V K Samaranayake:
A closer look at the phenomenon
By Nalaka Gunawardene
An era has ended with the death of Vanniarachchige Kithsiri Samaranayake (VKS), often described as father of ICT in Sri Lanka.
A university teacher, administrator and public official who dominated Sri Lanka’s science and technology landscape for decades, VKS was chairman of the government’s ICT Agency (ICTA) at the time of his death on 7 June 2007.
He was also the Emeritus Professor of Computer Science at the University of Colombo, which he served for over 45 years since his first appointment as an assistant lecturer in mathematics in 1961. He founded the University’s Department of Statistics and Computer Science (DSCS) and the Institute of Computer Technology (ICT), which were merged in 2002 to become the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC).
Through these and other public, academic and professional offices held, VKS was closely associated with a range of endeavours from ICT policy and legislation to IT business development and science popularisation. In a land where most scientists and professionals quietly pursue their careers, VKS was one of the more visible figures in public science. It is instructive, therefore, to briefly take stock of his contributions as a public intellectual.
His legacy itself will require greater reflection over a longer period of time.
A fair question to ask, in this initial assessment, is how much of a gap exists between public perceptions of VKS, and his tangible accomplishments in the IT and ICT sectors.
Had he chosen a different career path, VKS could have been a successful politician – he had a remarkable sense of the public’s interests and passions.
For example, he realised early on that there are three ‘institutions’ that all Sri Lankans hold dear, irrespective of their ethnic, economic, social and other divisions: the education system (public examinations in particular); multi-party elections; and the Sri Lankan Cricket Team (and not necessarily in that order!). He helped introduce IT in announcing results of exams and elections, and in providing live television commentaries of cricket matches.
These ventures not only generated revenue for his University, but put VKS in the centre of public and media attention.
These efforts moved computers out of a geeky pigeon-hole into more visible positions in Sri Lankan society. Whether IT was also ‘mainstreamed’ by these initiatives is debatable.
While public and media apprehension of computers has subsided over time, I have often argued that information technologies have yet to win full public trust and acceptance in Sri Lanka for their problem -solving potential. Recent misadventures by ICTA, such as the massively error-ridden Parliament website and persistent failure to standardize Sinhala for IT applications, may have actually reversed public confidence in IT.
Meanwhile, policy and legislative bottlenecks continue to retard Sri Lanka’s IT industry, whose total export earnings from software and IT-enabled services in 2006 were value d at US$ 98 million, a far cry from neighbouring India’s. Having headed state IT bodies since the early 1980s – first as chairman of the Computer and Information Technology Council (CINTEC) and later at the helm of ICTA – VKS cannot escape the blame for a long line of policies, regulations and reforms that were much delayed, still- born or misdirected.
As a result, Sri Lanka has missed many opportunities in IT and communications sectors while rest of South Asia forged ahead. I analysed this in considerable detail in a long, reflective essay titled ‘The tragedy of LK and dot lk’ written in August 2005, written shortly after the assassination of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. It was an attempt to place Sri Lanka’s many ICT failures in a broader political and global context.
Although I didn’t cite VKS by name, he was partly responsible for the sorry mess that I summed up as follows:
“The tragedy of dot lk was that our far-reaching telecommunications reforms during the mid and late 1990s were not matched by a farsighted approach to information and communication policy. As a result, Sri Lanka – first in South Asia to liberalise its broadcast media, and first to introduce commercial Internet – today seriously lags behind other countries in the sub-region in terms of ICT growth,penetration and market maturity.”
Based on evidence, it appears that VKS was more effective in setting up physical institutions than in changing policies – the latter admittedly a much harder task with far greater risks of failure. It’s as if VKS built a couple of lushly irrigated ‘oases’ amidst widespread desolation and deprivation when, in fact, the national offices he held for long were mandated to irrigate the whole ‘desert’.
On the other hand, is this ‘enclave’ approach the only way to achieve results in a country like Sri Lanka, experiencing almost a systemic meltdown?
If we accept this argument for a moment, can we still justify the high level of public funds, donor grants and international loans that were invested in setting up and sustaining these ‘enclaves’? Can they stand a rigorous cost benefit analysis? Has one ever been carried out?
These questions beg dispassionate discussion rising well above individuals and institutions. Answers to these are crucial for the future of not just ICTs, but the whole of science and technology and their role in Sri Lanka’s national development.
Meanwhile, another facet of VKS’s public life deserves careful study. In the 1980s, VKS the university academic metamorphosed into an ambitious, empire-building government official. And whatever his detractors say, we have to concede that VKS was one of the shrewdest professionals of his generation. He may not have been the brightest mathematician or the most productive academic in conventional (paper-publishing) terms.
But he had no parallel in knowing exactly how to deal with the egotistic and myopic politicians of Sri Lanka, whose weaknesses he exploited for close to three decades.
How else can we explain that VKS survived several governments of different political parties in a land where public officials are routinely purged with every change of administration? Presidents and ministers of science came and went, but VKS remained an almost constant fixture: he clung on to high office even when he had little to show for it.
