Your Excellencies, Ladies & Gentlemen, Dear Friends,
I am honoured and delighted to be with you this evening at the invitation of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung. I commend the work done by the Foundation under the able leadership of its Sri Lankan Representative, Ms. Sagarica Delgoda.
As many of you know among the other excellent work the Foundation does, it sponsors a series of talks of public importance and today’s talk is titled “The Freedom Speech” and the theme is “How to use Freedom Responsibly”. The talk is in honour of one of Sri Lanka’s most loved and respected national leaders, the late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali.
In talks of this nature, it is customary for the speaker to first speak about the person who is remembered and honoured today and then speak about the allotted theme or subject. Accordingly, in that order let me first speak about the late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali.
About the late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali
I had the great privilege to know Mr. Athulathmudali although he was a few years older and senior to me. Born in 1936, by 1980, in a short span of only 44 years he had become a “household name” in Sri Lanka. Today, his name is associated mainly as the founder of the Mahapola Higher Educational Scholarship Scheme.
Lalith Athulathmudali had the following notable achievements. He was one of the most distinguished students at Royal College in the 1950’s. He won many of the coveted prizes and his name adorns the list of prize winners in the Royal College Main Hall. He excelled not only in studies but also in sports,mainly Athletics.
After Royal College, Mr. Athulathmudali continued his academic brilliance when he entered Oxford University in England. Apart from obtaining a BCL Law Degree with First Class Honours, he became the Treasurer, Secretary and next the President of the Oxford Union. No other Sri Lankan has held ALL these three prestigious positions at Oxford.
A story that many do not know is that when studying at Oxford, Lalith Athulathmudali’s father, a well-known Sri Lankan Parliamentarian, suddenly passed away. Funds were needed to continue Lalith’s studies at Oxford. Our then Prime Minister Mr. S W R D Bandaranaike (himself a past Secretary of the Oxford Union) recognized Lalith’s brilliance and got a Vote passed in our Parliament for him to continue his studies. This was a signal honour.
Lalith Athulathmudali graduated with such distinction from Oxford, that he won visiting lectureships at Harvard University, USA, National University in Singapore, Allahabad University in India and Hebrew University in Israel. These were commendable achievements. On his return to Sri Lanka he practiced as a lawyer and also lectured at Law College.
In 1970 Mr. J R Jayewardene got Lalith Athulathmudali into politics and in the well-known General Elections of 1977 he won the Ratmalana seat and was appointed a Cabinet Minister. He was one of the youngest Cabinet Ministers in the J R Jayewardena government.
After 1977, Lalith Athulathmudali’s career was meteoric, as Trade and Shipping Minister and additionally Deputy Minister of Defence and Minister for National Security. Unfortunately for our nation Lalith Athulathmudali was assassinated at a political rally on 23rd April 1993 at the age of 57. He was too young to die.
Apart from his many achievements, the late Mr. Athulathmudali can justifiably be linked to political, civic, and economic rights and freedoms in three significant areas of his illustrious career.Firstly, as Minister of Trade and Shipping in the J R Jayewardene’s Cabinet, he gave leadership to the open economy and liberal trade policies which strengthened our Economic Freedom. Secondly, later as the Deputy Minister of Defence and Minister of National Security, he led our struggle for freedom from LTTE terrorism enabling us Freedom from Fear. Thirdly, Lalith Athulathmudali is today best known for Freedom from Poverty that he focused on by his Mahapola Higher Educational Scholarship Scheme. The Mahapola Scholarship Scheme today assists 45,000 University students each year by paying them a Scholarship of Rs.5000/= per month.
For the knowledge of foreign participants who may be present here at this talk, let me explain what the term “Mahapola” has to do with University Scholarships. “Mahapola” means “big trading fair”. These were monthly trading fairs that Mr. Athulathmudali organized as the Trade Minister for people to buy what they wanted at regulated prices. He assigned the same name “Mahapola” for the Scholarship scheme he founded.
Because of this talk and the need to speak about the late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali, I studied the origin of the Mahapola Scholarship Scheme. It is relevant to the theme of today’s talk on Freedom. Being a lawyer, Mr. Athulathmudali himself had drafted the legislation establishing the Scholarship Scheme. That legislation is called the Mahapola Higher Educational Scholarship Trust Fund Act No. 66 of 1981. There he did something unusual.
The Chairman of the Trustees was to be the individual holding the office of Chief Justice. Currently, it is Hon. Mr. Priyasath Dep, President’s Counsel. It is unusual to name the Chief Justice in an Act of Parliament. However Lalith Athulathmudali did it and Parliament accepted it. By making the Chief Justice, the Chairman of the Mahapola Trust, Mr. Athulathmudali gave the Trust added prestige. Secondly, Mr. Athulathmudali has put into the Schedule to the Act a copy of the Trust Deed he himself made which describes why he did it. He has said that in his belief education is the true answer to poverty alleviation.
