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Blog of W.G.T.Fernando. A place to write things which take longer than 140 characters. Else see http://twitter.com/gihangamos

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


TEDx - a place for inspiration, not insults - In response to TEDxColombo incident

As some of you know (via my twitter account @gihangamos) I have accused Prof. Rohan Samarajiva of insulting the Sinhala speaking population (my exact words were - Talk by Prof Rohan Samarajiva insults Sinhala speaking population at TEDx event in Colombo).

Since the video proof has yet (as of 20th July 2009) to be approved by TED, I thought it was appropriate to write this blog post so that everyone is clear on why I would say that.

Before we get to the fine details, let me give a small brief on what TED and TEDx is all about.

TED is a platform where people share ideas worth spreading. Initially starting out focusing on Technology, Entertainment and Design, TED increased its scope to a broader focal point. It was an opportunity for one individual to speak and inspire an audience for 18 minutes. A platform for dreams to turn into reality. A plaform for speakers to give the audience a breathtaking prospective on thinking positively. However..... it is not a platform for accusations, nor is it a platform for insulting a race, nor is it a plaform for political viewpoints.

TED started out in 1984 but until April 2007, much of what went on during the TED events were limited to a few. With videos being released since 2007, the concept of TED and its talks spread virally to the point that action was taken to create TEDx.

TED allowed organisers to hold their own TEDx event (not an official TED event, but an independently organised TED event following the guidelines given by TED). So the good people at BeyondBorders initiated the first TEDx event in Sri Lanka on the 19th of July 2009 with TEDxColombo.

TEDxColombo started off at around 10am with the first speaker Prof. Rohan Samarajiva with the topic 'Implementing tri-lingual government services'. Please note it is not the topic that initiated me to write this blog, but the approach he used in his talk.

He started his talk with a book (he said it was the constitution of Sri Lanka) in his hand and showed a page on the projector (it was in Sinhala, note - it is available in Tamil & English as well to those unaware). He looked at the audience and said 'written in a language which most of you here in the audience don't understand' (I wonder how he came to that assumption?).

In a clearly agitated state, he said to the audience that the constitution is written down, but not implemented practically. Him saying that was not the issue, but how he went about insulting the Sinhala speaking population is what was wrong with his talk which clearly goes against the rules of TED and is inappropriate for any platform for that matter. Let me take one example on his approach:

He decided to do a small survey (would have been a good idea if he did the survey and then said about the audience not being able to read Sinhala). He wanted to find out who was bilingual and trilingual.

He firstly asked 'who is biligual - can speak Sinhala/Tamil?'. A few raised their hands.
He thirdly asked 'who is biligual - can speak Tamil/English?' A few raised their hands.
Secondly he asked 'who is bilingual - can speak Sinhala/English?... but wait, he didn't stop his question there. He added 'and I mean proper English and not English to only hail a three wheeler' (maybe, just maybe he must be picturing people in Canada hailing three wheelers in English). He said this while adding a wide smile cheeky look on his face.

If you do get the chance to see the video, you will see that in that instance, it was clearly an insult to the Sinhala speaking population of Sri Lanka as he clearly separated the three and made fun of the Sinhala speaking population.

Wouldn't you (yes you who is reading this blogpost), find it inappropriate for a highly respected individual like Prof. Samarajiva to be a bit more professional in his approach and not insulting one race to give the rights of another?

I am not having any grudge against Prof. Samarajiva, I respect him for all the good service that he has done to this country (I even invited him to give a speech at one of my events as evident in these 3 pictures 1, 2, 3) but he must remember to act appropriately when he wants to make a point. He himself said at the start that he is not a friendly person, we don't care, just don't ruin events with your demeaning attitude.

As action needed to be taken, I informed (via email to tedx@ted.com) the TED organisers about the talk and they were very quick to reply back (thanks Lara) saying that action will be taken. So lets wait and see what happens.

Before I conclude this blogpost, it would be unfair if I didn't also add that the TEDxColombo event was well organised and the team behind beyondborders should continue to organise TEDx events (you can follow them on twitter), but please don't ruin the TED spirit by inviting individuals who have little knowledge on what a TED event is all about.

Also note - If you are interested in holding a TEDx event in a city other than Colombo, do feel free to do so.. TEDxKandy, TEDxGalle, TEDxAnuradhapura, TEDxTrincomalee, where ever you maybe (but make sure you adhere to the guidelines).


p.s - Permission is given to anyone to reproduce the above blogpost (in full) should they wish.

