A pioneer who laid the path for many to tread on
This is a day and age when technology and the machine have such a say over the course the world takes that it is easy to forget the power of the human spirit: the difference a single human being can make upon his or her environment. We’ve seen and unfortunately are still witness to, negative examples. How wars can start because of the decisions of individuals, for example. But there have been others. They have lifted the level of human beings as a whole a little – a notch maybe, just the environment they have lived in, maybe, but somewhere, we’ve become better as a species because of them. Mohammed Younus, Gandhi, Bill Gates. . . these are human beings because of whom the world changed. There may be others who we don’t know of, of whom the world at large may never sing – but they have lived nevertheless and wrought a difference.
In Sri Lanka there lived such a man and he died a few days ago. The suddenness of his death took our breath away – even though the ailment of his heart was known, the willpower which carried him through to work till the very end, making people forget that an end like this was possible.
|Professor V.K. Samaranayake
He was deeply loved by those who knew him. Admiration and respect was there, of course, but above all, I feel, there was love - of his family, of his colleagues, of his students, of his friends, of people like my husband and I whose lives he touched briefly but for which we are so much the richer. And with the nation whom he served and changed because of his service, we mourn Professor V.K. Samaranayake.
Known as the Father of Information Technology in Sri Lanka, Vidya Jyothi V.K. Samaranayake was Emeritus Professor of Computer Science. At his death, he was the Chairman of ICTA, the Information and Communications Technology Council of Sri Lanka. He was also the founder of the University of Colombo School of Computing. The towering building which houses the School seems symbolic of his spirit for it was he who was instrumental in its creation, both physically and conceptually, for staffing it with the most excellent academics and researchers in the field, for making it the key for people to learn about Information and Communication Technologies in Sri Lanka through its undergraduate, postgraduate and external degrees.
He was first Professor of Mathematics, at 35 years, one of the youngest to be ranked such, and then went on to be Senior Professor in Computer Science. He had held the position of Chairman at CINTEC, the Computer and Information Technology Council of Sri Lanka for many years. He was the founder director of the Institute of Computer Technology (ICT) in 1987, established with JICA funding and his work earned him such respect that the funding continued to come so that an impressive building could be put up to house his institute.
It was this that later became the University of Colombo School of Computing, the first School to come up in the Sri Lankan University system. In an effort to get others to share the excellent facilities that are available at UCSC, Professor Samaranayake began a training programme that enabled participants from Asian, Pacific and later African countries to study here, and thereby creating a network where they took away the skills to teach and benefit the people in their own countries.
Reaching out to people who had no previous access to IT was always a concern in the Professor’s work. He was not one who ignored the underprivileged as not being worth his attention, a characteristic that, if more widespread among the decision-makers of this country, will surely lessen the divide between the haves and the have-nots in Sri Lanka. Just as there are photographs of V.K. Samaranayake with Bill Gates in his album, there are photographs of him in a mobile computer laboratory at Dambane in 1990, demonstrating its use to the Veddah Chief Tissahamy. With Sarvodaya, he helped in the creation of Sarvodaya Telecenters, which took computer technology to the rural area, to people who could not afford to pay for it otherwise. It was Professor Samaranayake who took the initiative of using available resources like the radio, to propagate the use of the internet to the rural sector, demonstrating his proactive nature of working with limited resources to achieve almost impossible dreams.
A list of Professor Samaranayake’s students make impressive reading. There are doctorates from the leading universities in the world, they themselves have become professors and lecturers who are taking the work started by their teacher further ahead. Professor Samanayake is known to have been personally interested in the careers of his students – many a hundred times has he acted as referee and been instrumental in gaining scholarships for the deserving. “He had an incredible knack of spotting talent and developing it,” says a former colleague and his felicitation volume is dotted with grateful acknowledgements of students who remember this man whose guidance has made a difference in their lives. In fact, it was difficult in the early years for any student of information technology, not to have been influenced by Professor Samaranayake. Dr. George Sadowsky, an expert in the use of the internet, says, that in 1994, when he met a delegation from Sri Lanka in Prague, at a training workshop in internet technology, and asked them if they knew of “Dr. Sam”, “it was somewhat like asking a group of Catholics whether they knew of the Pope.”!
