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A golden opportunity missed due to communal mindsets

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By Rienzie Wijetilleke
(rienzietwij@gmail.com), and
Kusum Wijetilleke
(kusumw@gmail.com)

There was a period in the late 80s and early 90s when Sri Lanka’s banking sector was beginning to expand its correspondent relationships around the world and strengthening these relationships through carefully structured facilities was critical. As the CEO of HNB, I was obliged to meet officials and counterparts of various banks around the world in order to negotiate our institutional relationships and thus expand and facilitate the growing import/ export industry as well as finalizing credit lines to Sri Lanka. On quite a number of occasions, I attended meetings in the UK and in various parts of Europe with heads of some of the leading banks in that region. We would discuss Sri Lanka and its economy, politics, the threat of terrorism whilst also working out trade products and negotiating funding lines. Every so often, I would hear remarks from the British and the Europeans regarding the size of our balance sheet. They would jokingly ask whether there are any zeroes missing from our balance sheet, implying that HNB was not of an adequate size to be considered a major financial player internationally.

 

A Sri Lankan Regional Financial Force

 

When I studied the local industry at the time, it became apparent that culturally, the banking industry had an issue. The State owned and controlled banks such as BOC and People’s Bank had a major advantage due to their large deposit base and state backing, yet their loan portfolio was much weaker, mainly due to lending to State Owned Enterprises. At that time, due to state ownership, these banks viewed risk differently to private commercial banks. HNB was lending to a myriad of industries which were in their infancy but with a much smaller deposit base. Many of the private commercial banks had the necessary expertise to lend to large projects and new industries, but the institutions themselves were not large enough to participate in some of these transactions. This meant that a lot of the lending had to be syndicated with a foreign bank as well as with a state bank.

Thus, it became clear that HNB would have to grow its funding base in order to compete against the state banks and eventually against foreign banks in the region. Over many decades, Sri Lanka’s banking sector has evolved into a stable industry with an equally effective regulator and sound policy management. There was no reason why Sri Lanka’s finance industry could not find success in markets such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Cambodia. My dream was that HNB would grow into a truly regional powerhouse, but this would require consolidation within the Sri Lankan industry to create a financial force that could compete regionally with a balance sheet large enough to entice investors.

HNB needed to buy over a competitor and perhaps through an amalgamated entity, try to enter foreign markets at least with basic financial products before expanding into infrastructure funding and investment banking. If we could start small and get our foot in the door in countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam, this Sri Lankan financial giant could open itself up to new opportunities in markets spread throughout the burgeoning South East Asian region. As the CEO of HNB, I had already overseen the purchase of the local branches of IndoSuez, Emirates Bank and Habib Bank and thus had the necessary confidence to oversee a larger, more meaningful acquisition/merger.

I engaged a few trusted advisors and we decided on presenting some preliminary numbers to key Board Members in private meetings. I had anticipated and received the unqualified support of the Chairman, the late Mr. Chrishantha Cooray and Director and one of its major shareholders: Mr. Harry Jayawardena (DHSJ). As Chairman, Mr. Cooray had always supported me, he was a thorough gentleman and always kept the organization’s best interests at heart. In DHSJ, I was always assured of the steadfast support of the country’s pre-eminent businessman and industrialist, someone that shared my vision. One sticking point was the need to raise fresh capital to partly finance the take-over. Mr. Cooray’s shareholding interest through Brown and Co. was unable to raise significant capital, but DHSJ was ready and willing to infuse the necessary capital. As CEO I had to walk a fine line, as both Mr. Cooray and DHSJ were dear friends of mine and at Mr. Cooray’s request, I had to agree not to take any action that might lead to a dilution of Brown and Co’s share-ownership.

 

Insecurity of the Regulator

 

Furthermore, many within the regulator were very much against what they perceived as an attempt by myself to promote individual ownership and domination of the banking industry in Sri Lanka. Personally, this was not a consideration for me, as I was responsible for the bank; a merger or acquisition was very much in the best interests of the organization. However given the sensitivity of the situation on all sides, I needed to be extremely tactful. It seemed obvious to me that the regulator was willing to forego international expansion to restrict individual domination of the industry and prevent a concentration of power. However, I was of the view that a consolidation would not only align with HNB’s vision, but was undoubtedly in the national interest.