Ladies and Gentlemen, what is very significant is that Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali said this as far back as 1981, over 37 years ago,namely that “education is the answer to poverty”. To my knowledge it was only about the year 2000 that the World Bank based their development aid projects on education as a justification to alleviate poverty. What the World Bank envisaged in the year 2000, Lalith Athulathmudali, the Oxford scholar had envisaged in 1980s!.
Although Lalith Athulathmudali falls into the category of one of our National Icons, his name will always be remembered for Mahapola Scholarships and his contribution to the cause of Education. In fact, the large statue erected for him near the Round About entering Royal College, Colombo (his old school) shows him seated reading books to two school children both a girl and a boy. The sculptor also recognized and immortalized in stone Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali’s contribution to education. The late Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali truly deserves to be remembered on an occasion such as this.
“Freedom” and “Using Freedom Responsibly”
Ladies and Gentlemen, now I turn to the theme of today’s talk “Freedom” and “Using Freedom with Responsibility”
First, I wish to emphasize both at a personal level and as the Speaker of our Parliament that while Freedom can mean many things to many people, there is nothing more valuable in the life of any person as Freedom.
In all countries, rich or poor, developed or developing, we read about freedom, dream about freedom, rejoice in the notion of freedom and promote freedom. As that great Scientist Albert Einstein has said “Everything that is good and innovative has been created by individuals who were able to work in freedom”.
Next, I would like to first talk about “Freedom Generally” and then talk of “Freedom and Responsibility”.
Talking of Freedom Generally, history tells us that in the early days Freedom was never offered Free and Voluntarily. People had to fight for it. The blood of Patriots and Tyrants gave birth to freedom. In my younger days (which was many many years ago!) I was impressed with FIVE great events of modern times which related to Freedom. They were well known events that occurred abroad in three different countries many years ago. Some of you in the audience will recall them.
The First event was the Magna Carta which means the Great Charter. This was the Agreement by King John of England with his Nobles at Runnymede in June 1215 – over 800 years ago. By that Agreement the King guaranteed a right to justice and fair trial to all his citizens. Even now the Magna Carta is referred to the celebrated Agreement on the Democratic Rights of Freedom.
The Second event was a dispute between the English King Charles and the English Parliament in the 1640’s.In the end, there was a Civil War which the King lost. King Charles was beheaded in 1649 and the Supremacy of Parliament was established under Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was originally a Parliamentarian who later became the Lord Protector of England and Head of Parliament. The BBC – in a well known radio commentary has referred to Cromwell as the father of modern British democracy.
As the current Speaker of our Parliament, I was very impressed with these events where Parliament won over the King. I also recall the famous incident in that dispute before the Civil War when the King entered Parliament with his troops and demanded that certain named Members of Parliament be surrendered to him. The Speaker had then told the King “I have no eyes to see, no ears to hear and no tongue to speak, other than what is permitted to me by Parliament”. In other words, Parliament will not bow or answer to the King.
The Third event on Freedom related to the great French Revolution of mid 1780s when both the French King and the Queen were guillotined under the peoples’ banner of Freedom, Equality and Fraternity. There are two famous sayings connected to the French Revolution that I cannot forget. The first was that the Revolution was inspired by the writings of the French philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau who said “Man is born Free but everywhere he is in chains”. The second saying is attributed to the French Queen Marie Antoinette who was guillotined. When the hungry people pleaded for bread, she is alleged to have said if there is no bread, let them eat cake. It is obvious that in modern times no leaders can respond to their citizens in that arrogant and sarcastical manner.
The French Revolution led to the Fourth event highlighting Freedom, namely the American War of Independence where thirteen (13) American colonies won Independence from England in 1783 under the slogan “No Taxation without Representation”.
The Fifth event relating to Freedom which I cherish is the famous Gettysburg address of President Abraham Lincoln who abolished slavery. In words which have since become famous and in one of the shortest speeches of history (13 minutes), Lincoln ended his speech saying “the government of the people, by the people, for the people, will not perish from our earth”.
Incidentally, while today is 13th November, the Gettysburg address was delivered on 19th November but 154 years ago in 1863! Incidentally, we may also note that Mr. Lalith Athulathmudali whom we honour today was born on 26th November 1936.So the month of November is significant for today’s talk.
Significant matters relating to the term “Freedom”
Let me now outline a few significant matters relating to the word “Freedom”. The old word that was used for freedom was “Liberty”.“Liberty” was the term used in the French Revolution and the American War of Independence. But today, the word “liberty” is rarely used and the term “Freedom” has become the popular word.
Also, we must not confuse the term “Freedom” with similar terms, for example “Licence”. Strictly speaking “licence” is a restricted term meaning “permission to do something”. We are familiar with the Hollywood James Bond movies where James Bond is an Agent of the British Secret Service and has been given “a licence to kill”. In Sri Lanka, the term licence is used for such purposes as a driving licence, revenue licence, liquor licence, etc.