He was neither visionary nor innovative. He just knew which buttons to press with assorted political masters. With the urban and technocratic Sri Lankan conservative party, he would cite his Royal College credentials, speak in English and convince those who mattered that he was ‘one of them’. But when political fortunes changed, he would quickly bring out his Buddhist background and rural origins, and speak in Swabhasha with Sinhala nationalists.That strategy worked, most of the time.
Even then, VKS might have redeemed himself eventually if such questionable means had led to a justifiable end. But ICT is not just glittering buildings and expensive hardware; it’s a much more nuanced and complex mix of people, institutions, policies and markets working in harmony. It’s precisely this combination that Sri Lanka has failed to get right after all these years.
Paradoxically for a man who worked in higher education and institution building, VKS failed to groom a next generation of leaders. He apparently lived in constant fear of younger, smarter professionals outshining him.
Several bright young academics moved out of Sri Lanka when VKS blocked their career progress for simply being good at what they did.
Why was VKS not held more accountable for public and donor funds he managed, and policy changes he failed to deliver? The answer is complex, but at least one factor was fear. VKS moved quickly and decisively to sideline those who disagreed with him or challenged him in his ‘empires’.
Dissent was never tolerated: just ask those who made that ‘mistake’. And sadly, those who served him with dedication didn’t earn his loyalty either. I once observed this first hand. At an international workshop organised by Sarvodaya in Colombo in February 2006, with VKS in the chair, I severely criticised his own ICT Agency on its ill-conceived tele-centre policy, Sinhala fonts debacle and other failures.3 When I sat down, VKS just smiled and announced publicly that he ‘broadly agreed’ with everything I’d said – and left it to his hapless senior managers in the audience to defend the agency (which they did very unconvincingly).
VKS knew better than to defend the indefensible! And, of course, nothing changed.
He was a grandmaster in another game: media manipulation. His desire for personalised media coverage was only matched by his lust for high office and privileges. If direct approaches with journalists for media coverage did not work, he would contact editors or media proprietors to get a story published -– or, in some cases, to have one suppressed.
With the exception of two fiercely independent newspapers, Ravaya and The Sunday Leader, most other media outlets indulged him uncritically. To them, what mattered was the singer, not the song. In turn, VKS rewarded them well, most recently by donating government PCs to selected journalists – another highly controversial ICTA project.
The fact that VKS under-delivered yet successfully pretended otherwise is really an indictment of our immature democracy, weak public institutions and the largely sycophantic media. These factors allow individuals like VKS to not just survive, but thrive at considerable public expense. In that sense, VKS was largely a creation of our bizarre times and circumstances.
This brings us back to the severe dearth of public intellectuals in Sri Lanka.
As a leading scientist with easy mass media access, and as one-time head of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science (SLAAS), VKS had every opportunity to publicly advocate evidence-based national policy decisions and choices. But he erred on the side of caution, allowing too many ill-advised policies to be adopted without sufficient (or sometimes any) public debate.
One such occasion was when, under pressure from a handful of astrologers, Sri Lanka changed its standard time in April 2006 – for the third time in a decade. VKS, the one-time populariser of astronomy (in his early career, he had written Sinhala books on the subject) was expediently silent, and then belatedly welcomed the move! As I commented at the time:
“It is not the least surprising, therefore, that while Sri Lanka has an abundance of ‘cocktail party intellectuals’ — learned men and women who only express their views in strict private conversation — there are very few public intellectuals.
“Stepping into this void are what I call ‘publicity intellectuals’ – scientists who pander to popular whims and nationalist fancies even when it goes against every norm of science.”
Was VKS more a publicity intellectual than a public intellectual?
That’s not for me to decide. Let history judge him kindly or harshly – but for it to be true and fair, all available evidence must be factored into that assessment.
The demise of VKS leaves a void, no doubt, but it’s not as large as his loyalists try to make out. In fact, the departure of the long –dominant patriarch could, hopefully, help unleash Sri Lanka’s latent ICT growth potential. And that is long overdue.
It should also pave the way for a kinder and fairer professional environment for talented young men and women to rise in the ICT sector – irrespective of where they have studied, or who their mentors have been.
As one mid-career IT professional, who has worked in both public and private sectors and associated VKS, put it shortly after his death:
“Working with him was like driving behind a very slow-moving truck on a narrow road, without any chance of overtaking. Now the road is finally wide open for me….and many others!”
It’s a major leap from the current dirt track to the information super highway. We can only hope that there are no major road blocks – or worse, landmines – along the way.
Geneva & Colombo, 8 – 10 June 2007
Nalaka Gunwardene first met V K Samaranayake in the late 1980s when working as a young science journalist, and maintained cordial relations with him for almost 20 years, even though they held divergent views on many ICT related issues. Nalaka is a contributing author for The Digital Review of Asia Pacific,http://www.digital-review.org/ and writes on media, technology and society.