Thu. Dec 3rd, 2020

Youngsters grow up without icons to emulate

By Dr. Nicholas Ruwan Dias and Niresh Eliatamby

Not exactly shining examples for our young people to emulate, are they?
This week, we had an Opposition Member of Parliament biting into a raw fish at a media conference. That went viral.
Last week, we saw several Cabinet Ministers involved in black magic, throwing enchanted clay pots into a river. That went viral.
Why is it that Sri Lanka does not have societal and business leaders of the calibre of Lee Kwan Yew, Mahatma Gandhi, Mahathir Mohamed, Barack Obama, Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa, and Gill Gates? More to the point, why don’t Sri Lankans aspire to become like these eminent persons who went so far in life and positively influenced humanity through their achievements?
Instead we have to hark back a thousand years to the time of the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kings and proclaim their virtues in building canals, lakes, and religious monuments. That’s a long time back to have to go to find a role model.
Instead, we have contemporary leaders biting into a fish and using black magic.

Do we not have good role models?

Is it really the case that there are few Sri Lankans worth emulating, that our politicians are the only ones that we have for our youngsters to look up to?
A closer look indicates that this is not the case. There are thousands of Sri Lankans who are achieving great things around the world – doctors, scientists, sportsmen and women, authors, and even decent politicians – Sri Lankans elected in New Zealand and Australia. We hear about them from foreign media, which is then picked up by social media and local media.
If they exist overseas, then surely they exist in Sri Lanka too? So why aren’t they in the limelight?
We are deliberately avoiding mentioning politicians as role models in this article, because there is never much consensus about their desirability. 

Yes, we do!

Go out into the rural villages. You’ll find local community leaders hard at work actually helping the community – helping elders, children, and the less fortunate – and working to mitigate disasters such as floods. They may be members of local co-operative societies, Sri Lankan charities, priests of every religion, teachers and principals, grama niladharis, etc. All toiling away.
But they do so without any fanfare. The local people appreciate them. But that’s as far as their fame goes. 

Perverse media culture

One of the most damning issues is that Sri Lanka has a perverse media culture – both traditional media and mass media – that glorifies violence and violent behaviour. Deadly road accidents, political thuggery, police shootings… these are far too often the mainstays of our media.
Feel-good stories of ordinary people working and achieving simply don’t make it onto the front pages very often.
Oh yes, you get a few stories about academic achievements right after the Scholarship Exam results are announced. But these are just seasonal and quickly forgotten.
Another issue is that Sri Lankan culture unfortunately worships money and not achievement. An unscrupulous businessman who bribed his way to huge contracts and drives around in a swanky Prado is revered while the learned Supreme Court Justice or university professor who uses a more normal car gets scant attention. Thus, corruption is also a major challenge when looking for role models.

Stop reaching back for past glories

Those who need to reach back a thousand years to find role models are missing the very point they are making: That we have to reach back a thousand years to find role models. It also conveniently ignores the fact that modern Sri Lanka is very much an “imported” model. Our highways and bridges are built by Chinese Japanese, Indians, and Koreans. Our dams were built by everyone but ourselves – Victoria by the British, Kotmale by the Swedish, Randenigala by the Germans, Gal Oya by the Americans, Samanala by the British, and Uma Oya by the Iranians (the latter two quite controversial). Our ports and port cities were built by the Chinese. Our airports were built by the Japanese, Indians, and Chinese.

Contemporary role models

There is always an elderly person when we are young growing up that we respect for a variety of reasons. It’s usually a parent, teacher, sister, cousin, or uncle who we look for and copy. Some of us may do this consciously, and some of us would do it without understanding how affected we are. They are our role models and as we grow up, these role models shift as our preferences and needs evolve. It is really important to have role models in our lives and to have successful role models, as they affect what we are doing and how we ultimately turn out. Good role models impact our actions and inspire us to work hard to discover our true potential. They encourage us to take advantage of our lives. Models of roles are a must to better ourselves and we need a norm that we can aim for or compare with. We should want to reach “greatness” or “stardom” if we are to have even mediocre success in every area of life. It’s important, therefore, to be properly inspired to find out who you are and make your best.
There is one thing all of the world leaders, renowned scientists, sportsmen, and high achievers have in common; all of them have positive role models who they have tried to imitate and ultimately do better than their role. Our role models will inspire us to tackle obstacles because they faced a lot of challenges and conquered those. They showed that no difficulty is too large to conquer; in fact, some successful people have had obstacles that are usually considered insurmountable. For example, Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s most successful scientists, was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) which paralysed him over the decades. He lost his voice, but he did not stop his resolve and continued his scientific study by using a single cheek muscle, transmitting it to the world.
Is it so difficult to find Sri Lankans who are achieving great things? We carried out some simple research into Sri Lankans and found that there are plenty of good people out there to emulate. Here are a few of them in Fig. 1. We don’t personally know them, but they are out there.

