I recall a Sinhala poem from my time at Peradeniya University. It asked who had actually built Sigiriya and the great irrigation works: The kings who routinely get the credit or the unnamed many who did the actual building?
The telecom reforms in Sri Lanka are now seen as an unqualified success. The reforms did not just happen. Courageous decision making was needed. And much meticulous work on implementation of the reforms was necessary. Radley Dissanayake, who passed away on the 18th of March 2013, was one of those who did the heavy lifting of implementation.
I first met him in 1992, when I was in Colombo looking for information for a study on the Sri Lanka telecom sector. He was, at that time, an expert working at the Office of the Director General of Telecommunication, the precursor of the Telecommunication Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRC). He had worked as a Technical Officer at the Department of Telecommunications and the Post Office before posts and telecom were bifurcated. His father and grandfather had also worked for the Post Office, so it could be said that he had telecom in his blood.
He was a deeply involved in the under-the-radar but critical reform actions being taken at that time, including the issuance of licenses to Sri Lanka Telecom and the private operators. The licenses that were issued in that first phase constituted the foundation of today’s competitive telecom market. Without that foundation, the subsequent reforms that drew greater attention would have not been possible. Without the competitive environment thus created, the reforms may well have been rolled back.
I next met him when I took over as Director General of the Telecom Regulatory Commission in December 1997. He was my right-hand man. His vast experience and maturity balanced my theoretical knowledge and impatience to show results. When he reached retirement age in the first few months of my term, I did not hesitate to ask Cabinet for an extension. What surprised me the most was his openness to new ideas and new ways of doing things. I recall him arguing for a small and efficient TRC, even smaller than the 80-person entity it then was.
Our success in preventing a stay order being placed on the TRC’s Interconnection Determination of 1999 owed a great deal to Radley’s analytical mind. I used to tell him he was the best lawyer I knew who had never studied law. He was never one for the spotlight. But people figured out how critical his contributions were in that period. I remember one newspaper article that attacked the DG’s advisor who had not passed the A levels. His only reaction was a smile.
The lesson I took from all this was that real learning did not come from universities. My belief that one’s worth is not determined by performance at an exam done when eighteen was reinforced.
When I returned to work on infrastructure reforms in 2002, I persuaded him out of retirement to help mentor the young people being trained in regulation at the Ministry for Economic Reforms. And then he went on to contribute his considerable knowledge and skills to the ICT Agency where he worked to the end.
Radley Dissanayake was an exemplary public servant. He knew and followed the rules. Unlike some who refer to the rules to find reasons not to act, he would find ways compliant with the rules to serve the public and effect beneficial changes. He was always open to new ideas, even those that turned upside down the world that he grew up in. He paid attention to detail but was one of the most creative people I have interacted with in public service. All who today enjoy the benefits of the reformed ICT sector today should be grateful to this unsung hero. I am.
Director General, Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka 1998-99