Uncle Sam a guiding hand to 24-year-old Parliamentarian

‘Sam Wijesinha- His Parliament, His World’, a book paying tribute to the landmark contribution to the country by the former Secretary General of Parliament was launched at the BMICH on Monday before a distinguished gathering. We publish here extracts from the book, drawn from chapters by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe reflecting on their own personal relationships with the man who is a legend in the Parliamentary life of this country.
‘Lasting Links from the Giruwa Pattuwa’- Mahinda Rajapaksa

To write about a colourful personality is no easy task. It becomes all the more difficult when one has to write about Sam Wijesinha, the retired Secretary General of Parliament, formerly Clerk of the House of Representatives, one time Crown Counsel, and above all an accomplished personality who could move so easily with Kings and beggars alike. I am not wrong if I say that Sam Wijesinha was the ultimate authority on matters pertaining to Parliament and many matters of governance.

My father’s elder brother, D.M. Rajapaksa entered the State Council of Ceylon in 1936, to represent Hambantota. My loku thaththa became friendly with Uncle Sam (that is how we referred to him) because not many people from rural areas, particularly the deep south, had positions in the public service in Colombo. Uncle Sam hailed from Getamana, a village close to Medamulana, and our families were related and known to each other. That was another reason for the friendship between the families to flourish. DM, who had earned the love and respect of the peasants and the poor, and was known as Ruhune Sinhaya (the Lion of Ruhuna), died suddenly of a heart attack, and it was Uncle Sam who encouraged the young George Rajapaksa to go to Law College.

The man of the moment: Sam Wijesinha listens to a speaker during the launch of his book. Besides him is Chief Guest Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne . Pic by Indika Handuwala

My father, who up to the time of his brother DM’s death was a keen cultivator and looked after the lands belonging to the Rajapaksas, was suddenly thrust into the world of politics. This was not of his own will but through the sheer pressure of the people and the followers of DM. People of Hambantota, the Giruwa Pattuwa, could not think of a better choice than D.A. Rajapaksa, my father, to succeed his brother.

So my father returned unopposed at the by-election, and entered the State Council. My father too was friendly with Uncle Sam and discussed many matters with him, both political and personal. He had spent much time in the village after completing his education at Richmond College, Galle, and would have really then valued the friendship with Uncle Sam when he had to move to Colombo as a State Councillor.

Sam Wijesinha later joined the Attorney General’s Department as a young Crown Counsel and the friendship continued through the nineteen forties into the fifties and even beyond. It developed further when the latter moved to the Parliament of independent Ceylon, as Deputy Clerk to the House in 1963. My father would have been delighted to see his friend and kinsman in a position of influence and authority.

Uncle Sam also much appreciated my father’s commitment to our people. I remember him telling me that my father in his maiden speech in the State Council of Ceylon had talked with deep feeling about the need for roads and electricity in rural areas. My father was passionate about improving rural infrastructure and this led him to stress this in his maiden speech itself.

Sam Wijesinha rose to be the Clerk of the House in 1964. The post was a very powerful as well as an influential one at the time. This is where Uncle Sam came into contact with the strongest personalities on both sides of the political divide. My recollection is that, whenever we went to the Parliament to visit my father who was then the Deputy Speaker, we would invariably go to see Uncle Sam. Many a time my father and Uncle Sam were together discussing some issue, either political or personal.
My father died in 1967 leaving my mother to look after the nine of us. Destiny demanded that I take my father’s place in the world of politics at the age of 22.

I faced the General Elections in 1970 from the Beliatta seat, and returned to Parliament as the youngest Member at the time. I was 24 years old, so I was delighted to see Uncle Sam as the Clerk to the House, and I too developed a long standing friendship with him. Time and again Sam Wijesinha, who strode tall in the corridors of Parliament, would offer me very sound advice, often narrating stories about my father and my loku thaththa who had carved out names for themselves. Whenever I had a problem and being a young Parliamentarian, I had many), Uncle Sam was always there to help. I guess he would have thought it his duty to look after his friend’s son, and also because I hailed from the Giruwa Pattuwa, his village being in close proximity to ours.

My impressions of Sam Wijesinha are still vivid. I admire him for his erudition, his forthrightness, his ability to proffer a solution to any problem, be it official or personal, the ease with which he moved with the most powerful in the political and official arenas, and above all, his empathy that enabled him to comprehend any issue. The fact that Uncle Sam was a close friend of my father and therefore our entire family was undoubtedly a consolation to me as a young Parliamentarian. We young MPs learned many things from him. Parliamentary procedures, framing questions, adjournment questions, were areas where Sam Wijesinha’s expertise in matters relating to Parliament and Governance came to the fore. He was simply a master when it came to Parliamentary procedures and the like.