Prof. Mohan Munasinghe has an emphasis on energy, water source, sustainable development, and climate change as a physicist, academic, and economist from Sri Lanka. As Deputy Chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Commission on Climatic Change, he has shared the 2007 Nobel Prize with Al Gore in his work on global warming and sustainable development.In 1962, Dr. Cyril Ponnamperuma was awarded an affiliation with NASA at the Ames Research Centre with the National Academy of Science, NASA’s division of exobiology and the leadership of the Division for Chemical Evolution. He was the lead investigator for the study of lunar soil by the Apollo project, participated in Viking and Voyager programmes, and was a part of the NASA Space Science Advisory Board and NASA’s Life Sciences Advisory Board.Prof. Ganesar Chanmugam was a fellow researcher at the Institute of Astrophysics in Liege, Belgium. He subsequently taught and performed his astrophysics study at the Louisiana State University for the next 25 years, with the exception of the MIT summer and sabbatical leaves; the Space Telescope Technology Institute; the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre; the Max-Planck-Institut fur Astrophysics; and over a dozen other major research institutes all over the world.Dr. Preethi Gunaratne established a lab to obtain genome signatures from more than 1,000 tissue samples that are uniquely and microRNA-regulated. Using this method, Dr. Gunaratne and colleagues identified biomarkers which better predict clinical outcomes than gene expression signatures based on ovarian, colorectal, metastatic breasts, peal and kidney carcinogenicity, multiple myeloma, neuroblastoma, and osteosarcoma, using the Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) project Pan-Cancer datasets in 20 cancers. Dr. Sarath Gunapala is the physicist, senior scientist, and group supervisor in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA. He mainly specialises in Infrared Picture Detection of Quantum Well. In 1992, Dr. Gunapala was awarded a degree in the University of Colombo and the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. Gunapala entered NASA, following his training at AT&T Bell Laboratories, in a post-doc at AT&T Bell Laboratories. He also serves as a member of QPILL LLC’s Board of Directors. Prof. Malik Peiris has a special interest in emerging virus diseases at the intersection between animal and human health and is a scientific healthcare virologist at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). He has studied the pathogenesis of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic virus and the H5N1, H9N2, and H7N9 avian influenza viruses. His discovery of the new SARS coronavirus played a significant role. Prof. Malik Peiris directs the Hong Kong “Controlling Pandemic and Inter-Pandemic Flu” multidisciplinary Excellence Area Programme. In the US National Institutes of Health, he is an investigator at the Centres of Excellence for Fluid Testing and Surveillance programme (CEIRS). The World Health Organisation (WHO) H5 Reference Laboratory is also co-directed by the HKU.Thavachsri Charles Vijayaratnam was among six Asian women who were honoured by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) ceremony held in Bangkok, Thailand on 22 October 2013 at the N-Peace Awards. In an online voting campaign that earned a record 70,000 votes for all candidates earlier this year, Vijayaratnam won most votes among the Sri Lankan nominees in the leading category N-Peace Awards – Role Models for Peace. Her family suffered severe poverty and suffered many famines when she grew up in the Northern Province. She was subjected in her early 20s to the destruction and pain caused by the civil war. After the war, she tried to protect those in her group who had no voice and suffered from difficulties. The work of Vijayaratnam encompasses a wide range of areas. It has provided access to education for orphans and vulnerable children, sponsored families with under-nourished children, and allowed communities to have access to key legal documents such as birth certificates, death certificates, and land rights documents. She works in promoting women’s rights and livelihoods by promoting the access to loans and skills development training to women’s households.Senaka Senanayake is the contemporary artist who has gained a reputation for his work as one of the most admired artists in Sri Lanka, distinguished by his beautifully coloured scenes of lush and overlapping jungle fauna and greenery. In London, Paris, New York, Tokyo, and Berlin, the artist has participated, among many others, in solo exhibitions throughout the world. He studied art at the University of Yale. The influence of Senanayake comes from numerous sources, including her children’s experience, the lively landscape of her native country, and the typical Buddhist archaic styles.

Practical solutions

Wipe out corruption:Send a few of the criminal leaders to jail and keep them there. Highlight their long prison terms. That should open the eyes of youngsters that these aren’t the type of the people to emulate.Eliminate nepotism and favoritism:Stop reserving for the name, caste, or religion and begin to pick individuals on the basis of merit. There should be reservations but for those who really need them, like people with a lower family or economic income.Comeback SL programme:The Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022 calls for the development of the long-run Balik Scientist programme, which invited Philippine professionals who have made their names outside of the Philippines to come back to the Philippines in order to establish their own business enterprises, to undertake skill-building programmes, to mentor local experts, and to provide knowledge and insight in their sector. Create opportunities:High-tech research and development centres are incorporated into international-related networks where people are able to return to the country without fear regarding their career advancement. This involves incentives for knowledge firms, such as grants.Publicity! Publicity! Publicity!:Every media organisation should be required by the law to feature 50% good news on their front pages and throughout their media – newspapers, magazines, websites, radio news, TV news, etc. The governing party does have a two-thirds majority after all.A national programme that identifies, promotes, and rewards achievers in any field:Arts, science, sports, business, community, etc.

(The writers are Managing Partners of, a consultancy that finds practical solutions for challenges facing society and different industries. Dr. Dias is a digital architect and educationist based in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a BSc in Computing from the University of Greenwich, a Master’s in Computer Software Engineering from Staffordshire University, and a PhD from the University of Malaya. He is completing a second doctorate in Business Administration from Universiti Utara Malaysia [[email protected]]. Eliatamby is a lecturer in marketing, human resources, and mass communications based in Colombo. He is an author and was formerly associate editor of a newspaper and editor of various industry magazines. He holds an MBA from London Metropolitan University and an LLM from Cardiff Metropolitan University [[email protected]])


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