Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was conferred an honorary doctorate by Deakin University, Australia. He’s not the first premier thus honored and he probably will not be the last. However, an honor it is and as such warranted media coverage. What was newsy, though, was not the event but a statement he had made that was almost missed; it was an add-on that was at once a de-conferring, so to speak, at the tail end of the report.
It was reported thus: “Immediately after the convocation ceremony Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe directed Prime Minister’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake to ensure that the ‘Dr’ tag is not attached to his name in official or personal matters.”
That might be called ‘classy’ if not for anything, it separates him from the many others who have received honorary doctorates. Some people love titles. Indeed titles adorn some. In other cases, the person adorns the title. I don’t think the Prime Minister falls into either category, but this mild and minor directive reveals character. Ranil is not about ‘show’ except of course when he heeds the advice of the near and dear of his inner political circles, and even then more out of trust than out of conviction.
He deserves a bit of applause, for both the honor he received and for being humble about it, not least of all because he is heads and shoulders above the vast majority who have name cards with the ‘Doctor Tag’ courtesy honors bestowed. Intellectually, he is clearly up there among the best of that lot.
Our Prime Minister is reputed to be a voracious reader on a wide range of subjects. He also does his homework before making speeches. The worst he can do is to extrapolate on an error, as he has done for example while making observations at the launch of a book by a loyalist, Sujith Akkarawatte, a few years ago. Yes, he does his homework. This was apparent in the speech he made at Deakin. He observed that Alfred Deakin, the Australian Prime Minister in whose name the university was founded had actually visited Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) in 1893 to study the island’s 1000 year old irrigation system.
He may very well have taken a wiki-peek but then again that’s much more than many would do. In any event, Wikileaks only mentions that Deakin ‘played a major part in establishing irrigation in Australia’. Wickremesinghe appears to have dug deeper when preparing the speech or, more likely, had already filed away the fact during the course of educating himself in general. That does not make him a scholar of course, but it does make him a different and even special kind of politician.
His detractors may say he was undeserving. That’s politics. He is, after all, no Mervin Silva or the innumerable doctorate holders who have in word and deed brought much disgrace on all spheres of scholarship. They need to drop the tag, not Wickremesinghe but on the other hand it’s because they cling to it that dropping it demonstrates as much wisdom as it does humility. Let there be no debate over this: Ranil Wickremesinghe is one of the more well-read of our parliamentarians if not the best read. If we consider all the prime ministers since Independence and if we were to assess doctorate-worthiness of them all, on the counts of intellect and vision (and not ideological bent or the balance sheet on delivery), only a handful are deserving. There’s D.S. Senanayake, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in their own way J.R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa, and there’s Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Let us applaud.
It is indeed a pity, then, that Deakin University got it all wrong in the relevant citation. They were correct in recognizing his long service as a parliamentarian, minster and prime minister. Longevity is certainly praiseworthy, even though it is that same longevity or rather the fact that he survived while others fell to ill-health, old age, assassinations and terrorist attacks, which paved the way for him to become prime minister on multiple occasions. All that may have been fortuitous but let us not discount his tenaciousness and shrewd political skills. His tenure as the Leader of the United National Party may be described as dictatorial but that’s less due to iron-fist than to subtle maneuvering, preying on the weaknesses of would-be ousters and deft footwork to dodge political bullets. None of this requires elaboration. In hindsight, one might argue that had he not done all that he has, the party could very well have disintegrated or at best continued to remain in the political wilderness. Whether it deserves doctoral recognition is of course another matter.
Deakin University cites ‘the role he played in steering the country to a high status in the economic, education and human rights fields’. Prof. Jane Den Hollander reading out the citation in the presence of the Chancellor of the University, Prof John Stanhope, said “several factors including Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s contribution towards steering the country to a high international status, tactfulness in getting LTTE terrorists into the negotiating table, creating the groundwork for obtaining financial assistance from the international community and dedication towards setting up good governance were taken into account.”
If one were generous, one might say ‘contentious’ or if less generous, ‘tendentious’. Let’s take the economic, educational and human rights fields separately. He was in charge of the economy in 2001 and is in charge of it now (for all intents and purposes). In 2001 he inherited an economy in its death throes. He was hemmed in on the one side by the chief executive, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who belonged to a rival party, and a seemingly never ending battle with terrorists. Kumaratunga didn’t really let him carry out his ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ program, seizing three key ministries by the end of 2003 and dissolving Parliament a few months later. In April 2004, the UNP was routed in the 2004 General Election. That was probably less about the economy than his demonstrable naiveté regarding the LTTE. We’ll come to that presently. The bottom line about his economic policies was (and still is) selling off national assets. That might tickle the fancy of the like of Hollander who might call it judicious and enlightened, but stripped of sanitizing terminology used by economic pundits with dubious agenda, it’s pretty simple and simplistic thinking. Today, once again at the helm, his thinking hasn’t changed. National pauperization can only be hailed by the beneficiaries, not be the pauperized.
Another thing that pretty much undressed Wickremesinghe’s economic ‘wizardry’ is the downright stupidity in believing that pleasing the USA and Europe would result in those countries backing his economic program by putting money where their mouths are. Someone who does not know that these countries’ national debts are essentially owned by China and Japan is not an economic expert. The ‘Brexit Moment’ saw Wickremesinghe suddenly realizing the existence of China. He said ‘We’ll look East’. That’s, incidentally, where the previous regime had been looking, a gaze-preference that was ridiculed by Wickremesinghe. The gaze-change clearly indicates a certain myopia. Applauding him on his economic thinking says as much about Deakin as of Wickremesinghe.
