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Upali Wijewardena: Memories of Sri Lanka’s Unforgettable Indigenous Tycoon

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By

D.B.S. Jeyaraj

If Philip Upali Wijewardena was among the living he would have reached the Seventy-seven on February 17th. Alas, this was not to be as he disappeared 32 years ago on Feb 13th , just four days before his 45th birthday . This article written years ago is updated and posted here as tribute to Upali in this eventful week of two significant anniversaries in the life and times of the man..

Upali Wijewardene (1938-1983)

Legally, Wijewardena is presumed dead though his body was never found. He was traveling in his own Lear jet from Malaysia to Sri Lanka when the plane disappeared. The disappearance continues to linger in the collective memory of the nation as an unresolved mystery.

There are people who ask me even now, “I say, what really happened to Upali? Don’t know, no?”

Indigenous tycoon

Wijewardena was a man who achieved much in the short period of his life. He was perhaps Sri Lanka’s first indigenous tycoon who captured the imagination of the masses. Despite his privileged background, Upali was basically a self-made man who reached the pinnacle through his own efforts.

The nation at large recognised this and was proud of him. Though he hardly ever visited Jaffna, the people of the peninsula appreciated him greatly. They admired his commercial success. Needless to say the south was proud of him too. The flamboyant business magnate was, to many, a symbol of success and a role model to be emulated.

The name Upali Wijewardena became familiar to the country in the early ’70s. Yet, it was in the late ’70s that he was really well-known when he assumed duties as director general of Sri Lanka’s first ‘Free Trade Zone,’ the popular name for the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC). The GCEC has transformed into BOI nowadays.

I first came to know Wijewardena personally after he became head of the GCEC. I was then a journalist on the Tamil daily Virakesari, run by Express Newspapers Ceylon Ltd.

Our Chairman then was the well-known industrialist, A.Y.S. Gnanam. When the GCEC was formed, Gnanam was made a deputy director general by President Junius Richard Jayewardene.

Chairman Gnanam apparently did not inform his newspaper company of the appointment. When news of the GCEC appeared in other papers, Virakesari had ‘missed’ it.

When the GCEC held its first press conference at the Upali Group premises on Bloemendhal Road, I was assigned to cover it. I was also asked by my editors to get an exclusive interview with Wijewardena if possible.

When I approached Wijewardena for the interview, he agreed immediately. When I went to see him the following day his greeting was, “So you missed the story about your Chairman being in the GCEC and now you are trying to make amends by doing a belated write-up.” He then guffawed! I warmed to him immediately.

GCEC

He was a wonderful subject to interview. He answered each question informatively and at times wittily. He did not bluff or bullshit! Pelee Muhandhiram, who disappeared along with Wijewardena, was present throughout the interview, as a silent observer.

The interview turned out well and my editors were pleased. Wijewardena got it translated and was happy too. Thereafter, I was assigned the GCEC as one of my regular beats.

The GCEC was something new and controversial. The ‘Shannon’ experiment was catching on in many parts of the world. The leftists were firmly opposed to the concept.

The idea of providing massive tax concessions and financial incentives to foreign ‘capitalists’ to come and invest in Sri Lanka was a novel project at that time.

One of the attractions was our skilled yet cheap labour. “Exploitation,” thundered the left. JR Jayawardena’s famous comment, “Let the robber barons come,” did not help either.

The fact that a well known ‘dhanapathi’ was heading the GCEC aided the ‘vahamanse sahodharayo’ to attack the project.

It was a difficult time for the pioneering venture. Looking back I think Wijewardena was the ideal man for the job at that time. The GCEC went about its task methodically and diligently.

It was my duty then to record its progress regularly in the columns of Virakesari. Because of the Gnanam connection, the GCEC received top billing in the paper.

Easily accessible

I interacted a lot with Wijewardena while covering the GCEC. When working for a Tamil newspaper I have come across many Sinhala persons who simply did not care a hoot about the Tamil media.

I have also come across many Sinhalese who were extremely concerned about what appeared in the Tamil newspapers. Wijewardena belonged to the latter group.

I met him on more than one occasion then. Also, he was always ready to answer my questions whenever I telephoned him. Sometimes I pestered him but he didn’t seem to mind.

