Think afresh, change your mindset, and move forward in these evolving times:
Professor Maithree Wickramasinghe speaking  at the South Eastern University Convocation.
Professor Maithree Wickramasinghe speaking at the South Eastern University Convocation.

Convocation address delivered by Professor Maithree Wickramasinghe (Professor in English - University of Kelaniya) at South Eastern University of Sri Lanka at their 12th General Convocation on April 1, 2018

I thank you for the invitation to speak at the graduation ceremony of the South-Eastern University of Sri Lanka. It is indeed a great privilege to do so and I am delighted to be here on the occasion, when a new generation of graduates step out of the university precincts - both literally and metaphorically.

Today, you are poised at a defining point in your lives, at the summit of your higher education; perhaps on the brink of postgraduate study or at the rim of a career or just contemplating the next phase in your lives. Your education from primary, secondary to tertiary levels - has been free of charge. I believe that the state has, on average, advanced approximately one million to one and a half million rupees on your undergraduate degree depending on your programme and discipline - an investment that the state has made in you, for you.

You, therefore have a responsibility to utilise that degree - if not to give back to your country, then at least, to empower yourself. Every citizen owes it to themselves to be economically independent as individuals – not to be a burden on your parents or your partner. I say this especially to our women graduates - despite the fact that your partners may want you to stay at home to become homemakers. Of the 500 married women interviewed in a 2016 Sri Lankan study by the International Labour Organisation, as many as 48 percent who had been previously employed, cited giving up their jobs for homemaking as their main reason to stop working.It is not that being a homemaker is not valuable, however,today, homemaking is seen as the responsibility of both women and men since its benefits are enjoyed by both.

It is important first and foremost, for women to see themselves as individuals - as women - before they can consider themselves as wives and mothers. It is important because if you do not know your own worth, if you are unable to value yourself as an individual - you will always be dependent on how other people value you. Earning, spending, and saving your own income is one way in which you can be empowered - one way, you can enhance your self-worth and your control over the situations in life that you will be facing in time to come.

I say this mainly because your Vice Chancellor, when he wrote and invited me to deliver the convocation address, requested that I look at the contribution of women, in particular, to the development of the country as well as the opportunities and challenges faced by graduates.

If you look at development internationally then, no doubt you are aware of the current global developmental framework promoted by the United Nations, the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Goal number 5 recognizes that there are root causes of discrimination that still curtail women’s rights in private and public spheres, and promotes equal rights and opportunities, as well as the capacity to live free from violence and discrimination for women and girls everywhere.

Interestingly, the 2030 agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals, also acknowledges that men and women are affected differently by developmental issues. Women may be impacted more by issues like hunger, poverty, water, sanitation and gender discrimination, in comparison to men.

Therefore, while women’s equality and empowerment is one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, it is also considered integral to all dimensions of inclusive and sustainable development. In short, all the SDGs depend on the achievement of SD Goal 5. Moreover, the SDGs acknowledges that women also possess ideas, strategies and the leadership to address some of these problems, and encourage women’s full participation in development so as to ensure that no one is left behind.

The 2017 statistical data sheet published by the Department of Census and Statistics tells us that women constitute 51 percent of the approximately 21 million in the Sri Lankan population.

However, despite constitutional guarantees of equality, and despite great strides in education and other social indicators, the labour force participation rate of women in 2017 was not even 36 percent as opposed to 75 percent on the part of men. This means that virtually 64 percent of Sri Lankan women are not earning an income, that, 64 percent of Sri Lankan women are financially dependent on someone else. As a result, Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation is lagging behind many Asian nations.

Of those women in the labour force, the highest participation of 45 percent was in the service sector, while 28.5 percent was in agriculture and 26.5 percent in industry in the year 2017. Moreover, if we were to break that down, what is striking in general is the lack of women’s leadership in these sectors.

Nonetheless, there are more positive and encouraging data and statistics as well. Interestingly, women comprise 63 perecent, when it comes to the overall number of employed professionals according to the Department of Census and Statistics. Of this, 28 percent are managers, senior officials and legislators. In contrast,men professionals are around 36 percent.

If you look at the public sector, you can see that women have made many gains.There has been a woman Chief Justice and about a 1/4 of judges on the bench have been women. A woman Attorney General and numerous women lawyers - if not in court, then in the corporate sector. As far back as in 1965, our country led the world in electing a woman prime minister - Sirimavo Bandaranaike. More recently, we have had a woman Executive President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge.

