Singapore Elected A ‘Tharman’; For Sri Lanka, A ‘Kadirgamar’ Still A Wish!

By Mohamed Harees –

Lukman Harees

“(Kadirgamar)’s vision transcended the petty differences that plague this country and he was an epitome of the true Sri Lankan identity”” (The Island editorial, Sep 19, 2005)

Once upon time, Singapore was yearning to be a land like Sri Lanka. Today, with the vice versa being the reality, will the mentality of the Sri Lankan electorate change at least now, to allow a ‘Kadirgamar’ to a occupy one of the two top seats of power? Singaporeans recently elected former deputy prime minister and a distinguished economist, the 66-year-old Tharman Shanmugaratnam as their  president, who earned a landslide victory in their country’s first contested vote for this position in more than a decade. He has garnered attention and admiration from Sri Lanka due to his Sri Lankan ancestry. Some newspapers called him as of Indian Tamil origin Notably, Tharman’s historic win as the first non-Chinese presidential candidate in a contested election is a significant milestone in a predominantly Chinese city-state. The president in Singapore holds significant powers, including approving civil service appointments and instructing anti-graft investigation. His presidency will play a crucial role in shaping the nation’s future and addressing its challenges. 

Tharman is a multi-generational Singaporean of Tamil ancestry from the 19th century and is one of the most qualified citizens of the resource-scarce city-state that has witnessed various development phases for over 50 years. Singapore’s presidential election yielded insightful clues to the republic’s evolving race relations, with the analysts saying that ethnic voting theories were ‘disproved’ by Tharman’s landslide victory, with the voters prioritising a candidate’s ability more than other factors. The electorate was mature enough to look beyond his ethnicity , and consider his personal track record, 

In US, the election of Obama was an important moment in human history because Obama’s ancestors were slaves, most of whom died during the Middle Passage and he will always be the first African American president in US history. Obama’s election also signalled a deep change in American politics. The vast majority of the American people were then are willing to select an African American as President, showing that racial prejudice has declined, and overall it was an incredible moment in the American history and Obama’s election appeared to resolve a moral contradiction [about race] that ran through the interstices of US history from its very founding. Americans saw Obama’s election as a race relations milestone. However, it was also true that Obama did not become  the best President for the US Black people and subsequent events too proved racism is still a living reality in the US.

UK has a Hindu politician of Indian origin as its Prime Minister, and although not elected via a public vote, was yet a game changer. Having the first non-white leader of the UK was undoubtedly a “big moment” in the history of British politics. London elected Sadiq Khan, a Muslim as its Mayor – which has an overwhelming majority of Anglo Saxon whites. As UK analysists said ,’this showed that attitudes toward people from migrant communities have changed a lot in the UK, although that is not to say UK is  no longer a racist country … but things have changed a great deal

In the Sri Lankan context, doubts are cast about the possibility of a minority politician or an aspirant becoming the Prime Minister or the President. The closest Sri Lanka came to appointment or election of a politician from a minority community was Kadirgamar. The issue of the election of  politicians from minority backgrounds to the highest office in US, UK and Singapore brings us to the unpleasant memories of how racist attitudes and majoritarian mentality denied this charismatic Tamil lawyer who later turned to politics – Lakshman Kadirgamar from being a Prime Minister. Following the victory of the PA, he was appointed Foreign Minister in the PA government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. He held the post till 2001, playing a significant role in having the LTTE banned internationally. Both The US and the UK proscribed the LTTE on 8 October 1997 and 28 February 2001 respectively, thereby depriving that organisation of a primary source of funding.  

At the 54th session of the UN General Assembly in 1999, Kadirgamar proposed that the UN commemorate Vesak as a day of Buddhist observance, in recognition of Buddhism’s contribution to human spirituality. His proposal to the UN was based on an earlier recommendation made at the World Buddhist Conference held in Colombo in 1998. In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution 54/115, moved by him. As a result of then FM Kadirgamar’s efforts, Vesak Day is now internationally accorded as a United Nations Observance Day.

Following the victory of the United People’s Freedom Alliance in the 2 April 2004 Sri Lankan parliamentary elections, he was mentioned as a possible candidate for Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, but on 6 April President Kumaratunga appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa to the post. Four days later, however, he was appointed foreign minister again in the new cabinet. Kadirgamar was considered as one of the most successful foreign ministers Sri Lanka has had, and recognized that significant change was needed within Sri Lanka if its communities were to live together peacefully was an enduring part of his legacy. Sadly, Kadirgamar was shot dead by a sniper at his private residence in Colombo and the assassin was widely believed to be from the LTTE.  With his impressive track records, why then was he not allowed to become the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka? Unfortunately, Kadirgamar’s dedicated efforts towards striving to maintain, promote and strengthen democracy, peace and security in our country and while fighting terrorism and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka as well as his pivotal role in making Vesak as a United Nations Observance Day, appeared to have not good enough to qualify for the post of PM. 

