Sir Oliver Goonetilleke
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Author:  Percy [ Sun Aug 07, 2005 7:28 pm ]
Post subject:  Sir Oliver Goonetilleke

Sir Oliver Goonetilleke

Reminiscences of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke
In his book Glimpses of the Public Services During a Period of Transition 1927-1962, (Kandy Books 2005), A. E. H. Sanderatne includes brief histories of the most important services of the public administration of Sri Lanka from the inception of British Rule in 1796 till 1962. The book provides insights into the working of the administration and the lives and character of public servants. It visualises the working of the bureaucratic system in a bygone era. We publish an excerpt from the book that recollects the early life of Sir Oliver Earnest Goonetilleke as a public servant.

Sir Oliver was perhaps the only colourful personality among those who functioned as Auditor General during a period of nearly a quarter century, from 1921 to 1946. The others did not get such publicity as Sir Oliver. No other Auditor General brought the work of the Audit into such limelight and publicity. In every Audit Report of his he was able to spotlight the various irregularities and frauds discovered by Audit officers. He saw to it that these revelations were given the widest publicity. People began to speak of these disclosures and therefore Sir Oliver gained a reputation for his ability. He was classed as a clever watchdog of the public purse.

Original ideas
Sir Oliver had his education at Wesley College, Colombo during the times of then Principal, Rev. H. Highfield and the Headmastership C.P. Dias, M.M.C. Both of them gave him every encouragement and saw in him great possibilities. The late Mr. Dias used to say of him “If you want an original idea, you better go to Oliver”. His intelligence, tact and ability to please his teachers and companions were seen in his school boy days.

He taught at Wesley for a few years and later passed the London B.A. and the London Inter Science (Economics). Rev. P.T. Cash the Vice Principal too gave him much encouragement and helped him in his studies. He had the innate understanding to deal with all sorts of people and get on with them in friendliest of terms.

He got employment as an Accountant of the now defunct Colombo Bank but left it before its closure. He had realised that the Bank would not be able to continue its activities very long. He took up the appointment as a Manager at Lake House. When the post of Assistant Auditor for Railways fell vacant, he was an applicant for the post. Sir Oliver’s father had also worked under Sir Wilfred Woods when the latter was the Post Master General. O.E.G. took up this appointment with great enthusiasm and ambition to make it a stepping stone to higher appointments in his career in the public service. From the commencement of his work in the Audit, he did not fail to show the indispensability of his services to the Colonial Auditor Sir Wilfred Woods, who found him ever ready to be very useful to him. He took up every work entrusted to him with very great zest in displaying his abilities.

Investigative mind
O.E.G. was an able writer and Sir Wilfred himself was a very clever writer of reports and communications on administrative matters. Sir Wilfred appreciated his reports, which were a marked improvement on the normal reports from the staff officers in Audit. O.E.G. was also fortunate that the accounts of Railway Extensions Department came under the scrutiny of Audit. It proved to be a very fertile field for O.E.G. to show his mettle in the investigation of the irregularities and misuse of government funds.

There had been a colossal waste of money and officials and contractors made easy money as a result of the callous manner in which the extension works were supervised. There was hardly any proper supervision.

He went into this work of investigation with an unusual zest, knowing fully well that this was an opportunity which he must exploit to the full and establish for himself a name in the Department. He made a lasting mark by the disclosures he made by personal investigations and scrutiny of the accounts of these extensions. Money had been wasted on unnecessary items of work or money had been paid in excess of work actually done.

The public were made aware of this waste of public funds and the Legislature too was grateful to O.E.G. for the able manner, in which he brought to light the waste of public funds. His work in the Railway Audit helped him to establish himself firmly above all other staff officers of the Department. The Assistant Colonial Auditor at that time was an Englishman, who did his normal work but was not so useful as O.E.G. Sir Wilfred recognised this fact and often very important papers were referred to him for his study and comments. When therefore Mr. Gentle left the Department there was no question that O.E.G. would succeed him. He was appointed Assistant Colonial Auditor on February 27, 1925. His meteoric rise in the Public Service is so well known that it needs hardly any mention here.

Enterprising mind
What were the chief characteristics of this man, which were observed by the officers, who had worked with him during the period of nearly a quarter century from 1921 to 1946? What were their impressions of him? There are people living today who had known him at Wesley, at Lake House, in the Audit, Civil Defence, Treasury, Home Ministry, and at Queen’s House. They are the people who can truly speak of him from personal experience of the man in close relations with them. What was his real self?

First of all one must not forget that he belonged to a middle class family. His father had been a Post Master who had served in several outstations with his family. O.E.G. is said to have been born in Trincomalee. His father gave all his children a middle class education. He was the only son. He had five sisters. The family had difficult days but all of them did well in school. It is true that O.E.G. had to supplement the income of the family by giving private tuition during the period he taught at Wesley.

In 1914, he was living in a house adjoining the Campbell Park. He became the mainstay of his family and had to help his sisters in many ways, especially at the time of their marriages. Early in life he faced difficulties. He therefore maintained a sympathetic attitude in life and that was the most redeeming feature of his life, which the officers who worked under him appreciated. At the time he joined the Railway Audit, a senior officer who worked with him was asked whether the Sinhalese in particular could expect much from him. He made a very shrewd observation about Sir Oliver then. “I doubt very much whether the Sinhalese as such will have any distinct advantage. He will spare no pains to attain his ambitions. He is not the man who will jeopardise his future in the service by going out of his way to help the Sinhalese in any special way.”