The election of 1977 was devastating to the SLFP and I was among the losers. Although not in Parliament, I did not lose contact with Uncle Sam. Unfortunately I was not an MP at the time that Parliament bade farewell to Sam Wijesinha, an illustrious son of the South and a unique individual who held office in Parliament for 17 long years, as Clerk to the House and later as the First Secretary General of both the National State Assembly and then the Parliament under the 1972 and 1978 constitutions. Sam did not lose contact with Parliament, nor did he go into oblivion after his long stint in the House.

He was made the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman) and reported to the Petitions Committee of the House. As the first Ombudsman, he was forceful and had a strong impact, making wrong doers in the bureaucracy shudder. Every public officer summoned before him, had to be thoroughly prepared, for Uncle Sam would spare no one when he detected injustice.

He retired from that position in 1991, and then served on the Human Rights Task Force of the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute which, though not fully responsible to Government, was the main semi-official Human Rights body at the time, before the creation of the National Human Rights Commission. Although out of active administrative work, Uncle Sam was always available for consultation on many a national issue and one was certain that one would receive the best advice from him.

Tea at Parliament and Sunday lunches: Sam Mama’s lasting influence

Sam Mama’s Parliament- Ranil Wickremesinghe

In 1963, when I was fourteen years of age, I was first taken to tour the House of Representatives. Sam Mama had been appointed the Clerk Assistant to the House of Parliament. At that time the Parliament of Ceylon consisted of two chambers: the House was the elected chamber with 151 MPs while the upper chamber, the Senate, was constituted of 30 members. The wealth of debating talent of the 5th Parliament was evident that day as we sat in the gallery and watched the proceedings.

C.P. de Silva led the Government in the House. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister, was a Senator. T.B. Illangaratne, one of the best Sinhala speakers, and Felix Dias Bandaranaike were present. Dudley Senanayake was the Leader of the Opposition and his Deputy was J.R. Jayewardene. The Federal Party’s S.J.V. Chelvanayakam and Dr. E.M.V. Naganathan were also present. The Left had a formidable array - Philip Gunawardena, N.M. Perera, Colvin R. De Silva, Peter Keuneman and Philip’s brother Robert. There were also two independents, W. Dahanayake and R.G. Senanayake.

It was a great pleasure to watch these members debate. Their polished oratory, their precise statements, their adherence to parliamentary decorum and their sharp wit made it an educational, intellectual and entertaining exercise. It was a far cry from today where undisciplined uproar passes off as debate. Therefore, it was not surprising that this visit kindled in me a lifelong interest in Parliamentary proceedings. Yet the debate in the Chamber was not the only event for the day. Sam Mama invited us to tea at the Parliament restaurant which was famous for its sumptuous teatime spread. This concluded my first experience in Parliament.

Sam Wijesinha was married to Mukta, my father’s only sister. Sanjiva, their eldest son who was born one month after me, Anila, his daughter, and his youngest son, Rajiva (now an MP) were all there at that legendary house, Lakmahal, where the family would meet up for lunch every Sunday. Sunday lunch was a key event every week. My grandmother and my father presided at either end of the long table which was loaded with an extensive array of dishes. On occasion, Sam Mama would take us in his Jowett Javelin to Galle Face Green or to Fountain Café where we were bought candy floss.

Once I asked Sam Mama whether he had any regrets about leaving the Attorney General’s Department to join Parliament, and he told me he had none. From the time Sam Mama moved to Parliament, the Sunday lunch discussions became more interesting. Both my father, who was the Managing Director of Lake House at the time, and Sam Mama were insiders in politics. Most of the time, some of the other lunch guests present were civil servants or those on the fringe of politics. It was an interesting period. Mrs Bandaranaike’s government was becoming unstable; she was under attack in Parliament by the Opposition. The UNP led the agitation on the rising cost of living and corruption.

The Left Parties had got together and presented 21 Demands, which were backed by the Trade Unions. The Federal Party was still carrying on its agitation in Jaffna. Even students like us were insightful enough to realize that the Government had little chance of surviving 1964. Yet events took an unexpected turn when Sirimavo Bandaranaike succeeded in breaking the Left alliance and forming a coalition with the Lanka Samasamaja Party and the Communist Party. The new Government announced its intention to muzzle the press by establishing a Press Council and all of a sudden there was a heightened sense of urgency in politics.

