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An appreciation of Alfie David: A retired Ambassador of Sri Lanka, Wesleyite and Methodist

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 26 July 2018 00:00


Since the sad news of our father’s passing on Sunday 15 July, the many messages of condolence we have received have been filled with vivid memories of his kindness, compassion, generosity and gregarious personality. We have been gladly reminded of the respect, admiration and love which people around the world felt for him.

Alfred Kulendran David, or Alfie to his friends, was a diplomat, a selfless public servant for his beloved Sri Lanka, a sportsman, a scholar, a man of deep religious faith and, above all, a man who loved and was beloved of his family and friends. 

His35-year diplomatic career spanned three continents and eight postings,bookended by arriving in Paris and his retirement from Islamabad in 2000.He spoke fondly of the cohort of six who topped the entrance exams and together joined the Foreign Service in 1965: Jayantha Dhanapala, Nihal Rodrigo, Willhelm Wouterz, N. Navarathnarajjha and Nandasiri De Silva. He revelled in their camaraderie and the sense of purpose that they shared. 

As Head of Mission, he was responsible for an ever-growing number of countries. As High Commissioner to Bangladesh (1988-1993) he was also Ambassador to Nepal. As Ambassador to Sweden (1995-1998),he took responsibility for Denmark, Finland and Norway. Subsequently, heexpanded Sri Lanka’s formal diplomatic relations to concurrently become Sri Lanka’s first Ambassador to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. As High Commissioner to Pakistan (1998-2000) he was responsible for the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan.He would joke that his career coverage of countries might be breaking some sort of record! 

He was dedicated to his role, influencing how Sri Lanka was understood globally, undertaking delicate negotiations and crafting pithy communiqués for the Foreign Ministry.Members of his staff found him kind and fair, albeit an exacting taskmaster expecting the best of them at all times. He was a natural leader.

There were many memorable highlights to his career, notably representing Sri Lanka at the 1988 UN General Assembly and the SAARC Summits of the80s and 90s. Though perhaps meeting Mother Teresa in New Delhi where he was Deputy High Commissioner stood out. His work, his experiences and studies gave him an abiding interest in approaches to peace and conflict management, particularly in South Asia.

He was proud to be Sri Lankan, proud of his Tamil and Christian heritage, and wanted above all else a peaceful, united and reconciled country. Around the world he epitomised the Sri Lankan’s reputation for being friendly and hospitable, showing kindness and compassion to friends and strangers alike. He would put people at their ease and go out of his way to help those stranded or in need of assistance.

Very few knew that he sang Handel’s Messiah in Cairo but many will remember him leading the singing of the National Anthem, Danno Budunge, or the Hymn for Lanka at official functions. His friends will remember his readiness for a sing-along, invariably singing Surangani, Belafonte’s Marianne or Sinatra’s Strangers in the Night! His enthusiasm for singing and his even greater love of sports was infectious. 

As an athlete, a cricketer, a rugby player and tennis player, it was his speed and his stylish smooth strokes which impressed most.A renowned schoolboy athlete, he held the Public School Boys’ and the PeredeniyaHop Step and Jump record for many years and captained the Peradeniya Rugby team. Although an accident to his knee ended his stint on the Havelocks rugby team, cricket remained a passion. Whether in Kuala Lumpur,Dhaka or Stockholm he would make the time to play, using sport to create that strong sense of community. 

He was an ardent supporter of the Sri Lankan Cricket team.  He would send them congratulatory messages when victorious in the ’80s and ’90s,show the team hospitality when they toured Bangladesh or Pakistan, and attend games in Colombo or elsewhere with his daughters, his sister-in-law Nandini Singham, or his brother, Paul. The Sri Lankan team’s skill and victory in ’96 had him ecstatic. There were many shouts of “Zam zam zaki, zam zam zay…” that day; a phrase which any Wesleyite of his time would instantly recognise.

