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Opinion

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

Ranil power: Stop stoning the search for Democracy

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The Aragalaya has moved into a ‘gal keliya situation. The Aragala protesters were never throwing stones. But there is a new spread of stone throwers, legal and political stones, mainly targeting the Aragala activists. These are by political strikers carrying stones targeting the Aragala activists and key supporters to push them to remand prisons and cases in the courts with a captivating range of offences from sitting on the president’s chair, eating a papaw from the president’s fridge, wrapping the former president’s flag around one’s waist, and sleeping on the Gotabaya’s bed, all in the President’s House or the old Queen’s House … and much more of warped thinking.

This is the stuff of the post-Gota “Ranil Gal” exercise, certainly giving delight to the Rajapaksa hangers-on showing a new rise in dirty politics.

The Aragalaya gained its immediate goal, removal of President Gotabaya from his office; he unexpectedly fled to the Maldives, Singapore and now Thailand. It also had other scores such as the resignation of former President and PM – Mahinda, former Finance Minister Basil, the removal from the Cabinet of brother Chamal and nephew Namal in the questionable ‘democratic’ country, where four members of one family held office in the Cabinet. These certainly are matters for celebration by the Aragalaya activists, and the masses who supported them. But the rise of Ranil’s ‘gal keliya’ exercise, certainly gives new concerns to the people, and to whoever or whatever comes as the next wave of the Aragalaya – a wave that must rise against the Ranil-Rajapaksa sway of ‘pavul balaya’ or the family that seeks to remain in power against the will of the people.

There are very interesting issues which need to be raised about the ex-President Gotabaya abroad. What made him choose such a costly hotel in Singapore – as a temporary home for him, his wife and the four security officers who went with him after his escape from this country? It certainly cost several millions in Sri Lankan currency and dollars; and was that approved by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government? Gotabaya certainly remains a Sri Lankan citizen, but holds no office although having a valid presidential passport.

There is no reason whatsoever for the Sri Lankan state to bear the cost of supporting a man who has fled the country. Or, was that massive amount settled by anyone who benefited from the crooked business during the Gota era?

The Thai authorities have given him an opportunity to stay there for 90 days, but have been very clear that he should be confined to his hotel, and should not engage in any politics while he is there. Thailand certainly does not want the good relations with Sri Lanka to be affected by a defeated politician, fleeing from home and seeking shelter elsewhere, or possibly back at home as brother Mahinda has suggested.

Gotabaya certainly has a place in Sri Lanka, his home – and for more than a decade his dual home – when he was a US citizen. He has every right to return to Sri Lanka, and possibly live peacefully at his home at Mirihana, where the protests against him began. But, his presence here will certainly require his attention, respect for and observance of the country’s laws unlike in his days of power. There are certainly many laws and offences that will require him being brought before the courts.

Gotabaya’s return here will and certainly must make him come before the law in the many cases that have been filed, and the several others that await action. New evidence, hidden under his presidency and the other Rajapaksa days, has called for the courts to deal with him. He will certainly have to resume facing action on state funds being used to build the monument to his father and mother at Hambantota, which was targeted by attackers on or after 09 May this year.

Will he be ready to face legal action in connection with the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga, the Editor of The Sunday Leader; a fresh probe by the Yahapalana government, when Ranil W was PM, pointed to new evidence on the planning of this killing. Will there be more evidence as regards the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda? And the public will be glad to know what role the defence personnel played in the killing of rugger player Wasim Thajudeen.

All of this is not confined to Gotabaya Rajapaksa; Ranil W, as the President, should also be a key player in bringing these matters before the courts. His acceptance of the presidency even as an unelected MP requires his complete respect for the Constitution and the rule of law.

This is the new age of Ranil Play, for however long it lasts. From some of the clues and signals we see today, this Ranil Era may certainly look more corrupt than the Gota days. We are moving to a Giant Cabinet which may be much bigger than the ones we have seen. There will be a massive number of Deputy Ministers too. And the Ranil Power Play will see a whole range of unelected UNPers holding Advisory Positions in the government.

The initial call for a government of unity among all parties in parliament is fast moving to one of major disunity with the dominance of parliamentary power clearly moving to the Podujana Peramuna – SLPP.

The voters of Sri Lanka will have to be considering how they can have a government of clear unity with the election as MPs of candidates who have moved away from the corruption of the Rajapavula of Hambantota, the political twists and turns of JR Jayewardene, and move to a genuine democracy.

The next few months with increased hardships for the people will certainly call for another mass reaction, a much larger Jana Aragalaya, that can achieve the many changes in the Constitution to make this a true Democracy, and have MPs who don’t profit from parliament, but serve the people in the true Spirit of Democracy – and not of corrupt leaders.

