Esmond Wickremesinghe: The man of ideas in times of change | Daily News

Esmond Wickremesinghe: The man of ideas in times of change


We meet in the shadow of memory. Almost 31 years after the death of Esmond Wickremesinghe, we now have an opportunity for public tribute. All of us knew of Esmond Wickremesinghe. Most of us knew him. To many of us he was a good friend. To speak of him as an individual and a character is almost unnecessary. The warmth of his nature was such that those whose lives were touched by Esmond will have their own vivid remembrances. These subjective portraits are deeply etched on the screen of our recollections. No objective evaluation can do justice to such a man.

Yet, those who knew him well do generally agree that there were four meridians that animated his personality:

Esmond was extraordinarily free of prejudice, malice and viciousness. He cherished friends. He got no satisfaction from perishing adversaries.

Esmond was a child of privilege, but a man of compassion. In moments of need, nobody left him with their hands and hearts empty. A few who are born to affluence can so empathise with the sorrows of the deprived.

He had a genius for friendship. His informality, humour, optimism and geniality were markedly different from the mask of self-conscious propriety worn by many important people.

Esmond had a questing mind and a creative vision. He was consistently drawn to the innovative and the dynamics of change. He sought dialogue with the most knowledgeable in the world. He was among the first to understand the importance of mass media and modern communications for the Third World – and especially for Sri Lanka.

Position and influence

It is sometimes dangerous to have a luminous personality. Esmond's engaging ways obscured his coruscating talents. It is easy to forget that, for about three and one-half decades, he had a considerable influence on the public affairs of this country. From about 1950 until his death in 1985, Esmond was able to impact upon or get the attention of key policymakers in Sri Lanka. In some part, this was due to the high positions he held as a Managing Director at the Associated Newspapers (Lake House) from 1950 to 1968, our special diplomatic envoy at the United Nations and elsewhere, Chairman of the International Press Institute, a significant member of the Working Committee of United National Party from 1973 to 1985.

But, his influence came from more than position. In large part, it flowed from his intellectual insight and conceptual foresight. It is not possible to measure insight, to quantify foresight. Some people have it, others do not. Why, we cannot tell. Esmond had this wisdom in abundance – in too many areas to detail. Perhaps, we can best appreciate his sagacity by examining his thinking about the two great seminal struggles which haunted world events in Esmond's most active years – the struggle between the individual and the state, and the struggle of small nations to secure a place in global politics.

The individual vs the state

The first confrontation was perhaps more important because its scope was more universal. Ostensibly, it took shape as a conflict between Communism and Democracy. The struggle between Communism and Democracy was, however, essentially a civil war of the West. It concealed the real worldwide conflict – the struggle between the state and the individual. From about 1950 to 1990, in the four decades or so after World War II, many societies were battlefields of philosophy and policy.

On one side were the advocates of state intervention and control. They argued that the state should tell citizens what they could buy, what they should import, when and where they could travel, how much property they could own, what businesses they should run, what they should eat and read and wear. Governments could, should and would regulate society in the service of some collectivist ideal. Phrases such as guided democracy, socialist democracy and a little bit of authoritarianism were paraded as political expressions of the statist’s view point.

Ranged against the statists were those who argued that individual choice should determine most things. Proponents of the individualist ethic claimed that citizens must make their own decisions about the kind of life and social atmosphere which they wanted. There partisans urged governments to encourage individual initiative. Beyond minimal controls consistent with law and order, decency and the national interest, the state had little reason to regulate social and economic activity.

Never before in human history has there been such a massive contest between the statist and the individualist conceptions of society. The contest took place in many countries, especially in the new nations of the Third World such as Sri Lanka. In the 1960's and 1970's, it looked as if statism would triumph. Increasingly, the rhetoric of socialism and its attendant structures gained ground. However, in the late 1980's a major roll-back began. As the 20th century draws to its conclusion, the curtains are closing on statism, collectivism, communism, Marxism – on ideas and systems that subordinate the individual and enshrine the primacy of the state.

Esmond Wickremesinghe understood the configurations of this drama well in advance of many others. In his early years, especially in the 1940's, he was a convinced leftist – so convinced that he risked much to assist the LSSP prisoners in escaping from British incarceration in Ceylon during World War II. Together with several of Sri Lanka's most distinguished intellectuals, he found the socialist – Marxist doctrine appealing. Soon, Esmond's philosophic lodestar began to shift from left to moderate centre, from statist to individualist. He was too independent a thinker to be long imprisoned within collectivist constructs. He was also too much of a nationalist to endorse the reckless flinging open of Sri Lanka's economy and polity to any foreign predator.

