Arising from the global uncertainties and competitive challenges in socio-economic activities and ‘New-Normal’ life styles, in the aftermath of the ‘Covid-19’ pandemic, we as a group of senior retired bankers who have dedicated 30 to 40 years of their working lives to the glory and success of the largest, indigenous Bank of Sri Lanka with a global presence, consider it timely and appropriate to address the attention of all its stakeholders- viz. the government, valued customers, bank staff, trade unions and the public at large. Towards such end, we wish to deal briefly with the bank’s history highlighting a few of its unique performances and achievements particularly during difficult times, by leveraging on its status as the best internationally rated, local bank in Sri Lanka.
A Brief History of the Bank of Ceylon (BOC)
The Bank of Ceylon (BOC) was established in 1939 as the first indigenous State-aided Bank to assist local entrepreneurs and businessmen who were deprived of much needed finances. While meeting its objectives through financial intermediation, the bank’s deposits and advances portfolios grew exponentially withban expanding Import/export economy; so much so, that BOC opened a Branch in London in 1949. With such signs of fulfilling progress, there was no attempt even after the country’s Independence in 1948 to nationalize the bank.
However, due to a major shift in economic policies, BOC was nationalized in 1961 coupled with protective regulations against foreign banks creating a captive market for state-owned banks. Consequently, the bank in the early seventies was requested to extend its services to the rural areas by opening over 300 islandwide Agricultural Service Centre (ASC) branches under an innovative ‘mixed banking’ model. It surely expanded the bank’s relationship with the populace as its clients. In implementing this model, the bank introduced a plethora of concessionary credit schemes with refinance facilities from the Central Bank and
credit lines from international funding agencies such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and International Finance Corporation (IFC) to uplift the economy of the rural farmers, small and medium entrepreneurs as well as self-employed artisans in the semi-urban sector.
With the introduction of the ‘open economy’ in the late seventies, Sri Lanka’s financial market was liberalized allowing the re-entry of foreign banks creating a fierce competition especially in commercial and international banking. During the decades of eighties and nineties, the bank responded effectively to the growing challenges in a rapidly changing global environment, by introducing techno- savvy innovative products such as credit cards, ATM/debit cards, in a computerized environment adopting appropriate marketing and human resource development strategies. The bank also expanded its horizons and opened overseas branches in Chennai, Karachi, Male and a joint venture bank in Nepal. With its strong balance sheet and financial performance, the bank was rated high by international rating agencies making it a respected borrower in the international financial markets on behalf of the govt. of Sri Lanka too. BOC was the first local bank that ranked among the top 1,000 banks in the world as per the regular surveys conducted by the reputed UK magazine ‘The Banker’ and it sustains the status quo to date. The recognition of the bank by a strong global network of over 900 correspondent banks continued to facilitate its international banking operations to the immense benefit of the country’s exporters and importers. In summary, the bank’s vision of being ‘The Bankers to the Nation with a global presence’ at the time, was satisfactorily achieved by the aforesaid performances.
It is noteworthy, that in addition to being the banker to the millions of the population in all walks of life, through its Islandwide network of branches, the BOC became the de facto banker to the government as well.
For example, when USA imposed an embargo on Iran in 1980, the BOC drawing on its robust international standing was the only bank to continue to negotiate letters of credit for tea shipments to Iran for its customers uninterruptedly and for other banks’ customers too, relying on assurances by Iran’s “Central Bank”, of payments inclusive of interest for delay, and save the country’s economy while averting a collapse of our tea industry.
On another occasion when ships refused to come to Sri Lanka after LTTE bombed the Colombo harbour, the BOC drawing on its International recognition, arranged a Lloyd’s Insurance guarantee within three working days and paved the way for shipments without disruption and kept the country alive.
In instances as above, BOC was and still is, the only bank operating in Sri Lanka that possesses the will and the ‘risk taking ability’ to act at short notice for the benefit of the country.
BOC’s active involvement as the ‘Bankers to the Nation’ and the govt. during the two insurrections and the tsunami, is no secret to the public and the security forces were relieved by the uninterrupted arrangements made by the bank to collect their salaries without any delays.
