Thursday, August 4, 2011

Shame on you!! (A tale of irony, failure and blatant discrimination)

And the star player is.... (wait for it ladies and gentlemen) the Ministry of Health!

Image from here

Of course, I need to add a disclaimer that I wasn't a witness to the sordid event, and that I heard it from a number of parties who were present.

Another sunny day in sunny Sri Lanka, a batch of young post-intern doctors, their SLMC registration cards all new and shiny, were attending an orientation programme organised by the Ministry. At one point, an official clambered on to the stage to deliver a lecture on "Communication, public relations and attitudes". Blinking owlishly at the audience, he has proceeded to deliver (very badly) a lecture in Sinhala.

After a short while, the Tamil speaking doctors have requested that he speak in English, as they were unable to follow what he was saying. A reasonable request, one would presume.

At this point, the official has snidely said "if you cannot understand, go outside and wait. You will be given a summary in English as a handout at the end of the lecture".

Stunned and horrified, yet maintaining their dignity, these doctors had walked out, followed by a few of their Sinhala speaking colleagues. Although the majority of the crowd had been outraged, few had the self assurance to join them. However, complaints were made to the organisers, followed by the assurance that this "official" will be pulled from the programme.

However, the drama continued on to the next day, lectures were still delivered in Sinhala, while the Tamil speaking doctors were taken (bussed?) to a different venue, where lectures were in Tamil.

In a time where we all speak of ethnic cohesion and reconciliation, I see this as an insult to all Tamil speaking persons and to all doctors. I see it as a personal insult to myself and my beliefs. I am shocked, disgusted and ashamed... but on further thought, I don't think I'm really surprised.

They talk the talk... but do they really walk the walk?


Darwin said...

Not surprised, but yes I am saddened. But I am also heartened that some had the courage to walk out too? Maybe the tide is turning, who knows. It's obvious change will not come from the top, it has to come from the people. Even awareness of this sort of discrimination is something new, and a positive thing at that.

Angel said...

Darwin! You're back!! :)

And yes, I share your feelings... and I am proud of those who didn't take it sitting down. I was wondering if I would have walked out... I think yes, but that's me sitting on my bed and typing possibilities. The nasty thing is, this programme happens every year and is conducted in English... I wonder why the change this time...

And for what it's worth, there been a lot of discussion about this on FB and elsewhere. Let us hope the outcome is positive!

Scrumps said...

It's stories like these that the Tamil Diaspora hears but they won't tell us that some Sinhala students walked out at well. So in some instances you can't blame them for their behaviour. People say the war is over but the battle may jsut be beginning. This kind of behaviour makes my blood boil!!

And Darwin - where have you been?!

Anonymous said...

The official was obviously rude in his response, but the Tamil students were also equally wrong to demand that the speech be given in English when what they should've asked for is for someone to translate the speech to Tamil. There is no need to sideline Sinhala (or Tamil) in favor of English. All that does is further opportunities available for the city crowd (be it Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims) and sideline the poor, village masses even further, widening the class divide. What Sri Lanka needs is introduction of real-time translation methods like used in U.N. and other such organizations' programs. Not a blind abandonment of Sinhala (or Tamil). If I were giving a speech in Sinhala, I certainly would be offended if someone asked me to stop to give it in English when English is only not even a national language. I certainly wouldn't change the language of my speech, but neither would I react rudely like this official allegedly did. I would encourage the Tamils to request for translators in the future rather than request that speeches not be given in the country's national language. Frankly, the compulsory introduction of Tamil language study in Sinhala schools and Sinhala language study in Tamil schools will take care of the problem in as short a time as 10 years when the now 5-year olds graduate O/Ls with a compulsory Tamil/Sinhala subject. The separate venue for Tamils with Tamil speeches is not so bad, after all they were equally accommodated treated, and not discriminated, in that they had their own location and speeches just like the Sinhalese did, even though this was certainly an inferior result to that of providing translators.

Angel said...

Scrumps : there are a lot of positive things happening as well, which don't get much publicity because, well, negative things are so much more sensational. Not many people know that medical officers won't get confirmed unless they show proficiency in 3rd language, which is tested not only in a written paper, but also the ability to talk to a patient about their illness,prescribe etc. (I have difficulty in shopping for groceries in Tamil, but I can jolly well diagnose a heart attack, liver failure or advise a patient about anaesthesia!)

Annon : thank you for your comment. I certainly agree with your views when it comes to a general audience, but in this case

1. The audience was of doctors 2 years after graduation, hence they have been learning and working in an English speaking environment for 7-8 years. Since all doctors are required to get "some" PG qualification in order to get promoted, and since PG programs are exclusively in English, it is fair to say that they will continue to work in such an environment for the next few years.

2. They doctors were invitees of the Ministry, and hence they should have known their audience. Especially since this program is conducted every year and it has been in English. (It's a little like knowingly inviting vegetarians to your house and serving only meat).

3. I'm sure a lecture in Sinhala, followed by the same lecture in Tamil would have been acceptable, but delivering it in English would have been in most inclusive option.

4. Separate venues in my opinion is a poor compromise since in real life, we work in multi-ethnic, multi-cultural teams. In theaters and emergency situations, communication is best done in English so that everyone understands "real time" what to do.

5. The fact that the lecture was on "communication and public relations" is perhaps the most ironic.

Knatolee said...

This is somewhat reminiscent of the ongoing bullshit here in Canada involving English vs. French. I feel your pain!

Anonymous said...

@Annon - You say English is not a National Language? They why is that the government orders (although they don't follow it) that every piece of text should be in all three languages?

How would you feel that when u got to Jaffna and no one's gives a rat's ass about you since you cant speak Tamil?

If the speaker was unable to speak in English he shouldn't have been rude to non-sinhala speaking students. Just to cover his illiteracy he took a shot at the Tamil students.

Also i doubt that there are any so called "translators" in abundance or else they'll all be working for the army and government in the North where they are most needed.

Separating the people based on their language of speech itself is discrimination despite what facilities you give them.

Jack Point said...


English is supposedly a national language.

Teaching two languages will never happen. We have had Sinhala since 1956 and all sorts of talk at various times of teaching two languages. There has been no tangible results and it would be more than optimistic to expect any in the future.

Jack Point said...


the topic of his speech was "Communication, public relations and attitudes"

It sound like it was a disaster on every single point.

Dee said...

agree with jack. how ironic and sad.

Angel said...

Knatolee : thanks for the understanding...

Annon 2 : I think you last sentence sums up the crux of the problem

JP : Exactly. Fail!

Dee : :(