July 6, 2018 (LBO) – Secretary to the President and lifelong public servant Austin Fernando’s farewell speech reproduced in full from the Colombo Telegraph:
Born on 12th June 1942, having had my primary education at Hikkaduwa Sinhala School, post-primary education at Richmond College, Galle, I was admitted to University of Ceylon, Peradeniya in July 1960. As a young graduate I entered the teaching profession in May 1963 and joined the Ceylon Administrative Service (CAS) in October 1967.
Starting my new CAS career in Batticaloa District, I had an extremely eventful and memorable stint in the public service. I was appointed a Secretary of a Ministry, at the young age of 44. Although it was an enviable age to rise to such position, I also experienced the departure from public service in an abrupt manner in August 1996 at the unripe age of 54. When I did depart the service in 1996, I did so to uphold my unwavering principle of integrity. It repeated in November 2003. Jul;one would envy that for sure. But this experience was also for the best. Due to my employment in the private sector I was able to fund my daughter’s education in Pakistan which I was finding difficult as a government servant. Today when I see her carrying out her post graduate education at University of Oxford, I reflect that being removed from government service at that time was a blessing. Today, too, I leave with the conviction that everything happens for the best.
In 1996 I left government service keeping my uncontested integrity intact. This time in 2018 my departure may also seem abrupt to you. Many may interpret it in different ways. Social media have been discussing it for some time now. But it was discussed and agreed with His Excellency the President on 22nd of May 2018 at his office. I leave today at the mature age of 76. At 76, the world is a philosophical place!
Free man with a free conscience
Since 1996, I joined the public sector twice from the private sector – in December 2001 – as Secretary Defense and as Advisor and Governor of Eastern Province in January 2015, following as Secretary to HE the President in July 2017. The last position is the peak a public officer could reach in public service. It is a respected, sought after, esteemed position: a jewel on a crown.
I have pleasant and unpleasant memories of my present tenure. I will not discuss the unpleasant memories. Some of the memories encouraged me to leave public service and reminded me that the time has come for me to leave the secretariat. My thankful gratitude goes to two private sector organizations that gave me shelter when I needed it most- the Resources Development Consultants Ltd (for 5 years plus) and Japann International Cooperation Agency , Sri Lanka Office (for 11 years).
For a mere clerk’s son, without any political, social, or ancestral ties, to reach the apex position in public service proves that Sri Lanka is a country of opportunity, if one has perseverance, efficiency and integrity. I have done my part with total integrity, impartially, without malice towards anyone, even when I had been ill-treated, misunderstood, penalized, slandered etc. Tomorrow the same slandering and insults will begin. But I shall remove them from my heart with a smile, reflecting that this is the nature of the world.
Since I have no ill earned assets from irregular means and I have not been part to murder, torture, disappearances or wrongful punishment of any person. Tomorrow, I can walk on any street anywhere without security personnel surrounding me. Even in the times I was provided a large number of security personnel, I used them to the minimal. I am a free man with a free conscience. I am finally free.
Straight line in the ECG means you are dead
The Indian business tycoon Ratan Tata said “Ups and downs in life are very important to keep us going, because a straight line even in an ECG means we are not alive.” I was alive always and full of life and vigor and went on to work late hours, carry on with long meetings and continued at home too when there was an overflow of files from office. The delay of a file in my room would have been always less than 24 hours. If there were delays those were connected to payment of public monies. I was the Chief Accounting Officer of this secretariat.
I engaged in difficult tasks related to constructive actions by this government. I was a member of the Working Group that drafted the concept paper and an outline of the draft legislation for the creation of the Office of the Missing Person. I chaired the Working Group that drafted the concept paper and an outline of the draft legislation for the reparation mechanism to be presented before the Parliament soon. I contributed to the Sub Committee where preparatory work was done for the Parliamentary Steering Committee in formulating a new Constitution for Sri Lanka. I am a great believer of reconciliation, democracy and good governance and this was a reason why I committed for such endeavors.
I thank my betters and the officers of the state
When I leave public life today after 55 years since joining the teaching profession I have to appreciate many ‘greats’ such as EF Dias Abeysinghe, DBIPS Sirivardhane, Dharmasiri Peiris, Bradman Weerakoon, Shelton Wanasinghe, Baku Mahadeva, Minister Gamani Jayasuriya etc. Let me begin from the minor employees, lower, middle and non-executive grades of officers like others who stood with me through thick and thin throughout my career. Even the smallest worker who have stuck with me through thick and thin have contributed my standing here today. Whether they are here or not, I thank them all.
