One of the best influences in my life was my father, Sam Wijesinha. He was among the most perceptive, intelligent, humane and non-judgemental human beings I have ever known. Throughout his life, Sam used the gifts he was endowed with to help others. He passed away in 2014, at the age of 93, his mind [...]

Sunday Times 2

The legacy of Sam Wijesinha on his 100th birth anniversary


Family photo: (From left) Sanjiva, Anila, Rajiva, Mukta and Sam

One of the best influences in my life was my father, Sam Wijesinha. He was among the most perceptive, intelligent, humane and non-judgemental human beings I have ever known. Throughout his life, Sam used the gifts he was endowed with to help others. He passed away in 2014, at the age of 93, his mind razor sharp to the end.

Sam’s life

Born to a privileged, land-owning family in Getamanne, Sam, the youngest of six children, had three sisters and two brothers, each sibling four years older than the next. Letters to him from his oldest nieces, demanding particular items and books to be delivered to their school hostels, conveyed how comfortable their relationship with their young uncle was. Throughout his life, he loved children unconditionally. He was as happy giving a three-year-old a “horsey horsey” ride seated in his “haansi putuwa”, as getting a promising child from a non-elite home into a good school, or coaching a deserving student for a scholarship or job interview. Until his death, he was never lonely, because so many sought his company. His four grandchildren adored him and he them.

My grandfather died when Sam was still a student. But my Uncle Eddie, his oldest brother, ensured that his youngest brother continued with his education. The love and esteem in which my father held Uncle Eddie touchingly conveyed his gratitude.

Sam brought distinction to his family and Getamanne. He went from Rahula, Matara, to Ananda and then, to St. Thomas’, Mt. Lavinia. There, he completed his school career with distinction, as a leader, team player, scholar and sportsman.  He qualified as a lawyer, collected a university degree, joined the Attorney General’s Department, collected a master’s degree in Canada, served as Secretary General of Parliament for almost 20 years and as the first Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration (Ombudsman) for 10 years. In retirement, he served several institutions until he died.

Sam never forgot his roots.  Living in Colombo, he used his contacts and resources to provide opportunities for promising youth from his village to achieve their potential. He had great faith in education as a means to betterment. He was proud of the many village families whose children qualified as professionals during his lifetime. His outreach was not limited to Getamanne or relatives. He never witheld the support he could give to any promising young person, of whatever social, ethnic or religious background, whom he spotted or who came to him for help — finding schools, scholarships, jobs or funds.

Sam came from a traditional Sinhala Buddhist family in the rural South. My mother, Mukta, came from a Christian, English-speaking family in Colombo. Her father, Cyril Wickremesinghe, was a leading Civil Servant of the time. The much loved and admired young Mukta had her pick of several eligible suitors, but she was perceptive enough to choose Sam. So, he met, wooed and married Mukta, and then lived happily ever after in her home, Lakmahal, together with Mukta’s mother Esme, until she died on 27 June 1994. My father used to say that he had a perfect relationship with his mother-in-law, until she chose to die on his birthday!

Sam’s philosophy of life

Mukta and Sam were global citizens, never limited by thoughts of race, religion, political affiliation, colour, social status or wealth. Their home, presided over by Esme, was open to all. Growing up in Lakmahal, my two brothers and I never knew how many or who would sit for a meal round the table –relatives, friends and friends of friends from around Sri Lanka and overseas. It was the same with spare rooms and beds. Luckily, Lakmahal was a large house. Some stayed for days, others for months or indefinitely. A few, who lost their homes to the race riots of July 1983, lived at Lakmahal for years. We were privileged to engage with so many diverse people, from paupers to kings, with the same ease, because of my parents’ generosity of spirit and philosophy of life.

When my mother died in 1997, Sam was shattered.  Yet, he pulled himself together to live a productive life for another 17 years, helping more people along the way. There was never a moment when he did not miss her, but he soldiered on, fiercely independent, doing things “My Way”.

Years after his death, from letters he kept, we keep learning even more of his unfailing kindness — of how, as a student, he had helped his friend’s widowed mother pay rent; of his support for a great love affair; of his room as a haven to which troubled souls came for solace.

Lesson on Harmony: Mukta and Sam taught by example, that the richness of our culture is unity in diversity. My parents readily agreed to relatives, friends and neighbours hosting their Sinhala, Tamil, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Christian weddings at Lakmahal. My father believed that ethnic tensions could be eased if citizens could talk with each other, by learning all three languages in schools. He gave his three children Tamil lessons.  Sam and Mukta donated school prizes for excellence in Tamil for Sinhalese children and Sinhala for Tamil children.

As Secretary General of Parliament, he had approached Badiuddin Mahmud, Minister of Education in the 1970s, and asked “Why don’t you have a policy to teach Sinhala children Tamil and Tamil children Sinhala in all schools?” If the Minister had listened to my father, perhaps we could have avoided decades of ethnic strife.

Lessons from Parliament: My father would tell us that very few MPs used the Parliament Library. One rare exception was Ranasinghe Premadasa. As a very junior MP, he would use the library extensively and come to Sam to learn about issues he did not understand, which my father taught gladly. Sam would also decry paper waste, as most MPs did not even read relevant material. He decided to sell Parliament waste paper and use the proceeds for an education fund for the children of Parliament staff. How happy my father was when clerical and support staff would proudly tell him of a child who had graduated from university or qualified as a professional with help from that fund.

My father supported the pension scheme for parliamentarians, thinking that it would discourage them from making money elsewhere for their retirement. He also believed that improving the calibre of the country’s legislators through better education would help the country. He, therefore, recommended that being a member of parliament be recognised as an eligibility criterion to enter Law College. Mahinda Rajapaksa was a beneficiary of this policy. Judging from the allegations against our present-day parliamentarians, it appears that on both counts my father’s logic failed.

Having dealt with parliamentarians under several governments, my father believed that those who lost power needed friends more than those in power. So, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike lost her civic rights in a dubious manner under the J.R. Jayewardene government, and could not contest elections for years, Sam always found time to visit her. Today, we see those in power isolated from reality by many false “friends” and those without power with no friends.

Lessons from Relationships: My father moved closely with many political leaders. Ranil Wickremesinghe was his nephew by marriage. Sam knew D.A. Rajapaksa and his family very well. Even as President, Mahinda Rajapaksa would visit my father unannounced, late evening with no entourage, climb upstairs and chat in my father’s bedroom. I was at the Central Bank when he was President.  Once, I visited Lakmahal after work and ranted to my father about a ludicrous policy decision saying, “Tell Mahinda ….!”. My father waited until I finished and said to me calmly, “I never give advice unless I am asked. What if I give him advice and he does not take it? Where would that leave us both?”  He never gave unsolicited advice to my cousin Ranil either.

It was only later, that I understood the wisdom of his answer. If you give unsolicited advice to someone who is close to you and they do not take it, they know that they can never ask you for advice again and you know that you can never give them advice again. His wisdom left his door open.


On his 100th birth anniversary, I think of how my father used his advantages of birth and brains to help others.  I reflect on the legacy of tolerance, kindness, humanity, professionalism and able leadership that he left behind. I see the paucity of those characteristics today and how far humanity has fallen. Perhaps, Sam is sitting somewhere, wondering what else he could have done to make things better on this, his 100th birth anniversary.

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