the walls, one might say.


T.M.S. Saldin was a medium pacer who never made it to the Sri Lankan cricket team.  He played in the late seventies and early eighties for the SSC. Few would remember him today.  I remember him mostly as the man who led Royal College the year that Ranjan Madugalle saved Royal from what seemed certain defeat at the Big Match with a fighting knock of 71, ably supported by Ashok Jayawickrema, whose contribution to the match-saving stand was 36 not out.

Sulaiman Saldin was a scraggly boy when he first played for Royal, I think in 1972.  He was a medium pacer.  In 1976, the year he captained the team, he would stride out at the fall of the second wicket and was considered a frontline batsman and one who had acquired quite a bit of warrior-weight since his debut.  That’s how it goes, and not just in school cricket.

Sanath Jayasuriya did not start his international cricket career as an opener.  Neither did Romesh Kaluwitharana or Roshan Mahanama.  Daniel Vettori, the New Zealand captain was not selected as a batsman when he first made it to the team but has been so consistent with the bat that it would be hard to decide whether he is a batting or bowling allrounder.  Two years ago if anyone floated the idea of playing Tillakeratne Dilshan as opener (in any form of the game) it would have raised quite a few eyebrows.  He has now cemented his place as opener. 

Selectors are not gods. They have to go by track record, requirements of the team, composition of the opposition and nature of the task at hand.  It takes time to figure out what position fits a player best at a given moment. 

In an ideal world ‘transfers’ and ‘promotions’ should be like that; a matter of figuring who is best for which job and where at a given moment in time, the last condition being very important because tasks and approaches change with time as do the skill levels, work ethic and enthusiasm of the particular employee.  In an ideal world, then, a term like ‘punishment transfer’ would have no meaning. 

If there is skill, commitment and integrity, if there is a public service where merit is rewarded and overall efficiency requirements are of paramount concern and if there are no regional hierarchies or ‘more attractive’ institutions, then transfer as punishment would not be an option.  The reality, unfortunately, is that we don’t live in an idea world.  We live in a society of multiple hierarchies, poor ethics and a tendency for personal affairs to (dis)colour public good.  ‘Punishment’ is not consequent to wrongdoing but a sanitized term for ‘revenge’ and transfers (over and above this) but a matter to facilitate the continuation of wrongdoing.  I know that there are all kinds of allegations about cricket team selections, but just imagine for a moment what would happen if ‘requirements’ such as those described above in the matter of transfers were referred to in picking the batting order.  The possibilities are limitless, but you could, theoretically, have Murali opening the batting, Sanga taking the new ball and Dilhara keeping wickets and a few matches later, all three relegated to the ‘A’ team for under-performing.  It is a short distance from there to oblivion. 

My father, the last member of the Ceylon Civil Service at the time he retired, was frequently ‘punishment-transferred’; each time governments changed, the newly elected would remember that he was a Trotskyite while an undergraduate. He spent quite a lot of time in the ‘pool’ and was shunted from one obscure department to another throughout his career.  To his credit, these movements did not cause any diminishing of enthusiasm or work ethic, which meant of course that there was no increase in father-time for us kids.  He ought to have retired a bitter man. He didn’t. Maybe he belonged to a different generation of Mandarins. 

My concern with transfers, transferability and the politics of punishment was piqued this morning by a news story in ‘The Island’ shoved under a section titled ‘Police Scene’.  It was about a policeman, yes, but it is an issue that spilled out of the Police Department. A police officer who arrested a woman for possessing heroin was reported to have been transferred because the said woman was a friend of a powerful Provincial Councillor.  The police officer, Sub Inspector Amarasena, was duly transferred from Grand Pass Police Station to the Harbour Police.  Is that a consequence of searching for ‘better fit’ as should be the case in an ideal world?  It can’t be ‘punishment’ for there can’t be any wrongdoing in arresting a drug dealer, unless right and wrong have exchanged places and we are all standing on our heads.  Is an errant Provincial Councellor more powerful than the IGP? 

Just imagine if this was how things usually are across the board, i.e. in schools, the police, security forces and all government departments and institutions.  If every person endowed with any kind of authority and power were to engage in moving people around this way to ‘punish’ (far more ‘civilized’ than the word ‘revenge’ don’t you agree?), then we would not have a society seeking better ‘fit’ but one that is in constant turmoil. 

Just picture a society where buildings have their doors opened and ‘work’ is nothing more nothing less than a matter of signing transfer papers and people moving out and moving in (as the case may be).  Imagine you are looking at it from above and it was all happening in high-speed.  We would see a revolving-door kind of operation, wouldn’t we?

Folks, that is where we are heading.  Institutions are fast becoming mere building housing fly-by-nights; not by choice but due to transferability and transferring of the guilt(y).  This is what happens when every little rat with a tiny bit of power believes he/she has executive sweep. 

There are two unnamed things present in this discussion by their conspicuous absence. President Mahinda Rajapaksa needs them or, if they are not to his liking, he needs to find alternatives.  For now, let me just name them, because as a citizen I don’t want to walk into any state institution and be mowed down by someone storming out or crushed in the comings and goings of the transferred-in and the transferred-out.  It is not a cricket team situation and we are not talking about Sulaiman Saldin or Tillakeratne Dilshan.  We are talking about two institutions: the Public Service Commision and the Police Commission. 

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