Due to the amendments to legislation, the recently concluded Local Government Elections ensured the entry of 25 perecent women into local government councils although we do not have the exact numbers yet.

This means that now, unlike earlier, it is possible for you, woman graduates, to seriously contemplate a career in politics because there is an assured point of entry.

Yes, I realize that your first reaction is that of shock and perhaps even horror at the prospect of politics - given dominant perceptions of the political culture in the country. However, if you have an interest in initiating social change or even political change at the village level, or perhaps even at national level, it is time to think seriously about a career track in politics. Don’t forget, if you do so you will also have the opportunity to change the practice of politics. Therefore, if you are sincere about your commitment, you should start planning out your strategy to contest the next Local Government Elections from the political party of your choice.

I have taught in Sri Lankan universities for over 27years. It is my understanding (perhaps debatably), that our education system as a whole does not encourage our students to think analytically or critically, or creatively. As a result, even when it comes to employment, there is a lack of understanding of the ground situation and a distinct lack of imagination when it comes to choices in employment.

Optimal employment is still considered to be in the public sector - a government job – never mind the fact that government institutions are overstaffed - bursting at the seams with employees. Even when there are opportunities in the private sector and don’t forget, in self-employment, graduates in particular, do not seem interested. I see this mindset as a dangerous obstacle in today’s world - incapacitating the country not only in terms of employee empowerment and upward mobility but also in terms of long-term planning, sustained national development and productivity.

Yes, a government job will assure you of a pension in old age. But given the hard fact of economic inflation, by the time you retire it will probably give you only a monthly pittance to fall back on. Moreover, this government sector job will not elevate all of you up the social ladder adequately - if upward mobility is one of your aspirations.

After 15 or 16 years of being cocooned within an education system built solely on an authorized syllabus, note-taking, model test papers, sit-down examinations amidst an institutional culture of ragging, brainwashing, insularity, and conformity, I believe that you have been inadequately prepared for real life. Forgive me for saying this, it seems that you have neither been inspired with a vision nor the ambition to take a risk – for instance, either in private sector employment or in entrepreneurship.

I will not talk too much about the opportunities in the private sector but suffice to say that today, the Sri Lankan private sector provides robust role models of both men and women achievers. But if we focus on women, in 2014, the Echelon magazine, celebrated 50 of Sri Lanka’s leading businesswomen. If I may randomly highlight some women who have made it to the top:

Sheamalee Wickramasingha is CEO, Ceylon Biscuits Limited (Foods) International.

Neloufer Anverally, Founder and Managing Director of Cotton Collection.

Kasturi Chellaraja Wilson is Managing Director, Hemas Transportation Sector - generally considered to be male province.

Lilamani Dias Benson, Chairperson of LOWE LDB is best known in the field of advertising for her work on Sunlight, NSB, Union Assurance and Elephant House Soft Drinks.

Shamadanie Kiriwandeniya, Chairperson, Sanasa Development Bank.

Neela Jayawardena, Founder and Managing Director, House of Fashions.

Nadija Tambiah, Head of Legal, John Keells Holdings.

This is not to say that you have to follow the exact same career pathway of these women. Rather, it is to inspire you with the possibilities available if you have the foresight and conviction to take a chance - branch out on your own or as a collective with your batch mates.

I am sure that you are aware, that young people around the world are starting up, starting out on business ventures - even without a business training. Today, the Internet and the worldwide web provide innumerable opportunities and openings in knowledge and proficiencies - from language translation to banking, from on-line degrees to local and international markets, and so on.

‘Start-up Sri Lanka’ is an initiative by the Sri Lanka Association of Software and Service Companies (SLASSCOM), and as articulated by them ‘to ignite entrepreneurship and launch 1000 start-ups’. No doubt, you are aware of what a start-up is, however, for those who are unsure, ‘a start-up is new business that is innovative — they generate new products and new ways of doing things - largely built on or around technology’, particularly for the purposes of marketing.

If you have a pioneering, creative, exciting idea that can be sold, and if you can adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, you are well on your way to a start-up business.It is important to stress that even if you do not have a technology background, your existing knowledge and skills can be transformed or ‘technologized’ with technical assistance.

Today, there is increasing interest in start-ups from stakeholders of all kinds: from banks, venture capital investors, private wealthy individuals, and even the government, since the financial benefits of supporting successful tech companies is immensely viable.