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Opinion

An enforceable global law needed to curb terrorism

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by A. K. MERCHANT

As we remember the victims of terrorism, offer homage to millions of innocent people who have perished, terrorists continue to strike at will, utilizing the latest that technology has to offer such as missiles and drones, which extend the reach of their attacks. Terrorist groups are taking full advantage to consolidate their networks making the spread of propaganda and recruitment easier. The acts of violence carried out by lone individuals or small, non-state groups of people, bring great tragedy into other people’s lives. At the same time it must be acknowledged that even greater damage is done when terrorism is state-sponsored. Terrorism of any kind destroys efforts to establish peace among nations. Terrorism is rooted in every human being’s need to belong to a group of peers. In these times it has become ideologically acceptable to indiscriminately murder innocents to meet a terrorist’s goal.

Every year hundreds of people are killed through suicide attacks resulting in untold pain and destruction. The terrorists, like the egotist, somehow cannot consider the feelings or the life of others as important. They require instant, exact and complete obedience to their orders and tenets, as verified by the actions of human suicide bombers. Part of the background to the current waves of terrorism is the lack of a proper balance between the liberty of the individual and the needs of society. The rights of an individual to act as he or she wishes can never be absolute. Such craving for extreme freedom leads to sedition and overstepping of the bounds of propriety, while it debases the individual to depravity and wickedness. Even when the cause which the terrorist group espouses is driven by a sense of injustice, there is no real justification for the acts of violence. A United Nations Convention for prevention of terrorism is still a work in progress. In addition to treaties that address particular manifestations of terrorism, the international community has endeavored to develop treaties that address terrorism on a more inclusive basis. India first proposed this convention in 1996.

It has been pushing for the treaty consistently at the sessions of the UN General Assembly, in 2014 and again in 2016. Although consensus has not yet been reached for the wording of the comprehensive terrorism convention, discussions have yielded three separate protocols that aim to tackle terrorism: the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, adopted on 15 December 1997; the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, adopted on 9 December 1999; and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, adopted on 13 April 2005 The negotiations are deadlocked because of differences over the definition of terrorism. The key sticking points in the draft treaty revolve around several controversial yet basic issues. For example, what distinguishes a “terrorist organization” from a ‘liberation movement’? Does it exclude activities of national armed forces, even if they are perceived to commit acts of terrorism? If not, how much of this constitutes ‘state terrorism’? Even so, national governments must make these rules work.

In a system of sovereign states, the role of the UN organization in checking or reversing these human rights abuses remains severely limited and largely dependent upon the political will of the member states. As a consequence, part of the price paid for protecting national security against threats posed by cross border terrorism may well be the curtailment of some human rights and civil liberties within the liberal democratic state. Religion is also frequently used by terrorists as an excuse for their actions, despite the fact that every religion forbids murder, and demands that individuals live in harmony. Until some sort of world laws are established, terrorism can never be eliminated. And different states around the world will continue to offer refuge, supply, finance, train and sponsor terrorist groups for their own ends. Citizens in every country repeatedly voice their readiness for peace and an end to the tormenting trails in their daily lives.

Yet in the same breath uncritical assent is given to the proposition that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive and therefore incapable of building a social system that is progressive, harmonious, and peaceful. In order to move forward, humanity must overcome this fundamental contradiction; it demands a reassessment of the assumptions upon which the commonly held view of humankind’s historical predicament is based. It also calls for understanding the true nature of human beings and the moral imperatives that should govern the functioning of global community. Such an understanding will enable all people to set in motion constructive social forces which, because they are consistent with human nature and would encourage harmony and cooperation instead of conflict and war. The UN system must evolve into a world super-state in whose favour all the member-states would willingly secede every claim to make war, certain rights to impose taxation and all rights to maintain armaments, except for purposes of maintaining internal order within their respective dominions. Such aspirations should not be dismissed as utopian ideas.

There is no other alternative. The world’s leadership must take affirmative action at this juncture when efforts at ending the war between Ukraine, supported by Nato, and Russia threatens to escalate into World War III. Time is running out, all the forces of history are impelling humankind to take immediate action. Freedom from terrorism is just one important element in the larger scheme of things – climate emergency, unprecedented economic crisis, massive social breakdown, to list just a few.

Whether collective security among all nations is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity’s stubborn clinging to old patterns of behaviour, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth. It is my firm optimistic conviction that root causes of international terrorism can be curbed not through constant conflicts among nations and within each sovereign state but by enforceable world law, effective global governance and peace education.

(The Statesman/ANN)

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Opinion

Venturing into health tourism and unlocking a world of benefits for Sri Lanka!

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by Dr. Gotabhaya Ranasinghe

Sri Lanka is blessed with natural resources and scenic beauty. Famed for the hospitality of the friendly people, the country has a lot more to offer than just delicious food, comfortable lodgings, adventurous nature trails, and the green-blue seas.Sri Lanka is facing a grave financial crisis, of which the repercussions are viciously experienced by many citizens. Its inability to bring in enough foreign exchange has exacerbated its woes.