Despite some reticence by members of the Board and Senior Management, I received the green light to do whatever needed to merge with or acquire Sampath Bank, even if it was interpreted as a hostile takeover. We opted for Sampath because of the enormous potential it showed at that time. I admired some of their senior management and indeed I even counted as friends some amongst their directorate, but our vision was more important than personal relationships. HNB had an opportunity and the entire country and economy would benefit from a consolidation which would have been unprecedented in Sri Lanka.

At the time, it was my expectation that the regulatory authority would have backed the creation of a Sri Lankan regional financial entity, given the obvious advantages it would bring to Sri Lanka. However, during the initial negotiations, it became apparent that Sri Lanka’s communal divisions had poisoned the hearts and minds of so many Sri Lankans: there was resistance from unexpected quarters.

 

Communal Divisions come to the Fore

 

Hatton National Bank, with its roots in the hill-country town of Hatton, was initially known to be a bank that served the plantation industry. Over the years, through the efforts of many, we successfully shed this image and created a new one. HNB came to be known as a “Partner in Progress” to all Sri Lankans and one of the things I am most proud of from my time as CEO was the Gami Pubuduwa scheme which was targeted at Sri Lankans around the country living outside urban areas, to provide them with lines of credit that were sorely lacking. I was also proud that HNB, especially during the mid-90s, had hired some of Sri Lanka’s brightest sportsmen and women, especially cricketers, both household names and up and coming youngsters with enormous potential. At HNB we celebrated all cultures and we would not spare any expense for Bakthi Gee and Christmas events for staff. HNB had become a truly multicultural organization.

To my surprise and utter disappointment, many people involved in the negotiations seemed to consider HNB a “Tamil Bank”. Thus, any potential takeover of Sampath was suddenly viewed through the lens of communal division. The idea of creating a regional powerhouse was now framed as a hostile acquisition of a ‘Sinhala’ Bank by a ‘Tamil’ Bank.

 

Personal Attacks and Posters

 

During the coming months, some enterprising members of the Sampath Bank Union began printing “kalapathara” (posters) making various allegations about HNB, its Directors and its management, myself included. HNB’s attempted takeover of Sampath was seen as part of a movement to dilute the Sinhalese culture, and I was viewed as the foremost villain in this story; the Sinhala Buddhist CEO who was selling his people out. There were various threats issued to me and my family. The Board of Directors at HNB was so concerned that they arranged a special security detail for me. We had to shuffle some of the staff that were working under me due to allegations that they were involved. I had to warn my wife that only specific staff would be allowed to enter my residence. On many evenings we received phone calls, with a variety of threats made against me personally and against my family, some of the language used I dare not repeat. On one occasion my youngest son, who was barely a teenager at the time had answered the telephone when my wife and I were not in the house. He conveyed to us that a man had called asking for me had then proceeded to scold my son in filth and warn him that his father’s limbs would be broken soon.

Senior officials of the Central Bank would call me at odd hours and we would discuss the move at length. The accusation was that HNB was trying to take over the banking industry, but I kept repeating that we were trying to consolidate, not dominate. Many at the CBSL were worried about monopolies and I sensed they had been listening to other industry professionals who were against potential domination of the industry by HNB. I can state as fact that I know of some very prominent bankers who despite seeing the obvious advantages, did not want to see HNB succeed in this venture.

 

The Dream that Died

 

As the war went from bad to worse, with bombs striking in the business district in Colombo and the government of Sri Lanka not having adequate means to respond, the temperature was starting to increase. The pressures were immense, the negative publicity around the merger/acquisition plus my additional responsibilities were starting to take its toll and I could not in good conscience endanger my family any further. Whilst I had the support of most of the Directorate at HNB, I realized that politically, the transaction would be painted by the communal narrative; the well had been poisoned.

As I think back, the idea to build a major regional financial player would most certainly have succeeded and the rewards would have been handsome. Take the example of Mr. Ishara Nanayakkara and the recent $600 Mn transaction involving the sale of shares in his Cambodian finance company, PRASAC. LOLC and Mr. Nanayakkara are reaping the rewards of taking a long-term view and diversifying into frontier markets with immense growth potential.