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Mr Fernando,

This is Rohan Samarajiva, the speaker alleged to have insulted either the Sinhala language or the Sinhala speaking people or both at TEDx. I found your blog through a refutation posted by another person, so obviously, there is a difference of opinion on the allegation among the people who attended the event. My speaking and writing style includes irony, sarcasm, and such. Sometimes this does lead to some people not getting it. But most people do.

The whole point of writing and speaking about public issues is to catalyze thought, debate and hopefully remedial action. In order to do that it is generally advisable to speak/write in a way that causes the audience to wake up and engage. That's where irony comes in (rarely do people take a statement like "I am not a nice guy" at face value; though you seem to have).

My speaking style at TEDx seems to have achieved its purpose of getting sustained engagement, both with you and with those who disagree with your interpretation. By that measure, I seem to have succeeded. As you say, the evidence will soon be available and others can weigh in on whose interpretation is more credible (I hesitate to say correct, because the act of communication is inter-subjective and requires participation by both parties, so your interpretation of what I said is correct to you, if not to others).

What I am surprised is that an enterprising person like you chose not raise these questions then and there. There was time; there was opportunity during question time and later (people did come up and ask me questions one on one before I left).

I said that the book in my hand was the Constitution of this country, less the 17th Amendment; I did put up a part of the 16th Amendment in Sinhala saying that I put it up purposely in the context of a talk given in English (in small font) to give the audience a sense of what Tamil-speaking people go through every day as a result of the Constitutional promises made to them being broken. I also recall saying that the document in my hand was the English version of the Constitution. This was a factual question that could have been easily clarified in seconds.

You know me. I spoke at the launch of your Colomba wate game. You invited me to write a column in one of your publications. You know my email, you know my mobile number, you know my office location. Surely, common courtesy would have been to clarify the issues with me, a known person who has gone out of his way to help you, before launching these kinds of broadsides (more than courtesy, it might serve your cause because your facts would be stronger and there would be less chance of embarrassment). I have no problem with disagreement and debate; I do have a problem about the absence of common courtesy.
Dear Sir,

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blogpost.

Even though your speaking style achieved its goal of creating somewhat of a debate, I feel that it was not the appropriate way to conduct a TED talk.

As I said, I feel that the way you toned your talk in those 18-20 minutes was demeaning to the Sinhala speaking people. I used only 1 example (of how I heard it and as I said, I take responsibility for what I said) to highlight the inappropriateness of style for a TED talk. Even Nushad Perera started his talk by saying something along the lines of 'My talk won't be as controversial as the earlier talk'.

I did try to find time to talk to you straight after Nushad Perera spoke (and when they started to play some music), but there were about 4 other people wanting to talk with you (you can ask your son (Indi), as he did see me waiting in line for a few seconds -before I went out since I had to look into some other matters at home and at office- (yes, we had office open on a Sunday)).

Constitution reference - I raised the issue that you showed a Sinhala version of the constitution and blindly assumed the Sri Lankan audience that were gathered at Punchi Theatre in Borella were not capable of reading Sinhala!

In my twitter message I posted I said 'Talk by Prof Rohan Samarajiva insults Sinhala speaking population at TEDx event in Colombo' as said in my first sentence of the original blogpost. Listening to your talk for 18-20 minutes, though your idea might be of some interest, it was not the best way to present. Maybe, like you said, it's an effective means of getting your message across different platforms, but Sir, I honestly don't believe that the platform you used (TEDx event) was the right one for such a talk.

I do not clearly know the political viewpoints of the organisers of TEDx Colombo, and quite frankly I don't think I would want to know either since TED is about ideas worth spreading, minus the controversial politics.

As to your last sentence (in your comment), I did make it clear to the audience, the help you had given me (by mentioning that I did know you and that you were there to help me in one of my events). Yes, I could have emailed you or called you up to clarify things since I couldn't find to talk to you after the event, for that I apologise. However, I think I still would have said that 'you insulted the Sinhala speaking population' after taking your talk into consideration. (this is my viewpoint as I have mentioned in twitter as well).

I know it's not easy for me to argue with an attorney at law, but as J.F. Kennedy pointed out, 'We choose to go to the moon, not because its easy, but because its hard'.

I wish you the best in your future talks and hope you will consider about your approach (style) when it comes to public speaking about sensitive issues such as language. I know I will improve my approach too, when it comes to speaking up against people who try to degrade the Sinhala speaking population.


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