HC SKANDAKUMAR – A MEMORABLE CAPTAIN’S KNOCK by Chitran Duraisamy
His Excellency Somasundaran Skandakumar took up this appointment in 2015 with responsibilities as plenipotentiary to Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. He returns to the homelands where his heart belongs but not without capturing our hearts in the process. He is quick to admit “I’m not a career diplomat” but judging by his exemplary manner, he has carried out his duties with deft perfection that would be the envy of any professional diplomat.
It is evident to many of us that it is his passion for the country that has set him apart as one of the most distinguished ambassadors to grace these shores. A man of integrity, he has used his gifted ability to reach out to people and cut across ethnic and political differences. The heightened racial tension (2009-2010), its subsequent spill-over impact and the change in government (2015) appeared to raise its ugly head within the diaspora. How fortunate were we, against this backdrop to welcome a diplomat whose aim was to solidify us; not as Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers, Malays or Muslims but as Sri Lankans. He did this through both word and deed by actively promoting the shared vision of a better world. ‘We are all children of one common mother’ – a line from our national anthem, he uses often to remind us of our heritage, culture and the need for unity.
As a strong advocate for bilateral relations he has been instrumental in many trade and social engagements between our two nations. A game dear to his heart, in cricket parlance, his short yet effective ‘captain’s knock’ the past 4 years has produced several boundaries hard to emulate. Given his stellar corporate career in Sri Lanka, his appeal and charisma in inter-governmental dealings paved the way for Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to visit Sri Lanka. Reciprocal visits by the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka followed. Incidentally, the previous state visit by a Sri Lankan prime minister took place when Sir John Kothalawala visited Australia in the 50’s. Additionally, under his purview stronger ties in border security control and steps towards knowledge share in both environment preservation and food crops established. Several memoranda of understanding economic issues have also been signed. In particular, the Trade and Investment Framework agreement signed in Colombo in November 2017 has opened the doors for discussions on economic reform and cooperation, free trade, regional trade agreements, market access and specific opportunities for investment between both countries. Our modest HC is quick to deflect these achievements as “strengthening bilateral collaboration” and in doing so he would acknowledge the efforts and contributions of his fellow staff members and other stake-holders. This comes as no surprise as many who worked for him in Sri Lanka will still vouch for his benevolence and leadership qualities. His drive in reinforcing multicultural ties between our two nations is evident by the setting up of the Sri Lankan Festival in Canberra in 2016. Large crowds from diverse communities attend this annual event to savour Sri Lankan tea and culinary delights. Intricate and colourful Sri Lankan handlooms, burnt wood art, porcelain, tourist board promotions and displays are also on offer. Proceeds of this event are donated to the ‘Little Hearts’ Project of the Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital in Sri Lanka. Having completed 3 successive years, we hope this legacy he leaves behind will be continued by his successor. Big shoes to fill no doubt!
A gifted speaker he often engages his audience with his extemporary speeches – profound, humorous, inspiring and patriotic. There is often a reference or comparison to life imitating cricket akin to Oscar Wilde’s observation of “Life imitating Art”. Listening to him speak is a pure delight and his delivery of jokes is subtle and classy (if opportunity presents, ask him about the lance corporal with 3 sons)! He never fails to enthuse his audience and always leaves a thoughtful message for one to ponder. The epitome of Integrity and Sportsmanship he ‘walks the talk’ yet very gracious at all times. He was commissioned in the 90’s to prepare a report on the failures within Sri Lankan cricket. Dubbed the Skandakumar report his findings and recommendations in due course largely assisted a new look, positive team to emerge and win the 1996 World Cup. He does not hesitate to commend Australia on its influence and support towards Sri Lanka gaining test status. Recently while watching the Sri Lankan’s play at Manuka Oval, he fondly reflected on Greg Chappell’s team visit to Sri Lanka in the early 80’s for the first official Test game. He is well-respected and held in high esteem by cricket legends. His erudite knowledge and understanding of the game has been well summed up by prominent cricket journalist Michael Roberts who described him as “A perceptive observer of the cricket scene”.
The realisation that he is going back home may be a surprise to some but to others who have known this humble gentleman, his heart is in Sri Lanka; Haputale in particular where he will continue to champion various charity projects dear to his heart. Incidentally, this would have to rate as one of the longest farewells extended to a High Commissioner. No sooner his return to Sri Lanka was made official in June last year, many individuals and organisations lined up to bid him farewell. This is indeed a testimony and reflection of the calibre of our HC, who will be sadly missed. Putting aside his public persona, ‘Skanda’ is a family oriented brother as described by his beloved sister Saro; family means the world to him and she has referred to him as that proverbial candle who burns himself to provide light to others. We will remember the brightness he brought into our lives here Down Under.
It is rare to find an individual who has traversed academia, sports, a successful corporate career, public and diplomatic service and navigated each with effortless ease leaving behind notable imprints in all sectors. This Sir, you have done in your inimitable style with distinction and we thank you, salute and wish you well.