Work is worship’: The work ethic success of the Sri Lankan Tamils

by Hemantha Warnakulasuriya

I have often wondered why we, as a nation, cannot progress as rapidly as our neighbour – India. Any political analyst would of course heap the blame on the politicians and the political authority. I have pondered whether in fact this was true.
All politicians are voted to power by us and we sometimes condone their activity. When Monnekulama was convicted for bribery by the Talgodapitiya Commission and disfranchised for seven years, he re-contested the Kurunegala seat and won again.

People seem to accept the fact the politician need to be corrupt. They must have a phalanx of security guards and a fleet of vehicles to show their authority and power.
When I was in Rome I was rather dismayed to note that the propaganda machinery of the LTTE had worked so efficiently that it had been able to brainwash not only the suicide bombers but also high ranking politicians in the European Union. Every day I received hundreds of Emails from many sources, including the LTTE propaganda machine.
There was one Email that touched me profusely. It said “You have killed us, broken our limbs, burnt our houses and properties to the ground, overnight we were reduced to the state of beggars. You drove us from our homeland and we became refugees begging for alms; we lived on the handouts given by foreign governments; there was no sense of shame left in us. But you could not do one thing.
That was to remove our indomitable spirits and our work ethic. Within a matter of thirty years we have become one of the most powerful Diaspora in the world. We have only become second to the Jews, who were driven out by that monster Hitler. We and our children have become millionaires in our host countries. Our children have achieved what your children could never achieved in Sri Lanka. Most of them are top most professionals in their chosen field, whether it be medicine, science, engineering, IT technology or even space travel.
We have become an important partner in the development and the progress of our host countries. How did we achieve this status from being beggars? To transform ourselves into top businessmen and professionals? This is what the Sinhalese could never achieve. We are stronger and more determined to achieve our goal of having our own country in our own motherland. Don’t have any doubts we will not give up this struggle until we achieve Eelam”.
As I was reading this, vivid but gloomy memories of Black July came back into my mind such as how the arsonists torched my neighbour’s house. How the rampaging mobs came and threatened to torch my house unless I delivered my neighbours, who were hiding in the closets.
A hail of black smoke coverd the city. The stories of murder, mayhem and carnage, were abounding. When this letter was received by me, Prabhakaran was still living. The war was raging in the North. Yet it seems the Utopian goal of the Tamil Diaspora is still alive with added enthusiasm to de-stabilize Sri Lanka.
Leave alone the faulty political message of this old man, but it is extremely important to examine the transformation of the Tamil refugees into such a powerful block. How much their work ethic helped them to achieve this status.
When I was in Rome, I believed that the prosperity of a nation was largely dependent on the work ethic of its natives. A classic example was how Lee Kwan Yu transformed Singaporeans from opium addicts to millionaire entrepreneurs. In order to keep the Chinese as an oppressed race, opium was introduced, by those who found that the Chinese were workaholics.
From Singapore to Taiwan and from Taiwan to Hong Kong and from Hong Kong to China the yellow race, having given up opium, have become one of the most hard working people on earth. China has created an economic miracle and would soon become the most powerful nation on earth. The Indonesian and in Malaysian governments persecuted the Chinese as the Malays and Indonesian could not compete with the Chinese, who went on to become such a powerful economic power.
In Indonesia alone more than a million Chinese were killed and Malaysia introduced a Bhoomi Puthra policy to curb the aggressive expansion of the Chinese. This had nothing to do with politics. But more with the work ethics of the people.
It is said the in the Karma Yoga, in the Upanishd there is a quotation that ‘work is worship’. This I found in Rome when I decided that even on a Thai Pongal day, though it had been declared as a government holiday, the Embassy staff other than the Hindus, should work on this day in order to clear the backlog. But on that day, I found that the only Tamil officer had come to work even before the others. He had gone to the Kovil and worshiped his deities and come to his office to work.
