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Chari de Silva leaves Caltex and begins long career at Aitken Spence

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A business leader remembers

by Charitha. P. de Silva

(Continued from last week)

Gaddum offered me the job of accountant shortly after I had passed out as a Chartered Accountant in 1955. Thornton offered me the job of Chief Accountant. I told him that unfortunately I was heavily involved in the Compensation Claim for Caltex and could not let them down. We parted and he wrote me a charming letter. After this experience I got Bertie Casie Chetty to sign all the documents that would be used in the case.

Meanwhile Jim Wollahan, who had developed a huge regard for me, offered me employment as an expatriate. I declined it for a number of reasons. Firstly I had no great desire to live the life of a nomad abroad, traveling from one country to another. Secondly, I knew that it was quite likely that I would be posted to some Asian country like India or Malaysia. My colleagues in those countries, who would be as well qualified as I was, would be earning much less than I did (being an expatriate). In those circumstances it was unlikely that they would cooperate wholeheartedly with me, or view me with great affection.

Around 1962 the government finally took over the assets of the oil companies. The employees were offered handsome severance packages and the staff at Caltex dwindled to a skeleton. At this point, I received my third offer to join Aitken Spence where Jack Reeves had taken over from Mike Thornton, and Ron Law the Chief Accountant had given notice of resignation. I evaluated the two choices before me: either become an expatriate with Caltex or the Chief Accountant of Aitken Spence. I had already foreseen the problems I would be faced with as an expatriate. In any case three unsolicited offers from the same company within ten years seemed too much like Fate. I therefore accepted Aitken Spence’s offer after informing Harry Bernard and Geof Gardiner of my decision. They were sad about it but very understanding. They were also generous, because despite the fact that I was employed by Aitken Spence the day after I left Caltex they paid me the full Compensation Package!

And so it came about that on September 1, 1963 I became the Chief Accountant in-waiting of Aitken Spence. Ron Law whose office I shared remained there for three months during which I learned the ropes. The top men of AS were Jack Reeeves (Chairman), Roy Hinton, Eldsworth Van Langenberg, and Louis Samarawickrema (Directors). The Assistant Chief Accountant was A. Ranganathan a clever Chartered Accountant who was thoroughly familiar with the intricacies of the day-to-day accounting. After Law left and I took over, I allowed Ranganathan to handle the Accounts and I concerned myself with overall policy and personnel matters because there was no HR director. This arrangement worked very smoothly because I detested accounts and Ranga loved them.

Within my first six months I did something which showed the staff that I was a firm (but fair) disciplinarian. It came to my notice that the clerk in charge of tea purchases was cheating us. It became apparent to me, on investigation, that the Chief Clerk who was a powerful individual, had been aware of the fraud and blackmailing the fraudster for his monthly cut. I held an inquiry and sacked the Chief Clerk for being aware of dishonesty and not bringing it to my notice. That was a powerful signal of my views on honesty and my readiness to act when necessary.

Jack Reeves was a kindly, gentle person, who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown because the Chairmanship job in Colombo was too much for him; he had led a comfortable, stress-free working life as Chairman of Clark, Spence & Co. Ltd (a subsidiary of AS) a shipping company at Galle. It was quite painful for me to watch him struggling to sign a document. Because he was a weak man and the two senior directors Roy Hinton and Eldsworth Van Langenberg were equally strong men he compromised and appointed both of them as Joint Managing Directors, a not very satisfactory arrangement.

However, the company continued to run reasonably smoothly, because we were a typical Agency House doing Shipping (Eldsworth), Insurance (Louis) and Estate Management (Roy) and more recently Printing (Roy) with machinery brought down from Galle where Clark Spence had been running a printing press. The directors did not interfere with each other. I was in charge of the Accounts Department, Secretarial work and Personnel. Whenever there was a major difference of opinion between the two strong men it was I who determined the final decision because I would support what I thought was the correct view.

Within one and a half years I was appointed Finance Director. Jack decided that the strain was too much for him, and quit, leaving for England where he settled down in Chichester. When it came to appointing the next Chairman, the rivalry between Roy and Eldsworth was resolved by their agreeing to take it in turns, with Roy taking the first stint.