There was no doubt that he was very ambitious and left no stone unturned to achieve the highest positions open to him in the Public Service. He was aware of his capabilities and was shrewd enough to spot the weaknesses of the higher-ups in particular. He also realised that his future lay with those who exercised power not only in the bureaucracy but also in the political life of the country. He was a prominent member of the Turf Club and also at one time the Secretary of the Orient Club. He was also said to have been a Free Mason. He was also a prominent Churchman in the Diocesan Council and at one time President of the Central Y.M.C.A.

He knew very well that the contacts he gained in public life would be very useful to him. He saw in D.S. Senanayake a prospective leader of the people. He lived close to his residence and one could have seen both of them on horse back in the mornings going round on their usual riding exercise. In the early days of D.S.’s political life he proved himself to be a great helper to D.S. both as adviser and friend. This friendship did bear great fruit in the future career of O.E.G. Another great friend of his in the early days was Sir A.E. De Silva. He had accompanied him to India and was close to him when Sir Ernest was stricken with Small Pox.

Valued friend
It was no secret that Sir Ernest proved to be a very valued friend of his in many ways during his career. Although at one stage the estimation of him may have suffered in some ways, his determination to face difficulties won the day for him. He was no doubt astute and another in his position may have failed to make a success of his career. But he was always prepared to take great risks to achieve his ambitions in life. He did not shun the use of external influence when ever he found it necessary to do so. He was a master of compromise and diplomacy. For the most part of his life in Audit, he was generally considerate to subordinates. He showed sympathy to officers in distress.
The Tamils very soon realised that they need not fear him as he had no communal bias in favour of the Sinhalese. He very clearly made them understand that as long as they did work for him, he would not go out of his way to help the Sinhalese. The Tamils found their position quite secure during his regime.

From about April till July, each year he spared no pains in the preparation of the Annual Report. He expected the officers to work wholeheartedly during this period. A good number of officers took special care to please him at this period. They would stay after hours and work on Sundays, whether it was quite essential to do so or not. He saw to it that the Report was published expeditiously.

It was a common sight every evening to see a box load of papers being carried to his home in his car for attention. This trunk was known as the “Hamu’s Pettiya”. These papers generally dealt with subjects on which O.E.G. thought it a matter of wise policy to delay giving immediate orders or ignore them wholesale in process of time. Some assumed that the box went to and fro with the same papers and remained locked up in the same condition, untouched by hand. The officers did not actually know what was the ultimate fate of those papers!

Society man
He was very social by nature and was lavish in treating fellow officers, friends and visitors. When officers were specially called to work after hours he saw to it that they were provided with refreshments from the Pagoda Tea Rooms at his own expense. At times he utilised the service of officers to help in the counting of collections on Flag-days and he insisted that these officers should be looked after in the matter of refreshments and other facilities. He had been helping officers in financial distress. On one occasion a Class 3 officer was unable to meet the funeral expenses of his father. He approached him and O.E.G. gave him the money. The officer undertook to pay it back in instalments, but this officer after a few payments did not bother to pay the balance. Generally he was particular to attend the functions of subordinate officers when invited.

He also had a keen sense of humour and appreciated fun and laughed quite a lot on hearing humorous anecdotes concerning people. Once, a Railway Audit examiner was sent to check certain items in the Railway Stores. He had to do a test check. After checking, the list was duly submitted to O.E.G. He called the Head of the Branch and the Audit Examiner and questioned him as to why certain items were not checked. The officer felt rather hurt that he was so insistent and said in desperation “Facile Dictu, Difficile Factu (easy to say but difficult to do)” O.E.G. stopped further questioning by asking the Head of Branch whether “facile dictu etc.” were also instruments in the Railway Stores. That ended the matter; both O.E.G. and the Head of Branch laughed over the reply given in that manner.

It was usual to see almost daily a good number of people of various walks of life, coming to interview him. The Heads of Departments sometimes came on matters connected with important queries raised. Jockeys came from the Turf Club. Merchants and businessmen too visited him. There were Muslim and Borah merchants too. A Mudalali (dressed in coat, cloth and comb) used to come very often to see him and he was known to be a most trusted man of his. His sudden death was a very sad blow to O.E.G.

Once Terence De Zylwa, the leftist of the Suriyamal Campaign days, who was with him at Wesley, visited him. Terence had explained to him about the greatness of the Communist ideologies and his efforts to bring about a revolution in Ceylon. He had listened to him very patiently. Terence came out very much satisfied and told us that O.E.G. agreed with him and wished him every success in his work. He also had told him that he himself had to fight against imperialist forces in his career in the Public Service. No doubt even the Imperial England valued O.E.G. for his services in trying to make Ceylon a “little England”.

D.S. Senanayake was a frequent visitor; one saw them both walking out from his room smilingly enjoying some kind of joke or other. On race days, there was no doubt that bookmakers were the ones who saw him frequently.
Y.M.C.A. officials too come to discuss matters connected with its activities for he was at that time the President of the Y.M.C.A. It was rumoured that the General Secretary of the Y.M.C.A. spent an hour with him one morning espousing the cause of an aspirant to the post of Chief Audit Examiner.

Old friends of “Wesley days” were also seen coming for help and advice. No one went away without being at least satisfied with a friendly word. Even Christian padres and Buddhist priests interviewed him. He was very particular to give very great respect to the Buddhist priests and they always had a very good word to say of him. He always stood up humbly as the Priest advanced to him and he received him with the usual veneration. “He was all things to all men”.

O.E.G. lost his wife in 1931. That was a heavy blow to him. His wife had been a great source of strength to him in every way. From that time his house was kept for him by his brother-in-law Col. C.P. Jayawardena and his wife.

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