It was a hundred years ago – on June 27th 1921 – that Sam Wijesinha was born in the little village of Getamanne in the Hambantota district. His childhood was spent in his family’s ancestral home Wattahena Walauwwa in the picturesque Rilagala hills and in the little village school (now grown – and known as [...]

Sunday Times 2

He was just; temperate; brave; and morally excellent


Sam Maama

It was a hundred years ago – on June 27th 1921 – that Sam Wijesinha was born in the little village of Getamanne in the Hambantota district.

His childhood was spent in his family’s ancestral home Wattahena Walauwwa in the picturesque Rilagala hills and in the little village school (now grown – and known as Wijeya Maha Vidyalaya in honour of his father, Don Aelias Wijesinha who founded and funded the original school). From that village school, his education continued through Rahula in Matara, Ananda in Colombo and S. Thomas’ in Mount Lavinia. Subsequently he graduated from the University College, Colombo and qualified as a lawyer.

Having served as a lawyer in the Attorney General’s Department for more than 15 years, he was appointed Clerk to the House of Representatives (the traditional title at that time for the administrative head of Ceylon’s legislature) in 1964. He later served as secretary of the constituent assembly that drafted our new republican constitution, and with the establishment of the Republic of Sri Lanka, he became Secretary General of Parliament – a post he held with distinction until his retirement.

Thereafter he was appointed Sri Lanka’s first Ombudsman and continued to serve in various honorary capacities such as Chancellor of the Open University, Chairman of the Human Rights Task Force and Chairman of the Prisoners’ Welfare Association.

During his 17 years as the administrative head of our nation’s parliament, Sam Wijesinha made an unparalleled contribution to the history of Sri Lanka. He raised the bar and made the job of Secretary General of Parliament one of the most prestigious offices in this country. He stood firm in the face of adversity and aggression, standing up for truth and fairness, never being afraid to call someone out (even politicians who thought they were powerful) if he felt they were out of line. Using his pithy Southern Province Sinhalese he did not mince his words when the occasion demanded. Yet he went out of his way to help, advise and even mentor newly elected MPs when they first arrived, wet behind the ears, to begin their terms as parliamentarians. He had time for them — as well as the patience to educate them about parliamentary procedures and traditions. His manners and disposition were those of a cultured aristocrat — truly an outstanding and dignified gentleman who moved easily with kings and presidents without losing the common touch.

He always took pains to familiarise himself with all the facts relating to any situation in which he was involved. There lay his inner strength as no one could battle with him. He also believed in detailed preparation and planning. As his nephew (his favourite nephew, I always felt!) he would often get me to repeat the 5Ps – ‘Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance’ — ingraining in me how important this was in our daily lives.

Whilst being an avid reader who was up to date on many subjects, he focused mostly on areas he loved — history, politics, law and genealogy. It always baffled me as to how he was able to retain such a magnitude of extensive data and detail in his mind. Even in his nineties his memory was better than Google!

I have been truly blessed to have had the great privilege of having time with Uncle Sam at regular long afternoon lunches (where he introduced me to the pleasure of Thambili laced with Gin!) and evening coffees.  During these quality moments I had the opportunity to listen and learn of people, places and families – and about fascinating personalities he knew and momentous events that have taken place in our country.  The Chinese saying ‘Listening to a wise man for one hour is better than reading a thousand books’ is so true.

Sam Wijesinha had a passion to see people being given the opportunity for good education and gainful employment. He always wanted to see individuals progress and better themselves — and he pursued this passion silently and without publicity. Many are the people from all walks of life whom he has helped, directed and guided during his lifetime. His actions have helped people elevate themselves to higher platforms with benefits that will accrue to their children and the generations that follow.

He was always unselfish – a gentleman with a large warm heart. He never hesitated to agree to help someone if his help was requested. For anyone who came to him for assistance he always had the time.

One day, late in his life, he told me “Rakki, I can see, I can hear, I can walk, I can use my hands – so I need to continue my life the way it should be.”  Till a little before his 93rd birthday he was unstoppable. Only when he found it difficult to walk did his lifestyle change – and with that, his mind-set changed too. He would observe “Now the time has come…..”

From this point it did not take long as his decisive mind meticulously planned it all so he could depart this world gracefully from his own bed, under his own roof with his family members around him, leaving behind his biggest legacy of all : three wonderful children Sanjiva, Anila and Rajiva.

There is a nice quotation from Aristotle which I believe aptly summarises the person that Uncle Sam was: “Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”

This was my Uncle Sam – just, temperate, brave and morally excellent.

(The author, Rakhita Jayawardena, was from his early childhood looked on by Sam and Mukta Wijesinha as one of their own family. This tribute to Sam Wijesinha — whom he considers to be his greatest teacher, guide and mentor — is written to commemorate
the centenary of his birth.)


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