Prof. Furkhan, President of the Dr. A.M.A. Azeez Foundation, distinguished members of the Foundation, Ladies and Gentlemen.

It is a great honour for me, to be invited to deliver this Memorial Oration, in remembrance of one who had not only shed lustre in such abundance in his own life, but who also served vividly, as inspiration to so many like myself, who knew him as our senior in age and more, as model and exemplar in our own endeavours and aspirations.

It is indeed remarkable that Azeez left his mark in the way he did, not simply upon his Community, but in the Society of his Country as a whole.  He did so with such verve and commitment, and imagination that his legacies of thought and deed, continue into this day and certainly bid fair to grow and to shape those yet unborn, in the Century that is now before us.

I shall come to some of the contents of those facets of him in a while, but before doing so, I wish to say something briefly on his personal nature and the links that he allowed people of all walks of life so easily to mix with one another.  He was born, to a well known family of Jaffna, in October 1911, my own advent into this world was still to be more than a decade yet!  My first encounter with him was therefore naturally by hearsay, when he entered the Civil Service of the Country, and my own fascination for study and winning prizes at School had caught up with me.  Already by that time, he was certainly one of the role models which, for myself, and I am certain for many others, he had become.  As I progressed in my own academic years, occasions developed also for fleeting encounters with him, in the whole of which my over-whelming impression was of how simple and disarming he was in his modes and in speech.  They only served to intensify our admiration of his  intellect and his qualities.

By the time I myself had left academia, and entered into the world of work and competition, by the mid 40s, Azeez was in a sense at the height of the career, recognized by all, admired by many, respected by the powers that be, and loved by his people.

While he continued be the ‘complete’ man and a universalist, it was also his love of his Community that led him into some of the most fascinating engagements that he entered into later in life, for their betterment and welfare, and towards their dignified integration into the wider streams of Sri Lankan Society.

During this period, he moved ever upwards in his life, from being the first Muslim Civil Servant, to becoming the eminent Educationalist, later Senator, Principal of Zahira College, Member of the Public Service Commission, Member of the Court and Council and Senate of the University of Ceylon and founder of the All Ceylon YMMA Conference.  Upon his death, the University of Jaffna awarded him, most befittingly, a posthumous Doctorate in 1980; and in 1986 the Government honoured him as a ‘National Hero’ and released a Stamp in his memory.

As I mentioned a while earlier, during all these progressions of glamour and recognitions and success, to the man inside, there was also another facet.  It was his life as one of inner struggle and visions for the less fortunate around him, which he saw in such profusion.  It led him, as the old lines said ‘To seek, to find, and to yield not till the Goal was reached’.  And so he pursued them, as for all other things in his chosen fields, under the banners of knowledge, liberty, humanity and justice.  Essentially, a thinker and philosopher, these roles fitted him handsomely.

His most notable achievements were an alchemy of two streams that were unique to his life.  One was that he was born in the best Muslim traditions, of understanding and universality.  The second was that, in his place of birth, the foundation of his early learning were laid at two remarkable Hindu Institutions to which his father, a Tamil Scholar himself, decided to send him. They were Vaidyeshwara Vidyayala, suffused with the famed liberal thinking of the Ramakrishna Mission, and one of the leading Secondary Schools of the Island, the Jaffna Hindu College.

With these two streams, Azeez had imbibed zealously for himself of the springs of Tamil language and literature, that were to last throughout his life, only reinforced by his later contacts with Tamil Literary giants like Swami Vipulananda and others.  In a natural sequence, Azeez thus became unwavering in his convictions as to the mother tongue claims of the Muslims to the Tamil language.  He saw this rightly, as no more than a truth that had been repeatedly vindicated in the North and in the East, through the profuse and repeated manifestations of profound Masters in the Tamil language who were Muslims.

I wish to pause here, to allude to a type of cultural heritage which I felt Azeez must have been heir to, and of which he also became such a luminous exponent.  The first example that came to me, based on his Tamil inheritance, was of the great ‘Kamba Ramayanam’, which once a savant when introducing it in India, termed that ‘Ocean without a Shore’.  As we know, translations are never faithful reproducers of an original genius , and so here too, the Tamil words, of Kamban’s Ramayanam as that “Karai Illa Kadal”.  Those of you who know, will recall that Kamba Ramayanam was not a translation of Valmihi’s Sanskrit ‘Ramayana’ and, perhaps, the best allusion, if one were to honour both, would be to those two other great heritages of the Ancient World, Homer’s ‘iliad’, and Virgil’s ‘Aenid’.