With the beginning of the new millennium, the bank’s vision was revised to read as ‘to be the No. 01 Bank in Sri Lanka and to be perceived as such by the general public’. Accordingly, the bank kept step with the rapid changes in technology and introduced customer centric innovative products such as ‘SLIPS’, SMS Banking, Internet Banking and Smart Banking etc.
Successive BOC managements and staff have consistently laboured to maintain BOC’s position as the No. 01 Bank in Sri Lanka. In the process, the bank has now expanded its network up to 2,000 local customer touch points with customers showing a significant shift from physical banking to digital banking instruments such as B-app, Smart Pay, and Online Banking etc. The bank also strengthened its global presence by opening a new branch in Seychelles and a second branch in Hulhumale – Maldives. As a result of the said achievements, the bank won Sri Lanka’s No. 01 Banking Brand and No.01 Bank Awards for the last 12 years in succession.
It is pertinent to mention that, with the blessings and support of the successive governments, the bank when necessary, executed a series of reorganization/re-engineering/restructuring exercises with the assistance of renowned foreign consultancies, to achieve this remarkable progress.
Towards achieving BOC’s Centenary Vision -2039
Presently, BOC is progressing at an intermediate level in regard to its global presence led by its fully owned subsidiary in London and supported by branches in Chennai, Maldives and Seychelles. With its additional representative presence in the Middle East and South/East Asia, the BOC’s Vision-2039 projects a ‘Global Model’ providing a variety of tailored banking solutions to a mature international customer base without compromising its existing commitment towards the upliftment of the unbanked segments of the local society engaged in agriculture, fisheries and allied self-employment activities in the small and medium sectors. Thus, BOC’s Vision -2039 would be a de facto vision for the country too.
The envisaged development of the Colombo Port City as a ‘Regional Financial Hub’ in close proximity to the iconic BOC head office with ‘Heritage’ potential as Jaathi‘ye Maha Pahan Temba’ (The great beacon light of the nation), will provide a visible, majestic stature to BOC as the leading bank like in all other big cities of the world. It will not only stand in good stead with the changing skyline but also will render BOC with the much needed strategic advantage to link its head office with an extension office in the Port City itself, handling off-shore banking activities along with corresponding changes in the local banking landscape. Having heard certain rumours to the effect that BOC’s head office is earmarked for acquisition in connection with the Port City development, we have proposed to the authorities to ensure that the present strategic location of BOC‘s head office be retained in order to fully derive the aforesaid strategic advantages.
The unforeseen global pandemic –‘Covid-19’ forcing an array of ‘New Normal’ practices has in a way, accelerated BOC’s journey towards its centenary Vision-2039, through innovative development of many digital, on-line banking products to meet both local and global demands. Conversely, the global pandemic has affected our country rating as well as that of the bank due to obvious reasons. Against this backdrop, BOC will be hard pressed to face the challenge of sustaining robust ratings by the International rating agencies while maintaining its pre-eminent position as the No.01 Bank in Sri Lanka.
In this context, it behoves the govt. to provide the necessary environment and the impetus to allay any negative impact on the bank’s commitments to the local and foreign clientele especially our long standing and reputed network of foreign correspondents and boost BOC’s reputation as the only Sri Lankan bank that can mobilize international assistance in emergencies.
Towards this end, in addition to Central Bank guidelines, we have proposed that a fresh ‘Agreement’ be entered into between the Govt. and the BOC, inter-alia permitting the requisite autonomy to the bank to conduct its business like any other private commercial bank conforming to prudential banking norms (BASLE Accord) and other international norms that bear upon its ratings by renowned International rating agencies. Such action will surely buttress BOC’s stride towards its centenary Vision-2039 and ensure achievement of govt.’s own goal of a prosperous Sri Lanka.
We are confident that the internal stake holders of the Bank such as the staff and trade unions would be quite alive to our submissions.
“In a global financial market, the key financial ratings, supported by the stature and image of a bank are equally critical as its ownership.”
A group of retired members of the Corporate and Executive Management of BOC.