As you may be aware, Sri Lankan Start-ups by men include:

PickMe – which provides a transportation hailing platform utilizing trishaws to regular cars

Takas - a platform which will get the electronic equipment ordered through their portal delivered at your doorstep

24/7 Techies - provides technical support

Sez-mates’ first product was an automated sprinkler system

Sri Lankan women-driven Start-ups include:

Selyn Trade Fair – a start-up of handlooms and related products which began in 1991 with 15 women weavers and which has now expanded to 1000 members

The Saskia Fernando Gallery that support and represent artists

Iron One Technologies specialises in mobile app design and development for clients ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies

Yumi Cakes specializing in baked goodies including specialty and health foods

The Good Market which provides the physical space and logistics to support a range of start-ups businesses - from the Colombo bakers to rural craftsmen.

A SLASSCOM survey of 225 start-up entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka, shows that 75 percent of them were between the ages of 20 to 35. Forty-eight percent had a bachelor’s degree. Thirty-eight percent work in a team of 2-5 people while only 7 percent of them were listed as working on their own. Start-ups relied on personal savings, monies from family and friends, investments from venture capitalists and angel investors as well as bank loans to finance their enterprises.

Therefore, I urge you, as young women and men on the threshold of your future,

to consider the multiple opportunities that are available to you today - spanning both the private sector and self-employment without chasing politicians for a government sector opportunity – make your own opportunity.

Think afresh, change your mindset, and move forward in these evolving times.

However, the incendiary developments of the last month could well prove to be a hindrance to your future prospects - if you and your families allow such incidents to go unchecked. I am speaking about the provocative, racist, and inflammatory campaign against the Muslim people and other religious sects in our country based on lies, fabrications and misrepresentations by some who have identified themselves as Sinhala Buddhists.

I think we are all aware that these are not isolated emotional eruptions but recurrent politically-motivated attacks.

They keep recurring because of the silence and inertia of the majority who carry on their lives without publicly condemning these outbreaks. Of course, I am aware that I am speaking to an audience of graduates, and that you are not the instigators of violence. But if the majority of you – whether Sinhala, Tamil, Burgher, Malay, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian or Hindu – can find it in your heart, if not your mind, to speak out against these atrocities, imagine the difference that you can make to this country.

Remember that none of us have a singular or essential identity - yes, we may bear a gender identity as men and women, and yes, we may possess identities relating to our ethnicity and religion but we have other identities as well vis-à-vis our profession, language, class, geography, education, politics, ability or disability, and so on.

And we must remember that it is the sum of this whole that constitutes our sense of self. Such a multidimensional understanding of our identity and not one as fundamentally Sinhala-Buddhist, or Muslim or Tamil or Christian or Hindu – can help us to recognize, and accept, and empathize with some of the other identity groups that we are part of - perhaps in terms of our neighborhood, school, workplace, age and so on which may help us to transcend the more politically-heightened differences and chasms of today.

Today, there is freedom and democracy in communication; you have been technologically empowered with the capacity to connect instantaneously and inexhaustibly (on mobile phones, email, WhatsApp, Viber, Imo, Instagram, etc). Yet, given the increasing prevalence of lies and false news, defamation and hate postings, as well as the trivial and the ridiculous, you have to consider whether you are contributing to these violent confrontations; perhaps even as unthinkingly, as mindlessly forwarding texts and clips.

Consequently, if you are against these abuses, you have the choice to post your own opinion; you have the right to disagree; in fact, you should feel obliged to speak out and write back. I believe that there is a great responsibility on the individual today, more than ever before, to ensure that they communicate with vigilance, with care, and with integrity, which is why I feel compelled to repeat the same sentiments that I voiced in another speech last year.

Remember, we all have the potential for action, for proactivity, and for resistance - perhaps not on a grand scale but certainly at the level of the individual and the personal. In other words, when it comes to lasting peace, genuine reconciliation and wholesome interaction among our communities, do not forget that we have the power, as individuals, to anticipate and be preemptive in what we say, do and practice; we have the power, as individuals, to advocate and self-initiate changes that are just and inclusive; and most importantly, we have the power, as individuals, to question and speak out; and to rise up and resist fear-mongering, prejudice and injustice as and when they occur.

If you really think about it, it only calls for everyday, ordinary, individual action – to prevent a culture of impunity and to institute a culture of accountability in order to safeguard our future. May I conclude my speech by reiterating; think afresh, change your mindset, and move forward in these evolving times.


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