Sam Wijesinha’s life and times in Parliament
Sam Wijesinha’s name is synonymous with Parliament. There was a Clerk
to the House before Mr. Wijesinha assumed duties as Clerk to the House
and there were several Secretaries General (as the Clerk to the House
came to be known later) after him but only some of their names come to
mind when one speaks of Parliament.
Sam Wijesinha was a brilliant Public Servant with a scintillating
career in whatever post he held, be it as a Crown Councillor, Clerk to
the House or Ombudsman. He had the knack or the correct perspective to
understand and assess human beings.
Sam Wijesinha joined Parliament service in late 1963 and succeeded
Ralph Deraniyagala as Clerk to the House of Representatives as
Parliament Secretary-General was then known in 1964. He joined
Parliament at a crucial period of Parliamentary history as Parliament
was just about to undergo a vast change. Looking back, it appears now as
the correct person was chosen for this most important post at the most
opportune time. Hailing from Getamanne in Hambantota district in the
deep South, he had not forgotten the rural touch and being educated in
Colombo and having married into a prestigious family in the heart of
Colombo he was able to adopt himself easily to the Colombo 7 lifestyle
too. He had the knack of fitting into both worlds equally well. This
helped him a lot in his new career.
He came to Parliament forsaking a lucrative career where he was
gaining fast a prominent name as a Crown Counsel. This legal background
helped him to face the hustle and bustle of Parliament life with
remarkable expertise. To this day he remains an unquestionable authority
on Parliament procedure as well as Parliament politics.
The hallmark of an efficient Secretary General of Parliament is tact
and diplomacy. Sam Wijesinha possessed these qualities in abundance and
it is well reflected in his activities right throughout his Parliament
career. The very first test he had to face as Clerk to the House was to
oversee the debate on the Vote of Thanks to the Throne speech in
December 1964 which followed the Prorogation of Parliament subsequent to
the disastrous Press Council Bill introduced by the then government.
This was a highly controversial Bill which had been vehemently
opposed islandwide. There was a great furore over the Bill both inside
and outside the Parliament. Parliament at that time consisted of great
luminaries of the legal profession and clashes were imminent in
Parliament. These were masterfully avoided through the intervention of
the Clerk to the House in his Room. Great pressure was brought to bear
on the Members of Parliament through the press, Church and public
rallies; lobbying went on incessantly. The aftermath was government
being defeated by 1 vote.
This was a busy period for Sam Wijesinha. He handled his task quite
gracefully and dexterously. It was a challenge for him and looking back
one is amazed to see how Sam Wijesinha overcame many a problem with his
diplomacy winning over unruly Members. As was stated earlier, the House
was full of prominent lawyers of the country which made Sam Wijesinha's
task that much difficult.
Although Parliament is known for its legislative powers Wijesinha
found it more like a Treasury, devoting much time on allocation of
funds. This led to the formation of a powerful Public Accounts
Committee. The Tamil members who were in this Committee were highly
qualified accountants who knew the ins and outs of accountancy and Sam
was its Secretary.
Parliament was undergoing other changes as well. In 1970, the SLFP
came to power under Sirimavo Bandaranaike again gaining a massive
majority. In its manifesto SLFP had promised to set up a Constituent
Assembly. Since SLFP gained a massive 2/3rd majority it went on to
change the constitution. Unfortunately instead of seeking the consensus
of the Opposition parties it went ahead guided by its own plans. Thus,
the Dominion of Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka with a President
at its head instead of the Governor General. William Gopallawe, sitting
Governor General, became the first President.
Public Service Commission
Getting rid of Article 29 of the Soulbury Constitution which
safeguarded the rights of the minorities, the new constitution asserted
that Parliament was supreme. Instead of maintaining a separation of
powers whereby the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary act as
checks upon each other, the 1972 constitution specifically states that
judicial power shall be exercised by Parliament and by courts
responsible to Parliament. Public Service was deliberately politicized.
District administration under the Government Agent was subject to a
political authority under a Member of Parliament. Public Service
Commission which was supposed to ensure impartiality was politicized by
appointing a defeated candidate as its Head; plantations and lands were
nationalized which led to an economic crisis. As a result, at the 1977
General Election SLFP was decisively defeated and UNP under J. R.
Jayewardene gaining an almost 5/6th majority, formed the government.
Although the UNP vehemently criticized and opposed SLFP excesses it
too continued many of the same features. Sam Wijesinha expresses it most
succinctly thus: “A sad feature of Sri Lankan political culture is that,
though the system Jayawardene introduced was seen as dangerous by many
in his own party none of them criticized it openly or dared to break
with him on this issue.”
J. R. Jayewardene consolidated power in the hands of one person
through his 1978 constitution, creating an Executive Presidency with
aspects of the Parliamentary system. He ensured the control of
Parliament Members by obtaining undated letters of resignation making
Parliament merely a rubber stamp for the Executive President.
General election which was due in 1982 was avoided by holding a
rigged election to extend the term of Parliament by a further 6 years;
an election result of which the Commissioner of Elections in his Report
declared “was a mockery of democracy”. This added to certain draconian
regulations passed by the Jayewardene government further exacerbating
Tamil grievances to the point of driving them away from Parliament.