I remember Mrs. Wijewardena once gently admonishing me on the phone, “He is a busy man you know and you shouldn’t disturb him like this.”

Little did I realise then that one day I would be working on Wijewardena’s newspaper, The Island, and that someday Mrs. Wijewardena would become my chairperson.

The opposition papers used to regularly publish negative stories about the GCEC. I remember one particular news item in the Communist Party’s “Forward”,weekly and I asked him some questions based on the news item.

He started chuckling and said, “You have read Forward.” Sheepishly I said, “Yes.” He then proceeded to answer. This demonstrated that Wijewardena was keeping abreast of all the media reports on the GCEC.

Though he could not read Tamil he got his Tamil employees at Upali Group to inform him about what was appearing in Virakesari. Thus he was happy with my work and perhaps due to that made himself easily accessible.

I recall an incident where Upali addressed a seminar at Marga Institute.I was present taking down notes.Upali saw me scribbling.When the event ended Upali called me up and gave me his copy of his speech joking “so that you can report in full”.

UPALI W

Inimitable style

The much-travelled Wijewardena undertook many foreign trips to promote the FTZ. On one such occasion he was in Singapore. At a press conference Upali was asked about the Tamil minority being discriminated against in Sri Lanka. Wijewardena responded to it in his inimitable style.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “Seated on my right is Deputy Director General Raju Coomaraswamy. On my left is Treasury Secretary Chandi Chanmugam. Further down is our High Commissioner to Singapore, C. Gunasingham. Gentlemen,I am the minority here.” Everyone laughed. That was Upali Wijewardena!

As I stated before, the GCEC was a novel project and there were no Lanka-based precedents to go by in writing about it. Still I managed to write regularly on various aspects concerning the GCEC.

There was very little about the GCEC in the Tamil language then. However, the GCEC became a question at the GCE Advanced Level Economics paper. I was immensely gratified when many teachers and students from Tamil schools wrote to me and the paper saying that they had only relied on articles and news in the Virakesari about the GCEC for the exams. Such incidents make journalists feel that they are doing something worthwhile.

Vijitha Yapa, who later became the pioneering editor of The Island, was media liaison officer at the GCEC. Ranjan Perera was Wijewardena’s secretary and was very helpful. As most journalists know, the secretaries can cut you off literally and metaphorically.

One of the biggest criticisms against the GCEC then was that our workers were being exploited by the global capitalists. Being somewhat left of centre in my political beliefs during the days of my youth, I felt this charge was perfectly valid.

My perspective changed when I interviewed many of the girls employed at the FTZ. Though factory workers, many of them were well educated in the Sinhala medium and were politically conscious. But they were realists.

One of them observed pithily in Sinhala that she knew she was getting only half a plate, but if she agitated for a full plate, then she may lose even this half a plate and go hungry. Their families depended on them.

Political ambition

For some reason Wijewardena used to talk freely on many matters with me. Perhaps he was at ease with me, a young journalist on a Tamil newspaper.

There was much speculation then in the media about his political ambition. I thought then that he would focus on Kelaniya but I was surprised when he said, “No, the south.”

It was then that I came to know of his southern roots from his mother’s side and the Sarath Wijesinghe relationship. Later he earmarked the Kamburupitiya electoral division and began nursing it. He focused on improving the standard of English among Students in the area.

I once went to a meeting in the South where Upali spoke. The cheers for him were loud , huge and spontaneous. The people on that side of the Bentara river loved Upali regarded as a son of the south.

When I was working at Virakesari, I once asked Wijewardena how he would resolve the ethnic crisis if he became Sri Lanka’s head. Of course the problem then was not as bad it became later.

He thought a while and said that all people should be able to study and communicate with the government in their own language, that official administration should be done in all three languages and that no person should be discriminated against on grounds of race or religion.He was of the view that all parts of the country should be developed evenly and access to jobs provided on merit basis.Upali opined that when the country prospered economically the ethnic issue would lose its sting.

Subsequently I left Virakesari and joined The Island in 1981. Wijewardena had nothing to do with my entry into English journalism. My joining The Island was due to Ajith Samaranayake, Ravindran Casinader, Gamini Weerakoon and Vijitha Yapa. Wijewardena did not interfere with recruitment of personnel for the editorial.

