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Royal-Thomian dance nearly cost me job of Secretary of Prohibition Commission

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Excerpted from A Cabinet Secretaries Memoirs by BP Pieris

(Continued from last week)

In July, 1950, I was asked to be, in addition to my own duties, Secretary-General to the Standing Committee of the Commonwealth Consultative Committee, which went on till September. This was a follow up of the Colombo Plan. The Secretariat was housed in the Cabinet office and work went on each day till about midnight. The Police were on duty to prevent access by strangers, and they were kind enough to provide a van to take the members of my staff to their homes after the day’s work was over as no public transport was available at that time.

The Ceylon Delegation consisted of A. G. Ranasinha, K. Williams, R. Coomaraswamy and N. J. Jansz. All the other Commonwealth countries were represented and they worked out the details of implementing the Colombo Plan. It was at one of these meetings that two of the delegates nearly came to blows. An afternoon meeting had been adjourned at 5 p.m. to resume at 9 p.m. to enable delegates to attend a cocktail party.

On resumption, some of the delegates appeared not to be in a mood to carry on a “sober” and level-headed discussion. In vino, the most innocent observation can be misunderstood. And it was unfortunate that the exchange of words took place between the two senior delegates of two of the most senior Dominions of the Commonwealth. “What did you mean by that?” asked one delegate of the other. The other said “I have used plain English words and, if you don’t know the meaning, look up a dictionary.”

The first, grabbing the arms of his chair and going red in his already very tomato face, said “Will you repeat that?” and then the meeting heard the cool, calm voice of the Chairman, A. G. Ranasinha, saying “Gentlemen, we are all very tired. I am sleepy. Hadn’t we better adjourn now and meet tomorrow morning?” The next day, one of the other delegates asked me “Why do you Ceylonese chaps make, such good Chairmen?”

My next assignment, in 1951, was more important. It was as Secretary-General to the Consultative Committee on Economic Development in South and South-East Asia. Ranasinha was again unani-

mously elected Chairman and the following countries were represented: Australia 2, Burma 2, Cambodia 2, Canada 4, Ceylon 2, India 4, Indonesia 2, New Zealand 2, Pakistan 3, Philippines 2, Thailand 1, United Kingdom 6, United States of America 2, Vietnam 2, International Bank 1 and the Technical Bureau 1.

I was given two assistants, Mrs Imogen Kannangara and Miss Canakaratne, who knew shorthand, a daughter of Mr Justice Canakaratne. My assistants found great difficulty in taking down what the American delegate said because we were not used to the American way of speaking English. I therefore asked Miss Canakaratne to sit with her notebook immediately behind the American delegate’s chair and take down in shorthand all that he said. The other lady made a note in longhand and naturally there were discrepancies in the two versions which I, as Secretary-General, had to reconcile.

The proceedings were in English which language the Cambodian delegate did not understand. He spoke only French and refused to attend the meetings after the first as there was no French translator at the meeting. I wonder what would have happened if the Ceylonese delegate had insisted on addressing the meeting in our official language.

A number of proposals for a continuing organization was placed before the meeting, but it was considered premature to determine precise arrangements until the size and scope of the external finance available to the countries were better known. The meeting agreed that the representatives of the various countries should meet by mutual consent, at least once a year, and that a small secretariat should be established.

The President of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, by letter, informed the meeting that the Bank welcomed the opportunity to cooperate with the Governments in the preparation of their development programmes and in financing as large a part of those programmes as each country’s creditworthiness would allow. All the richer countries were willing to help. I reproduce an extract of a speech made in the Canadian Parliament by Mr Lester Pearson:

“We must also do what we can to improve the economic conditions and human welfare in Free Asia. We must try to work with, rather than against, the forces struggling for a better life in that part of the world. Such cooperation may in the long run become as important for the defence of freedom – and therefore for the defence of Canada – as sending and army to Europe, in the present immediate emergency.

“Many members in the House will have read the Colombo Plan for cooperative economic development in South-East Asia. This imaginative and, I think, well-founded report, which was published last November, as a result of the work of the Commonwealth Consultative Committee, points the way to the kind of effective assistance which we in the West can offer to the free peoples of Asia. They stand in very great need of capital for economic development and of technical assistance.

“For Canada to supply either the capital or the technical assistance in any substantive volume would mean considerable sacrifice, now that the demands of our defence programme are imposing new strains on our economy. On the other hand, I personally have been struck by the modesty and good sense which such countries as India and Pakistan have shown in drawing up plans for their own development for the next six years.

“The countries of South and South-East Asia which have drawn up programmes for inclusion in the report with populations involved including nearly one quarter of the population of the world state that they require, over the six year period, external finance to the amount of three billion dollars, the greater part of which will be supplied by the release of sterling balances in London.

“I believe that a Canadian contribution to these programmes, even if it has to be smaller than we might be able to make if we were not bearing other and heavy burdens, would have a great effect, not only in doing something to improve the standard of living in that part of the world, but also in convincing the people there of our sympathy and our interest. It is for these reasons, Mr Speaker, that the Government has decided to seek the approval of the House for an appropriate Canadian contribution to the Colombo Plan.”

The Conference ended, after the customary farewell speeches, with a cocktail party at the Chairman’s house.