In Sam Wijesinha's own words, “What has happened then is that
Parliament simply ratifies the decisions of the supreme policy making
body, the Cabinet, rather than acting as an assembly where government
and Opposition seek accommodation and compromise.” In a matter of few
years the Sri Lankan constitution of 1978 was subject to not less than
17 amendments. The earlier amendments were brought in to simply
consolidate the power of the UNP majority. For example the first
amendment was passed to deprive the civic rights of Sirimavo
Bandaranaike, the leader of the main opposition party and the arch rival
in their political campaigns.
The second amendment was introduced to ensure that none of the
dissatisfied members of the government crossed over to the Opposition
and at the same time encouraging members of the Opposition to cross over
to the government. In this way a number of ad hoc amendments were
introduced in favour of the governing party. A glaring instance was the
appointment of the Leader of the Opposition in the new Parliament that
was elected after the General Election of 1977. At which election SLFP,
the main Opposition party won only eight seats and the TULF won 19
seats. According to the Westminster system of government, which was
fondly embraced by Sri Lanka and as clearly explained in the 'Bible' of
that system, Erskine May, the Opposition Leader should be appointed by
the opposition parties from among their leaders one who is capable of
winning the next election and forming a new government.
However, the government decided on its own, against the far-seeing
advice of Sam Wijesinha, to appoint Appadurai Amirthalingam, leader of
the TULF as Leader of the Opposition. But within a matter of a couple of
years government itself brought a motion of no confidence against
Amirthalingam and ousted him. The irony of it was that the proposer of
the motion, a Cabinet Minister lost his portfolio and the seconder, a
member of the UNP, was ousted from Parliament.
Sam Wijesinha had to work with several Prime Ministers and Presidents
who were remarkably different from one another. Sirimavo Bandaranaike,
Dudley Senanayake, J. R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa were
different from each other in every respect. Where Sirimavo Bandaranaike
was more deliberate in her actions, Dudley Senanayake had a sedate
conservative outlook. JR's approach was severe, shrewd and
Machiavellian. Ranasinghe Premadasa was a go-getter and a quick worker.
For him everything was urgent. Sam Wijesinha had the knack to understand
their whims and fancies and was able to have a smooth relationship with
all of them. His tact and diplomacy stood him in good stead.
Sam Wijesinha had self-confidence in abundance. This set a good
example for his staff, who were basking in his reflected glory. They too
were self-confident and did not hesitate to take decisions. Sam
Wijesinha was much respected and honoured by those who came in contact
with him and this reflected upon the staff too. Sam Wijesinha was always
mindful of the needs of his staff and saw to it that many welfare
facilities were arranged for them.
Sam Wijesinha had implicit trust in his subordinate officers. If he
found that any of his subordinates was efficient and capable of carrying
out any important responsibility entrusted to him, Sam would go out of
his way to promote his upward mobility. C. W. Pannila's case could be
cited as one example to illustrate this point. While Pannila was the
Head of the Parliament Interpreters’ Division he got through Law College
and took oaths as an Attorney-at-Law.
By and by Sam Wijesinha trained him, asking him to work as an
Assistant Secretary General in the Chamber of Parliament on sitting days
when either him or his deputy were on leave. Ultimately when he was to
go on retirement he wanted to appoint Pannila to the post of Assistant
Secretary General. He soon found out that others had different ideas to
bring one of their own men. Sam Wijesinha forestalled them by appointing
Pannila as an acting Assistant Secretary General when Sam had to go on a
foreign tour just prior to his retirement. As a result, when Sam
Wijesinha went on retirement the new Secretary General had to confirm
Pannila in the post of Assistant Secretary General.
Another instance was the case of Dr. Jinadasa Illangasinghe who was
attached to the clerical service in Parliament. He soon left Parliament
and attended Law College. Later Sam Wijesinha persuaded him to enter
Wales University and read for his Master's Degree. When Illangasinghe
obtained his Master's Degree, Sam Wijesinha got him to enter Colombo Law
College and read for his Doctorate and kept a watchful eye on him.
After Illangasinghe got his PhD and was functioning as a Labour
Tribunal President, the Chief Justice of Fiji Islands visited Sri Lanka
and while in conversation with Sam Wijesinha, the CJ had inquired from
him whether there were suitable persons in Sri Lanka to be appointed to
the Judicial Service in Fiji. Sam Wijesinha promptly recommended
Illangasinghe and sent him to Fiji on a three years contract as a judge!
On his retirement Sam Wijesinha had the distinct honour of being
appointed as the first Ombudsman (Parliament Commissioner for
Administration) of Sri Lanka. When he was due to retire from the post of
Ombudsman he had no hesitation in recommending Pannila's name as the
most suitable person to fill the resultant vacancy on his retirement. He
was quite certain that his former subordinate officer (Pannila) was
capable enough to fill his shoes! However, President Premadasa had other
plans. By then he had selected another person for the post of Ombudsman
and as a result Sam Wijesinha's recommendation did not materialize.
During the period Sam Wijesinha was Secretary General of Parliament
he had to oversee the promulgation of two Sri Lankan constitutions. The
first was the Republican Constitution of 1972 and the other the
Democratic Socialist Republic Constitution of 1978. With regard to the
1972 constitution, a Constituent Assembly was first set up which
involved additional work. However, change of a constitution involves lot
of preliminary work. Sam Wijesinha was able to perform all the
additional responsibilities efficiently and transition of constitutions
from one to the other was effected smoothly.
The writer is a retd. Chief Parliamentary Interpreter