My interaction with Wijewardena ceased after I became his employee. I was put on the ‘Tamil’ round by the editor Vijitha Yapa and deputy editor Gamini Weerakoon. I ran across ‘Mr. Wijewardena’ a few times in those days. We simply smiled. He seldom visited the editorial then.

Last chat

I remember Wijewardena speaking to me only once after I started working at The Island. After a trip to Jaffna I began a series of articles for The Sunday Island. Vijitha Yapa then made it a permanent column. That was the ‘Behind the Cadjan Curtain’ column. It was quite popular then.

Vijitha Yapa’s instructions to me about the column were simple. “Remember that you are writing for a pre-dominantly Sinhala readership in English,” he said. “Explain the problems of the Tamils to them. Think of it as building a bridge between the communities.”

One day I saw Upali Wijewardena at a distance. He was about to get into the car. Pelee Muhandhiram beckoned to me. When I went near ,Wijewardena praised my column and said that he liked it.

“Keep it up,” he said. That was all. I was thrilled. A few months later came their fateful ‘end.’

The Island burst upon the media scene then like a burst of fresh air. Wijewardena had undertaken a market survey which indicated there was no room for a new English paper. But Wijewardena being Wijewardena, he simply went ahead.

It was indeed a great challenge then working for the paper.Those recruited from other newspapers had their previous salaries doubled.We were told that Upali would shut the paper if it did not break even in a year.

The new kid on the block achieved tremendous success within a short time. Two older kids on the block went out of business gradually. The paper’s plus point in one respect was the colour and modern printing technology.

On another level it was due to its editorial and news content. The paper covered events fearlessly and provided space to all points of view. One of its strong points then was its coverage of the ethnic crisis.

This was both good journalism and good business. In this the paper reflected the world view of both Upali Wijewardena and Vijitha Yapa.

Runaway success

The Island was a runaway success in Jaffna then. One reason was that the Late City Edition was put on Upali Airlines and sent to Jaffna. The Colombo edition was available in Jaffna before noon.

I recall then Jaffna Government Agent Devanesan Nesiah telling me happily, “Thanks to The Island we are able to read the latest sports news without delay.”

The main reason for the paper’s editorial success was the free hand given to Vijitha Yapa. This was possible then only because Wijewardena owned the paper. A lesser man would have interfered unnecessarily.

In those days there was only one sacred cow-Wijewardena’s uncle, President J.R. Jayewardene.

All others were fair game. Open season was declared on Wijewardena’s political rivals, prime minister Ranasinghe Premadasa and Finance minister Ronnie de Mel.

This was a time when Wijewardena was building a circle of supporters in the ranks of the UNP.

But when The Island began its fearless journalism, many shenanigans were exposed. Several of these news story “scoops”were about Wijewardena’s supporters.

Since the journalists were not told to lay off, we went about our reporting without fear or favour.

Those affected complained to Wijewardena. But to Wijewardena’s credit, he never instructed the editorial to adopt a “hands off” approach on any such “crony”.

The ‘Reporter’

One exciting night was when Wijewardena himself became a ‘reporter’ for The Island. One day President Jayewardene had taken an important decision about criteria for staging by-elections.

Urged by the Editor, we the reporters contacted all our sources to find out the details. We failed. A desperate Vijitha Yapa appealed to Wijewardena.

The Upali Newspapers Chairman then went to see his uncle, the President. He got the information from the horse’s mouth about the formula to be adopted for by-elections. It was a scoop.

Wijewardena was pleased with himself, and joked with the Editor that his reporters were useless because he had to personally get the story.

At the initial stages Upali Wijewardena himself wrote the popular ‘A’Pura Diaries.’ Being a Wijewardena, printing ink ran in his veins.

The incredible achievement of the newspaper was symptomatic of the man’s golden touch. Whatever venture he launched became a roaring success within a short time.

Upali Wijewardena, born on February 17, in 1938, was the son of Don Walter and Anula Kalyanawathie Wijewardena. He studied initially at Ladies’ College and then Royal College, where he captained the Cricket Second 11. He then went on to England and graduated from Cambridge.