There were executive grade officials of various disciplines and services other than the Sri Lanka Administrative Service officers who gave their fullest to me. I think them. They all know that I did my best to uplift their professional conditions. In fact I took the lead to implementing the monthly allowance of 50 000 rupees for cabinet secretaries. Even for the ministry of justice, I did the same with the support of Hon Attorney General and Hon Chief Justice. Even if any other service justified such facility I would have assisted them as well.
Throughout my career I have worked with non-governmental organizations- local and international, diplomats, civil society groups, trade unions and Associations, media organizations, religious dignitaries at the highest and local levels and their institutions, legal personnel at various levels inclusive of the Hon Chief Justice and Judges of the Superior Courts, Hon Attorney General, Independent Commissions etc. I am thankful to all of them for having given me their best professional support when I needed it most. I thank them.
I have actively engaged in political activities from my young days. When I was climbing the ladder in the public service I started disconnecting myself from political leadership. It was because I was not entitled to political rights after joining Ceylon Administrative Service. I could therefore adjust myself without being attached to political ideologies. I was acceptable to anyone and so much so I could be the Defense Secretary in a United National Party (UNP) led government in 2001 and the Secretary to the President in 2017, led by the worst political rival of the UNP.
My then engagement with the UNP Government has been used to interpret my current political leanings by some fake hangers-on, even after I took office as Secretary to the President. If the critics had read my book “My Belly is White” and believe what I have said regarding my being appointed as the Secretary of Defense they would clearly understand the invalidity of such comments.
Similarly, some have been commenting of my alignment to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party because I have been appointed to my incumbent position by the President of the SLFP. The President is the best witness of what happened.
I am only a friend of this country
I have my great respect to the President and Prime Minister, but I am not a political acolyte of their political parties. I have associated the President and the Prime Minister for 43 and 30 years respectively as a friend of this country with a truthful, independent voice. When they were fighting for peace, reconciliation, good governance and social justice through their politics, I had been helpful in their campaigns. When they were not in power there were no large crowds that you see today at their homes and offices. Some of those gathered are the very people who were their bitter opponents. But currently they enjoy exclusive posts and many worldly comforts.
When I started working for their governments as an officer I kept aloof from politics. Like a swan that separate milk from water I could separate politics from administration! This has invited vitriolic criticism of me by those who do not understand the dynamics of governance without political servitude.
The state is a bigger concept than government
In my public service career I have developed a rapport with party stalwarts from almost all political parties and they too looked up to me for clarifications on political history and constitution. I could do this because in my heart my concerns were larger than politics. My concern was whether something I was about to do or say was good for my country; whether it was the just thing for all communities; whether it would build peace and serenity; whether it would enhance love and compassion to all; whether it was environmentally friendly. In my life, my conscience and my service to my country have always been more important to me than individual politicians and political power. Remember, the state is a bigger and greater concept than a government. There is a difference. May be the odd individual but I consider that these should be our mottos as public officers, rather than to venerate the wrong with bent knees.
Fake hangers on
Two of the scourges of public service is the seniority preference and political patronage. These scourges frustrate efficient, productive officers with potential to serve the country better. The fake hangers on are a nuisance to politicians as well as to the bureaucracy. They have their personal or political agenda and try to put the politicians and bureaucrats to their own groove of thinking. What should be done is to cut off these fake intruders for reasons, and not cut real people for fake reasons. It is those who protect fake hangers on and the institutions themselves that will suffer because of it.
In dealing with fake people I had a policy. It was to be blunt as possible. I know that sometimes I have hurt their feelings by being so. I consider it as a strength but one may consider it as a weakness. But my saying this today I have exhibited that I am unprepared to give up this good habit! After all I may live a few years more and trying to change my good ways now at this late stage. Let me be the authentic Austin Fernando!
Former Indian Elections Commissioner T.N. Sheshan in his book Degeneration of India names politicians, ‘Unpublic Service’, judiciary and media as the four reasons for India’s degeneration. If you assume Sri Lanka’s public service as ‘unpublic’, then considering the criticisms on the other three components, I feel that at least if the public service does not pick up, Sri Lanka’s degeneration will be inevitable. It will be difficult to achieve if politicians, public service leadership, law enforcers, judiciary, media and civil society do not individually and severally shoulder the reformation process with vigor.
