I would not have met Sujeewa, if not for the government scholarship exam for schoolchidren, which The President of the country is considering to scrap now. Before that Sujeewa was studying in a school at Welapura, Kaluthra. I sat for this exam at Deegalla Kanishta Vidyalaya, a little known school in Kurunegala district, few miles [...]


Professor Sujeewa Amarasena, fellow hosteller, classmate & friend


I would not have met Sujeewa, if not for the government scholarship exam for schoolchidren, which The President of the country is considering to scrap now. Before that Sujeewa was studying in a school at Welapura, Kaluthra. I sat for this exam at Deegalla Kanishta Vidyalaya, a little known school in Kurunegala district, few miles away from Kuliyapitiya town. It was a time when no student was coached to sit for this exam & extra classes before or after school is unheard of. We sat for it as plain as we are & got selected on merit. We were among the forty students who got selected to Royal College that year & about fifteen of them away from Colombo, who became hostellers.

We met for the very first time on a day in January 1974, weary eyed & anxious of what is in store, as we had to leave the comfort & protection of homes. From that point on, Sujeewa has covered a lot of ground to become where he is now, the Vice Chancellor of University of Ruhuna, the university where he studied as a medical student, a rare feat to achieve for any university student.

One of the early memories of him is as a focused & hardworking student, the qualities that are required to make the grade. He was also a regular chess playing partner of mine, a game I picked up at hostel & did well to be the hostel champion in one year. He was also very committed to goals he set for himself & worked tirelessly to achieve them.

One of the distinctions of the Royal College at the time was that it was a school where students of all denominations studied, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians etc. In the long run, this unique environment of cross cultural experience made most Royalists to shed racial & religious prejudices for at school they are all friends & continue to be so even after. At hostel we stayed in the same dormitory, played together, had the same meal, fought at times, but quickly learned that behind every façade of a so called “Kotiya” & “Hambaya” there could be a fine gentlemen & a friend in need. Perhaps there is a strong case for national schools to drop racial & religious labels conduct classes in all mediums like Royal & become just schools for children.

Hostel life itself had other experiences to offer when growing up. Usually at homes you are under a spell of inherited attitudes & values of parents & family handed down to children, which also comes with inherent biases, allegiances & loyalties. Such attitudes & values on aspects like cast, race, religion, politics, marriage & family life reflects how one understands about the society around him. Away from home, hostel life offered a space to rethink about them, to be open minded & form one’s own attitudes & values. We often argued & fought for what we believed & sometimes best of friends would not talk to each other for months. But it gave us an opportunity to look at them afresh, see them for what they are & form our own thinking. Such self-realization about the society also produces people of strong character with strong opinions & self-motivation, not easily swayed by selfish motives, and trimmings of life such as popularity, positions or monetary gains & other.

It didn’t mean that they embraced a materialistic culture either sans any beliefs or matters of heart. Question of purpose of life & what happens after this birth did not escape those young minds. As evidenced in the later life, this experience gave some of them an opportunity to achieve a deeper realization on aspects like religion, sans superficial attachments & biases attached to them, and become perhaps genuine Buddhists living true to their realization, not just identity Buddhists who wear it as a badge & don’t live up to it.

In a country where culture of ignoring wider perspective for personal gain is widely prevalent & independence & open mindedness is a rare commodity such men of strong character has a special significance. Judging by the stories that reach public on daily basis of appointment of unsuitable people to high offices, decisions taken based on allegiances & loyalties & not on common sense & logic, tolerance for swindling of public money, disregard of law & order, ignorance of unlawful acts such as destruction to environment & even crimes at times, it is obvious how much the country can benefit from such people at decision making level. Deterioration of socio cultural environment in the country at present is such that educated younger generations disgusted with this state of affairs, opt to migrate than live here, not a situation any country can be proud of. Appointment of Sujeewa as the Vice Chancellor is perhaps one of those rare instances in this backdrop. But it goes without saying that the country needs a network of such people at different levels, in politics, judiciary, police & administrative services to contribute effectively.

