Apparently its a normal thing to give a letter to someone who has worked for one’s political party, that requests a University to waiver some of its criteria when hiring an Assistant Lecturer. Until I saw the most recent statement of Minister Kiriella, I did not wish to bother about this joke of a story. After all politicians in Sri Lanka have been doing this for quite a few decades now. But what enraged me was the Minister’s utter indifference in openly telling national media, that there is nothing wrong with giving such a letter. And that, it is a normal practice in Sri Lanka. I would equate that to Obama calling the killing of an African-American teenager by Police as a normal incident that shouldn’t worry the American public. This is not only about politicisation of Sri Lanka’s society and the tearing down of meritocracy. This is mainly about politicians lacking any code of conduct and not understanding the position they occupy as MP’s and Ministers.
The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) has strongly condemned all direct and indirect forms of undue political interference to the national university system. This came after Minister Lakshman Kiriella had allegedly attempted to influence his way to get an individual appointed to the University of Kelaniya.
Minister of Highways and Higher Education Lakshman Kiriella questioned what was wrong with issuing a …
Politicisation of Society
Becoming an Assistant Lecturer is the starting point for anyone aspiring for an academic career path in a field he or she loves. Academia has largely been a meritocratic process. Of course there have been issues with politics playing roles in the appointment of Chancellors and Vice Chancellors to state universities. But it has not happened at the entry point of that process. It is one thing for a President or Prime Minister to back a certain high level academic to becoming Vice Chancellor. After all most such academics are suited to such positions. It is another for a Minister to recommend which person might be suitable to do lectures for students. Because, one bad lecturer in the first semester can be enough to make it hell for a freshman.
Usually a bad lecturer would be blamed on the Dean of the Faculty or the UGC. But when both the Dean and UGC ends up deflecting blame to the Minister’s letter, things are going to fall apart. By things I mean institutions. Both the Dean as a part of the university institution and the UGC as the national institution, play vital roles in shaping the next generation. Such political meddling in their simple role in hiring lecturers, leads to them losing legitimacy and accountability. End of the day, they are not to blame. Students also loose their faith in meritocracy and embrace the need to find a political connection to gain socially respected jobs.
Having spoken to rural youth during one of my engagements, it was apparent that many of them have already lost faith in a meritocracy. They complained how despite there being smart individuals among them, only those who had worked for politicians during elections end up with the few public sector jobs available to them. Minister Kiriella has managed to put the final nail on the coffin of our meritocracy.
Code of Conduct of a National Politician
Obama cracks that occasional joke. But they are never crass and never humiliate anyone. Nor do they make us think he is an idiot. Trump on the other hand excels in making us think he is an idiot. Sri Lanka has quite a number of Trumps for national politicians.
Minister Kiriella went on to state that it is okay for politicians to speak to journalists in an informal manner. Yes, off the record, when the cameras are off, its totally fine to be all buddy with one’s familiar journalists at a press conference. But when the Minister has no qualms about using harsh words on air, he loses the prefix Honorable from his title in society. To add to all this, he is the Minister of Higher Education. Anyone holding such a post must also employ self-censorship to be an example to the university students that he has responsibility over.
I’ve stopped actively watching Sri Lankan news. Mainly because at one point it just became a series of clown like remarks from politicians. And yet, I unfortunately saw Minister Kiriella’s statement, intially laughed and then got enraged. Ministers are at the top rung of our society. Most people do look up to them and honestly call them Honorable Minister. Young people look up to them as standard setters in society. But if they have no regard for conduct, those who look up to them will also lose regard for good conduct. Many politicians have complained about our society losing its values. Maybe they should just reflect on their own conduct first.
Relapse from Rage
The previous section was a result of the rage I felt as a citizen of Sri Lanka and as a youth on the lookout for employment, on hearing the statement. As I relapsed from my rage I understood that, Minister Kiriella himself has no other choice but to defend his actions. In a sense he is a victim of the system as well. Our society was not politicised yestarday and simply by this Minister. It has been so for quite some time. My mother would say it was present even in the 60s. And it has.
The Minister has to survive in his political career. He has to assure his supporters that they get rewarded for working with him during election times. After all we do live in a capitalist society. Public sector jobs are scarce and in high demand. They have been politicised for decades. So ofcourse the social norms dictate this action has nothing evil within it. The only thing odd here is that due to the hyper-accountability of social media has put the Minister’s letter in millions of Sri Lankans’ facebook newsfeeds.
However it is still wrong for any politician to talk harshly to journalists, but it must be noted that Sri Lanka lacks any official code of conduct for journalists. Politicians must also note the increasing importance of social media and the hyper-accountability offered by it. If they ignore it, youth opinion of the political system will keep plummeting to zero and, similar to USA, we might stop coming to the polls to vote.
What this highlights is not the fault of one prominent politician. It highlights a number of issues in our society. And just as politicians must mind their own codes of conduct, we in society must also look at our own conduct. Politics is mostly a reflection of the society it operates in.