Also, Ladies & Gentlemen, please remember that the term “Freedom” is now tagged or added on to many of the recognized Human Rights. So the right to speak, has become “Freedom of Speech”. The right to associate or join an institution, etc is called “Freedom of Association”. The right to travel is called “Freedom of Movement”, etc.
“Freedom Of, Freedom to and Freedom From”
We must also appreciate and focus on the difference between “Freedom Of”, “Freedom To” and “Freedom From”.
“Freedom Of” and “Freedom To” is somewhat similar, but “Freedom From” is different.
This point was eloquently emphasized by President Franklin Roosevelt in his State of the Union Address to the American Legislature in January 1941 shortly after America had entered the Second World War. President Roosevelt said:
We look forward to a world founded upon Four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship his religion in his own way – everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want – which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear – which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point that there will be no physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.
Two Sides of the “Freedom Coin”
Great leaders have made observations about Freedom and Liberty which explains and bring out their true meaning and shows that there are two sides to the “Freedom Coin”. At this talk I would like to share those views with you and ask you to think about them. For instance, the famous English parliamentarian, Edmund Burke said “there is nothing called Abstract Freedom or Liberty”. He added that in order to protect freedom and enjoy it, it is best that it be limited. The leader of the Russian Revolution, Lenin appears to have echoed the same sentiments because Lenin has said that “freedom is so precious that it should be rationed”.
My own view is that freedom should not be measured and should not depend whether it should be permitted only to persons who can appreciate its qualities, for example, only to the educated.
On the other hand, I believe that freedom does not mean that one can do whatever he likes or desires. Let me give a simple illustration. For example, everyone of us likes to enjoy the freedom to sing, dance and to make merry as we wish. But is it correct for us to do so in an urban area even in our own house after 12 midnight? Because obviously, if we so behave, there is a possibility that we may be disturbing our neighbours and denying them sleep or rest which people expect at that time. Here, there must be a limit to freedom and law will intervene and say that while you are free to do as you wish you cannot be a nuisance to others. In the same context, while you can throw away your garbage or rubbish as you wish, you must not do so in public places because you are polluting the environment and creating health hazards and now it is also an offence.
As far back as 1850s, the famous John Steuart Mill who wrote the well known book “The Wealth of Nations” said “the liberty of the individual must be limited so that he will not make himself a nuisance to other people”.
Do issues like “Freedom”/”Liberty” concern the Poor and Disadvantaged
In my long years in public life, I have heard theories and viewpoints that rural people of a country (like Sri Lanka) are not interested in philosophical meanings of “freedom” and “liberty”. For example because of huge borrowings by the previous government our country is in deep financial debt and unless we free ourselves from this debt trap we will not have true financial freedom. However, the majority of our countrymen may not appreciate this position. Here one can rightly say that the average rural villager does not understand what a “debt trap” is.
In this same context, it is said that the poor and disadvantaged are only interested in what can benefit or help them individually such as reducing their cost of living, providing reasonable market prices for what they grow and cultivate and if necessary, providing subsidies and monthly welfare handouts..
Personally, and by long experience, I do not agree or subscribe to such views that only the educated or well to do are concerned about aspects of Freedom and Liberty and that the poor are not. For instance, I have learnt from some lawyers that the poor in Sri Lanka are very conscious of our Constitutional provisions relating to Fundamental Rights and the inexpensive legal remedies available for infringement of such rights. They resort to such remedies especially when they have problems with the Police. I will later in my talk refer to this situation when I deal with Fundamental Rights.
The Position in Sri Lanka
Now I turn to focus on the position on Sri Lanka on the subject of Freedom and the Duty to Exercise Freedom Responsibly.
Ladies & Gentlemen, as you know there are 194 countries in the world today. Under prevailing international norms, a country is recognized as a sovereign nation when it is given a seat in the United Nations. In that context, it is my personal belief that when it comes to the enjoyment of liberty and freedom, Sri Lanka is doing well.
In outlining the position in Sri Lanka, I will highlight the following important areas briefly and then explain them.
Firstly, the guarantee of important fundamental rights in our Constitution. Our Constitution not only guarantees these rights but in addition provides legal remedies for any breach of those fundamental rights. These provisions are found in Articles 10 to 16 of our Constitution.
Secondly, I will refer to Sri Lanka’s Quality of Life Index. If you look at some of the main indicators it shows that Sri Lanka stands quite high in these areas which all help to strengthen the foundation of freedom and liberty in our country.
Thirdly, the important role played by “Free Education”, “Free Health” and the “Advancement of Women” in our society.
Fourthly, the importance of Parliamentary democracy which we have enjoyed in our country for the past over 70 years.