In this Tradition, I could imagine Azeez as easy and comfortable, if he were talking of the discourses of Krishna to Arjuna, as with the revelations of the great Sufi Mystics of Islam.

He was ready, therefore, when the call came, to carry these into his outstanding stewardship of Zahira College, for which he sacrificed his Civil Service career. He introduced classical Tamil and idiom, brought Tamil scholars, promoted Senior School Level Lyceums and Tamil Oratory.  There resulted naturally, not long thereafter, in a profuse dominance of Zahirian Scholars of Tamil in literature, journalism, drama, oratory, the classics, fiction and literary analysis – an achievement that was astounding by any standards.

I referred earlier to the two streams of Azeez’s own mental foundations – one of which was his rich Tamil heritage which I have referred to.  The other, as I said, was his profound Muslim background, which was as enlightened as it was ambitious.  These came to the fore no sooner he entered the Civil Service, and he saw in his early years, while serving at Kandy and later at Kalmunai and Batticaloa, the stark contrasts between the heights to which he had attained, and the sheer cultural and academic privations in which his own community at large lived, within the larger society.  It was this that led him, uniquely perhaps, to his original and pioneering work, namely to conceive of an ambitious, continuing and self-sustaining educational scheme for deprived Muslim youth, not only to give them back their cultural and linguistic rights, but also to take them into the mainstream of the country’s economic and social life.  He did this by establishment of a Ceylon Muslim Scholarship Fund (The CMSF), which never failed from the day it was launched and has only kept growing in size and success ever afterwards.

Within his community, he is still reverentially remembered for this, and rightly so.  This aspect of his contribution is well known and there is no need to go into its details.  What may not be so well known is that it has continued to be praised and lauded by leading educationalists, citizens and others of all communities, not simply for its generosity but for its imagination and practicality.

Many are the persons today from his Community, who are in various walks of life, and who are adornments to all of us, who would not have been, but for this imaginative means and pathway, that he created for them.  His commitment to the new born and the young was so convincing that one is reminded of the words of Tagore, who sang, in hope amidst despair, ‘With every Child that comes into this World, God sends a Message that He is not yet tired of Man’ clearly, Azeez was one who was not!

There was also a third aspect of Azeez, seemingly not linked to the other two; yet an inevitable sequence from his two founding natures.  This was his role in terms of his Country as a whole.  It was this and certainly no petty political ambitions – that we see only in profusion around us! – that led him to adorn various public Offices, including the Legislature of the Country.

If one were to reflect, and to ask what may be the ‘lessons from Azeez that were left for us, there could perhaps be various answers, in tune with his varied attainments. In my own way let me put them down as follows.

I think the first was that he showed what it was to be a ‘complete’ man.  The second was his repeated demonstrations of how we could respond to crises, to play those roles that we must play, and to bring out those talents, that one may not think one has at the start, like unto a ‘concerto’, through to its grand finale.  Thirdly, by these, he also did show how idle it would be, for us, not to respond to our own challenges of our times, how not to be only ‘abstract man’, with distant, ivory tower thinkings and cloistered concerns.

In my own personal way, these brought to me some re-collections from my earlier years in the United Nations, where I was pursuing ideas and activities for peoples, and countries in concert, on behalf of their goals and aspirations.  It was my great good fortune that it was given to me in the international scene at the time, working together with others, to record what became indeed some of the most outstanding successes of the time.  These included the setting up, in succession, of the Asian Development Bank (when at first we had to stand, and not to yield, amidst strongest opposition – and thus win!); the Asian Clearing Union; the Bangkok Trade Agreement; The Asian coconut Community; The Asian Highway (from Teheran to Singapore, on which we even succeeded in arranging ‘visas’ between neighbouring enemies!); SACEP – The South Asia Co-operative Environment Programme – the pioneer in South Asian Co-operation; before that, the South Pacific Co-operative Environment Programme; and, in the same subject, the ASEAN (South East Asia) – Co-operative Programme.

His Majesty the King of Thailand, whose Country was permanent host to the United Nations in Asia, was gracious enough to confer upon me the Title of knight Commander in recognition of these and many other milestones which it was given to me to promote.  Quite some years later, the United Nations in co-operation with the Sasakawa Foundation awarded the 1995 World Environment Prize to me in recognition of what it called pioneering perceptions and contributions in this field.  In a further act of kindness and generosity, a group of Authors Worldwide produced, concurrently with the United Nations 50th Anniversary in 1995, a Felicitation Volume in my honour, for the things which it had been my privilege to serve, and in whose behalf to achieve, in those years.

