Name – A.D. Susil Premjayanth
School – St. John’s College, Nugegoda
Civil Status – Ex-Banker, Attorney-at-law, Master of Public Administration (MPA). At present reading for the PhD in Business Administration.
Political Office – Assistant Secretary/Vice Chairman SLFP and GeneralSecretaryUPFA
Public Office – Twice Chief Minister of the Western Provincial Council.
Entered Parliament – October 2000.
Period in Opposition – 2001-2004.
Ministerial portfolios – Cabinet Minister of Education (2000-2001), Minister ofPower and Energy (2004 April-2005 November.)
Present Portfolio – Minister of Education from 2005 November
Today I’ve spoken to another gentle-man in the political scene who is most certainly eligible for life membership if there is an exclusive club called – Honest and Dignified Politicians of Sri Lanka.
He is a self disciplined cabinet minister who hails from a middle class family in the city, a man devoid of grab and greed. Walking in the footsteps of his father, this gentleman of today’s politics was just nine years old, when his father accompanied him to a left political march in the company of stalwarts like Philip Gunawardena, Dr. S.A. Wickremesinghe and Stanley Tillekeratne.
His father, a Communist and Sama Samajist of the good old days, later grew up in politics in the shadow of SLFP stalwart and democrat Stanley Tillekeratne, a former Speaker.
Born and bred to the socialist, communist and democratic blood of his leftist father S.D. Karunapala, a former Town Council Member of Maharagama, the man signified in this interview today is the amiable Minister of Education, A.D. Susil Premjayanth, an ex-banker, Attorney- at Law who gave up a lucrative legal career to serve the people and the nation.
The personality and character of Susil Premjayanth the persevering politician, amply demonstrates the difference between a radical and a democrat. Premjayanth’s honesty, integrity and commitment have been the hallmark of his successful and disciplined journey in all spheres of life. This man is certainly a rare specimen in today’s breed of multi- faceted politicians.
Susil Premjayanth, an astute but silent politician lacks asperity in speech, which, he knows would hurt both friend and foe. He is an open man with no assignation attitudes, but, assiduous to the task.
The career conduct of this gentleman politician has proved that he is no cantankerous character, but quite cantabile in the sequence of his delivery which is an element and an ingredient, rare among our politicians of today.
Listening to Premjayanth provides a melodious feeling as the flow of his language and, the elegance of his characteristics, are blended in a style that moves the audience to greater heights. His commitment is capricious.
He shuns conjuring. But, conscientious Premjayanth is never conscience-stricken. This charismatic Minister of Education would not connive, but conquer targets within his boundaries, fully aware of the parameters that lead to those lines.
During the discussion, I felt he was deeply concerned about the decadence much deleterious to the future of our educational institutions. Expressions on his face, and the character based words of value that emanated from him, amply demonstrated that here was a minister committed to his task. He knows what is incongruous to our educational system.
When such types of proposals are brought before him, he adopts an inconsequential attitude in the interest of education. He believes in encrustation of a methodical system that could be open for debate.
The indefatigable minister works round the clock and is never irked by indentation. Premjayanth is a man who could satisfy himself with what is offered and is never rapacious. Abuse and misuse are two words, Premjayanth dislikes in life.
When he first relinquished office as Chief Minister nine years ago, I requested a meeting with him for a press interview. Quite humbly he said, “Could you come home because I have no transport facilities to call at your office”.
I was surprised and I inquired as to what happened to his official car. The reply was that he returned it on the day the Council was dissolved. This humble man continued to occupy a small house at Udahamulla, Nugegoda, which is nothing but a beautiful home for an honest and disciplined middle class man with a clear conscience.
Reading this interview, one could, with thought and concentration analyse his contribution towards English education, not only as a language but, also as a medium of instruction.
Fifty years ago, English fell from grace in the school curriculum. This man, Premajayanth has not only strengthened it as a language but, also as medium of instruction in Government schools.
Therefore, doesn’t this middle class product, Susil Premjayanth need commendation for his benignant, significant and excellent contribution towards our English education to the future? The binate of English as a language and medium of instruction would in the future glitter as bezant before the eyes of our students.
As a man who believes that education is the top priority in any society, protege of the student generation is his forte. A mood of melancholy descended upon his face when crises’ confronting the education sector was put to him during this discussion. He was aware that the present system was meretricious. Looking meticulous with a metamorphic stance, master mind Susil Premjayanth, the ministering angel of the country’s education, merged his miscellanea in a memorable manner to the following questions:
Q: After Independence, have successive governments drawn up an effective or a real national education policy or a plan which goes parallel to the productive forces of our country?
