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Waking up to reality


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Friday, 28 December 2012 00:01


The year 2012 had been an eventful year, but aren’t all years more or less like that? It is just that this year and all its events are fresher in our minds.

This human aspect of forgetfulness has been a factor in our existence and may be more so with us Sri Lankans. A famous statement from a notorious personality once had stated that our memory span is confined to two weeks. It must be stated that whatever the origin of that statement, the substance of it is well worth reflection.

I had a kind invitation for a presentation on innovation and my title was ‘SOS for Innovation’ and though the audience was after quite a sumptuous lunch, that they did not doze off much was a relief to me!

Perception matters

At the end of it, one of the questions put to me was: “What has University of Moratuwa done?” Considering that my physical location at the time was at quite a height, the question was asked quite sincerely and not in any way aggressive really was an eye-opener and brought me down to earth quite literally quite fast!

I must admit that I did not answer the question well, beyond stating that I need another invitation to answer this question. With our free education system going up to the university level up to the first degree, we know that we do not have to advertise our courses nor market our successes. We do have students queuing to get in and as such there is no such need for advertorials either.

The path to sustainable development which all endorse can only be realised if we collectively adhere to sustainable consumption. Without checking consumption, the strident calls for sustainable development are just meaningless and words without wisdom

However, in this society of bill boards and peak time infotainment with a public which learns mostly from such interventions, us being silent is wrong and the question was just because of that. It is pertinent to address this ignorance of our society with respect to our institutions positively. Otherwise we may find that this is the perception of the general public and perceptions do matter.

Public universities have literally devoured large amounts of public money but had hardly contributed in any way is the perception and when someone asks for more, one can imagine the support that one is going to get!

As per the foreign universities people may go gaga and even with some obscure names because they are in a developed economy, the impression is that they must mean something. One can easily see in brochures or in annual reports of foreign universities that even if a tower comes up in the neighbourhood and if their graduates had been leading the project or been part of it, the university is brimming with pride and stating it with pride, while in our case the annual report is just written to fulfil a regulatory requirement and no such data or statements of pride to the public.

As per the public seeing any brochures, simply forget it. Even the university community will not be reading the document. With that perception on overseas institutions, one’s entire life saving may be spent on trying to send your children in that direction.

Speed of execution

There is another fallacy that needs addressing. A local university lecturer who is keen on doing something and perhaps comeback fresh from a dynamic external environment may find that ideas may be fine and exciting, but the speed that one can execute with acceptance is extremely slow in the local environment.

With time ideation gets slowed and the speed of execution even slower. The same person if he or she had remained outside would have not much of an issue as the environment is all enabling and ideas are the only things that count. We see and hear – and our media allocates sizeable chunks of print space too – from those who had forged elsewhere thanks to being in an environment that supported their ideas and did not balk at them, asking them to get used and conform to the system.

In Sri Lanka you have to perform twice at the same time – create the path and run too. It is time that Sri Lankans understand this vital difference and reasoning for what you hear from outside and what you may not hear from inside.

Nurture some change and one may see the difference and I dare say at University of Moratuwa one can witness that. One single answer which I did not give at the time is to examine in some detail and you see that University of Moratuwa had contributed. Yes because we had and continue to have people who did change the environment in many ways that they enabled youngsters who were returning to exercise some freedom. Now much more can be done, but that is the case always and that is true even for University of Cambridge!

Part of the University of Moratuwa’s contribution and the most significant at this situation is our graduates and as the environment locally had been not quite enabling there are many economies that would vouch for what we have produced.

It is no secret that in some streams, the entire graduating batch is finding lucrative opportunities overseas. A detailed tracer study will reveal that more are outside than inside and that should ring warning bells in the temples of planning.

The nation at times appears to be quite proud of news from outside and perhaps consider that as the way to go. At a local university one needs to open new roads and create new ways while working on with new ideas is a fact forgotten by the arm chair critics.

What have we done?

As the year comes to a close and perhaps Mayans having the last laugh on a civilisation that had even set foot on moon, another question reached me courtesy a greeting card from Mother Sri Lanka. While saying that it is the time of the year to unfold new horizons and new dreams, it reminds one to reminisce, “What I have done for my country in the year gone by?”

Yes, what have we done? This is important. While some of us were praying to stay alive with the world coming to an end, some were making a quick buck thanks to the doomsday scenario. While for the former it was a loss, for the latter it was a win-win. However, neither has contributed to society. Now that is what is important to reminisce on. We should be engaged in meaningful activities and finding pleasure through that.

In some developed economies, consumption has arrived with manufacturing as a base. With ours, consumption is king of thoughts with no manufacturing in sight. The year is coming to a close with exports dipping and this is dangerous as our repertoire in exports is not that exciting to start with.

Have I toiled hard only with the idea of collecting enough so consumption can go on and the final days of the year is capped with a grand binge too? In that climate all action is directed with one thought in mind. That may be what had crossed the mind of the worker who removed part of the question paper. The teacher – this is not the right definition for that person – who distributed the questions supporting his dear students to succeed in examinations must have planned for better returns next year based on this year’s hit rate.

The thought processes that are taking place within the community are quite worrying and that is what goes through my mind when I reminisce and pen these words before the year ends. Our demise may not be as abrupt as what the Mayans thought; nevertheless if we continue to develop like this with no other thought in mind other than consumption at any cost, accelerated demise is surely around the corner.

We may not even at the last moment link up the stormy weather and perhaps tremors to release of emissions and the removal of resources through continuous digging for our pursuit of happiness. We now say that from a planetary perspective it is this consumption that had come under scrutiny as being responsible for most of our ills.

The path to sustainable development which all endorse can only be realised if we collectively adhere to sustainable consumption. Without checking consumption, the strident calls for sustainable development are just meaningless and words without wisdom. The type of statements that even before two weeks one would do well to forget!

The Four-Way test

With us depending on media for information, I would say that there is a need to use the Four-Way test for the things that they write and disseminate. That would mean fewer questions such as the former and easy to answer to the latter. Certainly the Four-Way test which came from Herbert J. Taylor and the Rotarians world over has taken as their gold standard for behaviour must be used by us of the things we think, say or do.

The Four-Way test: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? The famous 24 word test is refreshingly meaningful. It is easy to understand that one can go a long way with due attention on this and may be the need of 2013.

Today as 2012 comes to a close I feel that the usual answer would be ‘who cares as long as I am up on the deal’ rather than ‘yes,’ but it is time that the latter response comes to the fore. Goodbye 2012, we have gone through 2000 – the year of Y2K, we have gone past the Mayans’ end point, still the challenge awaits – overcoming our greed!

(The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is also the Director of UOM-Cargills Food Process Development Incubator at University of Moratuwa. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk)


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