Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe, son of late Sam Wijesinghe, Former Parliamentary Secretary General is a member of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka. In June 2007 President Mahinda Rajapakse appointed him Secretary-General of the Sri Lankan Government Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process, and in June 2008 he became the Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. In February 2010 he resigned from the Ministry and the University, and became a member of Parliament on the National List of the UPFA following which he was appointed a member of Parliament. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, Professor Wijesinghe speaks about the lack of control among ruling party leaders, the loopholes in the educational system and the civil service in Sri Lanka.
Describe your entry into politics.
I have always been interested in political history and I have done a lot of political writings. In fact one of my best papers was political philosophy. Basically I have been involved with the Liberal party of Sri Lanka. Liberalism means freedom and for freedom you need several factors. When talking about an executive presidency, about having too much power, ever since the time of Montesquieu, there has been an idea of the removal of arbitrary powers. But the first thing we should all realise is that in any government the most important and in fact the most powerful is the executive. You need to check that executive; whether it is a child, a president or a prime minister from exercising arbitrary power. Also what are the instruments that will control the arbitrary power of the ruler on behalf of the people?
Montesquieu suggested two institutions which needed to be powerful; the Parliament, whose role was to pass the laws and money and oversee the proper spending of that money-which was why the budget was such an important occasion in our lives. The other is the Judiciary, who should independently administer the law. Another extremely powerful institution that plays a role on behalf of the people is the media. Another element is the public service. Increasingly the concept developed around an independent public service with no servants for a king or a minister.
The need for a free economy should be addressed. However, I am delighted by the fact that statism changed its phase after JR’s open economy was established. At that time I was writing for my PhD and by the time I got back I found him to be rather authoritative and I was horrified by the type of things he did.
"The first thing we should all realise is that in any government the most important and in fact the most powerful is the executive. You need to check that executive; whether it is a child, a president or a prime minister from exercising arbitrary power."
What was the concept of the Liberal Party?
A :We were the first people to say, “control the power of the executive”. Before the 17th Amendment, the President appointed anybody he wanted for anything. We were the ones who said that on a political philosophy it was totally unacceptable. We pooled in a lot of ideas then, which are now universally accepted. Chanaka Amaratunge had a deep knowledge about the constitutions all over the world. We said that the election system was mad and proposed for a mixed system. We said a lot of things and gradually people came to accept them.
What do you think of this newly emerging ‘defection-culture’ and the political scenario as of late?
A : I think the country is pleased. Although Ranil Wickremasinghe was crushed on several occasions being named as the ‘Duke of the Norwegians’ and the like. In my opinion, every individual who crossed over to the Opposition had a strong identity. I think Maithripala Sirisena is a very capable person, yet the cross-over by Tissa Attanayake is quite ineffective. The opposition need not be sorry that he is gone.
Do you regret your transition from being an academic to a politician?
A :No. I have done a lot in academia and I was responsible for taking the initiative to transform university education, through the introduction of ‘co-courses’. The British education system relies on a very good school education. In America, students are taught basic skills in universities and this was initiated from Harvard in the 19th Century. What they said was that as soon as you came into a university you didn’t specialise, but you have to learn a little bit about science, mathematics and the like.
The Harvard by the end of the 20th Century had expanded the co-courses into 10 separate things and the students had to do a little of each. These courses included communication, inter-cultural skills, inter-personal skills and the like. When I went back, I introduced this system at the University of Sabaragamuwa. So every student had to do English and they also had to do both Sinhala and Tamil, because my Tamil and Sinhala students could not write anything. Along with these I also introduced critical thinking. At first they used to curse me for this but then later they said that this was what they got when they went for jobs. Also many of these students did not know how to use a book. For example, when asked to find the largest country in the world the whole class was busy turning pages, but of course there was a contents page. Therefore, I also introduced library skills. Since these skills were introduced, which I think are very important to any student, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has announced that they were mandatory.
In any society 80% has to go into business, technical work and you must educate people for that. You cannot educate 100% of a population. We see graduates coming unemployed and our rulers offer them jobs. The brightest minds in the country are going and sitting at the Divisional Secretariats as Samurdhi officers and when I ask them what they
There is no free education in Sri Lanka since every student now goes for tuition. How do you see this?
It is complete nonsense. See the amount of money that has been spent. It is quite easy to stop. You have to insist that things are done in school. Parents are working and when two people go for tuition everyone wants to go. Then the school exam system is such that tuition helps. You shouldn’t have a system where copying down notes would get you through an exam. There is absolutely no effort to develop initiative. When I was in school the school teachers set the question paper, but now, quite surprisingly, the zonal office sets the question paper. So where is the initiative and responsibility of the teachers? This is turning into a ‘tuition culture’. Many people conduct tuition classes saying, “I set the zonal office paper”. Few people in my staff also send their children for tuition and when I ask them if the teacher is good they respond saying, “he sets the zonal office paper.”
You are a son of a civil servant. What do you think of the state of the civil service in Sri Lanka?
I have been quite interested about the quality of many individuals but no one
trains them. There is still no project-oriented work. While I was in Hyderabad for a civil service workshop, I was surprised to see that they did projects. In fact my suggestion was to make the system more practical. Therefore everyone who came for training should then go and do a project and write a report on it. Most civil servants have the capacity but no proper training has been given to fulfilll it.