Why I mention these is not simply for myself, but to share my sense, that they were achieved in the way that Azeez would have liked to see me pursue them, namely not in aggressiveness and exclusiveness, but in humility and partnership with all others.

It was my first Leader in the United Nations System who told me that there were two ‘skills’ which had to be mastered in order to be right, and in order to win!   One, we must always look for Areas of Agreement, not Areas of Disagreement; and in these, we must know to convert Barriers into Bridges.  The second was that, where there were apparent blocks and reverses against a good purpose, or the greater good, and one must know to stay, and not to surrender!

For these two attainments I was taught that what were needed were two simple qualities – perhaps for many of us also the most difficult.  These were a Sense of Commitment, and an Honesty of Purpose.  My ‘Guru’ would tell me that not much was required – that even a little would do!

If Azeez lived today, he may have shown other capacities for which, perhaps, there is more need than even during this time.  A harbinger of this, indeed, appeared during his otherwise lucid and polite life.  As we saw, he had been made a Senator, a position to which most men would normally cling – perhaps even when requested to leave!  But, when he perceived the seeds of ill-fated future tragedies in the incipient language and related issues that were beginning to arise at the time, he simply resigned from the United National Party to which he had offered his alliance and support.  That indeed remains a worthy legacy, and a reminder to us all this day.

Distinguished Chairman and Friends – this Oration might as well also be an occasion, based on Azeez’s, example, for us to take a glimpse, however briefly, into the Future – of those things that we hold here, that we too may work for, and hope for, and of things that all of us in unison can be ambitious about on behalf of our Country.

The first, contains the types of urgings that led Azeez to be the expositor of his linguistic, cultural and educational foundations.  The second, is on the concern for ourselves and for our Countrymen and the Country as a whole, towards our Future Prosperity, our Economy, our Environment and our Polity. These all, as yet, await a new Dawn!  And only we can make them come about!

We have, thus much to draw on directly and for those who would, intuitively from the life, work and devotions of Azeez. In these simple words, of tribute  and of homage, I salute his memory and ask you now to join me in acclamation of his example, for our sake and for that of our future generations.

I thank you.


(Prof. C. Suriyakumaran was Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia an The Far East, ECAFE (now ESCAP).  UNEP’s Director for Education, Training and Technical Assistance, and later Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

He was directly associated in the creation of a number of international institutions and programmes, among them the Asian Development Bank in 1965, the Bangkok Trade Agreement, the Asian Clearing Union, the Asian Coconut Community; and was responsible for setting up of the Sub-Regional Co-operative Environment Programme in ASEAN, the South Pacific and finally SACEP, the first Inter-Governmental Community to come up in South Asia.

He was Knighted by the King of Thailand, host country of the United Nations in Asia, for outstanding services during his UN career.

In 1995 he was Awarded the United Nations-Sasakawa World Environment Prize (considered equivalent to the Nobel Prize in the Subject).

At the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations in 1995, a Felicitation Volume of professional writings, from Authors Worldwide was produced to honour his varied contributions. (‘Venerated by Agencies and Governments’, ‘Example for International Civil Servants’, ‘Multi-faceted and priceless’, were some of the many commentaries on him).

He has lectured widely, at LSE, Harvard/MIT, Berkeley, E-W-C and elsewhere, on development, international co-operation, environment, governance and religion and has written extensively on these subjects.

Among his several Books are ‘Ceylon, Beveridge and Bretton Woods’ (1946); ‘The Economics of Full Employment in Agricultural Countries’ (1957); ‘The Wealth of Poor Nations’ (sponsored by LSE, Publ. Lond.  Canberra N.y. 1984; rev. 1995, T.R. Publications, India; ‘Devolution in Sri Lanka; Origins and concepts’, (1991); ‘Fiscal Devolution’ (1991); ‘Hinduism for Hindus & Non-Hindus:Its Religion and Metaphysics’ (1990); and ‘The Methodology of Environment and Development Management’ (1993).

He has declined Political and Public Honours since retiring in Sri Lanka, devoting himself to major Public Issues and Advice on them.

He is currently Chairman, Centre for Regional Development Studies (CRDS) in Colombo, and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics).

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