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Professor Carlo Fonseka, SAITM, his quotes and utterances

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 7 October 2017 00:00

By Janitha Devapriya

I am bemused by the recent utterances and stances of Prof. Carlo Fonseka, particularly on the SAITM issue. This on the other hand is not surprising either.

Dr. Fonseka has had a chequered career as an academic, politician and opinion maker. Fonseka was born on 4 March 1933 in Colombo as a Roman Catholic and educated at Maris Stella College Negombo and St. Joseph’s College Colombo. Afterwards, he entered the University of Ceylon’s Faculty of Medicine in Colombo in 1955, graduating in 1960 with a first class MBBS degree. 

In 1962 Fonseka joined the University of Ceylon’s Department of Physiology as a lecturer. He joined the University of Edinburgh’s department of Physiology in 1964 to pursue his doctoral studies, obtaining a PhD in 1966. Dr. Fonseka is a prominent member of the Trotskyist Lanka Samasamaja Party. He was a member of the party’s central committee and its politburo. Fonseka is a vocal critic of private medical education. But let us consider this later.

Years ago, he teamed up with late Abraham T. Kovoor, a renowned Indian rationalist, and debunked the claims of Kapuralas of devales who were merely charlatans claiming to have divine powers such as walking on red hot embers or fire walking. At the time, Kovoor and Dr. Fonseka had a good following and formed the Rationalists Association of Ceylon.

Prof. Carlo Fonseka visited the Medical Faculty student activist in remand for damaging the Health Ministry property and also joined the Medical Faculty students on a fast until death, so they claim, until SAITM is totally abolished. He (Fonseka) said he will be in the forefront in any campaign to overthrow the present Government over its privatisation of medical education and all other ills. When a journalist mentioned that the SAITM did not originate under the present Government but during the days of Mahinda Rajapaksa and as to why, as President of the SLMC, he remained mum at the time, he said: “When SAITM was given the green light by him, as head of the SLMC, the ‘M’ (in SAITM) denoted management. It was only subsequently was he to learn that this ‘M’ indeed stood for Medicine.”

We are not aware of any opposition or combative posture adopted by him from 2012 until the change of government in 2015. Neither was there even a whimper of protest by Prof. Carlo Fonseka when a private medical faculty was established at the Kotelawala Defence Academy, which was promoted and came under the purview of former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine was established in 2008 by Dr. Neville Fernando with the aim to provide tertiary qualifications in medicine, engineering and Information Technology, management and finance, and information communication technology and media. In 2011 SAITM applied for recognition from the University Grants Commission (UGC) as a degree-awarding institution, with the ability to award its own degrees. The UGC, in 2013, granted SAITM a degree-awarding status despite protests from the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) and the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA). 

Now comes the interesting part. Dr. Carlo Fonseka (CF) in an interview with Chrismal Waranasuriya (CW) of Rupavahini Corporation in February 2012 on its ‘Checkmate’ program waxed eloquently on the merits of private medical schools. If I may quote the transcript of the relevant portion of the interview, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zR4MTcvwfg4 ), discussing the education in the country, Dr. Fonseka said that Sri Lanka has a good record in medical education and compares favourably with legal education. 

“We started the first medical school in 1870 and it became the Medical Faculty producing about 1,000 doctors yearly. This is totally not enough. I maybe in a minority but I say, in my view, the number of doctors is not enough; doctors are working late hours just to clear the crowds.”

CW: “Quick word, we know that there is a version from certain segments of the crowd. Is private medical colleges good or bad? Is it needed or not?”

CF: “I have been in the State sector every time. But of course, I have now reached the point when I am out of the system, but I have been taking this view for quite some time. The North Colombo Medical College, let me put it this way. Ideally, the State should produce all doctors because it has all the resources. However, due for one reason or other, or unable or unwilling or for policy reasons, to end the monopoly on medical education by the state, then I should go along with that. And the experiment has already been done. In 1981, the North Colombo Medical College was established, it functioned for about 10 years and it produced 850 doctors who are all doing well in Sri Lanka and various parts of the world. And about 100 of them are no second to any other doctors produced in the country. So private sector can produce doctors of good quality.”

CW: “How do you face the argument that the State sector students claim that it will not be of the same standard, try to bring in an inferior standard quality degree and pitch them with us and incorporate them into the same system. How do you meet that argument?”

CF: “No. That’s not true. Some misguided students are saying that. Has any responsible educationist said that? The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The North Colombo Medical College has produced excellent doctors. No second to those produced in the State sector. I am a State sector man.”

CW: “What you are trying to say is, the increasing number of patients as you say sometimes that private hospitals consultations are done in little cubicles, standing in rows to meet the doctor and you can’t sometimes pass through with even an urgent patient through the crowd. We need to find the answer for this?”

CF: “Let me give you four reasons why there is a case for private medical schools in this country at this stage of development. First there are not enough doctors in this country. Only 55 for 100,000 patients. Compare with UK 220, USA 230, Australia 250, India 60 or more, Pakistan 70 odd, only Bhutan and Nepal are below us. So we need more doctors. Second, our system of selecting medical students by the State, the reverse discrimination with district quota, leaves out many well-qualified students. They are the ones, many of them who went to the North Colombo Medical College and made it. This is the second reason. Third, there is a demand for medical education; 200 or more of them leave Sri Lanka every year in search of medical education and they are a drain on our foreign exchange. Fourth, if we set up medical schools here, all that foreign exchange will be saved and we can draw students from outside. It will raise our national income.”

Incidentally, this interview done in 2012 was broadcast at a time when the coast had to be cleared to give approval to the SAITM or the Malabe Medical Faculty. At this point of time Prof. Fonseka was in favour of the private medical school. Years before, he was opposed to the establishment and running of the North Colombo Medical College, a private institution. What influenced a change in his stance? One can hazard a guess! That the Ragama Private Medical College started during J.R. Jayawardena era whereas SAITM started in the Mahinda Rajapaksa era. 

Now he is again vehemently opposing SAITM because the Yahapalanaya Government of Maithri and Ranil is trying to resolve the issue, mainly in view of the sad plight of SAITM medical students. Can one who had vowed to the Hippocratic Oath be more of a hypocrite than this? Let the people judge.

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