How can we as medical professionals help the country during a forex crisis? Besides the short and medium-term plans that encourage many foreign donations to the country, shouldn’t we also look for a long-term plan to revive the economy?

Sri Lanka has one of the best education systems in the world and produces skilled professionals to many industries. Sri Lanka’s medical professionals are considered to be highly skilled, and I, as a medical professional myself, feel that there are endless possibilities for us to serve the country if the right opportunities are created.Tourism is a major forex earner, but what about health tourism, which is one of the largest growing segments of wellness and medical tourism?

What is health tourism?

Health Tourism allows people to travel to different countries to receive health services to increase their quality of life, enabling them to improve their physical and mental well-being.

Health tourism allows you to engage in activities, treatments, and therapies that benefit your health and contributes to a healthier physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Why is health tourism becoming a popular segment?

Affordable treatment

Professional health services

Long waiting lists in countries of residence

Insurance coverage-related matters

Benefits of native treatment

Confidentiality

Combination of treatment with holiday

Faster recover in a different environment

Availability of best and professional care / personalised care

Better access to technology and specialists

Availability throughout year

What are the benefits of health tourism?

It’s the perfect gateway for tourists to receive high-quality healthcare at affordable prices.

Why should Sri Lanka contribute to creating a health tourism segment?

Health tourism is a growing industry. The global pandemic (covid-19) made people more cautious and aware of their health, and they are keen and make health and well-being a top priority. People are on the lookout for affordable holiday destinations and combine therapy, treatments, and access to medical procedures that may sometimes be unavailable in their residing country.Sri Lanka is a well-known holiday destination and it is easy to attract tourists who seek the bliss and comfort of health tourism.

Our country possesses skilled and specialised medical professionals who are:

Reliable and possess the required language skills

Empathetic and well-trained to care for patients

Comparatively cheap labour than European countries

Comparatively cheaper overhead costs and expenses

The ability to furnish patients with comfortable lodgings

Sri Lanka is a tropical country and the warm & sunny weather is known to be immensely beneficial for our health.

What treatments can we offer?

Cardiology

ENT treatment

Eye surgery

Dental/dentistry

Dermatology / Cosmetic/plastic surgery

Orthopaedics

Bariatric surgery

Transplants

Fertility treatment

Native treatment, oil therapies, and access to alternative treatment

Spa therapy

Medication and yoga centers

Rehabilitation

Weight loss or healthy eating retreats

What is stopping us?

I must frankly admit that to cater to the health tourism sector, the state-runt hospitals may need more time to undergo improvements such as patient-friendly lodgings and environment. This might seem a difficult task at a time like this due to lack of funds, but the private hospitals and treatment centers are equipped to engage in health tourism.With some innovative thinking, the private sector is capable of catering to professional health tourism industry.

What we are capable of offering!

Highly specialised medical professionals and well-trained staff

Internationally accredited, state-of-the-art medical facilities

Personalised care – The comfort and the convenience of a private room, interpreter & support staff while receiving treatment and other tailor-made services designed for the patient’s comfort.

Round-trip-travel-support. Teams can offer services from medical treatment to travel assistance to a hotel of the patient’s choice, reservation assistance, visa procedure, etc.,

Significant cost reductions for the international patients Immediate access to treatment – no waiting lists

Aftercare programmes

A change of attitude will make us ready to serve a wider community!

No matter how skilled or specialised our professionals are, there are a few obstacles we are yet to overcome for us to open the country to health tourism. We need to get together as a team and turn a new leaf.

1. The country should introduce a simple visa procedure and allow hassle-free entry for the visitors.

2. Over the years as a medical practitioner, I have noticed that the private hospitals in Sri Lanka don’t quite meet the required standards and quality of patient care. I sometimes wonder if the private sector is far too commercialised and concerned only about earning money and not patients’ welfare. Are the medical support staff trained and experienced enough to care for patients, and to assist with their wants and needs? Are the patient rooms comfortable and clean? Does a patient have complaints about the available facilities even after paying money to obtain services? The specialised skilled services surely require to be more structured and organized.

3. Of course, I understand that private hospitals are profit-oriented commercial ventures. But, are they utilising their profits for the benefit of the patients? Some private hospitals are not equipped with modern or advanced technology on par with standard treatments, especially when it comes to cardiology and perhaps in other areas too. Shouldn’t we address this issue as a national priority? Our private hospitals need improvement in comparison with neighboring countries like the Maldives, India, Singapore, etc., engaged in health tourism.Dr. Gotabhaya Ranasinghe, Consultant Cardiologist, Institute of Cardiology, National Hospital of Sri Lanka

I kindly urge relevant tourism authorities, the Ministry of Health, medical professionals, and private health caregivers to consider these views and create opportunities to implement a growing and nourishing health tourism sector in Sri Lanka to enhance the inflow of foreign exchange.Dr. Gotabhaya Ranasinghe, Consultant Cardiologist, Institute of Cardiology, National Hospital of Sri Lanka.

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