Despite his career in teaching, in building institutions, in spearheading movements to take information technology to the village, the Professor still kept abreast with his research.
He was named Fellow of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, USA in 2001; Research Fellow at the National Center for Digital Government at Harvard University USA in 2003 and Visiting Fellow in the Digital Vision Program at Stanford University, USA in 2005. His meeting Bill Gates and his request to Microsoft that Sinhala be included in their OS led to the language being implemented on MS Vista released in 2007. Then there were other contributions that he had made which were lesser known like his contribution to the reform of the law relating to Information Technology.
People who worked with the professor attest to his unwillingness to say “No” and his unwillingness to admit to the impossibility of anything. The use of computers in elections is something he introduced to Sri Lanka and the telecasting of results as they were counted was something that was hardly done at that time anywhere else in the world. And he envisioned it at a time when even the raw materials needed were not available – not just in Sri Lanka but anywhere else in the world. He had worked with successive governments closely in all IT related matters, his vision and excellence being appreciated by all heads of governments and for once, being put to use without political undercurrents.
His academic service too was not confined to the University of Colombo alone. He served as Dean, Faculty of Science and then President of the Vidyodaya Campus (now Sri Jayewardenepura University) for a few years in the 70’s, when its need called him there. He has been appointed visiting Professor at various international universities, and his chairing of international conferences is a matter of prestige to the country.
And over and above all this, he remained a man with a deep sense of humility whose respect for the individual human spirit, his willingness to lend his towering strength to others so that they in turn could be strong, was something that made him so very unique, so very precious to all those who knew him. He leaves his wife and two sons who are now following in their father’s footsteps in the world of IT, and he leaves also a larger family, of people scattered across the globe who mourn his loss. It is part of his legacy, however, that he has created scholars who are able to come forward and continue the work he has begun, in its manifold aspects, though there may not be one who could combine everything in him or herself like he could. But the path has been laid for them by this pioneer and to walk it, is the greatest honour that they would be able to do this man.
As an epitaph, perhaps to quote Dr. Ruvan Weerasinghe who succeeded him on his retirement as Director, University of Colombo School of Computing, in an article in the Felicitation Volume for Professor Samaranayake, brought out just four days before his death, is best: “Professor Samaranayake had a kind of righteous anger. He just could not stand people who obstructed the path to progress, whether it is in the University or in industry or in the country as a whole. . . . He fundamentally had a belief in Sri Lanka and thought that we could build this place up, we could build the nation, we do not need to rely entirely on donors and other countries. We have the potential to actually bring out the best in Sri Lanka itself.”
Condolence messages from legal sector
A godfather and a
I personally as the President of the BASL and my colleagues were deeply saddened when we heard the news that Prof. Samaranayake had died.
Prof. Sam almost single handedly introduced and nurtured Information Technology in Sri Lanka. There are hundreds of young people, including several lawyers, who are indebted to the Professor. He was not only their mentor but their godfather and guardian angel. If anyone sought his help he became his friend and it was as a friend that he helped him.
The BASL is indebted to him for pioneering the IT Legal reforms process in Sri Lanka and giving guidance to ICTA's Legal Advisor and others to complete the process, which is manifested in the Electronic Transactions Act and the recently enacted Computer Crimes Bill.
I am aware of the magnificent service he rendered to the judicial processes in the country, by providing expert advice, at no cost to the state. His guidance is what made the first ever National IT Law Conference a great success.
The BASL extends its deepest sympathies to his family. The vacuum his death has created is difficult to fill. May he attain "nibbana".
Nihal Jayamanne, PC
President, Bar Association of Sri Lanka
End of an era
The news about the sudden demise of Prof. V. K. Samaranayake has left us in a deep state of sorrow for with his passing away, we see an end of an era, where a single individual with such determination and commitment has done so much in such little time and such little support to bring in changes of the ever changing information technological world into our shores, so that the Information Technological development can be used for the benefit of the masses in general and the new generation in particular.
