Is it Apathy or Inefficiency at Sri Lanka High Commission!

by Tilak S. Fernando

Why does almost every Sri Lankan living in the UK, who has had some form of contact with the Sri Lanka High Commission in London, have to moan? Why do some get frustrated, irritated and infuriated to the extent of flying off their handle when they try to communicate with this most prestigious Sri Lankan Government Office in the UK? Why does in return this responsible office constantly become fodder for journalists' cannon? Surely there must be something going radically wrong somewhere ! Could it be that the staff are either apathetic or inefficient and want to be only on cloud 9, thinking they are diplomats, even most of them are not so but exposing themselves as glorified pen-pushers ! Or could it be due to the flaws in the management structure of the Foreign Service where no periodic job evaluation methods or performance related assessments are never done or ever heard ? It is, therefore, evident that the attitude taken by the staff appears to be that once in public service one is assured of a job for life with a pension, and one does not care a damn as long as the pay packet gets to one's hand at the end of the month and a pension at the end of one's service !

Surely, there is no smoke without fire, and on an average people cannot be insane or confused all the time to point an accusing finger at the Sri Lanka High Commission! After all, Sri Lanka High Commission is the highest office in London representing our country. From where else should or could Sri Lankans living here seek important and vital information at a time of their need?

Unlike in the past where the numbers of Sri Lankans living in the UK were limited to a hand full, the picture has changed drastically today, and its numbers have increased in many a fold and in multiples. On the other hand the country and its development patterns too have been changing in an upward trend with economy broadening, commerce and technology advancing and the 'good old' facsimile messages and air letters being taken over by the Internet and the e-mail. In such a metamorphosis if the Sri Lanka High Commission is unable to deliver goods on a par-level with that of moving trends and help its people, it is often said and regarded it as a 'white elephant' only eating up millions and billions of tax payers' money, which could otherwise go towards development of the nation. By the same token, the critics say that the two most vital sections in the High Commission (Passports and Trade) could be run by a representative office, from a Far Eastern High Commission building based in London with a minimum of 2-3 staff.

By this method it is said that the expenditure can be cut down further on foreign exchange drain in terms of exorbitant house and various forms of other allowances diplomatic staff enjoy excessively which only drive some of them to 'unaccustomed' Hi Fi living, and in turn will act as a detriment in getting back to their own roots and their own modest living in Sri Lanka at the end of their tour of duty!

My complaint about the High Commission is a simple experience where I needed a telephone number of the most well known institute in Sri Lanka. I was desperate to contact the Colombo General Hospital to speak to a medical officer regarding a patient who was seriously ill with a suspected brain damage and who was due for a CT Scan. Hoping that I could get a quick and a positive response my first thoughts went to the Sri Lanka High Commission to obtain the telephone number of the Colombo General Hospital.

It may sound hilarious and a fiction storey but I assure you that this is the gospel truth. When the telephonist/receptionist greeted me with a ' Good Morning…….' (on 2 September 2002) and I made my enquiry, the first response I received was an unexpected exclamation, " Oh God'! After holding the line for about five minutes and when I was about to put the receiver down thinking I had been cut off, the same greeting, ' Good Morning'…was heard. At this point I had to wake her up from her slumber and remind her that I was still holding the line to obtain the Colombo General Hospital telephone number. Her ignorance on the matter had no bounds when she asked me, politely of course, " do you know where it is? Where is it is situated? You mean the Jayawardena hospital ? Or is it called the National Hospital"?

As it was evident that I was wasting my money and time I made her known that I would like to speak to the High Commissioner, at which point, in real 'diplomatic' terms I was informed that the High Commissioner was 'at a meeting'! As per my second request I was then transferred to the High Commissioner's Personal Assistant/Secretary, who appeared very apologetic and helpful, but even my enquiry was not within her knowledge, off the cuff. With a desperate muttering I could hear vividly from my end of the phone, ' Oh what am I going to do….' She informed me that I would be transferred to the Consular Division. However, it was nothing unusual, and as I expected, answer came back from her saying that " there is no one there at the Consular division". For a moment I wondered whether it was a Sri Lankan public holiday that no one was in the Consular section or in this whole office who could help me with my simple enquiry. However, with the presence of mind on the part of the Secretary to the High Commissioner, she took my phone number and phoned me back within minutes, with the information, which I must say was an experience I never have had before from this prestigious office for over two decades. Well-done young miss! And I wondered later how only she managed to get this information and not the others ! Hasn't the High Commission got a copy of the Sri Lanka Telecom Directory in their office after all ?

This whole episode focuses into one single point, i.e. the answer to the questions raised in the first paragraph of this report. This shows how the reputation of the Sri Lanka High Commission in London is allowed to be ripped apart by employing so many round pegs in square holes, who are unhelpful, inefficient or lethargic and constantly bringing not only the HC office but also the whole country into disrepute.

It is really sad to note that having new blood pumped into this prestigious office recently by the Foreign Ministry in Colombo, it has received a fair share of criticism from the Sri Lankan press while an ex-employee, who served for 54 years in the Mission has taken his masters to the Industrial Tribunal in the UK.