In 2015 I accepted the position of advisor to the President on the request of His Excellency. I accepted the post of Governor Eastern Province on the recommendation of the Prime Minister and condoned by President. While functioning as the Governor, I continued to advice the President as an honorary service. On 30th April 2017 having evaded his request several times I gave in to the repeated request of His Excellency and conceded to being appointed President’s Secretary. The authenticity of this claim is well known by WJS Karunarathne and Mrs. Anuradha Jayawickrama.
The one who laughs last laughs best
When I took up this job it was my intention to leave within a year or so, since it should be taken over by a younger person for grand running. I am happy that circumstances have made it possible for me to leave today to keep to my original intention, though certain intruding factors such as completely unqualified persons looking for a replacement for me while I was in office have hastened the process.
All the positions we hold are like costumes of a dance. Once the dance is finished the dancers remove their costumes and wear the new costume for the new dance. I remove my costume happily while the happy laughter of those who are happier than I for that echo in the back ground. But remember, “The one who laughs last laughs best” .I don’t know who will have the last laugh.
I am matured enough to have successfully forgiven persons, who during my long tenure planned, executed and manipulated to cut grass under my feet, and slung mud at me. My mind is not a dustbin to keep anger and hatred. I consider it as a treasure box to keep, love happiness and sweet memories. I think all of you will endorse that I did not keep anger, hatred and was not jealous of anyone. I always strived to treat you with love and respect without exception and reservation to keep happiness intact
True power lies in your ability to give it up
Some may wonder with only several months left to the end of the first term of Presidency, why I have not simply managed and hanged on to this powerful position? But, as there is a fair amount of young people with long careers ahead of them gathered here today, let me humbly share with you a word of wisdom: there is no inherent power in power. If there were an inherent power in power, you can’t oust those with power. The true power of power- whether it is personal, professional or political- comes with your ability to give up that power. The strength that renouncement of power gives you is unmatched by any other force. The Buddha taught us this lesson 2500 years ago. It is something important that public servants and politicians alike should reflect on.
There nothing, no person, no position, no comfort, no luxury no hope that I cannot give up. I know very well what it is to suffer. I also know well what comfort is. If I saw something beautiful I have directly appreciated it. This is well known by those who associate me closely. I have associated kings and paupers. I have wept at the sight of mass murders at Aranthalawa, Aluth oya or Fort Bus Station. I have sung and danced in happy times. Even today it is like that. Tomorrow I will be the same. But I prefer the smell of sweat of the poor in a camp in Kilinochchi or Sampur than the smell of perfume in Colombo 7 or Paris. This has been conditioned by my experiences in public service. Therefore today I can leave public service and lead a normal life.
I gratefully remember who paved the way to what I am today- my parents, teachers, religious personalities who advised me, colleagues in public and private sectors, political heads, who gave a helping hand in many ways whenever I needed their strength, friends who have given me unconditional love, cracked a jokes, lessened my pain in hard times. I thank my family, especially my wife who bore my semi-public life reluctantly with enormous grace, silence and great patience. I thank my emotionally resilient and persevering children who have shared the ups and downs of my journey with philosophical jocularity. I thank my innocent grandchildren who missed my personal attention on them. This is their time.
Hand on my heart
For the last three years I stayed away from writing. There is so much in my mind that used to produce at least two good quality Sinhala and English articles per month. I could not write these things because of the bonds of public service. After today I’m free from that bondage. It gives me new hope that now I can write and speak on public service and politics from today onwards. Especially I believe I should share my views on the spheres of politics, society and reconciliation.
I have kept my lessons learnt in public service in my heart to be shared by anyone who needs them. I hope to publish at least a drop of it one day before I die.
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And if I am to do so, I must have respite. The designation of President’s Secretary is not suitable towards that end. I was able to type 250 pages of my memoirs before June 2017. Since June I have only types 10 pages. Now I can start again. I will also start writing about the last year very soon. Therefore I extend my profound thanks and gratitude to all who hastened my departure. I am respectfully grateful to them.