Constitutional Guarantee of Fundamental Rights
The several recognized rights of freedom that developed in the Western World came to be collectively known as Fundamental Rights. At the time of our Independence from the British in 1948, we did not have such rights, Nor were such rights recognized in our first Constitution of 1948.
In 1972, we had a Republican Constitution where such rights were recognized for the first time. However, the 1972 Constitution omitted to lay down a simple and speedy remedy for infringement of fundamental rights. This was rectified in the 1978 Constitution which is our current Constitution.
I am proud to say that Articles 10-16 of our Constitution provides for all the fundamental rights that a free society needs. Let me now elaborate on some of these main rights.
Under Articles 10-16 of the Constitution the following rights are enshrined:
(a) All persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law.
(b) No citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any one of such grounds.
(c) Every citizen is entitled to Freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
(d) We guarantee the Freedom of movement, association and peaceful assembly.
(e) We guarantee that no citizen shall be arrested or detained except under established legal procedure and no punishment except by a competent Court.
(f) We guarantee that all persons are presumed innocent unless and until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt and are entitled to a fair trial and to be defended by a lawyer of their choice.
I am proud to say that our Supreme Court has by “judicial activism” enlarged on these Fundamental Rights and have enforced them without fear or favour. You will also appreciate that we have an active Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka and this year we also enacted the Right to Information Legislation.
Recently I understand that recently our Prime Minister has submitted a Cabinet Paper to enlarge upon these fundamental freedoms in keeping with modern global trends.
Sri Lanka’s Quality of Life Index
The quality of life of any people is relevant to their freedom and liberty. In this context the World Bank’s recent report on Sri Lanka has highly commended our positive social indicators in the field of education, health, literacy rates and life expectancy. Sri Lanka also stands high in the 2016 Human Development Index (HDI) issued by the United Nations. We are ranked 73 out of 188 countries and for your knowledge I share the following details:
Life expectancy at birth (years)
Infant mortality rate (per 1,000 live births)
Under-five mortality rate (per 1,000 live births)
Adult literacy rate (% ages 15 and older)
Gross enrolment ratio, primary (% of primary school-age population)
Gross enrolment ratio, secondary (% of secondary school-age population)
The national poverty statistics indicates that Sri Lanka has made considerable progress in reducing poverty over the past decade reaching a poverty head count ratio of 6.7 per cent. Additionally, the incidence of extreme poverty is low in Sri Lanka, accounting for only 1.9 per cent of the population.
“Free Education”, Free Health”, “Advancement of Women”
With nearly fifty years of experience in public life, I am proud to speak highly of our Free Education and Free Health systems from the cradle to the grave. Indeed, both have shortcomings but both have contributed to enriching Sri Lankans.
Primary and Secondary school children number nearly 5.5 million attending nearly 11,500 schools. We have 20 State Universities and 18 Postgraduate Institutions. All this education is totally free. When free education was introduced as far back as 1944 the Minister who did so (Dr. C W W Kannangara) later called the Father of Free Education had stated “I find education to be the patrimony of the rich. I now make it the lasting inheritance and legacy of the poor”.
Also in my view, women have played a dominant role in uplifting our society. Remember, we gave the World the first woman Prime Minister. Today, more women study in our Universities than men and women almost equal men when it comes to public sector jobs, but they outnumber men when it comes to the teaching professions. I also believe in the principle that when you educate a woman, in most cases, you are also educating a Mother.
Parliamentary Democracy for Past 70 Years
Another strong edifice of freedom and liberty is Parliamentary Democracy.
In the first week of October this year Sri Lanka celebrated 70 years of Parliamentary Democracy and on that occasion we were honoured by the presence of Honourable Speakers of neighbouring countries like India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal. We are proud to be recognized as a Parliament of Asia’s oldest democracy.
We have upheld Parliamentary democracy without interruption for seven decades despite the country facing two military coup attempts in 1960 and 1971, coupled with youth insurrection and unrest and a youth revolt in 1989. The country also suffered 30 years of ethnic conflict, but still Parliamentary Democracy prevailed and we have been governed by the Ballot and not the Bullet. The Inter Parliamentary Union consider Sri Lanka as a role model for the rest of the world.
Ladies & Gentlemen, I have spoken for quite a long time and I hope I have not exceeded the time allotted to me. So let me also act responsibly and limit my freedom of speech and now conclude.
Before I sit down, as the Speaker of Parliament I call upon our President and our Prime Minister and all my Parliamentary colleagues to help in the process of Reconciliation of the situation in the North and East which is of paramount urgency and priority after so many years of conflict. In this process of Reconciliation I call upon all Sri Lankans to unite together putting aside differences of race, religion and political beliefs.
Lastly, I thank the organizers of this event in the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung and its Sri Lankan Head, Ms. Sagarica Delgoda for inviting me and giving me the opportunity to speak today.