A: I can give you a simple answer – ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. But, I would like to explain a bit further by recalling the introduction of free education by Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara in 1946. That only matched that era of education.
After independence we should have reformed that system to match every decade in the past. However, there were some attempts in 1962, if I remember distinctly, under the leadership of late Prime Minister Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the late Dr. Bad-udin Mohammed took over some private schools.
That I view as a step taken to strengthen the free education system in the country. But. as a result, of course, we completely ignored English as a medium of instruction. Again in 1972, there were attempts to reform the education system to match that decade.
After the change of Government in 1977 those attempts did not continue. We have continued with the same system we inherited from the British with slight reforms. During that period our education was mainly focussed on having some graduates emerging from universities for administrative purposes.
In the 1980s, United States President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced the open market system and with that system marketing also liberalised. Globalisation also started whether we liked it or not.
So, we did not match our education system with such changing trends though late President J.R. Jayewardene introduced a way of liberalised economy to our country.
Hence, it was a mismatch and still we continue and it is high time we changed the system. But, before we take a u-turn or a drastic change in the field of education, we must ensure that we provide adequate infra structure facilities, physical resources and human resources to all students irrespective of urban or rural areas.
Q: May I come to my next question to ask you whether degree courses of our universities are compatible with the job opportunities in the market as such curriculum lag behind the decade of even 1950?
A: The simple answer is – No. I think I explained that earlier. Especially after 1970s it is only now that we are introducing some courses which ought to have been introduced two to three decades ago like marketing, management, transport management, nuclear biology and there are many new courses.
Then, what about Information Technology? My position is that we should have concentrated more on education and introduced those courses to meet the changing trends of that particular era. Because we were and we are now living in a competitive global atmosphere, be it globalisation or global village as people may call it.
Q: Let us now focus on a more pertinent subject. You know the importance of English in the present context of our society. It is essential for anyone, be it a graduate or not, to progress in a profession. Lack of English knowledge has put all at cross roads today.
How do you seek to remedy this grave error of our rulers from time to time? As the Minister of Education do you have something up your sleeve to carve an avenue for an effective English education system in Sri Lanka for the benefit of our present and future generations?
A: Actually in the year 2001 as the Minister of Education, it was I who proposed English education as the medium of instruction to the GCE (OL) Science stream and the GCE (Advanced Level) Science section. It yet continues.
After that from 2003, from grade six, we selected about 110 government schools for English to be the medium of instruction for four subjects. We continue and for the first time after 1962, students studying the government schools sit for the GCE (OL) Examination in the English medium in this coming December.
We are now getting ready to train teachers, in the Commerce and Art streams for GCE (Advanced Level) for six subjects in English. Our main problem is, we don’t have enough resource persons to teach English or teach in English.
It will take some time to train all these teachers. For that purpose we converted one of our training schools in Penideniya to accommodate five hundred teachers, where we have hostel facilities, IT Labs and lecture rooms.
We have named it as the Centre of Excellence in English. There are short term and long term courses for teachers who are in-service. The courses will start in January.
Q: Well, with English having fallen from grace in this once English rich island, do you think you could find the skilled personnel to teach English to teachers in this country as there is a dearth of English qualified people in this country?
A: Yes… I agree with your point. Actually, we have selected some Instructors and sent them to the University of Pennsylvania under a mutual agreement. We got down some Instructors from that university while our cadres were trained over there for three weeks.
After the three week training overseas, our Instructors are again trained here. From time to time, experts from Pennsylvania University will come here to lecture our Instructors.
Q: We both should now traverse into an exciting area to examine the curriculum of government and international schools. I strongly believe there is a disparity in those respective curricula. Does this disparity affect those in the free education system?
A: I don’t think so. Because, earlier the National Education Institute (NIE) was responsible for curriculum development and teacher training. Those days, the NIE developed curriculum or changed curriculum every eight years. But, now of course, they have decided to develop curriculum every five years.
We are in that process and we develop our curriculum from grade six to eleven and from there up to thirteen parallel to standards of international schools. We got to maintain that because, supposing our students after GCE advanced level, decide to go to some universities in other countries, they got to qualify to enter those places with our qualifications.
Therefore, we got to maintain our standards on par with, for example, London O Levels and A Levels.
Q: We have talked much about students. Shall we now focus on our teachers… Tell me what is the valuation system of teachers in Sri Lanka? And… are you satisfied with the process when compared to other countries in the region?