Recently at a meeting here in the secretariat a person sated that if you keep your ear to the earth what you will hear will shake our hearts. At that moment I thought that its’ easier to keep your hand on the heart than to keep the ear to earth. If you keep your hand to your heart you can hear an echo full of truth. Whether I keep my ear to the earth or my hand to my heart, I’m sure I will not hear any echo that shall shake my heart. I can be happy about that.
Lalith Weeratunga, you are entwined to our lives
However echo- or-no echo, there was one sight at the twilight of my public service that shook me. That was connected to my friend Lalith Weeratunga. As most of you know him personally, what I’m about to say will forever entwined in the lives of most of us. And I must say it because almost all of you are younger than I and this advice will serve you well in your future.
Following the verdict of the Sil Redi issue, you may have seen him being escorted to Welikada Prison. He was walking with a brave face, but helpless, most certainly with the crushed spirit. With all due respect to the judiciary, I still wonder if it is he who should have been sent to prison. Those who ordered him and the fake handers on were not to be seen on that day. The only person who was with him was my long standing dear friend, his wife, Indrani. Whether it is public service or service of the people, for an unjust or unfortunate reason when we are depressed, remember only our spouses and children will be there for us till the end. This is a reality you must internalize and repeat like a mantra. It should be your daily mantra.
You were all my children
I say good bye to you completing over fifty years in public service wishing you all the best in your personal and professional lives. I don’t think I will be a public servant ever again. It is for tomorrow to see. My heart and my home are both open for your joys, success and sadness. I will say the following words for you to etch them in your hearts. The greatest inheritance you can leave your children is your honesty, lawfulness, respect for and humanity. There is no jewel more precious that true respect for humanity and true love for humanity. Protect that jewel, forsaking your life. As Governor of the Eastern Province, and as President’s Secretary, for the last three and a half years, you have won my special appreciation as officers, and colleagues. Some were my friends. You all were my brother and sisters and daughters and sons to me.
I no longer pat his back- but my affection is unchanged
It would be a great oversight if I don’t speak a few words about His Excellency the President. I have known him for the last 43 years when he was a young man full of personality. All these years till today we have had deep mutual love, affection, friendship, trust and personal bond. On 8th November 2015 at his Wijerama Residence he confided in me that he was going to make a dangerous political leap. I explained to him the dangerous repercussions that can befall on himself and his family and asked him if he was willing to face them. He said yes. Then I patted him on the back and said “in that case I will take this path with you”. I still remember when I said that his eyes shined and he smiled. Since His Excellency is now the President, I no longer pat his back, but my affection for him is unchanged, even by an iota. Therefore I always extended to him the same mutual love, affection, friendship, trust and commitment as on that that day.
With time, with his rise to the pinnacle of political life our relationship evolved accordingly. New associated materialize and the priorities of a head of state also change. Therefore if I could not adjust to politics because my core is the service of the state, and if it inconvenienced him I apologize for that. When an older person errs, many times the younger person has to forgive and forget. I hope he extends the same courtesy to me.
I must also make special mention on Mrs. Jayanthi Sirisena whom I know for long years. During my tenure as Governor or President Secretary she never once made a single request for any special privilege or comfort. She is a great example of separating family life from political life. I say this with the greatest confidence. She is a guiding light to political authority. I wish the best of joy, health and prosperity to the President First Lady and their children.
Your honour is the greatest inheritance for your children
Unfortunately or unintentionally if I have been harsh to anyone of you please forgive me. If I have hurt your heart, forgive me. None of that has been intentional, but situational. You meet me on the road in future, talk to me, ask me how I am, and smile with me. I only expect that friendship from you. If anyone of you made a mistake I have taken full responsibility for it and shielded you from the President or any other official. This is because I considered you to be my children. Without my support you would have been orphaned. I hope my successor will protect you the same way. I also hope that the President, my longtime friends Presidential Advisors WJS Karunarathne, Dr. Sarath Rajapathirana, Thilak Ranaviraja, the officials of the secretariat, personal staff of the President led by Eric Weerawardhana and the family of the President will all support the new Presidents Secretary as they have supported me.
Always remember there is no greater jewel than your untainted honor and it is the greatest inheritance you can leave your children.
Thank you all very much. May the noble triple gem bless you. May God bless you. May you have health, good luck, happiness and prosperity in abundance!