If he was granted the opportunity to serve as PM, not only would it have been a tribute to his indefatigable services he thus far rendered to Sri Lanka, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, but it would have also served to reveal to the world the atrocious lie propagated by some, including the LTTE, that a Tamil citizen would never be allowed to hold the office of Prime Minister of our country. Besides, as the incumbent of the office of Prime Minister, he  would have had the additional  clout vis-à-vis the international community to effectively campaign against the scourge of terrorism that the country faced. He certainly had the credentials to hold this high office, compared with many other politicians who were able assume this post later on simply because they belonged to the majority race.  

According to Chinese whispers , the highest echelons of power and Buddhist clergy apparently ‘conferred’ and ‘conspired’ to ensure that a non-Buddhist that he was, should not the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka; let alone to contest the highest office of President. This was despite the fact that he went all out to defend the Majority amidst all the terror and thus gained the wrath of the Tamils. His Tamil critics opined that he was so blind, covered with ambition, that he never thought that the majority of the Sinhala Buddhists, would never accept him at that level, and that they would never take the risk of appointing a Tamil. They said that he bartered his Tamil name and pedigree in the hope that the majority will forever remember him. As DBS Jayaraj says, Kadirgamar  was very much interested and concerned about the Tamil issue. He was extremely receptive and agreed that federalism would be the ideal solution, but felt any realistic solution had to be acceptable to the majority of the Sinhala people as otherwise it would not be implementable. But, despite he being who he was, the Sinhala Buddhist political class did not allow him to go beyond his FM post. During a BBC interview he was asked if he thought he was a traitor to the Tamil people since he was a minister in a Sinhalese-dominated government. He said “People who live in Sri Lanka are first and foremost Sri Lankans, then we have our race and religion, which is something given to us at birth”. “We have to live in Sri Lanka as Sri Lankans tolerating all races and religion”.

Why didn’t the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate represented by the majoritarian minded political parties want to ‘tolerate’ non-Sinhala Buddhist Kadirgamar in the PM seat? Will Sri Lankan majority community even now show political maturity and take cognizance of the developments around the world and be ready to accept a non-Buddhist Head of State or even a Prime Minister? Will a non-Sinhala Buddhist PM( if there is one) be a reality in a national government? Analysts point out that until the deeply entrenched Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian mind-set exists, this will remain a dream in Sri Lanka.  

Anthropologist S J Tambiah noted the transnational aspect of the sense of insecurity in the minds of Sinhala Buddhists as planted by the vested interests when he described Sinhalese Buddhists as a “majority with a minority complex.” Their mindset has been conditioned by the stories of the Mahawamsa and its sequels. That mindset has prevented a majority of Sinhalese Buddhists from accommodation of minorities as co-equals in society. Militarily the war has been won and the guns have fallen silent. But embers of hatred seem to be burning in both hearths. This helps explain why many Sinhalese Buddhists feel regionally isolated and why they believe that minorities in Sri Lanka use transnational networks to further their political goals. In such a socio- political backdrop, it would be futile even to attempt to imagine a Sri Lanka led by a Tamil or a Muslim political leader.

As repeatedly stressed, the obstacles for national reconciliation and peaceful co-existence in Sri Lanka are many. Among them, the prominent one as highlighted by scholars and social analysts was the institutionalisation of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, inability to accept  the multi ethnic nature of the nation, political role of the Buddhist monks and the minority mindset of the Sinhalese (read KM De Silva, Nira Wickramasinghe, Jayadeva Uyangoda, Amungama, Dr Tambiah).

However, there is still much optimism to have the likes of Kadirgamars elected to the highest seats of power, given the rising public realization that an inclusive Sri Lanka is the way forward. As reflected during last year’s Aragalaya, there is a growing numbers of people of goodwill within the Sinhala Buddhist community who are attentive to the needs of the present hour: a healing touch that is built on a genuine confederative ideology that sees the minorities as an integral part of the concept “Sri Lankan.” However, it is still doubtful what political clout they carry or what proportion of the Sinhala-speaking problem are aware that they are part of the political project to gain power by Chauvinist political leaders. 

It was political parties which instituted ethnic nationalism on a basis of class interests in order to form ethnic solidarity to obscure class differences. The severity of the ongoing economic crisis and its impact on ordinary Sri Lankan people across ethnic groups through the lack of basic necessities represents how class struggles are prominent in Sri Lanka. The Aragalaya like protests in the nation offer hope of an increased class consciousness among working class people and a class revolution that will put power in the hands of the Sri Lankan people over the ruling elite who create race divisions and use majoritarianism to gain or stay in power. Barana Waidyatilake and Myra Sivaloganathan in an article in Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute website(2018) gives a way forward ‘Given the critical role that this perception of global isolation plays in Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalism, addressing it could open up possibilities for better managing this nationalism. One way to accomplish this is by formulating foreign policy messaging that can garner positive international acknowledgement of Sinhalese-Buddhist identity. Since Sinhalese Buddhists identify most with their faith, references to Buddhism would be incorporated into foreign policy messaging.

Overall,  the statement that ‘only a Sinhala Buddhist could become the Head of State” is only a myth and violates the Constitution. Being a non-Sinhala Buddhist is not a disqualification as per Article 92. However, fundamental rights and reality ..will depend not on constitutional guarantees but on the goodwill, common sense and humanity of the Government in power and the people who elect it” as Lord Soulbury once put it. 


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