Save the Last Dance for me
By Capt Elmo Jayawardena
A few months ago, I was in Hong Kong, visiting a well-known charity organisation called Crossroads. It was to seek assistance for a project in Sri Lanka. Crossroads has an enormous warehouse filled to the brim with anything and everything; ready to be sent to places where people in need plead.
The store surroundings looked familiar. Then I realised I was standing where the old Kai Tak airport was, now pastured and replaced by the glamour of the new Hong Kong International Airport.
Yes, I have been here before, many a time at that, bringing jet aeroplanes into land on runway 13, turning at the famous Chequered Board at 600 feet and pointing at the short runway besieged by the sea. The final turn and approach was made between sky-scrapers that stood on either side, like sentinels, and one could spot the flat residents’ laundry hanging outside their windows.
The Chequered Board was fixed to the mountainside, big board with orange and yellow squares, clearly to say “Turn now, beyond this is damnation”.
That was Kai Tak, surrounded by hills, minimum length to stop, and the weather gods playing their fancy games so often that we, mere mortals who flew the machines were nothing but puppets on a string.
But we managed; day in and day out to put our aeroplanes down and brake like crazy to make sure we didn’t overrun and tip into the water.
When the skies were friendly, it was a thrill to land at Kai Tak. The runway usually was direction 130 (runway 13) and the wind rolled from the East, nice and steady and we came past Green Island and saw the Chequered Board in front to tell us we have to change direction lest we too got pasted like the Chequered Board on the same mountain. Then came the turn, low and precise to make the final approach, the laundry run, to fly between the buildings and place the wheels precisely at the touch down point to avoid going swimming.
Every time a pilot landed in Hong Kong in the olden days, there was that gleam in the eye. I’ve seen it a hundred times in my co-pilots and I’ve felt the same whenever I made the approach; the accomplishment of doing something right where the demand was high, which sent the adrenalin into overdrive.
The typhoon time was another story. The winds sheared, gusted, backed and veered and the rain swept across the field, diminishing visibility. Dark grey clouds hung low, covering the mountains and the Chequered Board was hardly visible. We went in by the leading lights, which were very powerful strobes that throbbed, giving us a path to follow to take us to the laundry lane. All this was with the wind playing wild symphony and the rain pattering down like machinegun fire. Most times, lining up on the runway for the short final run was almost impossible and that is where the pilot’s skill mattered, kicking rudders and wagging wings like a mad man playing drums just so that the aeroplane landed and stopped all within that little wet and slippery runway with the sea awaiting with open jaws for a luckless pilot’s mistake.
I remember my last flight to Kai Tak, in June 1998. I left home determined to do the landing. Most days, I would let the co-pilot fly, I’ve seen a lot of this airfield and the younger pilots were always grateful for a swing at Hong Kong. But this was my final flight to Kai Tak and I saved the last dance for me, just like the The Drifters sang.
The co-pilot was young and he mentioned he had never landed in Hong Kong. It was a hard call on me. I could not let this young man go and run through a flying career having never landed in Kai Tak. Maybe, years later his first-officer would ask about the infamous Kai Tak approach and my friend would have to answer that he had never done it.
All in all. the deck was stacked against me, there is something called professional courtesy and out went my last dance, “Son, you take it to Hong Kong”.
The weather was bad, the winds were howling, and we went in. The young man turned at 600 feet and the aircraft was bucking and jumping and he hung in there like a rodeo kid but that wasn’t enough.
With 300 feet to go we were pointing at mountains and the field was almost below us and then I took over and went around to the safety of the sky.
One thing I never did in an aeroplane is if I ever took over from a co-pilot, I never gave it back. I flew it and landed it – that was the golden rule, the safe approach.
The rodeo kid and I were now loitering in the sky to await our turn to make the next run. Then it hit me like a thunderbolt, same co-pilot, years later would be a Captain and when his co-pilot asked him about Kai Tak and how it was to fly in he would have to say “I got one chance and I blew it, couldn’t make the field and the Captain had to take over.”
There was no way I could crucify this young man’s soul, make him poor as gutter water in a field where professional prestige mattered most.
‘Son you take it in, go and land this aeroplane.”