The leitmotif of Esmond's beliefs eventually clustered into a balanced and calibrated individualism, protecting our national interests and our democracy, but questing for access to the best in the world. Well before China, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and many in the Third World saw the need for a freer market, Esmond was urging for it. Well before the tide of democracy blew open the windows of autocracies, Esmond saw it as the tide of the future.

An interesting footnote is worthy of mention here. Around 1966, Esmond invited Professor Shenoy of India to visit Sri Lanka. Together with some others, they prepared an economic blueprint. It was a plan to push the Lankan economy towards modern industry, to reduce and remove exchange controls, to provide a cash subsidy which would absorb the impact on the poor and so to create the conditions for rapid organisation and growth. The plan was not adopted. Esmond believed then, as we can see now, that this effort would have enabled Sri Lanka to equal the progress of East Asia. An opportunity was missed. We have paid a severe price.

Anyway, in his own manner, by his thinking, his public involvements, his writings and his efforts at home and abroad, Esmond contributed to advancing the ideas he came to believe in. Much of the agenda he sought and fought to establish has now been completed. The rise of democracy and the growing acceptance of free enterprise are worldwide phenomena.

Democracy in South Asia

The slipstream of these changed conditions raises new and serious concerns. Two of these are particularly critical for us in South Asia. The first question is this:

Can Democracy continue to function in an atmosphere of escalating violence?

The five principal countries of South Asia: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka have all had generally free and fair elections during the past two years. Democracy is alive and active, most vibrant than in any other region in the Third World.

Yet, democracy's bride has become violence. In the past fifteen years, two leaders of Pakistan, two leaders of India and two leaders of Bangladesh have been assassinated. In Sri Lanka, Nepal and all other countries in South Asia, thousands have perished in political turmoil. When political opposition is consistently expressed through violence, can democracy long survive as a political way of life? A century ago, the British historian John Acton declaimed that power corrupts. Power may corrupt, but in South Asia the absence of power seems to corrupt absolutely. Desperate for office and heedless of popular rejection, opponents of legitimate regimes are often ready to sacrifice any principle to get nearer to power.

In these circumstances, what is the value of our great and ancient cultures? What merit is there in our sub-continental pride about non-violence, ahimsa, samaya, metta, karuna humane Hinduism and more liberal Islam? The greatest single threat to the commendable democracy of South Asia is not totalitarianism, not militarism, not even separatism or spasmodic terrorism. The greatest single threat to democracy in South Asia is the arrival of an ethos in which violence is becoming generalized – an ethos in which murder becomes a commonplace manifestation of political protest. This is the hinge on which South Asia's democracy balances.

What is the answer? Nobody can quite tell. We need to redouble our efforts to educate, to be alert, to redress public grievances before they become public frustrations. As Esmond Wickremesinghe always felt, we need to strengthen regional institutions. This is particularly important because all the countries in our geographic zone are now democracies which share common concerns.

Yet, this is not enough. We have to somehow cultivate a culture and a discipline capable of resisting the urge to spill blood. This is the primary task for our region in the years ahead. If we fail in this, our democracy will erode and evanesce, our prideful civilization will be a memorial to the past not a pathway to the future. In South Asia, the politicization of burning issues – language, race, religion and others have gone so far that politics as usual itself becomes a threat to democracy.

Keeping capitalism honest

A second question that springs from changed regional and global conditions is this: Now that communism has collapsed and socialism is in retreat, what will keep capitalism fair?

Who will keep capitalism honest? For the forseeable future, it is likely that capitalism, in its various forms, will be the organising principle of the most dynamic economies in the world. But fulsome production without equitable distribution brings the kinds of insurrection with which we are all familiar. Given some political stability and the engine of free enterprise, South Asia has the potential for dramatic development – a great economic leap forward.

However, such economic progress will be pockmarked with deep furrows of tragedy unless we devise the means of balancing growth with social consciousness. Periodic political upheavals – traumas that will destroy the very foundations of economic growth – will take place. When countries get richer while many of their people get power, the cycles of boom and explosion continue.

What is the answer? Increased taxation of wealth, however well-intentioned, only destroys entrepreneurial and other initiative. Expecting the spontaneous development of social conscience in the capitalist personality is often a utopian hope. Religious preachments have also largely failed to awaken compassion in capitalism. Enlightened capitalism is not a normal process. It has to be induced.

The South Asian approach has been to use political will to disgorge excess profits in the public interest. This has worked well in selected areas. We now need to institutionalize and rationalize this method – to give some permanency and continuity to sustaining the obligations of rapidly acquired wealth. Monitoring and channelling a part of these resources for social purposes requires a combination of political strength and civic vision. With the demise of communism and the retreat of socialism, this combination is one of the few ways by which to keep capitalism fair. Such an effort is essential if we are to have a society free of the dislocations that unfettered private enterprise can create.