A: No… not at all. That is because after introducing the Teacher Service in 1994, according to teacher service minutes, we should have held teacher examinations every year to offer them promotions and evaluate their performances.
But, unfortunately that evaluation system was never introduced at that time. But, we tried to introduce it to ascertain the performance of Principals and Teachers in Government schools in 2000 and 2001. We failed because most of the trade unions opposed it.
We had to discuss the issue with them and tried to introduce a self evaluation system. But, I regret it was not a method of success.
Q: Don’t you agree that this trade union actions are a hindrance to the education progress of our country?
A: These trade unions, according to our constitution have liberty to take trade union action. Before 1994, till the latter part of that decade, the trade unions did not have much problems in teacher services. Earlier, teachers were entrusted with a national task and did their job. Now we can see some trade unions with a political agenda deviating from the basic responsibilities of trade unions.
Q: Do you view the present school admission crisis as a result of the township plan of the colonial era when the policy was centered on capital city and its’ institutional system?
A: That is one of the reasons. Unfortunately, the central school system introduced by the late Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara was not continued. He started 54 central schools in 1946.
The idea was to give an opportunity for students coming from rural areas with limited resources, with scholarships, good teachers and financial support.
All these 54 schools were equipped with adequate facilities. But, when we introduced the 13th amendment to the constitution in 1988, as a solution to the ethnic strife, we did not consider all these central schools. Some of them were converted to national schools while the balance was neglected.
Some leading schools in the cities were named as national schools. As a result, most of the central schools created through the vision of Dr. Kannangara were neglected. I am focussing my attention on this matter and create at least three leading schools per divisional secretariat area.
It will help the successful grade five scholarship holders to enter these schools apart from other leading schools in the city.
Q: You proudly claim that your Government is a nationalistic Government. If so, what is the national solution for a proper education system in this country?
A: A National Education Commission was set up in the 1980s. It was the responsibility of that Commission to introduce a national education policy and, if necessary to change that policy from time to time.
At the moment, we implement national policies introduced by that Commission in 2003. At present they are in the process of collecting data to explore ways to change policies.
Q: That’s fine on the education sphere. I am now poaching into your political territory to ask you some questions in your capacity as UPFA General Secretary.
Could you tell me in specific terms whether the SLFP-JVP agreement is still in force or whether the marriage is on the rocks with either party making secret moves at dusk if and when the necessity arise? What we know is that the JVP has publicly withdrawn support to the UPFA Government. You were the bride groom of that agreement. You know where your bride now stands…
A: They withdrew support after the 2004 tsunami which was the latter part of the Kumaratunga administration. Though they withdrew their support to the Government and sat in the opposition, they did not oppose budgets and allowed the continuation of the present Government.
After the last presidential election, we tried to bring them back to treat as part and parcel of the Government. They forwarded 20 proposals. There were three main proposals in them to which we agreed in principle because we cannot implement them.
Hence that attempt was not successful. We have as the SLFP allowed President Mahinda Rajapaksa to use his office to muster support from other political parties like the UNP to strengthen the Government. The number of cabinet ministries increased as a result of the entry of 17 UNPers to help the Government.
Q: My question was not answered. I asked you whether the SLFP-JVP agreement is in force or annulled or conveniently forgotten by both parties…
A: In legal terms, the agreement should be between two or more parties. In this case the JVP has withdrawn arbitrarily but the SLFP has not.
Q: If they had done so, what prevents you from taking necessary action?
A: Our understanding is to act with the concurrence of the respective General Secretaries of the two parties. According to the agreement I can’t take my own decisions.
Q: Be that as it may Mr. Premjayanth, you are the powerful General Secretary of the UPFA. If any MP of the UPFA, be it JVP or any other party in the Alliance, my argument is that you have exclusive powers vested in you to deal with MPs who, in your opinion had violated discipline of the Alliance. You are a lawyer by profession and I expect a direct submission to my argument…
A: Yes… in such instances I am empowered to inform the Commissioner of Elections and the Secretary General of Parliament of such removals, based on the recommendation of the respective General Secretary of the party to which the offending member belonged to.
Q: That means you do not hold the exclusive right for removal?
A: No… No… No.
Q: Your hands are tied and, is that why they play games under the cover of those agreements?
A: That’s a fine question… ah… ah… ahh (the minister bursts into laughter) you are quite correct of course… we’ll leave it there, because in life I have only friends and no foes. You can help me to make more friends, Isn’t it?
Source : Eye 2 eye with Prasad Gunewardene
Pictures by Thushara Fernando