I inquired from him why he was working on a holy day. He said ‘Sir the best way to pay homage to God is work harder. According to our religion, work is worship’ and he smiled. I have found that many Sri Lankans working in Italy were quite happy to work as drivers and their wives as housemaids under the Italians. But I was informed that the toughest competition to Sri Lankans came from the Filipinos and Bangladeshis, who were less educated than the Sri Lankans or Filipinos.
They desisted from working in houses. They, on their own, engaged in small time businesses like buying flowers and transporting them to Rome where they were sold. Most of them were walking salesmen. They could be seen at any restaurant, especially in the evening hours, selling flowers to diners.
When someone politely asks them to leave the restaurant and not disturb the diners, they persist and a friend waiting outside would come in to support. There are only about 100 to 200 business houses owned by Sri Lankans. Most of the Sri Lankan businessmen are better educated than the Bangladeshis.
Yet, I found that there were more than 10,000 small business houses in Italy owned by Bangaladeshis. They remit more than five times the money Sri Lankans remit. Bangladeshis are extremely hard working. They work 18 hours a day and have the acumen to do business.
The second largest migrant population in Italy is Chinese. They never engage themselves to work as servants. There is a Chinese mafia to bring in Chinese. As soon as they arrive, they are taken away to a Chinese house.
I found, in every major city, Chinese colonies like China Town. The Chinese mainly engage in business and in the construction industry. They have no time to gossip, to talk politics and get into drunken brawls. They work initially for more than 18 to 20 hours per day and the mafia eventually helps them to run a business. You cannot find a single Chinese doing odd jobs. On the other hand, many Sri Lankan have a fanciful life living beyond their means by consuming alcohol. Sri Lankans are notorious for consuming hard liquor and fighting with each other at slightest provocation.
I have known many Tamils who were at the forefront of the legal profession. Most of them had come to Colombo from Jaffna and had worked tirelessly and timelessly to achieve the heights they have climbed. Most Sinhalese would rather trust Tamil lawyer than his own kind and would retain them. This was not only true of lawyers but even the Tamil doctors had a large clientele of Sinhalese patients.
Today, the only way to curb the Tamil aspiration for a separate state is to remove from them the many fears they would entertain in coming to Sri Lanka. We must encourage and support Tamils living abroad who do not belong to hardcore LTTE activists. Even the others who would wave the Eelam flag could be brought back to our fold.
We must understand that most Tamils would not believe that the LTTE could be defeated militarily and accept that Prabhakaran was killed. They expected him to commit suicide if he had no escape and not to sacrifice his family and even his sons so that he could survive. By defeating the LTTE we have broken the pride of the Tamils.
If we are magnanimous in victory, gradually we could sink it into them that there is no point in living in the past. We ought to request them to come to Sri Lanka and invest the maximum wealth they have acquired abroad and make them partners in our growth.
This is the only way to alienate the Tamils from the LTTE activists. Their philosophy, ‘work is worship’ and ‘worship is work’ could be instilled into us. We must show them that the Tamils who were driven out from this land are wholeheartedly welcome to work for the betterment of Mother Sri Lanka..
(The writer a President’s Counsel was also Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Italy)

 

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About noelnadesan

Commentator and analyst of current affairs.
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2 Responses to Work is worship’: The work ethic success of the Sri Lankan Tamils

  1. Gerard Thurai சொல்கிறார்:

    An intelligent and well thought-through article. However, I am a little uncomfortable by some of the generalisations that the author has made:
    (a) The article, unintentionally perhaps, stereotypes Tamils and Sinhala people.
    (b) Any work ethic that may be attributed to one ethnic group probably owes more to their individual circumstances than any genetic or cultural predisposition to be harder workers. For instance 1st generation migrants to the affluent nations are equally capable of becoming millionaires or crooks, regardless of their ethnic background. Tamils are more visible because they had more reasons than Sinhalese to leave their homeland. Furthermore, I doubt if this work ethic carries through to the second or third generations who rapidly assimilate with and acquire the good and bad traits of the local populations.
    (c) There is a very fine line between praising an ethnic group for its positive attributes and the sort of stereotyping that the Nazis did under Hitler. The irony of drawing parallels with Jews is not lost on me.

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