Now that is a new one on me. Not just me surely. It is on the entire population of the Resplendent Isle also known as “a country like no other” and many other glorifying sobriquets that advertising blurb writers can come up with. But it probably hurts the voting public most, those people who are [...]


Why hide the qualifications


Now that is a new one on me. Not just me surely. It is on the entire population of the Resplendent Isle also known as “a country like no other” and many other glorifying sobriquets that advertising blurb writers can come up with.

But it probably hurts the voting public most, those people who are up and early on voting day to queue up at polling stations to cast their vote before some other chap pretending to be you casts the ballot in your name, never mind the indelible ink on the finger. This is no joke or fake news as some politicians would like to describe news that embarrasses them or those in power.

If it can happen to a presidential candidate like the former minister Hector Kobbekaduwa who went to the polling station in Bambalapitiya only to find that Hector Kobbekaduwa had already voted!

When I read in the Sunday Times that an official attached to the House by the Diyawanna Oya had refused to disclose the educational qualifications of those 224 (the 225th sits on a more elevated seat and wears some peculiar thing on his head) learned representatives of the people it did come as quite shock to the good citizens of Sri Lanker, as some people here pronounce, after hearing of the great game that was played — well virtually at least — in Geneva which Sri Lanka won humiliating our one time colonial overlord who led the charge like the Light Brigade.

Well, the country like no other won because no other country follows our counting system which makes it useful when it comes to paying our foreign debts. But then that’s another story no!

Right now we are on another farce being enacted on behalf of our most illustrious representatives of the people who are saturated with rectitude and modesty and wish their achievements to be under lock and key — or so we are made to understand.

It appears that the Assistant Secretary General of Parliament and its Information Officer, a chap named Tikiri Jayatilleke, has refused to disclose information sought by this newspaper under the Right to Information (RTI) Law passed during the yahapalana government.

In case we are accused of misquoting or distorting what the Information Officer (who refuses to give information which in fact makes him somewhat redundant) let me cite his words:

“Educational qualifications relate to personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information or the person concerned has consented in writing to such disclosure.”

The officer also said that according to the Sri Lanka Constitution’s Article 90, no references had been made to the educational qualifications of an MP. The only qualification to be elected as an MP, according to the Constitution, is that he or she should be an elector.

To begin with could (I am sure he could) or would the Information Office give us this information — who wrote this learned piece of rubbish? I ask because I‘ve passed (not the examinations which I refuse to disclose) through the same rigmarole when I called for some information under the RTI law from the then Information Officer of the Foreign Ministry who felt that quibbling provides a great escape route.

Parliament’s Information Officer says an MP’s educational qualification is personal information and its disclosure has no relationship to any public activity or interest.

If by “personal information” he means that only the MP should be aware of it or have knowledge of it, he is wrong as hell. Unless some among the present lot of MPs did not attend any school, did not sit for any public examination, never went to university, Law College or other institutes of higher learning granting professional qualifications and passed any examinations, there should be records at school, the Examinations Department, university, and other institutions that conduct professional exams.

So it is not only the individual MP who is privy to that information.

Add to that gibberish Tikiri Jayatilleke’s seemingly erroneous confession that what transpires in parliament is not public activity or interest. If that is so, what on earth is happening regularly in that ornate structure right through the year wasting so much public funds? If it is not public activity what private activity goes on there –MPs counting each other’s boodelays or other private gains with an assistant secretary-general in attendance?

Is that Assistant Secretary-General of Parliament telling the citizens of Sri Lanka that parliament discusses only matters of private interest? If that is so can Mr Jayatilleke justify the waste of public funds to pay the salaries of ministers, MP and parliament officials including himself for this utter waste of time and money. Why are general elections held to elect MPs who are referred to as elected representatives and who do they represent? Surely not their families, relatives, lackeys, goons and some unsavoury individuals? Why are proceedings of parliament telecast if parliament is not conducting proceedings of relevance to the public? Or is it considered a teledrama in which even fisticuffs is permitted?

The Information Officer claims “educational qualifications relate to personal information” and so admits that it is not “personal information” per se. If so why is parliament keeping this information in its ‘hamas pettiya’? And what on earth is “relate to” and has “no relationship” to any public activity or interest?

If passing laws, announcing annual budgets, debating issues pertaining to the running of the country are not public activities relevant to governance and matters of interest to the people of the country, then could the learned Assistant Secretary-General define what is “public activity” who is the public he refers to and what are matters of “interest” and interest to whom?

Moreover would he specify what constitutes the “larger public interest” that would justify the release of the information sought? Obviously it seems to be more important than mere “public activity.”

As the public knows there are MPs who make very knowledgeable and educated speeches though they are sparse, in the course of debates or on adjournment motions etc. Some of them are known to the public some are not. It is the lesser known MPs who make interesting, knowledgeable, critical and controversial contributions from the floor that attract public attention and interest and wish to know their background. Why should that background be kept a deep, dark secret?

The official says such information could be released if the MP concerned has consented in writing to such disclosure. Are we to understand that since the Sunday Times applied for it under the RTI the Information Officer went round to each and every MP inquiring whether their qualifications should be released or not?

Pray what was the result? How many said yes, how many said no and how many were non-committal? Please avoid the Dinesh Gunawardena/GL Peiris arithmetic if you don’t mind.

Some four or five years ago a survey of the educational qualifications of MPs revealed that 94 of them had not passed the ‘O’ Level or sat for it.

Is this present gobbledygook an attempt to avoid what might be conceived by some as embarrassment or humiliation of the country’s legislature?

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor, of the Hong Kong Standard and Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)


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