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Will ‘KNDU culture’ discipline society or stifle innovation?

By Rajpal Abeynayake

The ongoing controversy regarding the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill is being seen as an education issue, and one that particularly impinges on free education policy. That’s not a proper reading of the matter however, as everything, especially in politics, has to be viewed with reference to all its bearings and ramifications. 

The KNDU Bill has been seen by the critics as an extension of the so-called militarisation tendency of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government. The dissident elements that resent the Bill, see it as military encroachment into the territory of higher education, with civilian institutions such as the country’s free University level education system having to pay the price.

But is that the Government’s aim ‒ to establish some sort of military hegemony over society, that makes governing easier, and massages military egos? A Myanmar type drama, in which Generals feel they are more equal than others?

What does a government get out of that? This country is not Myanmar or Thailand and there won’t be any top brass here that gets carried away with the idea that this country will be some sort of a garrison state.A garrison state is a state dominated by the military-industrial complex, and the concept is owed to political scientist and sociologist Howard Laswell. President Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that a deep, even paranoid, fear of the military might, and the superiority of the Soviet Union would turn the US into a “garrison state”, with an economy dominated by military spending, and civil liberties eroded. In a book by Raymond Aaron, the garrison state concept is explained as a development construct that outlined the possibility of a politico-military elite “comprised of specialists in violence”, in a modern state. 

The critics say this is just what the Gotabaya’s administration wants. A military that is exclusivist and seeks power and glory as an end in itself. Is it possible that in Sri Lanka, with no history of military domination, that a civilian government seeks this type of military hegemony at the cost of bringing down the entire edifice of democratic governance with it, along with the inherent risk of condemnation by the vast mass of Sri Lankans who have never had a tryst with military rule and military domination? 

That’s extremely unlikely ‒ as the cost in terms of public goodwill in such an enterprise is enormous ‒ incalculable really. There has to be some other explanation.

There is one that is quite plausible, if it is considered seriously. People may have short memories, but it’s recalled that by the end of the chaos that signified the Yahapalanaya period, with the tug o’ war between contending power centres, the people by and large were sick of the anarchy that seemed to be manifest in the institutions of governance. The cry to “get rid of all 225 in parliament” reached a crescendo, and folk in one voice almost, called for a “disciplined society.” 

They wanted somebody to take charge, and instill values of respect for authority, and for a semblance of order in society that would restore the faith that people had lost ‒ especially in the five years of Yahapalanaya rule ‒ in the ability of the institutions of governance to function effectively. They thought that Gotabaya Rajapsksa, a military man with proven credentials for getting the regimentation right, was the man for the job. 

Cometh the hour, cometh the man being the operative principle, Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself thought he was indeed the man for the job. Several public pronouncements made by him in those early days of the campaign, testify to the fact that he thought he should “be himself”, as it was his “personality” that the people wanted, in order to get the first thing right about turning Sri Lanka around, which was to build a “disciplined society.”

Could it be possible that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration now in power, gives such a literal interpretation to this pre-election cry for a disciplined society, that it’s leadership has taken itself almost too seriously in instilling the tenets of “military discipline” in civilian life?

In the main, the aim of creating a class of disciplined youth with an unwavering, if not patriotic, commitment to the nation through the military institution of the KNDU, may be a sincere one that the GR administration has pledged to pursue. There is a distinction after all, between such a “vision” and that of creating a Myanmar style military junta-led regime. The motives in the endeavour over here may be altruistic, compared to the nakedly self-serving ambition among the powerful cabal of generals in Myanmar.

The KNDU, previously called the KDU, has the “optics” as well, and that’s impressive to many folk who still see discipline as a precondition for a national reawakening. They see the KNDU students as “students” and not agents of political agitprop. They see them as putting their heads down and studying, and achieving that poster version of success. You know, the one where engineering graduates are seen, aviator shades in hand, building bridges, and envisioning spaceship design, while the fawning public looks on with beatific smiles on their faces.

The Gotabaya administration may believe that building a productive society is through the creation of a disciplined civilian supra-class of folk who are focused, and not distracted by politics or self-aggrandisement. The administration policymakers may also feel that creating this disciplined elite is part of their mandate.

But unfortunately, the immediate politics of the KNDU issues aside, regimentation is the last thing that this society wants. It’s true that on the other hand, there is a sense of over-entitlement among Sri Lankan campus graduates from all disciplines, with discipline somehow appearing to be the wrong choice of word in this sentence. Discipline, focus, and selfless commitment have certainly not been the strong suits of the products of free education and free university education in this country.

Is the KNDU the answer? There is some truth in the fact that “discipline” is how countries such as China grew exponentially. The Chinese instilled a work ethic however, by showcasing the fruits of labour. Young people realised that if they work and focus on the collective good, there would be a better life for every individual that contributed to the national effort.

There is tremendous innovation in China, and regimentation is not the way they got there, though there may be a mistaken notion that it is military discipline that drives Chinese innovators.

In that context, KNDU style regimentation may not be the answer to the shortage of an educated elite class that could guide the country towards economic security and individual happiness. Perhaps, regimentation in fact would be the last thing the country wants. 

While it’s granted that there should be discipline and commitment, such traits should come from a personal desire to improve, and not be sourced from top down regimentation ‒ however altruistic the motives for that. Such imposition of a regimental culture could unfortunately have the negative side effect of stifling free thinking and entrepreneurial innovation, because entrepreneurial minds rarely emerge from an army style culture of spit, polish, and hard work.

Some may argue that the entrepreneurs will be there anyway, and the KNDU will produce the elite managerial and skilled worker class the industry leaders need. But having the entire higher education system oriented towards creating followers and not leaders is not exactly poised to engage the Nation’s entrepreneurial spirit. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and even though Sri Lankan society does need an injection of a dose of disciplinarian traits, that should not be at the cost of stifling the innate free thinking proclivities of the young and the upwardly mobile.

We should in fact look to China and disabuse ourselves of the notion that China thrives on military style discipline. That’s completely incorrect. The country is a haven for entrepreneurial innovators who want to push the limits of success, and they feel encouraged, because contrary to popular belief, in China there is nobody telling the young people what to do when it comes to generating ideas that spur on economic progress.

(The writer is a former Editor-in-Chief of three national English language publications and a practicing Attorney-at-Law. He is an Editors’ Guild award-winning columnist, and contributing writer and columnist for the Nikkei Asian Review and South China Morning Post, while his editorials have been published in The Australian)