Wesley College bore a special place in his heart. For the school’s 125th anniversary, he wrote eloquently about the school’s history and his own time there when he had been: Passmore House Secretary, Captain of the Athletics team, College Prefect, Editor of the Double Blue Magazine (1958), Student President of the Student Christian Movement (SCM), on the debating team andthe 1958 recipient of the Moscrop Award for the best all-rounder.When he graduated with a History degree from Peredeniya, it was to Wesley that he returned to teach for a year.

Recommended by his friend from Jayatilake Hall, Jayantha Dhanapala, he joined Whittall Bousteads while preparing for the highly-competitive Foreign Service exams. Nevertheless, he continued to take an active interest inWesley by remaining involved in the School Management Committee and the Old Boys Association. Like his own father, he believed in the importance of education and life-long learning not just for himself but for everyone. Even with the responsibilities of his role, he took a sabbatical at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague and, later, in New Delhi completed a Masters at Jawaharlal Nehru University. An ever-increasing library always followed us from country to country!

His strong religious beliefs and concept of service to otherswere ignited through his association with the SCM at Wesley. His passionate activism is well remembered by those also at the 1960 SCM conference in Lahore and by his appointment as Acting General Secretary of the National SCM in 1965. His was a quiet and personal faith, encouraged and guided in his student days by the likes of Rev. Lakshman Wickremesinghe. Throughout his life he nurtured it through daily private study and by being an active member of church congregations across the world. Even in these latter years, when poor health did not allow him to be as active as he once had been, his regular attendance at Kollupitiya Methodist Church was a constant and gave him great comfort.

Alfie was fiercely loyal to his family. He aspired to always honour the memory of his parents, Paul (Deputy-Principal of Zahira College) and Mabel (neé Gnanapragasam). After his father’s early death, as the eldest child, he felt a deep responsibility for the wellbeing of his mother, his sister Sarojini and his brothers, Joe, Paul and Charlie.They too, till his very last days showed to him that same love and care. 

Alfie met Ranji in 1965 in Colombo. As the story goes, spying her across from him he was thunderstruck and begged her cousin, Patrick Chelliah, for an introduction. A whirlwind romance followed. She left for London but his posting to Paris meant he frequently visited to her and her parents, Reggie Singham and Mary Singham (neé Rutnam). After a Parisian engagement and a London wedding in 1967, Alfie and Ranji embarked on a sometimes adventurous, and sometimes challenging, diplomatic life. From those first three postings in France, Malaysia and Egypt, they returned each time with yet another baby daughter. 

Over the years, the David and Singham families grew closer entwined when his brother, Paul, married Ranji’s younger sister, Ami. Family, whether they were Davids, Gnanapragasams, Singhams, Rutnams, Mathers or the kindred spirits and “adopted” family of the Galappattis and the Pandithages, always knew that they could call on him when needed, and similarly – especially in recent years – lookedout for him.

Alfie and Ranji’s marriage was a true partnership. They complemented each other’s strengths, sharing that sense of duty and responsibility and a passion for fun and life. As their children, our abiding family memories will be of happy but contentious games of scrabble, boisterous family meals, long family drives and a home often filled with singing, laughter and always love. Her unexpected and early death hit him hard. With illness following retirement, and a deterioration of health, in the latter years he lived a more secluded life. In these most recent years, whilst he lost touch with a number of old friends,they remained dear to him and locked within his, and our, happy memories of times gone by.

For us, his three daughters, Shona (Sudeshna), Shantha and myself, we know that he is at last at peace. We are thankful to have been loved and cherished by him and to have been encouraged to always “reach for the moon (and you will atleast end up on the coconut tree!)”.We have been blessed that his legacy will live on in his grandchildren, Oliver Elliot Rae (12), Ella Ranjini Baalham (9) and James Alexander Baalham (7). They each, in their own way, embody his thirst for knowledge, his musical and sporting abilities, his love of life and his kindness.

The funeral service will be at Kollupitiya Methodist Church at 3p.m. on Thursday, 26 July, followed by a cremation at Kanatte at 4:30p.m.

Dr. Sumi David

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