Education. Whether one agrees or not with the thinking, it’s Wickremesinghe’s vision on this subject that has prevailed. What we’ve seen over the past 35 years is the sometimes open and sometimes subtle implementation of the White Paper on Education that he presented in the early eighties. Whether this alone accounts for the current crisis in education, it is hard to conclude, but certain things have to be acknowledged: a) we still don’t have an occupation classification which takes into account economic realities, policies and projections, so that the education system is in line with these, b) much of the agitation and controversies that have troubled this sector comes from the absence of a national education policy, c) incompetence and corruption override all else in this sector.
Human rights. That’s a favorite term used by those who want to rap Sri Lanka on her national knuckles, especially those who either violate human rights or look askance when their friends do so. Let’s leave Batalanda out of it. Wickremesinghe was a minister during the eighties, i.e. when the most serious human rights violations took place with over 60,000 people being killed in the course of two years. That was a time when the government unleashed the security forces, police and vigilante groups on the population, a time marked by proxy arrests, abduction, torture and assassination and was rightly dubbed ‘the bheeshanaya (terror).’ He can’t complicit, he was an approver and it is hard to claim that he has no blood on his hands. The eighties, let us not forget, was the period when the security forces had next to no discipline. That’s when the greatest atrocities were committed against Tamils in the country. Let us not forget either the decisive role played by the trade union of his party in the attacks on Tamils by mobs in July 1983 nor the fact that his government deliberately reined in the law enforcing authorities during those terrible days. He was a junior minister back then, but if he is the principled man that Deakin paints him as, he could have resigned. He did not.
Let’s now consider the more specific factors that Deakin claims contributed to the decision: “contribution towards steering the country to a high international status, tactfulness in getting LTTE terrorists into the negotiating table, creating the groundwork for obtaining financial assistance from the international community and dedication towards setting up good governance.”
Deakin cannot be faulted for delusion about the ‘international community’ and the relevant moral high horses that its principal movers and shakers often ride. We live in a world where those countries enjoying ‘high international status’ include Saudi Arabia and that such character certificates are dished out by countries such as the USA, Canada, the UK and the EU. Salutation is all about complying, about being an Uncle Tom, genuflection and all that kind of thing. That’s pretty old.
Tact. Now that’s a laugh. There are two broad justifications for the choices that Wickremesinghe made regarding the LTTE in early 2002. The first is that the economy was in such a bad situation that the Government had no choice but to come to some kind of agreement that allowed for recovery. The second is the view carefully orchestrated by those who were and still are soft on the LTTE and the Eelam Project that the LTTE cannot be militarily defeated. Neither of these ‘reasons’ go with ‘tact’. The truth is that the LTTE had its own problems at the time. The LTTE badly needed time and space to recruit, regroup and re-arm. Wickremesinghe’s ‘tact’ allowed the LTTE to do just that and in fact more since the government facilitated the movement of equipment and arms directly or indirectly to LTTE-controlled areas and also severely compromised its security forces by betraying the intelligence units to the enemy. That’s not tact. That’s at best stupidity; the more appropriate terms would be betrayal and treachery.
Deakin claims that Wickremesinghe had ‘[created] the groundwork for obtaining financial assistance from the international community.’ That’s difficult, now? All it takes is say something like ‘whatever you say’ to each and every proposal tossed with disdain at you. It’s a yes-sir or yes-ma’am business. It’s about getting the script from the US State Department, for instance, and reading it out to the letter. Any idiot can do it. But what really happened? True, one could claim that the international community provided financial assistance, China after all is part of this ‘international community’. China never needs any country to do any ‘groundwork’. China is also about business. The only difference is that China has money. That’s what the Rajapaksa regime knew. They didn’t the only ground work necessary — they asked and were given (for terms that were clearly poor but still richer than what the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena dispensation have apparently got).
Finally, there’s this claim about ‘dedication towards setting up good governance.’ He gets a lot of brownie points here. The 19th Amendment fell short of what was promised to the people, but it did erase the negatives of the 18th Amendment. The Right to Information Act finally saw the light of day. Things took more time than promised, but that’s easily forgivable. Things haven’t changed much, but legislation alone will not dramatically change political culture. There is still corruption, there’s still nepotism, there’s still wastage and abuse of state resources. In any event, the brownie points, as such there are, should be shared between Wickremesinghe and Sirisena. Neither talks of electoral reform; this too should be thrown into the overall assessment. The balance sheet is nevertheless positive. On ‘good governance’ that is.
All things considered, Deakin seems to have failed to do the necessary homework and this makes us think that the honor has more to do with ‘liking’ than about what’s deserved. Deakin University got it wrong or rather made some iffy things sound solid, ‘iffy’ being a kind word here. Alfred Deakin, on the other hand, got it right. He had his country at heart. He came to Sri Lanka, got what he wanted and enriched his own country. Wickremesinghe, considering his entire track record and that of the Governments he has served and led, is the polar opposite. What is surprising is that it was Deakin University and not Johns Hopkins University that has conferred an honorary doctorate on him.
Still, as we pointed out above, he is deserving. In a relative sense. In a comparative sense. He is deserving, most of all, for the quick, intelligent, damage-controlling and diplomatic instructions to his media point man, namely the decision to disavow it without disavowing the title ‘doctor’. Now that we can most certainly call 'tact'. Congratulations Prime Minister!