Without much ado the Press Council Bill was introduced to the Senate and approved without delay. But trouble began to brew in the House when the Bill was read for the first time and the Speaker asked the traditional question, ‘When?’ This was a reference to when the Bill was to be taken up. It so happened that the minister in charge of the Bill had forgotten to table the notice that scheduled the second reading of the Bill in writing, as required by Parliamentary Standing Orders. On the other hand Lakshman Rajapaksa, the uncle of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was in the Opposition, had already given written notice for the Bill to be taken up on the 2nd of February 1965. This meant that the Bill could not be taken up immediately (on the 13th of October) as planned by the Government. As a result of this intervention, the Press Council Bill became a non-starter; not even the Ministers realized what had happened. This was actually a shrewd opposition strategy that had been worked out by Dudley Senanayake, J.R. Jayewardene and my father - Esmond Wickremesinghe - who had also got the assistance of an old friend, Philip Gunawardena, the leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna.

The Government was wondering how to undo the damage caused by the Bill that had now fallen by the wayside. It was in the midst of all this that Sam Mama succeeded Ralph Deraniyagala as the Clerk to the House. His brother-in-law, Esmond, and his nephew Lakshman Rajapaksa were part of the Opposition team that was attempting to defeat the Government that had agreed to his appointment as Clerk to the House. It was certainly a baptism of fire for the new Clerk who had to advise the Speaker and the Government on the next steps to be taken.

The Sunday lunch discussions on politics became even more exciting. I had a ringside seat. While my father spoke of politics, Sam Mama used to talk of Parliamentary proceedings and the options open to the Government at each stage. Ultimately, the only way out for the Government was to prorogue Parliament. Of course, when Parliament was re-summoned the Government had to present the throne speech and put it to the vote. The Government lost by one vote. All this happened in the first six weeks of Sam Mama’s new job. He was picking up fast. In the meantime, I was learning about politics and Parliament from these lunch table discussions.

Looking back, the Sunday lunches that November were dominated by intense discussions on the fast-unfolding political scene. Yet my father never told any of us what he, Dudley Senanayake and J.R. Jayewardene were plotting. Sam Mama, on the other hand, handled a delicate situation with great tact. He had relations on both sides of the House; some of those in government, like Neil de Alwis and Felix Dias Bandaranaike, were relations by marriage to the Wickremesinghe family. Outside the House was his brother-in-law, my father, working on consolidating the Opposition.

But this was not the only time he was caught in the middle of contending relations: closer to his family were D.A. Rajapaksa - Mahinda's father - and D.P. Atapattu - Ranjith Atapattu's father - both contending for Beliatta. I used to meet them from time to time in his room, but never together.

The General Elections of 1965 brought in a UNP coalition headed by Dudley Senanayake. The newly elected members of this Parliament were Sirimavo Bandaranaike, R. Premadasa and D.B. Wijetunga. This was the beginning of a close association between Sam Mama and R. Premadasa who often consulted him on Parliamentary procedure. Much later, when I was Leader of the House, President Premadasa would still ask me to ‘speak to Sam’ about the various Standing Orders of Parliament.

In the meantime I had passed my ‘O’ Levels and, naturally, Government was one of the four subjects that I chose for the ‘A’ Levels. From time to time, Sam Mama would explain to me how the Cabinet Government System, the House of Lords in the UK and the US System of Government evolved in their own contexts. Sam Mama did not forget to invite me to visit Parliament and have tea with him on a few occasions; by then it was in the spacious and august room of the Clerk. It was exhilarating to sit at the dining table in his room and partake of cakes and sandwiches (as well as Sam Mama’s own addition of Welithalapa to the menu) while various familiar members came in to speak to him. Sam Mama would excuse himself from the table, go back to his desk to discuss the matters at hand and then return to the table. Sometimes he would invite the members to have tea with us...

The panoramic canvas of US, British, Sri Lankan legal and political histories painted by Sam Mama was often very useful to my understanding of specialized subjects as I progressed with my Law studies. Sam Mama liked history; even more, he liked relating historical anecdotes. He therefore broadened and deepened my understanding of the subjects that I studied in school under Ceylon history and at university under Legal Systems...

The General Election of May 1970 swept away the UNP lock, stock and barrel. With over 2/3 of the seats, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s United Front Government announced its intention of summoning a Constituent Assembly to draft a Republican Constitution. All the Members of Parliament were summoned to the Navarangahala to form the Constituent Assembly. The Speaker, Stanley Tilakaratne, became the President of the Assembly while Sam Mama was appointed its Secretary, though not immediately - as some members of the Government had expressed doubts about his allegiance given his family relationships. However, Sam Mama’s allegiance was always to Parliament.

