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Sumi Moonesinghe’s ‘Big Break’ in business in the Maharaja Organization

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by Sumi Moonesinghe as narated to Savitri Rodrigo

I was due some long leave and Susil and I decided to come to Colombo on holiday. Since we had no home of our own at the time, we were warmly welcomed into the homes of our friends Sena Kiridena, a Director of J L Morison Son & Jones, as well as Dr. Seevali Ratwatte and his wife, Cuckoo. Susil and Anura (Bandaranaike) were both good friends with Sena.

Once we landed in Colombo, Susil’s rather large network of friends made sure there was no shortage of lunches, dinners and even teas in between because sometimes fitting in all the social engagements seemed impossible. One of these many dear friends was Killi, who, together with his brother Rajendram Maharaja (or Maha as everyone knew him), had built the Capital Maharaja Group into a formidable group of companies. Killi’s hospitality was unending — from treating us to gastronomic delights in great restaurants to plying us with beautiful gifts. Since I was already funding Ganga, Tara and Susil’s mother, plus managing the home fires, these luxuries were out of our reach on that single salary. For us, these gestures of warm hospitality and friendship therefore were real treats.

One night, while enjoying dinner with Killi at his home on Inner Flower Road with his girlfriend Canice, whom he eventually married, Killi said, “Sumi, why don’t you end your contract in Singapore and come back to work for us?” You could have heard my jaw drop, I was so surprised. But I pulled myself together and said, “But I’m only an electronics engineer, Killi You run a business and you’re asking me to join a business. I know nothing about commerce and industry.”

But then Susil looked at me, smiled and piped in: “Sumi, I can teach you business.” Like I stated, I always trusted Susil to do the right thing for me. I didn’t hesitate and before dinner was done, I agreed to join the Capital Maharaja Group.

This was definitely a turning point in my life – the point when I gave up my academic career and went into the world of commerce, a world I knew nothing about. The prospect didn’t scare me because Susil had promised to hold my hand and guide me. To me this was a strong pillar I could hold on to and move forward.

We returned to Singapore. My priority tasks were to end my contract and start packing up. My brother Ranjith who had also qualified as an engineer accompanied us on our return. We found him a job and delayed our departure until he was settled in.

When I finally handed in my resignation, it was accepted albeit with some sadness because the Singapore Polytechnic had been very happy with my performance in the two-and-a -half years I had been with them. They were also not expecting me to leave before my contract was over.

In the meantime, we also purchased a Peugeot 504, which was the car of choice for any Sri Lankan returning from a stint abroad. The Peugeot 504 had great resale value in Sri Lanka due to a certain amount of prestige attached to the brand as well. We now owned two cars – our Vauxhall Victor 2000 and the newly-acquired Peugeot 504. Susil and I had a moment of mirth about our vehicle acquisitions – in a Sri Lankan context, these two cars would label us back home as prosperous.

This was the second half of 1974 and Sri Lanka was still in a closed economy with imports being scarce. Under Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Government, the country had descended into an economic abyss with food shortages, a rationing environment leading to long queues for basic food, and a policy of ‘Produce or Perish’ being the clarion call. The cost of imports had spiralled and export earnings stagnant; this was exacerbated by a blend of Government mismanagement. Basic necessities were luxuries and knowing this, I remember packing the boots of both cars with plastic Tupperware, bottles and jars which you could hardly find in Sri Lanka.

In the meanwhile, Killi and his brother Maha floated Jones Overseas Limited as part of the Capital Maharaja Group, with a share capital of Rs. 10,000. They gave me a one-third stake in the company. I was appointed Managing Director of Jones Overseas Limited and at 30 years of age, probably the youngest to helm a company within a conglomerate.

Then the wheels began turning and sugar was on top of the agenda.

In January 1975, Susil went to see Mrs. Bandaranaike at the Prime Minister’s Office. He was in the waiting room when he overheard a conversation between her Secretary Dharmasiri Peiris and Mrs. Bandaranaike on the impending visit of the Australian Prime Minister. Dharmasiri suggested that Mrs. Bandaranaike ask the Australian PM for wheat, which was more urgent than sugar, even though sugar was in very short supply. Susil, in his wisdom, knew if there was a shortage of sugar, things wouldn’t bode well for the country. The populace would retaliate. He was at that office with a recipe that could sweeten the sourness that was now eating at the very core of the country’s existence.

Susil sat patiently in the foyer and was finally called in. Without beating about the bush, he said, “The country has a shortage of sugar and things are not boding well for the Government. I can arrange to bring down a representative from Robert Kuok’s office in Singapore to negotiate the purchase of sugar for Sri Lanka.” Whatever her faults, Mrs. Bandaranaike was a woman of action. She knew Susil spoke the truth and immediately agreed to his suggestion.