In the 90s, South East Asia and the Asian region as a whole was on the cusp of an economic boom. Young economies such as Vietnam and Bangladesh were starting to get organized and open up for trade and investment. An entity with the expertise of HNB and Sampath Bank with a large balance sheet would have taken a foothold in many of these markets and would have enjoyed a stake in their shared prosperity.

Unfortunately, small minds prevailed and Sri Lanka’s communal divisions would continue to dictate the country’s policies and initiatives, it might be argued that this sorry state of affairs still continues to this day.

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Opinion

Perish without western science and medicine

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The credit of elimination of many deadly diseases in the known history – smallpox, malaria and polio – goes to western science.

When the malaria epidemic raged in Sri Lanka, mainly in the Sabaragamuwa and northwestern provinces in the 1830s, nearly 80,000 people died out of a population of some six million. Sufferings of people were immense, and more than hunger, in some places there was no one to bury the dead. The leaders of the leftist movements at the time, took the lead in providing relief to the poor.

This is one of the first hand experiences of them, vividly explained in the book “Revolt in the Temple”, written in commemoration of the 2500 Buddha Jayanthi. The relief workers entered a village in Sabaragamuwa. No people could be seen, as most of them have either died and some had left the area. When they traced the village deeper, a cry of a child could be heard. It was a child sucking the breast of the dead mother. By the side of the mother was a dead elder child. In front of the house was a mound of soil, the grave of the father, who had died earlier.

Finally it was western science, quinine, not indigenous medicine, which rescued people.

I must hasten to add the following. When I returned after foreign training about 20 years ago, I was posted temporarily to a major hospital at Sabaragamuwa. After seeing quality healthcare abroad, it was shocking to see more than 25 newborn deaths per month. I, along with my senior female colleague (currently at Lady Ridgeway Colombo) got the JAICA Japanese project expedited and changed to the best standards. Finally, when we left, one year later, only one or two newborn deaths occurred per month. Very small babies were surviving and the quality of care was excellent. Now such care is available islandwide, thanks to western medicine (and free health service).

In both the above-mentioned examples, quality healthcare is due to the advancement of western science. The famous evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, referring to the journal New Scientist, says, (available in YouTube,”try to understand science or you ….).

Even a bodhisathwa would suffer thirst or hunger depending on the place of birth, as per Buddhist teachings. The availability of western science and medicine for survival, is part of niyama dharma of Buddhism? (Anyone interested in niyama dhamma can browse the same).

 

Dr LAL RATNASIRI

Child Specialist/Matara

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Opinion

Admission of medical students at the age of 18

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I am writing this in response to the news item in your paper of 26 January 2021 under the caption, “GMOA seeks university admission for medical students at the age of 18”.

This communication from me is practically from the horse’s mouth; from someone who, so many eons ago in 1965, benefitted by being allowed the privilege of joining the Faculty of Medicine, University of Ceylon, as a novice Medical Student, at the tender age of 18 years and two months.

I sat the GCE (A/L) Examination in December 1964, at the age of 17 years and five months, offering the four subjects of Physics, Chemistry, Zoology and Botany. In or around March 1965 we had the Practical Examination in all those four subjects at the University of Ceylon in Reid Avenue. I think the results of the examination were released around July or August 1965. There were around 250 vacancies for medical students, 150 in the Faculty of Medicine Colombo and 100 in the Faculty of Medicine, Peradeniya. There were only two Faculties of Medicine at the time. I qualified to enter the Colombo Medical School with just four simple passes in the four subjects. In fact, although there were vacancies for 250, there were only around 220 students who had got through all four subjects. Even those with three passes with a credit or a distinction had managed to enrol for medical education.