I learnt a lot about the Constituent Assembly because of Sam Mama’s intimate association with it. In fact he gave me a copy of a set of proposals bound together into two or three volumes that had been received by the Assembly. Incredibly, some of the proposals even wanted to restore the monarchy.
During this time, Sam Mama gave me many opportunities to visit the House where I witnessed a decimated Opposition, with J.R. Jayewardene and R Premadasa battling with the vast number of MPs on the Government benches. The lessons I learnt then helped me many times in my Parliamentary career.
On 22nd May 1972, Sri Lanka became a Republic and the old House of Representatives became the National State Assembly with Sam Mama as the Clerk to the Assembly. He was present when I took my oaths as an Advocate of the Supreme Court before H.N.G. Fernando, the Chief Justice. Thanks to Sam Mama’s exhaustive knowledge of genealogy, I realized that I had become the sixth generation of lawyers in my father’s family.

I used to be present in Parliament whenever there was an important debate. During this time, I learnt the difference between an Order Paper and an Order Book, the function of Supplementary Questions and Oral Questions, the Committee stage of the Budget and who Erskine May was. Erskine May’s book on Parliamentary procedure (which is regularly updated by a Board of Advisors long after his death) is even today the bible of Parliamentary proceedings. A copy of Erskine May, together with the Constitution, the Standing Orders and the Parliamentary Powers and Privileges Act, was always kept on one side of Sam Mama’s table.

I was with him in the room on some of the occasions when he referred to these texts. The General Elections of 1977 brought another lopsided Parliament. The United National Party had 140 members. I was returned as the Member of Parliament for Biyagama and a day later took oaths as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. The oath to members of Parliament was administered by Sam Mama as Clerk to the National State Assembly. While in Parliament, I continued to seek Sam Mama’s assistance regularly. I was not the only one; Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranjith Atapattu, Nissanka Wijeratne, Harindra Corea were but a few who were in and out of his room.

Aside from Sam Mama’s historical references, I also enjoyed listening to his anecdotes about parliamentary proceedings in the Sri Lanka legislature and the British House of Commons. His textual and firsthand knowledge gave a clear idea of how Parliament really worked. There were also times when Sam Mama has called me to his room and advised me - generally on procedure, but a few times on my conduct.

In February 1978 the second amendment to the Constitution came into effect, thereby establishing the Executive Presidency. The second Republican Constitution came into effect on 7th September 1978 and I became a Cabinet Minister. We had to take our oaths as Members of the new Parliament; again, Sam Mama was there when we took our oaths. While Sam Mama was closely involved with these Constitutional changes, he did have apprehensions about certain aspects of this foremost legal text in the country. Nonetheless, it was under this Constitution that Parliament enacted a number of new laws in the country to facilitate fundamental economic changes and kick-start development with several large scale projects. By the end of 1981, the Parliament had completed its work and set Sri Lanka on a new course. On the 31st of July that year, Sam Mama retired from Parliament. Though he had been involved in the construction of the new Parliament building, which was nearing completion, he did not move into the new House. There are two memorable moments which remain with me from our days in the old Parliament House. One was the day J.R. Jayewardene as Prime Minister took leave from the House to become President. The other was the day we said farewell to Sam Mama.

This 18 year tenure in Sam Mama’s life in the House was also a significant period in my life: I became interested in Parliament, ascertained Parliamentary procedures and entered Parliament. But it was much more than that. Those 18 years constituted a momentous period in our history; a period of vast structural and systematic changes, political turbulence and democratic tensions, political alliances and private debates. Owing a single decade, Sam Mama was involved in drafting two Republican Constitutions for Sri Lanka, a Thomian working alongside two Royalist classmates Dr Colvin R. de Silva and J.R. Jayewardene.

It was a period when, after a decade of independence, Sri Lanka was attempting to determine its future political, economic and social vision. We traversed through a spectrum of political and economic hues; from the political and economic ideology of a socialist system with capital and monetary restrictions, land reforms, a closed economy, rationing and the regulation of democratic rights to a free market economy with liberal trade and investment, a free trade zone, the accelerated Mahaweli scheme, and the Gamudawa programme. When it came to the legislation that propped these changes, Sam Mama was a key figure who played a critical role in these transformations from behind the scenes.

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