I was next appointed as Secretary to the Prohibition Commission. It happened at one of Sir John’s Cabinet meetings. I, as Secretary, sat on the right of the Prime Minister, and next to me was the Home Minister, A. Ratnayake, who was in charge of Excise. Without presenting a Cabinet Paper, the Minister asked orally that a commission be appointed to inquire into the question of Prohibition and Gambling, including Racing.

The Prime Minister, addressing Ratnayake, and patting me on the back, said “Yes, Ratty, I’ll give you the most efficient secretary you can have”. Ratnayake, who was taken completely by surprise when a matter of such importance was decided so quickly, inquired – who the secretary was to be, and, Sir John, again patting my back said “Our friend here, man”. Ratnayake protested and said that as Excise was his subject, he surely should be allowed to select the secretary.

It was obvious that he had something to say against me, and one Minister suggested that I should leave the room for a moment. When I was recalled a few minutes later, the Prime Minister said “Well, Peiris, you are the Secretary. Carry on and do a good job.”

I was curious to find out what Ratnayake had against me, but I did not like to ask any of the Ministers. When the meeting was over and I had got back to my room, my telephone rang. Sir Kanthiah Vaithianathan, Minister of Housing, who retired from the public service as Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs, and whom I knew very well, was at the other end of the line.

He said “Now, Percy, that you are the Prohibition Secretary, remember not to dance in public on Royal-Thomian nights.” I was amazed. I asked him whether t that was all that Ratnayake had to say against me, and he said “Yes”.

Which leads me to the story of my dance. My only child, a daughter who passed her Senior School Certificate Examination at the age of 15 decided to follow a course in agriculture and animal husbandry at the Girls’ Farm School at Kundasale. When the vacation was due, she asked me whether she might invite about six other girls home for the holidays and I readily agreed.

The girls were trained and used to a fairly rough life; – they could cook, run a house, sleep on mats on the floor, and were not likely to cause us any inconvenience. They came. In the evenings, I used to sit at the piano and play for them while they did a sowing and reaping dance. I watched them carefully for some days, got the e hang of the dance, and used to practice the steps and the body movements in the privacy of the bathroom.

Soon I was confident that I could perform the dance in public and bought a set of foot-bells. A niece of mine gave me a full length green skirt and a black blouse into which I used to stuff about a dozen handkerchiefs at the appropriate places.

On the night preceding the opening day of the Royal-Thomian match, there has always been a stag party in the College grounds, attended by about 600 old boys. That year, there was a large bar which was well patronized. There was no hired orchestra. Music was supplied by the old boys in turn. One would sit at the piano, another would take up a fiddle, a third a saxophone and someone else would sit at the drums.

The drink had to be carefully looked after because, if it was left unattended for a moment, it was pinched. On the night in question, I wanted to go with my skirt, blouse and handkerchiefs, but my daughter advised against it as the skirt needed a lot of fixing with safety pins and there would be no one to fix it for me. I therefore carried the foot-bells in my pocket.

Suddenly I heard what I call “my piece” being played. I threw my shoes, tied the bells, mounted the platform, and danced. It was appreciated by all. There were eight ministers, including Ratnayake, in the hall waiting for dinner. After my dance, I walked up to their table with my drink in my hand to show them that it was not an excess of alcohol that made me perform. The Minister of Justice, Wikramanayake said “B. P., I am going to move in the next Cabinet that your salary be enhanced in view of your added qualifications.” Minister of Lands Bulankulama. Dissawe said that he did not know that I had such a supple body. That was the spirit in which my act was taken, and it nearly cost me my Prohibition Secretaryship.

One of the first things the Prohibition Commissioners did was to address the Governor-General requesting that the remuneration payable to them should be regarded as a nontaxable allowance for meeting out of pocket expenses. I advised against the move because it gave the impression that the Commissioners were more concerned about the safeguarding of their financial interests than sitting down to the task which had been entrusted to them.

The question was one which they should have raised before they accepted their appointments. In the second place, if the request had been granted, it would have necessitated an amendment of the Income Tax Ordinance, and the same concession would have had to be extended to other Commissions then sitting, and which would be appointed in the future.

The principle that payment to members of Commissions should be regarded as remuneration and therefore taxable had been accepted for several years. I had to point all these matters out when the Governor-General referred the Commissioners’ letter to the Cabinet for advice: the advice was that the request should not be granted.

As I was also, at this time, the Secretary to the Cabinet, the Commissions found it difficult to fix the days for its sittings. Cabinet meetings are summoned at short notice. The Commission’s sittings had to be fixed well in advance because witnesses giving evidence had to be notified in time. If both meetings fell on the same day, the Commission would have been without a Secretary, as I would have had to attend the Cabinet. The Commission, therefore, asked for a full-time Secretary to attend to their work.

Sir John did not agree to this; he wanted me to continue as Secretary, and gave them a full-time Assistant, Shantikumar Tampoe Phillips, a young Civil Servant and an English Honours man. Between the two of us, we wrote a ‘suitable’ report, I writing the legal chapters and he the rest, which amounted to about three-quarters of the whole. I am not too shy to say that it is a well-written report but the credit and praise for it must go to Phillips.

We examined the history of nearly every country in which total or partial prohibition had been tried: the United States of America, Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, even Russia under the Czarist regime, and an Islamic country like Turkey. Everywhere, it had been a sorry record of failure. The story of prohibition in India is known to all. With this world picture before us, the Commission came to the conclusion that prohibition could not be successfully enforced in Ceylon.

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