As an independent minded person Sujeewa is always open to new ideas & ready to take risks. He has displayed enough of such qualities in his public life. In 1980s when the Ealam War is raging with no end in sight bringing untold destruction & misery to all Sri Lankans, as a young doctor & the secretary of GMOA, he was a member of a voluntary delegation that went to areas under the control of LTTE to try a negotiated settlement with LTTE. This is while the government of the day is fighting them. Winning hearts & minds & making other person to accept your way of thinking is perhaps harder than winning a war. War itself may not produce any winners in the end, a fact plainly clear now.

He was also against using students as pawns of politics & strongly opposed forcing medical students under his care to strikes against their will. In one such instance student unions even targeted his home & the schools of his children to subdue him. That’s when he decided to transfer his children to Colombo schools from Galle, considering their safety. One can have opposing views & has a right to express them. But it is not correct to force them on others. More importantly, before trying to get heard one has to reach a position where he is heard. We have lost generations of young energetic university students as a result of not understanding this simple logic & the vacuum created is strongly felt.

Sujeewa was also the Founder Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, General Sir John Kotalawala Defence University instrumental in getting it started. He was ready to work with anybody to expand educational opportunities & common good of the country.

The finest display of his ability to think open mindedly beyond biases & allegiances was when he delivered the C.W.W.Kannangara Memorial Lecture in 2017 at National Institute of Education. He disputed many accepted views of medical fraternity about private medical education on which a conflicting situation had arisen in the country & showed that considering broader issues of health care & medical education, issue against the private medical college at the time was blown out of proportions & not in the proper spirit.

He informed the audience that the most deprived section of the society due to none expansion of medical education in Sri Lanka is patients, as some important preventive care programmes had to be abandoned due to non-availability of doctors. Compared to countries where high standards of health are achieved, our doctor to patient ratio is far below. For instance this ratio in Cuba is 7.5 per thousand patients while in Sri Lanka it is 0.7. In developed countries it is about 2.5.

One only has to look at the channelling centers in the country to understand this reality. Healthcare is almost drug dependent & drug companies driven & doctors prescribe not even looking at the patients properly, sometimes even past midnight. It is common knowledge among the medical professionals how drug mafia works in the state sector, starting from identifying requirements, sometimes when there is no requirement & creating shortages to make way for quick procurement bypassing proper procedures. We occasionally hear drugs being dumped in toilet pits & sold to pharmacies around hospitals. It is even said that prescription of drugs by some doctors is not on the basis their quality but other considerations. Some proof of this situation was evident recently when the government started to give stents for heart ailments & lenses for eye operations free of charge as the number of operations done went down significantly.

He further informed that a large number of deserving students in the country are deprived of entering medical faculties. For instance, in 2009 along total number of 164 students with 3As & 2As & 1B at Advanced level examination were prevented from entering government medical faculties. As a result a huge amount of foreign currency is spent on medical education in foreign countries. Further, in 2017 little over 1000 medical students were to be passed out as doctors from government medical faculties but it had been estimated that around 480 doctors were to leave the service due to retirement, higher education & other reasons. The pertinent question to ask in this context is why foreign currency spent on medical education also cannot be allowed to be invested in Sri Lanka to expand medical education? It does not mean private medical education has to be restricted only to rich as it happens now or government should not regulate entry criteria & standards.

Speaking about facilities needed for medical education he informed the audience that the Medical Faculty of Ruhuna did not have any completed buildings until the first batch of medical students passed out. The clinical education in hospitals can easily replace the education in lecture halls & labs in such a situation. He also informed that at times of necessity due the troubled situation in the country final year students, irrespective of whether they passed their exams or not, had been appointed to hospitals & no issue had been reported with regard to safety of patients.

In a context where fee levying education is the norm, struggle for free education in the form of non-fee levying education has a lot of significance & we all have a debt of gratitude to Dr.Kannangara. But in a context where basic education is free & parents with means spend additionally to admit their children to reputed schools, accommodation, transport, tuition etc, & finally for education in foreign universities, struggle for free education can be re-interpreted as a struggle to achieve freedom from archaic attitudes & system that prevent deserving children from obtaining a desired education at a reasonable cost.

Perhaps, the government scholarship exam is not all that wasted.       


Senior Lecturer, School of Architecture, SLIIT

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