Upon his return Wijewardena began working at Lever Brothers as a management trainee. He quit in disgust when his expatriate boss accused him unfairly of lies and deception over preparing a report.

Wijewardena started out on his own with Rs. 15,000 as capital and an old house as asset.

That was the time of a state-controlled economy but incentives were provided in some areas, including confectionaries. Wijewardena ventured into what was derisively referred to as the ‘seeni bola’ industry. He began manufacturing candy and toffee.

One man who stood by him in those days was R. Murugaiah, an up-country Tamil. It is said that the name ‘Delta’ was adopted for Wijewardena’s sweets because Murugaiah was born on Delta group estate. Murugaiah was responsible for marketing the products then.

Years later Wijewardena was to quip publicly, “Behind every successful man there is a woman but behind every successful Sinhala businessman there is a Tamil,” and point to Murugaiah walking behind him.

Business concerns

Embarking on a career as industrialist, Wijewardena never looked back. The confectionaries developed and soon he acquired ‘Kandos’ chocolates from his maternal uncle, Sarath Wijesinghe.

Then came consumer products like ‘Sikuru’ and ‘Crystal’ soap. Wijewardena also pioneered the assembling of radios, clocks and TVs under the ‘UNIC’ brand name.

He also went into automobiles. The UMC Mazda and Upali Fiat were assembled here. In those days the import duty for cars was 300 % but 100% for motor spares.

Wijewardena brought in automobile parts as motor spares with lesser duty and assembled them.

Later in an interview he was asked about this. Wijewardena replied that he wandered to the edge of legal limits but never crossed them.

Wijewardena also went into aviation and began local helicopter and airplane services. He also bought up estates in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. He also had many business concerns in Singapore and Malaysia.

The ‘Kandos Man’ was hugely popular in Singapore. During Wijewardena’s heyday, more than 33,000 people were employed in his worldwide enterprises.

Wijewardena was married on November 7, 1975, to Lakmini, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Seevali Ratwatte. Dr. Seevali, being Mrs. Bandaranaike’s brother and Wijewardena being JR’s nephew, the marriage was seen then as a dynastic union.

They had no children, but Wijewardena had two nieces and six nephews through his two sisters, Anoka Wijeysundara and Kalyani Attygalle.

Interests

He had a wide range of interests including race horses, pedigreed dogs and motor racing. His horses ran at Aston and Derby winning laurels. Ace jockey Lester Piggot rode some of his winners. His ribbon winning canines were Labradors and retrievers.

As a young man Wijewardena raced his mother’s Opel Kapitan at the Katukurunda Races in early 60s. Later he imported an MGA Sports Twin Cam, which he raced at the Mahagastota Hill Climb.

He also bought a Mitsubishi Lancer to be raced at the Nuwara Eliya Road Races and Mahagastota Hill Climb in 1980. Wijewardena had a luxury S-Class Mercedes Benz 126 from Malaysia. This was the first car of this type in Sri Lanka.

There were also his private Lear jet and helicopter. He would conduct a business meeting in the afternoon in Colombo, helicopter to Nuwara Eliya in the evening for golf and return to Colombo again for dinner.

He would fly in his own plane to England to engage in the sport of kings. Wijewardena had a permanent suite in a prestigious London Hotel.

Upali Wijewardene handing over the first Mazda car assembled to late Venerable Vijitha Dharmarakkita Thera, Chief Priest, Kelaniya Temple ~ pic courtesy of: dailynews.lk

Wijewardena maintained a flamboyant lifestyle that his countrymen relished. The people were proud that one of their countrymen had really made it and was on par with the best ‘Suddhas.’

When Wijewardena disappeared, the nation was shocked. For many months people believed that he would return dramatically. A song composed in his honour was a popular favourite. Its chorus was ‘Upalee Wijeyawardena, Upalee Wijeyawardena.’

Finally the country realised that Wijewardena was not going to return and was gone for ever. The mystery however remains still. The Upali Wijewardena mystique will continue to linger in popular imagination for many more years.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at ~ dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

(This is an updated version of an article that appeared in “The Nation” of February 17th 2008)

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