As the epic struggle between statist and individualist ethics concludes, these are some of the consequences that arise. Changed circumstance is the parent of new questions. The world affairs are an arena where concerns do not always disappear. They shift and provoke new concerns derived from different contexts.

Small nations in world politics

There was a second highly charged issue in international politics in Esmond’s prime years. It evolved around the emergence of small, newly independent countries in the world. As the principal gladiators of the Cold War (the United States and the Soviet Union) clashed, tensions were intense and bitter. Many saw only a subservient role in global affairs for nations like Sri Lanka. Others saw no role at all. Esmond strongly disagreed.

He believed that through diplomatic activism small nations could influence the flow of events and make the planet safer for humankind.

Esmond used his rapport with our third Prime Minister, his good friend Sir John Kotelawala, to fashion a demarche in Third World diplomacy. From this flowed the Colombo Powers meetings and the first great Third World Assembly at Bandung in 1955. Later that year, Esmond played a major role at the United Nations, the institution for which he had a special regard and to which he returned from time to time in the next three decades.


The package deal which broke a deadlock on membership admissions, procuring Sri Lanka’s entry to the world organisation, was largely Esmond’s work. The child of these efforts was, of course, the Non-aligned Movement. This in its time, permitted the Third World to achieve a significant impact on the world stage.

In many ways, Esmond contributed to enhancing the esteem of the Third World in international affairs. When the SLFP was in government in Sri Lanka, Esmond was frequently a consultant to multilateral and United Nations agencies abroad. He built a wide network of relationships, and was influential and respected. When the UNP was in office, Esmond frequently represented Sri Lanka at international gatherings, especially at UNESCO. His experience with the media enabled him to engage, at the highest level, in important international debates. Thus, his involvement in discussions about the new international information order (NIIO) and the new international economic order (NIEO).

At UNESCO, this was a time of controversy. Esmond fought hard to break the Western monopoly of global communications. Third World nations would never be really free until they were able to get their viewpoints and their story into the mainstream of the global media. With this objective and with the idea of enhancing journalistic professionalism, Esmond helped to create the Press Foundation of Asia. The PFA, located in Manila, is now well into its third decade as the premier Asian media development centre. For his creative and resolute defence of the freedom of the press, Esmond was awarded the internationally prestigious Golden Pen Award in 1966.

In his last years, Esmond had a concept of Third World progress through the use of modern communications technology. It was a premature, but prescient vision – a vision which would give developing nations a place in the universe of COMSAT and TELSTAR of hi-tech information and telematics. Unless we moved fast in this field, Esmond feared that the Third World could become third class. It was with this in mind that he carefully planned the Arthur C Clarke Center for Modern Technologies in Sri Lanka.

Regionalism for the Third World was almost a sacred cause for Esmond. In the early 1960s, he proposed an organisation of South Asian States – an idea that came to life with SAARC over two decades later. Regionalism should not be confined to structure. It needed an intellectual underpinning and so, in 1954, Esmond initiated JANA – the news magazine for South and Southeast Asia. JANA suffered the fate of many ideas that are ahead of their time. It failed. Yet, it was a pioneering venture, perhaps more suited to the 1990’s than to the 1950’s. JANA, as with so many of Esmond’s activities, provided new and news perspectives that only subsequent experience enables us to appreciate.

Non-alignment and diplomacy

Towards the end of his life, Esmond was again deeply concerned with the role of Third World nations in world affairs. In the early 1980’s he felt that the Non-aligned Movement was becoming irrelevant. It had grown too bulky. It was losing its coherence. It failed to appreciate that the context of its genesis had changed. The Third World was in danger of being sidelined because of the ineffectiveness of NAM. Shortly before he died, Esmond was preparing a paper on reforming NAM and developing it into a different kind of Third World interests group. As recent events cause questioning of the philosophy of Non-Alignment, Esmond’s thoughts about NAM’s future have a very valid relevance today.

Esmond’s concern with the role of small nations in world politics was not confined only to relations with the superpowers. Hegemonistic ambitions come from many sources. He was sensitive to another kind of domination – the potential for big nations in the Third World to dominate smaller Third World countries. Esmond thought long and worked hard on the Indo-Lanka nexus. At times, he represented Sri Lanka in negotiations. At other times, he sought to influence, not always successfully, our attitudes and approaches to India.

As he studied the Indian question, Esmond realized a vital truth which he applied in all his diplomatic efforts. Informal diplomacy was a critical instrument in the armoury of diplomacy. He felt that confining our contacts with India only to and through official channels limited our flexibility and narrowed our impact. Informal and unofficial contacts could off-set and counter any official or bureaucratic biases or prejudices against Sri Lanka. As a result, Esmond cultivated the widest possible range of associations in influential Indian circles. As he correctly anticipated, Indo-Lanka relations would become a dominant foreign policy concern. In its conduct, we should mobilize all the resources available to us.

