Nicety of language was the hallmark of Parliamentary debates then
Edward Gunawardena (Sunday Times)
From about the time I was an eighth former at St. Joseph’s College in the late 1940s when Sir Francis Molamure was the Speaker I have been a keen follower of the proceedings of the country’s legislature.
My respect for this august assembly came to be firmly ingrained in my heart in 1949 when I was in the pre-SSC class. The English teacher Cecil Graham who later became the editor of the Ceylon Daily News asked the students to read the Parliamentary speeches particularly of S.W. R.D. Bandaranaike, W. Dahanayake, Dudley Senanayake and Bernard Aluvihare. The Editorial of the CDN was a must. Reading these not only broadened the minds of the students, but more importantly, certainly improved their English.
Commencing in the early 60’s I was to follow Parliamentary proceedings closely because on numerous occasions I had to perform official duties in Parliament. As the ASP of the CID in charge of the VIP Security Division I was compelled to be in the House whenever Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was there.
Unlike today the VIP Security Division then had only one ASP (as head), five Inspectors and about 10 Police constables. There were only two VIPs in the country who were provided security by the Police, the Governor General and the Prime Minister! They did not even have pilot cars and backup vehicles except on ceremonial occasions. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was humble and modest. He liked to drive his own private vehicle. On several occasions he travelled to the Prime Minister’s office in the old Senate building in the Fort from his home ‘Woodlands’ seated in the front seat of my Peugeot 203 driven by me.
The old Parliament building by the Galle Face Green unlike the high security ‘Alcatrez’ of the Diyawanna was a homely place. I can never forget the courtesy and hospitality extended to me by Ronnie Abeysinghe, the Sgt. at Arms.
It is with nostalgia that I remember Speakers Sir Albert Pieris, Hugh Fernando, Stanley Tillekeratne and Bakeer Marker. Notwithstanding the exalted office they held they were humble and friendly. All senior officials visiting Parliament on duty were treated with respect. I still remember the long and friendly conversations I was fortunate to have with the late Speakers Stanley Tillekaratne and Bakeer Marker.
Speeches, particularly of the Senior members of the House laced with wit and repartee held the listeners spellbound. Angry outbursts and unacceptable language were rare. Nicety of language was the hallmark of Parliamentary debates.
In the 50’s and 60’s our Parliament had men of admirable stature endowed with ready wit. I wonder how many of our present-day Parliamentarians have read the speeches of former stalwarts like S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake, Colvin R. de Silva, Pieter Keuneman, N.M. Perera, Phillip Gunawardena, A. Amirthalingam and V. Navaratnam.
Apart from healthy debates that led to intelligently discussed, distilled and refined legislative enactments, the orderliness and discipline requiring the minimum intervention of the Speaker was indeed the hallmark of Parliament. To prevent the wastage of Parliamentary time was the concern of every member. All members were keen to make studied, useful contributions. Unlike today the Parliament library was well patronized by the members.
The majority of the members on both sides of the House were men and women of erudition who were decent and disciplined. Little wonder Parliament was looked up to and admired by everybody for its discipline, dignity and decorum.
As an octogenarian, the deterioration of Parliamentary behaviour saddens me. I pity the schoolchildren who are taken on ‘educational’ tours to this apex assembly.
A former Speaker blamed the voters for sending such riffraff to Parliament. I wrote to the newspapers emphasizing the fact that the voters have no choice. They have no alternative but to vote for the candidates who have been put forward by Party leaders.
Under the prevailing system, national leaders are invariably leaders of political parties. It is their responsibility to nominate men and women of unblemished character who can be expected to uphold and defend the traditions, dignity and decorum of Parliament.
The undeniable truth is that candidates for Parliamentary elections and even Provincial and Local Government elections are selected by political parties not because they are qualified in every respect to be honourable legislators but because either they are relations or friends of the party hierarchy or because they have adequate ill-gotten wealth and the ability to muster the support of thugs, criminals and the underworld.
Needless to say these men and women cannot be expected to uphold the dignity of Parliament. To make matters worse these are the people who clamour for perks and privileges most. They sell their duty free vehicle permits, make maximum use of the cafeteria, employ their kith and kin as private secretaries, coordinating secretaries etc., collect the house rent allowance without living in rented premises and misuse their power even to intimidate OICs of police stations.
At this critical moment in the country’s history when a new Constitution is being contemplated, sadly no one has spoken, or proposed ways and means of improving the quality of the legislators. Most of the problems of the country from devolution of power, health, education and law and order would certainly have been more intelligently approached by Parliament if the general membership of this Assembly was better educated. A basic minimum qualification must be laid down constitutionally. With over ten Universities in the country why can’t at least our Ministers be graduates?
The prestige of a country depends to a large extent on the performance of its organizations. The smooth functioning of the legislative bodies, the courts of law, the Police, universities, schools, hospitals etc. are vital for a nation’s success. Of all these, Parliament is the apex organization. For this august assembly to regain its stature, it needs more men and women of erudition. The hallmark of a successful organization is discipline. Parliament or elsewhere, with more and more educated people discipline is bound to thrive.
Roshan Mahanama, one of the finest sportsmen produced by Sri Lanka, as the Chief Guest at the awards ceremony of the Schoolboy Cricketer of the Year noted, “I must congratulate the organizers for not inviting politicians for sporting events of this nature. I remember when I won the award almost 30 years ago, I was given the award by a politician, but I must say he was a respected politician. But at present the good politicians could be counted on fingers. I salute the organizers for that” (The Sunday Times of 13/11).
The whole nation should salute Roshan Mahanama for this courageous and truthful utterance.