He was known to me both professionally as well as personally. A sharp intellectual he was, with a brilliant mind that operated in a swift practical manner, bringing in positive results to a changing society.
Many times he helped us develop the conceptual basis on Court automation, drafting new laws that deal with Information technological matters etc. and his naturally amiable personality has endeared him to us deeply. At the time of drafting the Computer Crimes Act, Prof. Samaranayake rendered invaluable assistance by helping us to understand the concepts properly.
At a time we need his services the most, we have lost a great member of our society and a true son of this land.
The Ministry of Justice takes this opportunity to express our heartfelt sympathies to his family and wish "Abou ben Adhem" – 'may his tribe increase'.
Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms
He loved all mankind
It was the 1970's. I was a student in the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo. Although we did not have much direct contact with other faculties there were some individuals who attracted our attention.
One such person was, with somewhat gray hair, regularly walking past the faculty of law, always carrying some books, sometimes giving us a deep look, occasionally with a strong but pleasant smile. Enquiries revealed that he was one Prof. Samaranayake, Lecturer in the Science Faculty.
My first personal contact with Prof. Samaranayake was also in the 1970's, during my short teaching stint in the Faculty of Law. I met him once in the Department of Sinhala Language. Both of us had come there to get the Sinhala translation of question papers, corrected by the Department of Sinhala Language. Though he looked tough he was accommodating, friendly and a lovely gentleman.
Thereafter, I saw him in various places and on TV without much contact.
My second personal contact with Prof. Samaranayake took place in the early 1990's. I was invited to serve in the CINTEC Committee on Law and Computers, chaired by Prof. Samaranayake himself.
As chairman of this committee I remember he was not second to any of the top rung lawyers serving in the Committee. His thinking and vision was far reaching and pragmatic and always result oriented. It was a different and novel experience to work with him, within and outside CINTEC.
He was a teacher, he was a friend, he was a person whom I could approach for advice not only in matters relating to IT, but also in other subjects relating to my career.
He loved us, he loved all Sri Lankans and he loved human beings. He expressed his love through hard work and constructive thinking. His demise is an irreparable loss to the nation. May he attain Nibbana.
Dr. D. M. Karunaratne
Director General of Intellectual Property
An inspirational force
The passing of Prof. Samaranayake is an irreparable loss to the country. He can be truly acclaimed as the "Father of IT" in Sri Lanka.
It was some 20 odd years ago that I had occasion to work with him as a member of the CINTEC Committee on Law and Computers, under his Chairmanship, addressing the need for a legal regime for IT related issues.
He was enthusiastic, inspiring and hardworking in all that he undertook and was a driving force. He will be truly missed.
K. Kanag-Isvaran, PC
Commissioner – Law Commission of Sri Lanka
Former Chairman – Company Law Reform Commission
A non-legal who contributed
to legal reforms
Any discussion on the evolution of the ICT legal reforms process in Sri Lanka would not be complete without a reference to the invaluable contribution made by Professor Samaranayake. Perhaps this is one of his many contributions to ICT development, which is not well known, except within the legal and judicial establishment.
He persuaded CINTEC, to establish the Committee on Law and Computers in 1986. The legal establishment requested Professor Samaranayake to give leadership and direction to the newly formed Committee. Thus, he became perhaps the first ever Non-legal professional to chair a Committee tasked with a Legal Reforms process. This Committee eventually became responsible for the evolution of the entire IT Legal reforms process in Sri Lanka, which continues to date through ICTA.
We are immensely grateful to him for his partnership and giving guidance to the legal community in the long ICT law reforms journey.
His analysis of legal issues was absolutely brilliant. Whilst we are trying to come to grips with his sudden demise, we are consoled by the fact that the realisation of his efforts happened during his life-time, with the recent enactment of several IT laws.
I condole with his wife and sons, Samitha and Nayana.
Director / Legal Advisor, ICTA