I qualified with MBBS 2nd Class Honours at 23 years and one month of age and started working as an Intern Medical Officer at the Colombo General Hospital at the age of 23 years and two and a half months. From then onwards after many postgraduate examinations I became a fully qualified Specialist Consultant at the age of 30 years. I was in England for my postgraduate studies when I cleared the final hurdle of the MRCP in 1977. I returned to Sri Lanka in 1978 and was posted as a Specialist Consultant Paediatrician to the Badulla General Hospital at the age of 31 years. Thereafter, I was most fortunate to be allowed the dispensation to provide my services to the hospitals at Badulla, Ratnapura, Kurunegala, Kalubowila and the Lady Ridgeway Hospital, all for 29 years, till my retirement at the age of 60 years.

I am not writing this letter as a manifestation of ‘monkey praising his own tail’. Far from it. I am doing so to firstly be ever so grateful to the education systems of our motherland that provided a child from a very ordinary lower middle-class family, which barely managed to make ends meet, the opportunities that

were perhaps the birth right of every child. We were all equal and given the chance of a lifetime to excel in our respective fields. Some of us at least, managed to make good use of it. I do hope that I have, at least even partly, fulfilled my obligations to the people of this country in return for what was given to me on a platter by them.

The 1960s were well before the advent of computers. Dedicated men and women of the Ministry of Education would have toiled, even burning the midnight oil, to organise the GCE Advanced Level Examinations, correct answer scripts, arrange the practical examinations, tot up the marks and then finally release the results, all within just about six to seven months. Everything had to be done by hand and even the results had to be entered by hand. Yet for all that, they did it with such tremendous devotion and commitment that benefitted all of us. There would have been thousands of files with neatly entered details. There was only a Ministry of Education. There was no Ministry of Higher Education. For the government of the day, education was education; higher or otherwise. Funding was also for education. All those fine people who worked in that ministry saw to it that the youth got a break. We were all very much like their own children.

As was quite rightly pointed out by the GMOA, the current set of doctors are only able to qualify with the basic MBBS in their late twenties or even early thirties. Most of their potentially productive periods of youth are spent waiting for results or twiddling their thumbs and doing nothing at home before they could either enter a medical school or waiting to be posted as doctors even when they finally qualify. So much of very valuable time is lost in the entire process of Higher and University Education. In fact, in the late seventies when I was posted as the Specialist Consultant Paediatrician to the General Hospital Badulla, there were junior doctors such as House Officers and Senior House Officers in the hospital, who were older than I. An indirect effect of these delays is also the necessary postponement of marriage and the starting of their own families for many doctors, male and female. The lady doctors of rather advanced age could even have problems of reduced fertility and the real risk of congenital defects of the babies that are related to maternal age.

All of this is indeed a crime. None in any government in living memory has even seriously attempted to redress this appalling situation. With the facilities available today and with some decent leadership and proper organisation of the systems, it would not be a huge big deal to take things back to what it was during the halcyon sixties. All it would need would be an iron-willed commitment, embellished by unwavering enthusiasm. I am quite sure that there are capable people around who could make a real difference in such a context.

I have been ever so fortunate to have been afforded the opportunities that I was provided right throughout my childhood and youth. I have written many times before, extolling my gratitude and veneration to people such as Dr C. W. W. Kannangara and other persona, who were the designers, architects, facilitators and perpetuators of our free education system. I would love to see the very same opportunities, especially in university medical education, which I had, being made available to the youngsters of today. We owe it to our people and our youth to do so in a gesture of obligation to the future of this resplendent isle.

The GMOA has reportedly written to the President and the relevant Ministers of Government regarding the topic under discussion. I hope very much that some acolyte would be kind enough to show this letter to the very same legislators who wield such power which would be able to make a difference.

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Opinion

ECT: A toss between confrontation and compromise!

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People placing their signatures on postcards during a protest campaign held by the railway unions on Monday against what they called a move to sell the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port (Pic by Thushara Atapattu )

 

By I. P.C. MENDIS

States and Governments exist and coexist internationally on the basis of mutual trust, understanding, good-will and cooperation. If any state or government chooses to work outside these norms, it is normally classified as a Banana Republic and generally finds itself isolated with none to care for it. If they choose to be so isolated, they should be confident of going it alone or have clandestine backing of some super-power. North Korea and Cuba for example are virtual dictatorships/authoritarian and their populations perfectly regimented to face any situation. Sri Lanka with its divisive forces and elements bred in democratic traditions, cannot afford to be North Korea or Cuba. Nevertheless, whether one likes it or not, its history is replete with treachery. One need not go so far, but the way some of our politicos behave and the frequency with which they switch political ideologies and affiliations could be ample testimony to prove the point.