Now that we got the go-ahead, we quickly contacted Singapore and Robert Kuok sent his brother’s son-in-law Kenneth Yeo to Sri Lanka for negotiations. As Managing Director of Jones Overseas, I was to accompany Kenneth to the meetings that were scheduled with various officials.

Our first meeting was with the Food Commissioner Tom Pathmanathan who, under that Government, was tasked with the purchases of all essential commodities. After that meeting, he arranged for our next meeting with the Secretary of the Trade Ministry, Dr. Jayantha Kelegama, and Director of External Resources Austin Fernando. At all these discussions, Kenneth confirmed that he could supply the quantity of sugar that Sri Lanka required within a month. To the Sri Lankan team, this seemed like plucking fruit out of thin air and I could see they didn’t quite believe him.

In the current environment, this promise was a near impossibility. Loading the consignment alone would take 10 days at the minimum, in addition to the sailing time for a 10,000-tonne vessel which was way more than the month, Kenneth stated. All this information was completely new to me, but I sat there absorbing everything like a sponge.

When we got out of the office, I asked Kenneth how on earth he would meet this impossible deadline. He smiled and said, Being the largest sugar trader in this region, we have many vessels all around in the seas at any given time. All we have to do is divert one towards Sri Lanka.” That made sense to me. We were dealing with the world’s sugar kings after all.

Once we had got the agreement from the Government, the paperwork began. At that time, emails were unheard of and faxes were a thing of the future. We only worked with telexes. I pored over all the contracts, learned ship-loading terms, logistics and every related area in exports, commodities and shipping. Contracts of sale were finalized, with Kenneth Yeo and the Food Commissioner Tom Pathmanathan signing on the dotted line, concluding the sale of 10,000 metric tonnes of white sugar for a total value of USD 12.5 million.

This was the largest transaction the Capital Maharaja Group had made until then, and as one-third shareholder, I got a substantial amount of money as a result. For me, it was like winning a lottery.

Kenneth kept his promise. The sugar arrived at the Colombo Port on time and our first deal was a success.

My next task was at hand. As Managing Director of Jones Overseas I was to expand the Company’s purview in the import and distribution of other essential commodities – rice, flour and even milk powder. Our cold call to 15, Carpenter Street, while we were yet residing in Singapore, had borne fruit after all, because the very large commodity business Jones Overseas built up could only be attributed to the relationship we forged with the Kuok Brothers, specifically Robert Kuok, the ‘Sugar King’ of Asia.

After our very successful sugar deal, Robert Kuok invited Susil and me on an all-expenses-paid visit to Singapore. However, just before we left for Singapore, when we were returning from a visit to Susil’s cousin Dr. Ananda (Jacko) Jayatilleke in Kandy, I began feeling quite nauseous. Despite feeling ill, we made our habitual stop at my parents’ home and just as she saw me my mother immediately said, “You are pregnant Sumi. I can see it in your face. Don’t take any medicine for nausea. It’s a natural process.”

With my mother’s words ringing in my ears and Susil quite excited at the news, an appointment was made with Gynaecologist Professor Henry Nanayakkara. When we went at the allotted time of the appointment however, there were far too many patients waiting to see him. Patience is definitely not one of my virtues. I persuaded Susil to consult Dr. Siva Chinnathamby at Hewa Avenue, Colombo 7. When we met her, she examined me and said everything was fine.

Then I told her about my impending holiday in Singapore. She agreed to let me go but ordered a strict no-exertion holiday as I was yet in my first trimester. “There will be no walkabouts or shopping excursions,” she said strictly. “But I love window shopping and my walks on the quay with Susil,” I grumbled. She was not to be dissuaded and gave us both strict instructions.

When we got into Singapore, Robert Kuok had booked us into the Shangri-La and from the moment we landed, we were treated like royalty. A warm and hospitable man, his friendship extended to meeting his family – his lovely wife Poh-lin and the children who eventually went on to become CEOs of the various companies he owned. I also remember meeting Richard Liu, who was helming the sugar business. Richard and I struck up a strong friendship which would last throughout our lifetimes.

It was he who became my point of contact and my business sounding board, always on hand to hear me out and give me sound words of advice. In fact, in the first year of business, Jones Overseas sold 120,000 tonnes of sugar with the Kuoks winning every single tender floated by the Food Commissioner.

We were always on the lookout for opportunities to grow our commodity business. One of these was a tender announced by the FAO in Rome. The Kuoks wanted me to fly to Rome. I don’t remember if I told them about my pregnancy but, even though I was seven months pregnant, I wasn’t really showing. So I wore clothes a size larger and boarded the flight for Rome. The airline didn’t notice anything either.

In Rome, we stayed at the Excelsior Hotel on Via Venito, which was called the Legend of Rome. One of the city’s most iconic palaces, the hotel promised a truly Roman Emperor experience which, for Susil and me, was truly memorable. We won the tender and I was ecstatic.

(Excerpted from Sumi Moonesinghe’s recently published Memoirs)



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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