I recall an amusing incident involving the Minutes. I used to draft the Minutes of the Board Meetings, and found to my annoyance that Roy used to make numerous minor changes such as “in view of the fact that” where I had used the single word “because”. I stomached this for some time and when my patience ran out I came to a board meeting one day armed with books such as “The Concise Oxford Dictionary”, and “Modern English Usage” by Fowler. Much in the manner of a QC in the Courts, I set the books down next to me, and analyzed all the ‘improvements’ that Roy had made in the latest draft minutes. I established that they were not material improvements and amounted to nothing more than a waste of time. From that day onwards Roy did not attempt to improve on my drafts in any way. Years later he admitted to me that he greatly admired my mastery of English.

At about this time, during my first year, Ranga who was the Employer representative on our Clerical and Subordinate Staff Benefit Fund (an approved private provident fund) came to me and told me that he was rather worried about the number of ‘Distress’ Loans that the staff were raising from the Fund. Under the rules all they needed for a loan was to establish need. I told him to bring me the Box File of loan applications that was under his control. One look at it was enough for me to see that the medical certificates justifying the distress loans were fraudulent. They were all, almost without exception, from one Ayurvedic Physician at Gampaha.

I told him to get into his car and drive straight away to the address at Gampaha. He came back within two hours and reported, exactly as I had expected, that there was no such physician at the address. I thereupon, without a moment’s delay, sent for the last applicant for a loan, who was blessed with an illustrious name, H.W. Jayawardena (the same as J.R. Jayewardene’s distinguished brother, a QC). I sat him down opposite me with Ranga seated alongside, and asked him kindly where he had got the medical certificate from. One thing was certain: that it was not from the purported Ayurvedic Physician because Ranga had just driven there and found that no such person existed.

He was so shattered by this news that he told me the truth, exactly as I had expected. He had got it from the head peon, Velayuthan, for a payment of Rs 5.00. He wrote the whole story down, and signed the confession ending with the statement that it was voluntarily made, without any threats posed, or inducements offered, by me to him, in the presence of Ranganathan. I thereafter told him to wait in the next room (Ranganathan’s) while I questioned the head peon. I sent for him, confronted him with Jayawardena’s confession and asked him where he had got the certificate from. He told me that he had got it from Jurangpathy, a clerk in the Shipping Department. He wrote out a full confession. I thereafter sent for Jurangpathy, who told me that he had got the bogus certificates printed at Sarath Printers, Nugegoda. He too wrote a full confession. I had given none of them time to consult their Trade Union. That afternoon I drove to Sarath Printers myself, and traced the Order that had been placed for the printing of the medical certificates.

It turned out that practically all our staff had benefited from these loans and there was a small group of clerks in the Head Office who were selling these bogus certificates after filling them out in Sinhala, for Rs 5.00 each. I discovered that even the clerks in Trincomalee (where we had a branch) had benefited from this scheme and sent their payments by Postal Order to the General Post Office that was within walking distance of us, in favour of another clerk in the ring. I walked across to the GPO and with the permission of the Post Master went through all the Postal Orders of the previous month and discovered a few from our office in Trinco in favour of Samsudeen, one of the head-office malefactors. I took photocopies of those that I found and returned to the office.

Since it was neither practicable nor fair that I should treat all participants in this fraud alike, I drafted Show-Cause letters to the ringleaders, and after receiving their totally unacceptable replies, dismissed them having consulted the Employers’ Federation of Ceylon. They were all members of Bala Tampoe’s Trade Union, the CMU.

They all appealed to a Labour Tribunal. There was an Inquiry at which I was the only witness, and the verdict was that they were all guilty of fraud. They remained dismissed and we did not have to pay any compensation. I have related this episode at length because it was a good example of lightning action; action that was so quick that the employees had no time to consult lawyers or even their Union. There was an interesting aftermath to the whole affair. Hinton wanted to reprimand Ranga for not spotting the fraud that had gone on for over seven years. I was totally against it because it was Ranga who had, even belatedly, alerted me to it. I pointed out to Hinton and Eldsworth that if we pulled him up it would be a disincentive to him ever alerting me in future to any irregularity that he discovered. 1, in fact, did just the opposite. I congratulated him on exposing the fraud. This, I think, was an excellent example of Emotional Intelligence winning over knee-jerk reactions.

(Excerpted from CP de Silva’s Memoirs)



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Features

Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Features

Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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