Sir John Kothalawala
By Upali Salgado
Re-produced from The Island.lk March 2013
The well known Civil Servant and an Ambassador of the past, Neville Jayaweera, has in the sister newspaper SUNDAY ISLAND of 24th February 2013 given readers a hitherto unpublished interesting interview he had with the much loved General Sir John Kotelawela, PC, KBE, a Prime Minister of this Island nation. To justifiably reveal the remarkable character of this outstanding leader of men and women, I quote briefly just two selected paragraphs of Neville Jayaweera’s interesting and entertaining story, which is rich with anecdotes. There is no doubt that Sir John was a disciplined and honest politician who was at times outspoken, using the choisest English or Sinhala blunt idiom that suited the occasion. To quote from Jayaweera’s interview : ON OPPORTUNISM AND SELF INTEREST – Sir John – “Don’t be a bloody ass Jayaweera (sic) Self interest !. Opportunism and self interest are the guiding rule of political power. This is the only principle all Politicians live by, everywhere in the world, and not just Ceylon. Neither country, nor religion nor anything else, but simply opportunism and self interest. Again, Sir John did say when reminded that he had abandoned Parity of Status for the Tamils and the Sinhalese people – “Jayaweera, Damn true. You are a clever bugger. Thank you for reminding me. That is why I say we, politicians, are all hypocrites, and the only thing we understand is climbing up the greasy pole of power and self interest!”
My mind goes back to times before World War II, when people lived with less tension, and there was no Medical Channelling Service. The political atmosphere certainly had a different tone when compared with today. Bribery and corruption was far less known. Sir John lived in that age. Today, thirty three years after his demise, let us recall a few interesting incidents associated with his political life.
Before being knighted, as a Minister in successive governments, he was best known as “Colonel John Kotelawela”. On the sudden demise of the Hon. D.S. Senanayake PC, Prime Minister, Sir John considered himself to be the most eligible successor to the prime post in the Cabinet of Ministers. Finally, the pain of mind he suffered when by popular demand, he learnt that Minister, Dudley Senanayake was preferred to him by the public is lucidly related by that veteran Journalist J. L. Fernando who was the Political Correspondent of Lake House in his publication “There Prime Minister of Ceylon”. Being a disciplined soldier, he accepted defeat, when it was made known to him that the Tamil Minorities, the European Community which had large Commercial interests in Colombo and the Plantations, and also the Burgher Community, who had yet to migrate to Australian had let him down. The Premier stakes ended peacefully with popular Dudley the Liberal Democrat he was adorning the Top Hat, although Sir John had seniority and an excellent record of service.
A Man of Action
Kotelawela was a man of action. As Minister of Transport and Works, to his credit are several development achievements. The Maskeliya-Norton Bridge Hydro Electric Scheme, which was our first ever such Hydro Power project, and later, the Mousekelle, Laxapana falls Power House and Castlreigh Dam generating more power to the grid, were successfully completed under his stewardship. Millions of people, who annually climb Sri Pada on pilgrimage gratefully remember Sir John, who made a vow to light-up the arduous pathway upto the summit of the world famous historic mountain. Sir John had a thirst to achieve success with more development. The modernization of the Port of Colombo, with Queen Elizabeth to begin with; the building of a new powerful Light House at Galle – Buck to replace the 100 year Chatham Street Tall Light House, a well known landmark of the metropolis; the modernization of the Graving Docks, the upgrading of equipment at the Ratmalana Railway Depot loco shed; and the new buildings for the University of Peradeniya (Halls of Residence, Lecture Halls, Administrative Block and Library building) and landscaping done under the guidance of Sir Patrick Abercrombe, a world famous architect, and helped by our own architect, Shirley D’ Alwis, were other achievements of Sir John’s Ministry. They were completed in time for the Royal visit of 1954 when the Duke of Edinburgh in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen declared open the University. In about 1947, the Railway minor employees attached to the Railway Loco Repair Shed at Ratmalana were to be given government housing. When tender bids for construction were opened for all 90 small houses of the Railway Housing Estate (later named “KOTELAWELAPURA”), it revealed three prospective building contractors. They quoted Rs 10,500-, Rs 11,000- and Rs 12,500- respectively, for each complete building. Using his prerogative as a Minister and over-riding the Treasury “FR” Regulations, he awarded the contracts to all three House builders, each to be responsible for thirty houses to be completed in 12 months. He also directed that a ceremonial opening of the Housing Estate be held, at which he would be present to unveil a plaque with his name on it! Later, when a smart newspaper reporter asked Sir John whether he had not violated the Treasury “FR” Regulations when awarding the tender his reply was, “Aei Yodayo, if I adhered to the silly Treasury Regulations, they will never complete all ninety houses in twelve months. Furthermore, when the ninetieth house is ready for occupation, the completed first ten ,houses would have their roofs leaking”. That was Sir John, a man of action who wanted quick results. He never forgot senior citizens of the country and had built for them the spacious Kastady Home for elders, in Jaffna.
