Rajpal's Column

18th February 2001

The white man's burden – the sequel

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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A nice white man has been appointed to head the Bank of Ceylon. Of course what has his whiteness got to do with it one might ask? It's told, it is politically very incorrect to say " a Tamil man was caught smuggling 20 ingots of gold'' or "a Muslim man was caught cheating in Pettah.''

Therefore, it would be politically incorrect to say a white man was appointed CEO of a state Bank.

In fact it would be downright rude to say "white'' in this context at all.

It would be racist. Ugh! Bringing black and white to an appointment to a Bank, and a state Bank at that . It would be downright socially unacceptable, unrefined, quite lacking in socially - honed culturally acceptable good taste as a matter of fact.

But a white has been appointed, and now that social etiquette demands we have to shut up and not talk about it also, let's talk about this behind closed doors. Hush. It's between you and me pard'ner. We don't want to be no niggers in the woodpile?

Fifty three years after independence a white man is appointed as CEO of the state Bank that's closest to the people.

It is a Bank that doesn't have a heart maybe, but has roots all over the place, since it was established as a Bank servicing the needs of a newly emancipated class, post –1956, after Bandaranaike, authentic independence and such.

White CEOs call the tune in a dozen other places. Honk Kong Bank or the national carrier or wherever. The Raj is back, but gently does it, and he is smuggled into a Bank, a top national corporation here, a phone company there, a Bank – a front office someplace.

The explanation is that he (she ) knows the job.

In South Africa, whites were known to have been the only people who "knew the job'' too. Before Mandela and independence, the whites ruled, and all the newspapers including newspapers for blacks had white Editors for good measure.

The whites needed to have functional systems in place to carry out the task of being bosses in the segregated workaday habitat. Direct transaction with the black worker dross was not clever. It would have led to too much friction with the underclass.

Apartheid had the answer. A buffer was created. My journalist friend from South Africa knows all about the fact that the Indians were put in place to transact business between the white Chairpersons and the black coolies.

The considerable Indian community in South Africa were willing to do this, for reason of social mobility and preservation. It's no surprise. When a vote was taken on dismantling apartheid a majority of the Indians in South Africa voted against it.

Today, a buffer has been created by the re-visited Raj in corporate Lanka. They are the Periya Dorais to the hewers of wood and drawers of water in corporate Lanka, doing the bidding of the Raj who steps out in pinstripe regalia for the photo-op. ( Ask my mobile friend down the road.) The buffer is wracked in dissension; are willing to sell a colleague for a mess of pottage. The buffer is probably incompetent. But good lackeys are essential in this business.

Ask what expatriates earn here, and you will get the true post colonial picture. They are paid five times more, and as a VVVVIP said recently, they get the job at that price, because the "local should'', but "doesn't know the job." (!)

The British Council, which for instance demanded an apology from this writer for saying many local officers working there were "whiter than white'' ( this racist racist pig – ME ) employs expatriates, who teach English, at a price.

It's the queen's English to boot, never mind that yours truly can teach these tuition-masters a thing or two between classes. ( A lesson here: One British Council [ local ] chirpie with theatre and English Association connections there, was asked by me to certify, purely for formality, a piece of paper for a scholarship for a few weeks in Sweden.

The paper was about possession of a working knowledge in English. Chirpie, who wears her English on her sleeve, unlike the applicant who just uses it as a vehicle of communication, says "gee, if you flunk?" And this from Chirpie who I would bet my price-appreciated bottom dollar, wouldn't know functional English beyond the confines of a lecture room. A Professor and Departmental Head subsequently signs the form incidentally, without batting an eyelid . Advertisement – I didn't flunk in Sweden, where they speak Swedish anyway — and are unassuming enough to learn English from us Lankans sometimes.)

But there they are. The British Council expats teach the queens English, because they would have a hard time raising the kind of money they raise here back in Blair-land, to fund anything like their expat salaries. Small wonder that Shiva Naipaul, in whose memory an award is made each year, (for which the British Council dutifully calls for applications), had a roaring fight with British Council types when he was here. Read one of his books for the juicy details. ( No expat English teachers during Shivas visit of course, but anyway…..)

Back to the top. Fifty three years after independence, the white CEOs will not be liking this commentary. But, the mobile lady down my street would hopefully invite me for a cup of tea.

That's hardly the concern. The buffer boys will see to it that there will be more CEO-apartheid, but to those who really can be CEO, but have shut up and put up, those sons of the soil with a post 56 education, here is a poem to mull over before you walk up for that board-meeting

Take up the White Man's burden;

To you who thus succeed,

In civilizing savage hordes,

They owe a debt indeed;

Concessions, pensions salaries,

And privilege and right,

With outstretched hands you raise to bless

Grab everything in sight.

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