I would like to thank Dr Rasika Subasinghe and the USLA Committee for inviting me to deliver this keynote speech. It is indeed a great honour!
As mentioned in the intro, yes, I was once the President of USLA in the mid 90’s. We started having events in Mt Albert as I lived just around the corner on Alexis Ave.
At that time the MP for Mt Albert was the Hon Helen Clarke. We had a Mayor of Mt Albert, the late Mr Frank Ryan. There was another special person in Mt Albert, the late Mr Jack Turner, the former chairman of Turners and Growers, who was a member of the Baptist Church. We were allowed to use their facilities for our monthly coffee afternoons and language classes. Mr Turner often spoke very highly of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka, as we all know, is a beautiful island Paradise in the heart of the Indian Ocean. We never created it. We simply inherited it. It was gifted to us. It has a very long history and had several ancient kings.
The foreign colonisation started with the Portuguese in 1505, then the Dutch and finally the British until independence 75 years ago, that is what we are celebrating today. However, during those 75 years, the Country has been on a roller coaster, with the dark era of civil war for 30 years, tropical storms, floods, a Tsunami, and the outbreak of a pandemic. Today, Sri Lanka faces a dire economic crisis and political instability.
While it looks bleak now, I would like to think that “This too shall pass.” It requires a special leadership that could transform the current chaos into some “order”!! We all have a role to play. As the late J.F Kennedy once famously said “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what You can do for your country.”
Although many of us are New Zealanders, I know our hearts are in Sri Lanka and willing to extend a hand whenever needed.
I was three years old when Ceylon, as it was then called, gained independence. As I grew up and started school, I remember well, the respect we had for our first Prime Minister, the late Hon D.S. Senanayake. There was no TV then. We got to see his picture in the newspapers and heard about him on the radio. At that time, I grew up in a house with no electricity. It was either through the battery-operated radio or rediffusion that we heard the news.
I remember how sad I felt hearing about his death. He had fallen off a horse and died the following day. I was 7 years old, and my mother took me to the Parliament building to pay our last respects, a memory I was able to recall while watching Queen Elizabeth’s funeral on TV just last year.
Following the death of D.S Senanayake, Ceylon had several leaders including Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who made history in 1960 by becoming the very first woman Prime Minister in the world!
Our own ex-Prime Minister of New Zealand, Ms Jacinda Ardern also made history by leading New Zealand through some challenging events, over the past five and a half years and becoming a mother during that period. She led the country with kindness and empathy. To quote her: “We need our leaders to be able to empathise with the circumstances of others; to empathise with the next generation that we’re making decisions on behalf of.” I wish the Sri Lankan leaders would learn a lesson from her.
Women around the world are breaking glass ceilings and coming to the forefront because of “Education”. Quality Education, and Gender Equality, are two of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations. In Sri Lanka, we have had equal opportunity to receive free education all the way till we graduated from university, something that most of us here are grateful for. This is reflected through our high literacy rate. It is also true among the Sri Lankan immigrants in New Zealand.
Most of those who came in the 70’s were doctors. Now there are more professionals here with Engineering, Accountancy, IT, Banking, hospitality, and food & agriculture-based qualifications, which is how my husband, Conrad and I came here. I did my first degree in Agriculture at the University of Ceylon (Peradeniya) in the 1960’s.
I am very grateful for that strong foundation on which my whole international career got built. Last year, I was fortunate enough to receive two prestigious awards in the food sector. In my acceptance speech I said that the awards were like icing on the cake, but the cake was baked back home in Sri Lanka. I gave due credit to the late Hon Lakshman Kadirgamar, who mentioned in his Oxford Union Address in 2005 that he was a cake baked back home in Sri Lanka.
There are so many “Sri Lankan baked cakes” around the world. They are doing good work in their respective fields, to build wealth for their adopted nations, and are getting the icing there. I feel sad when I think what a loss it is for our native land. Right now, our own people are going through hardships. Some are even starving due to a series of mistakes and poor governance by some political leaders. The governance strategy should be to make the leaders accountable for their actions. The U.N. Human Rights Chief pointed out that “impunity” for human rights abuses, economic crimes, and corruption as the main “underlying” reason for the country’s collapse.
Sri Lanka needs a change in the system. Last year’s protests known as the “Aragalaya” awakened all Sri Lankans to realize the dangerous state they have been driven into by their leaders, pretending to be their protectors. The Sri Lankans united across ethnicities and faiths to stand against corruption and incompetence in government. It reaffirmed the line in the National Anthem: “Eka Mawakage daru kela bavina” meaning: “As Children of one Mother”
This marks a watershed in the recent history of Sri Lanka. The country needs to maintain unity, and work towards elimination of corruption, theft, and waste, to achieve the sustainable economy that is needed, to move forward. Every nation in the world has suffered terribly because of the pandemic, although Sri Lanka’s crisis began a year prior with the Easter bombing and continues with the economic crisis. While its economy struggles with a brain drain of unprecedented proportions, we have hope that the youth that led the protests will be the engine of growth, and a future for Sri Lanka through their entrepreneurship and the start-up opportunities that are emerging.
Sri Lanka is rich in potential, having human and natural resources that align perfectly through culture, hospitality, agricultural produce, technical and artistic skills. Our motherland maintains her dignity because of this!
However, she now needs a visionary leader to clean up the mess and rebuild the nation. I wish I could be there to help!! I wonder whether Conrad will be happy to see me go, although he was very supportive when I went to Tanzania on a Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) assignment to work for two years as a Food & Nutrition Advisor.
There were several projects that I did in Tanzania. Some family and friends from Sri Lanka, who visited me in Tanzania asked me, why I wouldn’t do that work in Sri Lanka. I too ask myself that question. I wish there was a VSA program in Sri Lanka. I would be the first one to sign up.
I also wish New Zealand had a reciprocal agreement with Sri Lanka to let retired people like me go there with full superannuation without the 6-month time limit. As a bonus, this policy may free up a few houses and help solve New Zealand’s accommodation problem. That might be something to work on. I raised this topic at one of our Zoom meetings organised by Hon Vanushi Walters, the first Sri Lankan born MP in NZ parliament.
I am aware that the New Zealand Sri Lanka Business Council is looking into expanding trade opportunities between our two countries. Currently, the dominant two products are Tea from Sri Lanka and Dairy products from New Zealand. Some processed foods are imported and sold through Sri Lankan retail shops here. With the NZ High Commission well established in Sri Lanka, hopefully we will be able to explore the possibility of importing fresh produce too like mango, banana, and pineapple to NZ. However, those products require “phytosanitary protocols” to be established between the two countries.
It is the sincere wish of all Sri Lankans that our Motherland would once again become, that “Resplendent Isle”. There are several Sri Lankan organisations in NZ trying to preserve the culture and traditions for the next generations. When Conrad and I first came to NZ in 1981 there was the NZ SL Friendship Society based in Wellington. We lived in Masterton and Conrad was the Wairarapa Representative. Then we moved to Auckland in the mid-80’s. USLA was formed at the height of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Around the mid 90’s a diverse group of Sri Lankans in Auckland met, and that led to the formation of the NZ SL Foundation. It was inaugurated exactly 25 years ago.
I was elected the President of that as well. In my acceptance speech as the first President of the NZSL Foundation, I recited a poem that I composed. I would like to conclude this speech by sharing with you a few verses of that poem, titled, “Like Threads in a Lace”.
– Dr Anne Perera –