On another occasion, Sir John was rushing from his electorate Dodangaslanda, for a Cabinet meeting. At Polgahawela, the Railway Gateman closed the gate when the Prime Minister’s speeding car was just 50 yards away. Sir John’s chauffer was instructed to tell the Railway Gateman that Sir John, the Prime Minister was in a hurry. Therefore, he should promptly open the Railway Gate. The old man flatly refused and within a few seconds, an express train sped past the Railway Crossing. On the following day, the Polgahawela Station Master received a Railway Telegraph message from the GMR to say, the Railway employee at the Railway gate who was on duty at 5.30 p.m. be sent to meet the Prime Minister in his office. When the old Villager, nervous as he was, went to Colombo, Sir John warmly welcomed him, and after a brief chat instructed that the Railway employee be rewarded with a sizeable salary increase.
When the writer as a Scout Commissioner attended the Golden Jubilee Scout Jamboree in 1957, held in Birmingham, UK, my late father, who personally knew Sir John, wanted me to make a courtesy call on him at his Briddendem Farm, Kent. As I fell ill, I was unable to visit our onetime Prime Minister who lived in the South of England, about 350 miles away. I sent him a short letter and conveyed to him the good wishes of the Scout Contingent. A few days later, a chauffer driven stately looking Daimler Saloon Motor Car pulled up at our camp-site, and I was given a gift sent by Sir John, with a note of thanks for remembering him. The large package contained fifty fresh Lush Apples from Sir John’s Farm in Kent. Though he had, in the evening of his life, a comfortable life in Kent, this much loved leader did not forget his countrymen! People at home referred to him inspeech as “Sinhala Yodaya”
Perhaps, the greatest achievement of Sir John, as Minister of Transport and Works was the continuous widening of Galle Road, which began in about 1939. I remember Ratmalana was reached by 1947. Two small concrete bridges over the Canals at Wellawatte and Dehiwela too had to be constructed. Today, minions of vehicles, including container traffic and buses use the Galle Road. Incidentally, though belated, Galle Road should be named “General Sir John Kotelawela Mawatha”.
This man, Kotelawela, had a circle of loyal friends, both men and women who admired his characteristic style of l iving. Often Tarzie Vittachi, the doyen of journalists attached to Sunday Observer did spotlight the “Purple Brigade” gracing the grand Kandawela night parties; the Barbecue and the Cabaret items by Belly Dancers who entertained those faithful to him. Sir John was a sincere friend to all. His gates were always open, even to school drop-outs who were in search of jobs. The Girl Guides selected for their camping out-of-doors, picturesque his coconut estate, overlooking his stately mansion, which today is his magnanimous gift to the sons of Sri Lanka, now named “General Sir John Military Academy”; having University status.
Sir John’s contribution as a politician and his munificence are legendary. He left behind his medals, honours bestowed, his wealth in Plumbago mines and, his friends who today, affectionately recall his doings for other’s welfare. Millions do remember him. The saying goes, “Old Soldiers never die they simply pass away”.