The Sunday TimesPlus

27th October 1996



Meeting challenges with equanimity

Minister of Shipping, Ports and Rehabilitation, Mohammed Hussein Mohamed Ashraff's head was bowed in thought as he began to talk of the influences in his life which brought him today to be a member of Sri Lanka's cabinet.

"I grew up freely in a village in Samanthurai where I was born and my childhood was spent in Kalmunai. I spent my early student years in a village school. It was here that I first had to give a public speech. I was about nine then and excited. The speech was written for me by the Headmaster of my school and I still honour him. His name is very long- Pulavarmani Al Haj A.M. Sheriffideen of Narathamunai. I am glad to say he is still alive, aged ninety and with sixteen children."

The youngster won a prize on parent- teachers day for his delivery and says his appetite for public speaking began from then.

The second phase of his life was spent in a town environment at Kalmunai Fathima College, which surprisingly, despite its name was run by Jesuit priests. There were many foreigners among the priests and it was modelled on some British schools .

"It was here I learnt the importance of discipline and character building. I recall still that if students were late even by two minutes, admission to the class was refused. We had first to go the Principal's office, give him the reason for being late and take a letter from him to the class teacher for admission to the class.We were also fined 25 cents. It was my first contact with discipline and the importance of being punctual which has stood me in good stead," he added.

It was in this school that he had his first exposure to a large number of non-Muslims. More than ninety percent of the school children were Hindu or Catholic.

"I learnt here to live in harmony with those from different communities It was here too, that I came in contact with the Cub Movement where we learnt the elements and guidelines of Scouting. My introduction to the Principles of Lord Baden Powell made me learn early in life that it was obligatory to help others and do a good act every day. I took it seriously and I used to rise from bed, wondering what good deed I could do for the day. We had to keep a diary to note down our good deeds. That is another salutary lesson that has stood with me- to help others if and when I could.

"My father encouraged me in my scouting activities, having been a scout himself. He told me how he met Lord Baden Powell when he visited Sri Lanka for the Silver Jubilee celebrations of the Scout Movement. In 1962 I attended the Golden Jubilee celebrations at the Vicar Park.

"We were later entertained by Sir Oliver Goonetilleke just a day before he gave up his post as Governor General. It was a thrilling experience and it influenced my thinking how one could rise to great heights. It was my first glimpse of splendour and power which stayed with me.

I was well and truly involved with the Scout movement and Baden Powell's saying, "leave the world in a better state than what you found it in", greatly influenced me. And the motto "Be Prepared" gave me the readiness to meet the many challenges in life with equanimity.

From Fathima school which was Catholic oriented, he left for Wesley High School. It was a Methodist influence that the young Ashraff found there. It was also his first exposure to studying in a mixed school.

"There were more girls than boys and we boys, were in much demand. I flirted with the girls, no, they flirted with me. I learnt to get on amicably with the opposite sex and understand their views and even their foibles," he smiles.

From Grade 8 onwards he was the monitor of his class and this gave him his first taste of responsibility. The young boy showed his sense of leadership and today he leads his Party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress.

"The major part of my personality build up, ethics and values was due to Wesley High School. The school most certainly gave me leadership opportunities. There was sport, scouting and I was in the debating team, the school Parliament and the First Aid group. I was also President of both the Tamil and English Literary Associations. I was also a senior Cadet and Leader of the First Aid Movement. All these activities helped me to cultivate leadership qualities and to guide my colleagues," he recalls.

"The school taught Hinduism but not Islam. After assembly under a beautiful tamarind tree the others got instructions in their respective religions. The Principal S. J. Wilson, the brother of A. J. Wilson overcame this by giving Ashraff the task of teaching religion to the fifty or so Muslim children. This made me study my religion. Even today I still read many religious books. When you told me about this article, the influence of people, books in my life I first thought of my religion which has guided me all my young and adult life."

"It was here that I learnt never to make any distinction because of race or religion. Though Muslim students were about ten percent of the students three Muslim boys were selected as senior prefects for three consecutive years. What counted was not their religion or race but their abilities."

The influence of his mother too was very strong. "My mother was everything. I believe that it was my mothers' prayers and blessings that have brought me to this position. I am a firm believer in the saying of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (Peace be unto Him) that the paradise of a child lies at the feet of the mother. Most of my affable attitudes are traceable to her. She never forced anything on me. She was really very diplomatic though she lacked education."

"She is eighty years old now, Insha Allah and I can never recall her uttering even a word that would hurt another person. She never spoke ill of a person even in his or her absence. These are attributes that I have tried to emulate. She is a gifted lady and in my opinion she has been endowed with great wisdom. I have learnt patience, goodwill towards people, a sense of humour and above all diplomacy and tact. But, I must confess I'm still learning these virtues."

"My fathers personality contrasted with hers. He was extremely kind himself and would sacrifice anything for the poor. But he had a hot temper which I have inherited. I do get very angry . My father was fond of me, after all I was his only son. I have three sisters. But he was firm with me too. My father played a great part in developing my personality. He allowed me to participate in many extra-curricular activities. He nagged me and even when I was doing my O'Levels he allowed me to write articles and poetry for the Tamil papers. Another father may not have tolerated this but he did, while gently reminding me of the exam ahead. He allowed my personality to flower and develop".

Mr. Ashraff, one of our most controversial Ministers today, learnt his childhood lessons well . His public relations is excellent and he is always polite and gentle in his manners.

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