That’s precisely what he did. He waltzed with the wind and came through the clouds and turned at the Chequered Board and flew down the laundry lane and lined up the big 747 on the short runway to land as smooth as Mr. Neil did on the moon.
Then I saw the glitter in his eye – Last dance or no dance, I wouldn’t have traded anything for that look. That’s what flying was all about.
It is possible that my rodeo-kid friend would read what I write and remember. It was all between him and me and the old Kai Tak Airport.
He, I am sure by now, is a Captain. I like to think that he too would at times give away his turn to dance just to see the gleam in a fledgling’s eyes. That should be the legacy.
If not, what would we be worth as professional pilots?
MICHELANGELO OF ITALY and BARANA OF SRI LANKA
BY Sampath Fernando
“Every block of stone has a statue inside and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” –
Michelangelo (AD 1475-1564). And he discovered THE DAVID inside a rock of marble around AD 1501-1504.
Barana, the Sri Lankan sculptor, performed a similar act in the 5th Century AD. He was supposed to have accomplished this around 455-477 AD during the reign of King Dhatusena. Avukana is a standing statue of the Buddha near Kekirawa in the North Central province of Sri Lanka. The statue, which has a height of more than 40 feet (12 m), was carved out of a large granite rock face.
BARANA, THE SCULPTOR
There are enough historical records about Michelangelo and his paintings and sculpture. Barana was virtually unknown. My speculation is that he was employed by the king, not for his artistry but merely for his skills to get a Buddha statue sculptured. In ancient Sri Lanka, kings were well known for creating Buddha statues and Stupas (dome shaped buildings to preserve relics).
Whatever the reason both Barana and Michelangelo deserve great honour from us. Why? It is amazing the genius of both of them, how they produced such wonderful work of art without the aid of modern cameras and computers, electromechanical drills etc. Also, how did the Romans carve their tall fluted columns which are perfectly proportioned. The magnificence of ancient Egyptian pyramids goes without saying.
Michelangelo later in life developed a belief in Spiritualism, for which he was condemned by Pope Paul IV. The fundamental tenet of Spiritualism is that the path to God can be found not exclusively through the Church, but through direct communication with God. I speculate than Barana was a devout Buddhist. Buddhism being the only organised religion at the time. As mentioned earlier the kings spent lot of wealth and employed skilled artists to honour the Buddha.
THE PERFECT BUDDHA STATUE
Carved out of the living rock with supreme assurance, Avukana Buddha is a magnificent image. His expression is serene and from his curled hair sprouts the flame called siraspata signifying the power of supreme enlightenment. Although the statue is large and stands straight up with feet firmly planted on the lotus stone pedestal, the body retains a graceful quality enhanced by beautifully flowing drapery clinging to the body.
THE TALLEST BUDDHA STATUE IN THE WORLD
The magnificent free-standing (still attached to the original massive rock) statue carved out of a single rock is the tallest Buddha statue in existence today. Following the destruction of similar but much larger statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, the Avukana Buddha has gained even greater significance in the Buddhist World.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
My parents were devout Buddhists and school holidays were combined with a family pilgrimage. So, I was taken to Avukana statue with my two brothers and the two sisters to worship the Buddha. I was only about 10 years old. As I reached my adulthood I began to look up to Buddha for his philosophy.
As an octogenarian, I visited the site on 7 December 2019 and venerated Barana for giving us such a marvellous image of art. A combination of philosophy and art!
“I am still learning” said Michelangelo at the age of 87. I can say the same thing now, seven years ahead.
(The writer taught Applied Physics at The University of Arts London (UAL) and retired as a professor.)
Identity issues continuing to fuel Mid-East conflict
On the face of it, the decades-long Middle-East conflict is all about who controls which plot of land in the chronically conflict-ridden region. For example, the powder keg city of East Jerusalem is claimed by both the Israelis and the Palestinians. On and off, the city erupts in violence on account of its disputed nature and we are just witnessing a new round of such blood-letting. Ownership of real estate seems to be at the heart of the conflict. But there is more than meets the eye in the conflict and land ownership is just one vital aspect of it.
