ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 47
Columns - Thoughts from London

When bureaucratic silence is often golden

By Neville de Silva

In a conversation with my fellow columnist Thalif Deen, foreign secretary Palitha Kohona has made several observations on the foreign service some of which were not in the least flattering. Some have in communications to me already ridiculed several of these comments that were carried in this newspaper last Sunday.

They have dismissed them as the ravings of a man trying to make an impression in a country that he left many years ago and is trying to belittle our diplomatic service because he has served for some years in the Australian foreign service, which itself leaves something to be desired in my own experience of it.

I don’t share these views and I think there are bigger issues to consider here than what motivated Palitha Kohona to say what he did.
Before doing so, there is a more fundamental issue which I believe raises some concerns. I cannot remember a time when any foreign secretary made the kind of strictures Kohona has levelled at the very service he should normally protect as head of the department.
In fact I cannot remember an occasion when a foreign secretary volunteered to speak to the media unless it was on a matter of foreign policy concern and it was necessary to do so. Even then they were circumspect.

It seems Kohona’s public articulation of matters that are best dealt with internally or at the political level, is breaking with a long observed tradition that officials keep out of the spotlight especially on issues that are controversial or are still to be decided. In fact the current conduct of officials speaking publicly on matters that seem the remit of the political leadership is becoming more widespread and the sooner this is stopped the better it would be, especially for those who serve in what is considered the silent service.

This disconcerting habit is perhaps attributable to the increasing politicisation of the public service where political appointees tend to speak publicly on matters that should be kept out of the public domain either to please their political masters or in emulation.
I have no personal interest in Sri Lanka’s foreign service as such, except like everyone else I suppose one would like to see it perform well and perform creditably. But for over 40 years I have associated with members of that service in various capitals and observed how they have functioned in Colombo and elsewhere.

Over the same period I have had close associations with diplomats of many other countries, especially as diplomatic editor of a newspaper I worked for in Hong Kong. Hong Kong had a far bigger diplomatic community-over 80 countries- and some of the biggest missions outside their own capitals and have had occasion to see them functioning at close quarters. So it is from a background of some experience- a few years more than Palitha Kohona judging by Thalif Deen’s tabulation of our foreign secretary’s previous experience- and other observations that I make these comments.

He has raised an important issue- the quality of our diplomats- and the direction our foreign service should move in, particularly at this juncture when Sri Lanka is under the spotlight by the so-called international community and civil society organisations. That, of course, is not all. There is also the arduous and complicated task of trying to counter anti-Sri Lankan propaganda which is often based on distorted and spurious information and deliberate spin.

Personally I think that effort is being botched by inexperienced persons in positions of importance but I would deal with that on another occasion. Right now what matters is to examine Kohona’s criticisms and see how valid they are and whether they are over simplified.
The foreign secretary says there is plenty of deadwood in the service. If he could find a service-any service for that matter-in which there is no deadwood it would indeed be a discovery worthy of the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls. So that is no great discovery after three months. All he has to do is visit some government departments incognito and try to transact business. He would find deadwood that would not burn even if it was doused with petrol.

His real criticism is that some of our diplomats, including heads of missions, have not displayed the foreign language skills he would have liked to see. While the knowledge of any foreign language is admittedly an advantage, to base one’s assessment of a diplomat’s capability on whether he/she knows the language of the capital in which they serve is to miss the wood for the trees.

“Ideally, he says, our diplomats based in Beijing should be fluent in Chinese, those in Britain should be fluent in English and those posted to Japan should speak Japanese.” Superficially this seems fine. But what Kohona does not say or does not want to say, is that our man in Beijing is not going to be there forever. Nor is our man in Japan.

Surely Kohona knows that after their term of duty is over they would be moved back home or elsewhere and the likelihood of their returning to the same posting is remote, unless it is a junior officer who goes on promotion later. But heads of missions, rarely if ever, return. The only I could think of in recent times who returned to an earlier posting is Mangala Moonesinghe. Long before that was Bernard Tillekeratne who had, I think, three postings in New Delhi.

Of all the heads of foreign missions in Hong Kong the only one I know who spoke Chinese- Cantonese or Mandarin was Jocelyn Chey, the Australian consul-general. But she was an academic who had joined the service later. Those were critical years before Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty when London and Beijing were involved in a great political tussle and Hong Kong was a key post for China watchers.

Now, if Kohona’s argument about language is to be taken seriously then our diplomats will be spending time in language schools each time they are sent to a new posting. Does Sri Lanka have large enough missions to have officers spending their time on language study when new tasks like promoting trade and tourism are being emphasised as key duties?

One could do that if our service was substantial enough and we had the money to allocate for additional staff. If language training is needed, then it should be done in Colombo when officers are at the ministry. Colombo has the facilities to learn the languages used in the UN and other languages such as Hindi.

Kohona says that having a head of mission in Paris who does not speak French is a waste of tax payers’ money. Perhaps Kohona is not aware that two of our diplomats in Paris- one is the No 2 there- speak very good French. One taught French at the Alliance Francaise and the other studied in France, if I remember correctly at the Sorbonne. If the mission has two good French speakers surely that should suffice.

If the concern is about tax payers’ money then the more sensible thing to do would be to reduce the ministerial posts which have been increased for entirely political purposes not because of individual capability or competence. And that is a far greater burden on our coffers than a handful of diplomats. Again if it is considered that not knowing the language of the capital one is posted to makes that diplomat of little or no use, then one should extend that argument to political appointees as well.

I’ve taken a sort of head count of some of the political appointees scattered around our diplomatic missions. Does our ambassador in Brazil know Portuguese, our ambassador and his information counsellor in Havana know Spanish, our man in Seoul speak Korean, our ambassador in Pakistan understand Urdu, our ambassador in Jakarta speak and understand Bhasa Indonesia and our man in Nairobi speak Swahili?. Could our man in Myanmar communicate in Burmese, our man in Teheran in Farsi and our political appointees in Amman and other Arab countries do so in Arabic?

If Kohona’s argument is to be extended logically then there is plenty of deadwood lying around outside the career service and among those who have been appointed for political reasons. Are they not a bigger burden on the tax payer because the diplomatic capabilities of some of them are surely suspect.

Just one last thought. How many of the heads of foreign missions in Colombo speak or understand Sinhala or Tamil? Are we to conclude that they are not performing their duties because of that? In more than 25 years of journalism in Colombo I knew of only a handful of diplomats who spoke Sinhala. There were two Japanese diplomats, a couple of Russians and a Chinese second secretary who later became China’s ambassador in Colombo. Few others did and I did not know of any Australian diplomat who spoke our languages.

So did this lessen their efficiency and importance to the mission? It is more important that our diplomats are taught fluent English which surely has replaced French as the lingua franca of diplomacy. Certainly there are good reasons for revamping and reshaping the foreign service to meet new imperatives. But learning a plethora of languages is hardly the priority.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.