 

The EasternTerminal

There is no question that covenants and agreements which we have entered into with other countries have to be scrupulously honoured, if Sri Lanka is not to be considered “a pariah state”. If we vitiate or digress, we lose faith, face and confidence with the entire international community, adversely affecting, inter alia, trade and commerce. This is not to say that the door is shut for any re-negotiation of any provision on expressly good compelling grounds. A complete abrogation of the Eastern Terminal MOU ex parte, as some do agitate, is not only out of the question but out of our reach, without adverse consequences. Perhaps that privilege is exclusive to powers which can boast of nuclear strength. They can even withdraw their contribution to the UN, withdraw from membership of its Agencies, and even compare some of them with cesspools and still trot about unscathed! Sri Lanka is not that fortunate — those who strain their muscles need to realise.

As for the Eastern Terninanal,, what is baffling is that although there were a few whimpers, here and there, it was only a few days ago, after permitting opposing sections to gather momentum and work themselves to a crescendo — that the government through the President, clearly explained fully at Walallawita, the government’s position that it is now carrying the Yahapalana baby, re-negotiated by him with the Indian Prime Minister.

It is indeed most fortunate that the latter did not refuse to budge or choose to ask for a “quid pro quo” as it happened in the case of the Hambantota Port and the Port City, where we had to concede a second 99-year lease and an additional block respectively. Mattala Airport was saved by the skin of its teeth !

President’s Dilemma

Apparently the re-negotiated formula (Jt. Stock Co.) had either been initiated by President Gotabhaya or agreed to mutually at the summit, and it is definitely not within the norms of international decorum and decency to go back and haggle on that issue, however strong the opposition to it is locally..The country’s image is at stake. He would not certainly expect his people here to make him look ridiculous in the eyes of the Big Brother across the Palk Straits, and more-so the international community. .Sri Lanka’s honour and pride are at stake, and his people need to stand by him and strive to understand and compare the re-negotiated formula with the Yahapalana Agreement, as to which is more beneficial or less dangerous. Many of those who shout hoarse now had maintained a stoic silence when the MOU was signed, and hence ought to share the responsibility. The opposition seems to be of a mostly political nature than a patriotic one.

India has unequivocally made its presence felt when it had no second thoughts of invading Sri Lanka through its armed forces, euphemistically called the IPKF,.preceded by the infamous “parippu “drop! President JRJ had his arm twisted into the 13th Amendment, with which we are now stuck – a white elephant- despite India failing to perform its part of the deal.. Former East Pakistan is now Bangladesh, “courtesy” India ! The “sandos” ought to realise. Sri Lanka has by necessity to be tactful and diplomatic without confrontation and bogus rhetoric.

Prime Minister Modi seems a different kettle of fish to Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, and we have to capitalise on his current goodwill. He could mean business if he wants to with the US on his side. In re-negotiating it would be beneficial if we were to point out the trade balance in its favour, and the fact of having already released our oil tank farm in Trincomalee, and a section of the retail oil business, as also the pronounced Indian business interests already here.

 

Compromise Solution

Without disturbing the already mutually agreed arrangement for a Joint Stock Company,some of the fears expressed by the opposing forces here could possibly be allayed, with the proposed company being registered as an unlisted company, with a strict embargo on the sale of any minority shares to any other party other than the Port Authority, the Chairman to be from the majority shareholding,(Port Authority), the Managing Director (CEO) to be nominated by he Investor(s) with the nod from the Board of Directors, the majority on the Board to be from the major shareholding, one of whom should be the nominee of the Minister of Finance. If there are to be more than one shareholder among the minority group, they could form a consortium and provide a written agreement enshrining these and other conditions. ( The President had hinted on the possibility of there being more than one minority shareholder). Such a solution would possibly take the wind off the sails and satisfactorily end the impasse.

 

 

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