Public service, vs public liability | Sunday Observer

Public service, vs public liability

5 December, 2021

Public servants could do an evening job — a second job these days and that was decided in the new regulations from the budget before last, though the writer stands to be corrected. In a country where the favourite slogan of marchers and protestors was ‘diyavu’ (“gimme gimme gimme”), Public servants have now apparently been given an additional privilege. They can officially do a side-hustle (part-time job) without any reprimand.

Public servants never had it so good, it seems. It can be contrasted to the time the late J.R. Jayewardene summarily sacked the so called ‘July strikers.’ Or when the late Lalith Athulathmudali said the strikers would be sent to the kanatta (cemetery.) He said he was speaking in metaphorical language, (or was he)?

That was the Jayewardene era. Then there was the Premadasa era when the President was reputed to wake up top Government officials at 5 a.m. with phone calls. If they were asleep or were appearing to resist being called at this hour, he would go into a fit of pique, it was said. But Public servants had it better in his era than during the Jayewardene time because none of them were sacked for striking at least.

Which brings us to the matter of public servants — the elected ones, and others. Sirisena Cooray was the Housing Minister during the Premadasa years, and the President’s right hand man. He was also a former Mayor of Colombo.

This is certainly a digression as far as this article is concerned, but Bulathsinhalage Sirisena Cooray died last week. He lived till he was 90 and that’s a ripe old age compared to most politicians of that era who died while serving, such as the late Cooray’s boss, former President Ranasinghe Premadasa. Sirisena Cooray was it seemed, a much misunderstood elected public servant.

He was the closest confidante easily of the former President R. Premadasa, and it’s a fact that he served him so faithfully to the extent that he has been quoted as saying, ‘I’m in politics to serve President Premadasa.”


The President trusted him and depended on him in return, and you could perhaps say Premadasa trusted Cooray with his life. When the President was assassinated and it was obvious that the successor D. B. Wijetunge was not interested in the Premadasa policies, Cooray spurned an offer to be Wijetunga’s Prime Minister.

The job then went to Ranil Wickremesinghe. Interestingly, though the late President depended on Cooray to the last and treated him almost as an extension of himself, the Premadasa family reneged on all that after the President’s death, and made a statement against Cooray. So much for loyalty on the part of Premadasa Jnr.

Cooray was unfazed, but retired from politics and was later arrested and held in custody for three months under instructions of the President who succeeded Wijetunga, Chandrika Kumararatunga.

The Supreme Court however took up a fundamental rights case filed by Cooray and exonerated him in effect, ruling that the petitioner’s fundamental rights had been violated by being taken into custody without just cause.

Those who say that the late Cooray was a hit-man for Premadasa often forget this court judgement, and forget the fact that he had so many political enemies.

This writer once met him (Cooray) in Hulftsdorp when he was in a vehicle — a double cab if I remember — with his driver. It was just the two of them and when I said hello and asked him, “You know they say you murdered so many people?”, he smiled a very big smile and said, “if so you think I could travel around alone like this?”.

He had a point. The Colombo elite intensely disliked the Premadasa administration for reasons largely based on class and caste snobbery, and a lot of that hate was naturally directed at Cooray who was seen as Premadasa’s great enabler.

The fact that he lived up to 90 without incident, and led an extremely active life visiting all parts of the country on strictly private non-political excursions probably absolutely vindicates Cooray. Yes there was state aided killing during the Premadasa era, but much of it was related to the virulent 89 terrorist uprising that the JVP was responsible for. As for Cooray, he was Housing Minister and played no part in that crackdown.


After the Premadasa family closed ranks after his assassination with Ranil Wickeremesinghe and turned their backs on Cooray, the gentleman who was Mayor of Colombo from 1979 up to 89 decided to run for Mayor once more.

However it was widely believed that Ranil Wickremasinghe the UNP leader during the Chandrika era feared a Cooray comeback for political reasons and caused the entire UNP list to be rejected. The Mayoral hopes of Cooray were dashed as a result, and this writer being aware of Wickremesinghe’s possible maneuver in getting the list rejected, wrote an article to the Sunday Times titled “Prevention is better than Cooray.”

Those who got the tongue in cheek jibe got it, others thought it was a misprint. The late Sirisena Cooray, however, was very amused and contacted me, and subsequently granted an interview to the Sunday Times.

This writer doesn’t believe he was a killer but the Colombo elite did because they hated him and they still do, except that as a private citizen he was forgotten and considered unimportant. He had a point. If he did half the things they say he did, would he have lived a quiet life without bodyguards — I can vouch for that — and go unharmed?

It’s a fact that he served the city of Colombo as its first citizen for a long time, and that he did tremendous good work as Housing Minister. There is the fitting memory of the man — Mayor, public servant.

Of course it was easy for the current leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa and family to disown Cooray just because they wanted to ally with Wickremesinghe and President Wijetunga who were playing their own games, and were then in power. The Premadasas were able to secure certain privileges with these connections and thought nothing of pushing father Premadasa Snr’s long time loyalist Cooray under the bus.


Nothing further needs to be said about the integrity of the current SJB leader. However, during the R. Premadasa era, Public servants were treated relatively well, and to repeat, they were not sacked and ‘sent to the cemetery’ as in the time of his predecessor.

Now, under new regulations, these Government servants can do a second job without being disciplined. A lot of them could use the opportunity to turn themselves into entrepreneurs and earn far more than they do as Government servants.

It beats bleating about angling for salary hikes and hovering around culverts and roundabouts screaming ‘diyavu diyavu.’ It would earn these Public servants a lot more money and a great deal more respect.

Perhaps Public servants who get a business start-up going during their spare time should be given additional funds by the government to retire and succeed in their new business pursuits. After all some 80 + percent of budget allocations is for the upkeep of Government servants.

These public service bureaucrats can hope for better times if they get themselves out of that handout mentality and make a start elsewhere. Some of them would be revolted by the mere suggestion of such an idea. They think they are an especially privileged lot.

Some of them grew into their jobs under the illusion that they are more equal than others. That era though seems to be now over, and in the same way that the rice ration book was made obsolete, the dependency syndrome of a large unwieldy Public service must definitely come to an end.

Each era has its own achievements and rationalising the Government service if done to completion, will be this Government’s main achievement.