First-ever Lankan President of International Toastmasters Balraj calls for “people first”

Wednesday, 6 September 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • Arunasalam Balraj last week became the first Sri Lankan to be appointed as the President of International Toastmasters, a global organisation with its headquarters in United States, California for 2017/18. Following is his acceptance speech:

It is with utmost humility and resolve that I accept the trust you have placed in me as your International President. What I am feeling now can be best expressed in the words of Martin Luther King: 

“Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfilment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words; their meaning can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart. Such is the moment I am presently experiencing.”

It’s a pleasure to be in Vancouver at a Toastmasters convention and especially at this time in August when we can bask in the warmth of summer, enjoying the flowers, parks and gardens that we see in abundance, not forgetting, of course, the culinary delights of Vancouver. My wife Sarumathy and our daughters Avisha and Mahishaa believe they have discovered another paradise!

Our conference host, Past International President Pat Johnson and host district 21 deserve our thanks, for having us here, in this environment of beauty and tranquillity. However, tranquillity of surroundings mean little if there is no tranquillity in human relations. When all is said and done about communication and leadership, Toastmasters is ultimately about people. As Mahatma Gandhi, stated in 1948, “Leadership at one time meant muscle, but today it means getting along with people.” The same is true even today!

There are many people-oriented individuals who have made this moment possible for me. People who had a great vision, who had the best interest of the organisation at heart and a “people-first” attitude. My sincere gratitude to all past presidents who have led this great organisation with such commitment and dedication.

My Toastmasters journey began 28 years ago when I was inducted into the Colombo Toastmasters club, the only club in Sri Lanka at that time. I was then a chubby young man, not that I am old now. What attracted me to the club were the cakes and pastries being served before the meeting began. Having fulfilled my gastronomical needs, I never spoke a word either at Round Robin or Table topics. 

I suffered from extreme stage fright and was particularly shy of senior members who were excellent speakers. When I eventually started speaking, it took me eight years to complete my first 10 projects. It was not my fault; it was because a five to seven minute speech was evaluated for 10 to 14 minutes. Presenting a project speech in my club was almost like appearing for an oral MBA examination. Gradually my confidence grew and I was elected as the club president in 2002.

Then came along one unique individual, Dilip Abayasekara, my fellow countryman. At my very first convention in 2005, in Toronto, when Dilip was the incoming International President, he took me into the boardroom a few minutes before the meeting was to start, showed me the well-lit and impressive boardroom, and said, ‘you have everything it takes to be in this room’. He said that when we in Sri Lanka and India were not even a provisional district! I thought he had gone crazy! 

Today I realise that even though I had not envisioned this moment for myself, Dilip saw potential in me, because he always puts ‘people first’. Since then he has constantly kept it at the forefront of my attention. Thank you Dilip and Sharon for always having faith in me, and for the tremendous support you have given throughout my journey.

Growing up in Sri Lanka, a small island nation at the tip of the Indian subcontinent, I am humbled to stand here before this distinguished gathering. Toastmasters has been progressing and changing with time. That is tangibly visible today, when you elect as your president a simple person like me. In doing so, you have established that in the eyes of Toastmasters, every member stands equal, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, creed, community or country. That, by itself, is a beautiful tribute to the magnificence of our great organisation. 

My friends, Toastmasters takes ordinary men and women and gives them extraordinary opportunities to do more with their lives than they ever dreamed possible. This is the only organisation I know that goes beyond teaching communication and leadership. It changes lives, my friends. It has changed my life; I believe it has changed yours too. We make ordinary people extraordinary. The world is crying out for effective and outstanding leaders. Ladies and gentlemen, who can help develop those leaders? It is you and I, and the members of Toastmasters clubs, “Where Leaders are Made.” 

To do this, we must have a “people first” attitude. This is something that I have learnt through the many people who have helped me in my journey. I will always endeavour to keep your interest first, before mine. 

Among my many mentors and friends who have demonstrated this “people-first” approach are: Kumar Nadesan a sincere non-toastmaster mentor of mine, Dick Poirier, Floy Westermeier, Frank Storey, Ted Corcoran and Yusuf Jeevunjee. Each of them have dedicated precious time and energy to guide, mentor, assist, laugh and cry with me, and they placed the vision I had at the forefront of their own. I was lucky to be surrounded by such leaders, who kept me on their shoulders and held the weight of my dreams sometimes above their own. 

Fellow Toastmasters, we are fortunate to have Dan and Sally, two leaders who share the same philosophy. I can remember calling WHQ in 1995 – long before my club was part of a district. At that time Dan Rex was head of Member Services. Dan and Sally, our organisation is extremely fortunate to have two world-class leaders such as you to guide us.

My thanks would not be complete without expressing my deep gratitude to the World Headquarters staff. They have consistently demonstrated an immense commitment and a tremendous work ethic, making it possible for volunteer leaders to do their best work. Members of the WHQ staff – I am unable to mention each one of you by name for lack of time, but please believe me, you are constantly in my heart. 

My friends what more can I say to all of you for everything you have done than two sincere words “thank you”. Recognising friends, family, Toastmasters from Sri Lanka and India; may I kindly request you to rise to be recognised? Though my parents are no longer with us, I am sure they are watching and proud of their son’s achievement. The absence of my parents is compensated by the presence of my sisters, Padmini, Rajani and Pushpa, and my two daughters, in whom I see my parent’s grace, kindness and compassion. 

If it was one thing that I learnt from my late father and mother was to think of people first. I can still remember as a child, our kitchen use to be overflowing with food for whoever visits us, and my mother used to be the last person to eat. 

I would not be standing here without the unyielding support of my companion, friend, mentor and guide for the past 28 years – the anchor of our family, the love of our lives, my wife Sarumathy. In much of what I have achieved in life, she has been, without doubt, the wind beneath my wings. Thank you Saru for putting us first before yourself.

In large part, I owe my improved speaking skills to my two very talented and lovely daughters. They used to take pleasure in tormenting me about my lack of speaking skills. Most of you would generally get evaluated once at a club meeting. But I would get evaluated first at the club meeting, second on my way home and third at home. It was like taking an antibiotic three times a day, after meals. What was special about those evaluations is that it focused only on what I did wrong, how I went over time and why it was so boring. It was my two little angels, Avisha and Mahishaa, who chiselled me mercilessly until I reached a reasonable level of excellence! 

We are the only secular organisation in the world that focuses on human transformation founded on ethical standards. A wonderful tribute to our founder Ralph Smedley and the magnificent organisation he founded, that goes beyond teaching communication and leadership. It changes lives, my friends – as it has changed yours and mine. 

In my travels around the world two things have become apparent to me. One: that people of the world are crying for communication and leadership development. Two: that we have a tremendous opportunity limited only by our creativity and will, to share the benefits of our life altering programs with the people of the world. 

I envision our organisation’s reach, extending to every country in the world enabling more people than ever before to realise their full potential, and Toastmasters International being recognised as the place “Where Leaders are Made” and my friends, the best is yet to come with the launch of our Pathways program. 

Fellow toastmasters and friends: with a fervent faith that you will walk this path with me, as I walk alongside you, I urge you to keep the people first attitude as you go to serve your clubs, your teams, your family and your organisation. Ultimately what is important in leadership is to keep your people first. We cannot achieve anything alone. 

Let us embark on this voyage confidently, with the blessings of the divine to guide us, and the power of our prayers to sustain us.