As important as land and issues relating to material well being that grow out of it is religious identity and connected cultural markers that are seen by the Israelis and Palestinians as defining them as ‘nations’. This accounts for the centrality of East Jerusalem to the complex problem which is the Middle East.
In the latter city are places of worship which are seen as being of the utmost sacredness by the groups concerned. For example, the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is sacred to Islam and therefore the Palestinians, and which came under attack in the current round of violence, is located in East Jerusalem. Likewise, numerous are the sites in East Jerusalem which are sacred to the Jews. The Temple Mount is one such structure which is revered by the Jews. But many of these places of religious worship are revered by almost the entirety of the communities of the region, although some groups proclaim exclusive ownership over them.
It is for the above reasons that pronouncements to the effect that ‘Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel’ could be anathema in the ears of a considerable number of Palestinians and many of those of the Islamic faith. Recognizing this statement as true and factual could be tantamount to conceding that all Islamic sacred sites in East Jerusalem should come under the complete control and jurisdiction of the Israelis.
To very many sections professing the Islamic faith in the region, conceding East Jerusalem to Israel would be unthinkable because East Jerusalem is integral to their identity as a people or as a ‘nation’. This is the reason why they would see themselves as fully justified in taking up arms to defend their perceived ownership of East Jerusalem. And ‘native’ places and locations are almost sacred to most communities and ethnic groups because those are the sites where they could practise their religions and cultures. The same line of reasoning holds good for traditional Jews. Since East Jerusalem is home to numerous sites that are sacred to them they would see themselves as justified in possessing the city by even the force of arms.
It is in view of the foregoing that former US President Donald Trump could be said to have destroyed peace prospects in the Middle East to a considerable measure by fully endorsing the position that ‘Jerusalem is the undivided capital of Israel’. By doing so, the former US President legitimised Israel’s complete hold over the city. But the truth is that ownership of the city is bloodily contested and this has been so for decades.
The question could be asked as to why one group should consider it unthinkable and revolting that the other group should exercise controlling power over religious sites that are claimed by it as well. In short, why are these group antagonisms so deep-rooted? We go to the heart of the Middle East conflict with this question.
In fact, the ‘enmity’ could be centuries long. Its roots could lie in the ‘myths of origin’ churned out by hard line sections in both communities. Both Judaism and Islam revere Abraham, seen as the originator of most theistic religions of the Middle East. Abraham is believed to have had two sons of different natures. At the popular level, each of the adversarial groups in the Middle East sees itself as deriving from the ‘better-natured’ of the sons. Like most popular myths, these notions die hard among the more impressionable sections.
However, there is no denying that land and territorial disputes have been keeping the flames of conflict and war ablaze in the Middle East. This is true of today as it was at the turn of the last century, when the British were seen as implanting the Jews in the land of Palestine at the expense of those who were already inhabiting it. That is, the Palestinians of today. The Jews were seen as growing in number in Palestine and they very soon laid claim to a state of their own in Palestine. Thus were sown the early seeds of the conflict which has bedevilled the region to date.
As matters stand, Israel controls to a considerable degree all contested areas in the conflict except the Gaza strip where the militant group Hamas exercises extensive governing control, backed by some staunchly pro-Islamic extra-regional states. At present, the religious unrest in East Jerusalem has invited the military involvement of Hamas, which development has, in turn, triggered off a spiral of violence between the Israeli security forces and Hamas. At the time of writing, the violence has claimed more than 30 lives.
It is highly regrettable that the violence is occurring in the holy month of Ramadan. It is hoped that the international community would intervene to end the violence and make a fresh effort to work out a political solution to the conflict.
A scrutinizing look at Middle East developments over the decades would indicate a close link between land issues and identity questions. These factors could be said to have been mutually-reinforcing. To the extent to which the Palestinians see themselves as being deprived of land and other means of livelihood, to the same degree are they seeing themselves as suffering on account of their religious identity. This trend aggravates religious tensions. Economic issues deriving from land questions trigger a sense of being victimized on account of religious and cultural markers.
Accordingly, US President Joe Biden has his work cut out. If he is serious about bringing peace to the Middle East, he will launch a fresh bid towards evolving the two-state solution. Under this formula there is a possibility of resolving land issues equitably.
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