Recent revelations and some public service verities | Daily News

Recent revelations and some public service verities

They say that the Sri Lanka Civil Service became the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS), and then the rot set in. But before this article forays into that territory of administrative malaise and public service under-performance, there is this little story of a certain Paskaralingam.

To be sure, little it is not. Paskaralingam, better known as Paski, was the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s finance czar, and was an alumni of the last batch of the Civil Service before it was abolished and made into SLAS.

Paski is now implicated in the revelations known as Pandora papers, the treasure trove of documents that were unearthed by the International Federation of Journalists, of persons who opened offshore companies in tax-havens.

How a civil servant did with no known sources or private means of any considerable proportions, amass the amount of wealth that was necessary to open offshore accounts — moreover, those that were shrouded in secrecy? The answer is not merely blowing in the wind. It was obvious what Ramalingam Paskaralingam was up to.

The most likely scenario was siphoning off profits from commissions and hoarding these sums in dubious foreign accounts, some of which were closed in a hurry when it was clear that the people in the IFJ (International Federation of Journalists) etc. were getting too close to these accounts. That has been reported by IFJ, so none of the above is hearsay.

Civil Service

Today, the allegation is that the SLAS arrangement ruined the Civil Service. Well, there is a difference between the two institutions no doubt. It’s supposed the Civil Service had stars, the crème de la crème of the country’s educational output. For the best marriage prospects, the parents always sought the good old Civil Service boys in the salad days, they said.

But then came SLAS and the gloss was all washed off. It is not SLAS per se that was the matter though, but the fact that public administration got heavily politicized. But well, looking at the saga of the rise and rise of Paskaralingam, it can be said that the Civil Service types were no un-ambitious marriage-minded good Samaritans either.

Paski may have been among the last of the Civil Service old guard, but he was certainly not content doing the back room work, passing files and generally being deferential to the snooty elected politicians. He infiltrated the inner-sanctum, and soon there was no government contract, they say, that could be secured without Paski’s nod.

So who spoiled the public service then? Was it the ‘yokel’ SLAS lot (pardon me) who were taken into the service to break the back of old Civil Service elitists, or was it the Civil Service folk such as Paski, who proved the revered mandarins of the public service were not as incorruptible as they seemed?

The problem with SLAS was that the average bureaucrat who graduated into the administrative ranks became a morose discontented un-amiable lot, more often than not. It is suspected it was due to a slew of reasons.

One is politicization of the administration, which made the SLAS types mere also-rans when it came to public service decision making. But, there were other reasons of a more possibly poignant kind which had to do with disillusionment and general ‘nihilism’ of the Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya and Yugaanthaya kind.

Martin Wickremesinghe’s trilogy was a fictional representation of the shattered hopes of an upwardly mobile class of rural aspirants to the good life of the moneyed city elite. The SLAS recruits who were not from the privileged classes that were epitomized by the private school land owning types such as Ronnie de Mel for instance, were in for a rude shock when they were not treated with the same respect and deference the Civil Services types that preceded them were.

Political Pawns

Besides that, they quickly became the pawns of politicians who wanted these new relatively underprivileged rural recruits to serve them before they served the people. In all, shorn of all the civil service era frills, the SLAS job became the sinecure for the starry eyed rural recruit that ended up in a promised land that didn’t deliver.

They were quick fodder for ideologues who peddled class warfare nostrums, and soon the SLAS types became a disgruntled, disaffected lot in the main — even though some stellar products who have served the country admirably cannot be discounted.

But the Paskaralingam story shows that the romanticized Civil Servant posting that attracted the urban educated elite didn’t exactly produce the ideal bureaucrat of the celebrated, dedicated type that we’ve heard among the Japanese for instance.

However, even today people seem to be willing to forget Paskaralingam’s shenanigans because he was an elite brand of white collar public servant. In those days, a great many of the Colombo elite were in awe of Paskaralingam and would speak about him in the same way that Silicon Valley wizards speak of Steve Jobs.

It’s as if everyone knew Paskaralingam was no saint, but he was a Teflon guy anyway — and could go unscathed because he was a Civil Service gentleman after all, and those great guys could do no wrong. As long as this mentality is there, even the JVP is not going to catch any scoundrels.

It is recalled that Paski was Ranil Wickremesinghe’s point man for some good old fashioned ‘public service’ as recently as 2015-19.

Whether it was Paski or the new SLAS type, it seemed the public service was an acknowledged territory for the newly minted dejected, in a previous promised land.

It is a sad story but it also has some uncomfortable truths written into it. The Civil Service was generally thought to be incorruptible and competent soon after the colonial era ended, at least as legend has it.

This is not to glorify institutions that were a legacy of the British. It is to say that it was the subsequent politicization that broke the back of the public service structure, and converted it into a non-delivering embarrassment.

There is no doubt a class connotation, and that cannot be wished away. It is generally felt that the civil service attracted a certain type that was dedicated to public service, while the administrative service that succeeded was only peopled by folk who merely ended up by happenstance in these government service jobs.

Unfair assessment

That’s to be sure a rather unfair assessment but even so the uncomfortable aspect is that there are shades of truth to it. In any event it is not fair to compare the De Mels and the Sam Wijesinghes of the earlier era with the Paskaralingams of the next. The type of rulers had changed. The type of money that changed hands between foreign investor and State bureaucrat had changed. The fact is that no money was supposed to change hands between the moneyed investor and the State administrator, but you know what I mean.

However, the general notion is that at least a vestige of public service probity and competence does not remain today. Now, this is not wholly true but it’s the same frustration people have with post-independence politicians for instance that they have with the bureaucrats.

They feel they have not delivered, and have lost trust in them and who can blame them when many stories such as the Paski saga see the light of day? Pity Martin Wickremesinghe is not around to make sense of any of this.

It is both fair and unfair to compare this situation with the renowned bureaucracies of other countries, Japan, or even India, for example. But reality brooks no maudlin tales. Something went wrong, and there is the uncomfortable truth that we — the children of independence — are responsible for it. There is no doubt about that. Collectively it was all messed up, and only we can put it right again, but at the moment nobody is taking any bets.

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