Esmond was a consistent supporter of a vigorous and creative foreign policy for Sri Lanka. Politics, he believed, should stop at the water’s edge. A non-partisan foreign policy would enable us to join in shaping global decisions. Unfortunately, this expectation has not always been fulfilled. If we divide over foreign policy, the only beneficiaries are those who do not wish our nation well.

President Premadasa once remarked that foreign policy is both the sword and the shield of small countries.

This is a comment that Esmond would have fully endorsed.

Questions for Sri Lanka

Long ago, Jawarharlal Nehru, whom Esmond admired and knew well, said: “To understand and participate in the great movements of an age dignifies a man. To contribute to them raises him above the ordinary.” By this criteria, Esmond was a considerable figure. He was not a personality widely known to the masses. He was one of those individuals – the unsung heroes of public affairs – whose contribution was more in directing the march of events than in benefiting from them.

Although very much a man of the world, Esmond Wickremesinghe had a deeply rooted sense of being Sri Lankan. His knowledge, ideas and talents had at their core a vital concern how to make Sri Lanka work better as a nation, as a society, as a polity, as an economy. Sri Lankans, he often said, were outstanding as individuals but had yet to learn how to work collectively. There is much fact in this observation. In the past fifty years, our country has experimented with a variety of political, economic and cultural systems and approaches. We have to now ask ourselves three hard questions.

After six decades of democracy in various forms, is the standard of our politics higher?

After numerous experiments with cultural policy, have we satisfactorily integrated or appreciated the diverse cultures of our different communities?

After applying an assortment of economic policies since independence, have the aspirations of our people been satisfied?

Inaugurating the Janasaviya Trust Fund, President Premadasa made an important statement relevant to these questions: “Governments have come and governments have gone, but poverty remains.” This is true of other conditions in Sri Lanka. Governments come and governments go, but the conditions remain. That is why our present Government has a special responsibility. It came to office when almost everything we had in Sri Lanka was in disarray or collapsing. Some significant restoration has taken place. Unfortunately, we are people with short memories. The restoration will have no meaning unless it brings forth a restructuring of our politics and our economics and a reorientation of our cultural goals.

The heritage endures

In that sense, we live at axial time. It is a time which calls for intellectual and systemic innovation. It is a time when new attitudes and new approaches are not optional - they are mandatory. It is a time when change cannot simply be a modification or an extension of the old. It is a time which Esmond Wickremesinghe foresaw. Twenty years ago, writing under the pseudonym of A Student of Politics, he said:

If we go on as we are doing now, we will soon come to a point at which Sri Lanka will breakdown. Then, we will need the most mature, experienced, resourceful and responsible leadership in both Government and Opposition. If we do not have this, God help us. But, if we can meet this challenge, we can breakthrough and make our country a wonderful place for all our peoples.

Today, we are aspiring to rise to this challenge to rescue the future from the present. As we do so, we must be mindful of the value of Esmond Wickremesinghe’s thought and conceptual creativity. His ideas resonate into our time.

Now, more than ever, they have a message to which we should harken.

Esmond Wickremesinghe was not always successful. But, he was always thoughtful. He was often overly enthusiastic, occasionally hasty in judgement and did not fully institutionalize his more worthy ideas. But, these are small scratches on a rich and colourful canvas – a canvas crafted from the unusual talents of this multi-dimensional man.

The passage of years makes it likely that Esmond’s heritage will recede. This should not happen. In a way, much of it is kept alive by the important and responsible part which his political heir, Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, fulfills in Sri Lankan public life. We expect he will prove equal to even greater challenges in the future. Yet, we also need to keep on record as much as we can of Esmond’s own thinking. The Esmond Wickremesinghe Awards will memorialize his name in a field in which he excelled – the mass media.

We need something beyond that. It is timely that consideration be given to publishing some of Esmond’s papers and other writings. Perhaps, some JANA Studies should be made on subjects of special interest to him. A volume on his contribution to his times will provide useful historical perspective. His work is too valuable to be lost.

Men such as Esmond Wickremesinghe are infrequent in the life of a nation. Their intellectual legacy, even more than their memory, must endure. By preserving this, we not only make the best possible tribute to Esmond Wickremesinghe, we also enrich ourselves. These are real monuments to those for whom the life of the mind is important.

Nations and individuals become great not so much by what they do as by what they are. And what they are depends largely on what they know. We will know more about our society and ourselves when we understand the spirit that inspired Esmond Wickremesinghe – a spirit which brought forth a cascade of ideas that nourished this era of change.


Add new comment