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The versatile banker rich in humane values



When I read the article ‘Dismal behaviour of people’s representatives’ on 7th July in this newspaper by veteran banker Rienzie T. Wijetilleke (RTW), former Managing Director and Chairman of Hatton National Bank PLC, I noticed he had mentioned that he was in his 80s. That prompted me to pen this article as his next birthday approaches.

A leader is the one who knows how the way goes, and shows the way. Such a man’s name is ever embedded in many hearts. To the world he may be one human being but for many he is the world.

Quite deservingly many articles about him have been written by erudite veterans such as, Dr Upul Wijayawardhana, W. A.Wijewardane, former Deputy Governor of Central Bank in ‘My View’ and Savithri Rodrigo in her ‘Rienzie Wijetilleke – Revisited’. (to name a few of eulogies).

Some of the following accounts of him are not known to many outsiders and may be confined only to some brothers and sisters of HNB. Although I have worked at HNB for 18 years my interactions with this great leader was unfortunately limited to four instances.

If my memory serves me right, I met him for the first time in Panadura in the late 80s as the then Vice President of the Panadura Sports Club when HNB sponsored a cricket match between the club team and a touring English team. The chat lasted less than three minutes. Then, it was when he came to the HNB City Office in 1991 to give his blessings for the very first shipment of foreign currency notes to Singapore. The third was when he visited the Treasury Department of HNB, which was shifted to a new building opposite the City Office in Colombo Fort in the late 90s. My most important and vital meeting was in late September 2001.

When I was selected to Head the Representative Office of HNB in Karachi, Pakistan, in October 2001, I had to meet him. So, on the day of the appointment when I went to his room, I experienced the noble qualities and true humanity of this great gentleman. After a lengthy discussion about my new posting (mainly fatherly advice) and also about my family, the following kind words of his still echo in my mind and will not be forgotten in years to come.

“Lalith, give my direct telephone number to your wife to contact me for any emergency and she and your children can be assured of my protection and care in any emergency”.

Further, he fulfilled a special request made by me before I left. If love, compassion and care define a mother, then he fits in there.

He created and promoted the ‘Hatna Family’ concept, to go deep into the hearts of all at HNB. He never neglected the children and the close relatives of the ex-employees of HNB. However, in this world there are so many ungrateful people who do not have an iota of gratitude even after receiving ‘impossible’ opportunities. Leaving that sad part aside, I just wonder how many fathers, mothers and children are smiling today because of the stability of their lives, well assisted by our Sir, RTW. Surely most of them must be transmitting their telepathic best wishes and gratitude to him.

Our quarterly in-house journal, ‘Hatnamag’ was his brainchild. When I was in Karachi I used to circulate it among the prominent bankers there and some expressed their eagerness to have their own ones. However, the most prominent and enthusiastic reader was our then High Commissioner to Pakistan, (stationed in Islamabad) the ever smiling and amiable, General Srilal Weerasooriya.

The annual dance of HNB, the ‘Hatna Nite’ which was not held for many years was rejuvenated by Sir, RTW, I was told.

Media, especially the television channels, had a special place reserved for HNB. Decades ago when ‘Rupavahini’ broadcast the programmes, ‘Vanija Lovin’ (from the commercial world) and ‘Business Matters’ the channel authorities selected HNB as the provider of the articles. As requested by SDGMT, Mr. GK, I wrote those Sinhala and English articles for HNB. Before the introduction of the Euro in January 1999, ‘Rupavahini’ gave the opportunity for HNB to educate the wide range of viewers about facts related to the same. Then ART TV had a programme called ‘Business Matters’ every fortnight. Those were recorded at the Treasury Department of our bank. In all occasions I was lucky enough to be the interviewee thanks to my boss, Mr. GK, SDGMT. All those opportunities were not conjured by a magic wand but because of the rapport that HNB amassed throughout the years, thanks to the unparalleled leadership of our Sir, RTW,

It is a well-accepted fact that the sport (corruption free) is a real tool that can bring all people together. RTW had a special concern for the sportsmen and women. HNB became an oasis for them as the bank recruited, plethora of players of national fame in cricket, rugby, basketball, netball, soccer and hockey. The lengthy sports fabric of HNB was neatly decorated by the above players who brought plenty of championship trophies in Interbank, Mercantile and National tournaments. The numbers of achievements / trophies are too vast to name one by one. Thus, in the sports arena too HNB, created an indelible reputation.

He also extended the opportunities at HNB for three star athletes who brought honour to our motherland in Asian Games — Jayamini Illeperuma, Sriyani Kulawansa and Dhammika Menike.

Since I was a playing member of the team, I am proud to mention that in 1996 HNB became the Mercantile Over-40 Cricket Champions.

The number of bank branches swelled to over 180 in 2004 from 33 branches when he took over as the MD, with ATMs scattering right round the country.

As a colossal figure in the banking industry of Sri Lanka, while being the Managing Director he built a colossal mansion for the bank – HNB Towers, inaugurated in January 2003. Despite some pessimism about the building by corporate customers, his unhesitant determination, supported by an enthusiastic team saw the giant baby born.

In 2004, our Sir, RTW was elevated to the prestigious position of Chairman of HNB. By then the number of Exchange houses in the Middle East that had commenced agency arrangements with HNB for the inward remittances for the benefit of the expatriate Sri Lankans was very high. Those arrangements extended to some affluent countries such as Australia, Canada, Switzerland, Singapore and the UK as well during his tenure as the MD, with the Inward remittance business expanding many folds.

The establishment of the departure and arrival outlets of HNB at the BIA was another feather in his cap. Gold business of HNB commenced when he was MD. The high volumes of Gold sales by those two outlets and a large number of foreign currency deposits by duty free shops at BIA, the total collections of the same became unprecedented, resulting in the repatriation (export) of foreign currency notes to Singapore and Switzerland weekly. The profits were enormous.

The ‘Gami Pubuduwa’ programme was initiated during his tenure as Managing Director, which the World Bank hailed as a role model of the world in 1995. Under his guidance HNB became first for many local and international accolades.

The enormous number of scholarships offered to the deserving employees of HNB was unparalleled. Most of the ‘lucky’ ones, including me, are in retirement, reminiscing the ‘bright’ flame that glittered throughout, making plenty of opportunities for his subordinates.

The Training Centre of HNB was expanded to greater heights by recruiting well experienced and erudite personnel. The bank conducted the first ever training programme for the school leavers in 1989. The library was revitalized to modern standards in January 1990, and both relocated at HNB Towers.

After the introduction of the free economy, many foreign banks opened their doors in Sri Lanka. With the passage of time almost all of them wanted to quit Sri Lanka. (If I’m not mistaken only the CitiBank and Deutsche Bank remain to date). However, HNB made three record number of mergers, namely with Sri Lankan branches of Emirates Bank, Banque Indosuez and Habib AG Zurich, guided by Sir, RTW. Under his guidance HNB also established two Representative offices in Chennai, India and Karachi, Pakistan.

‘Cheqleaf’ at HNB Towers is an oasis with manna for the ‘exhausted’ but ‘spirited’ loyalists after 6 pm. The Pool Table there is an ideal substitute for billiards and snooker fanatics like me. It has become a good pastime for many employees.

I purposely refrained from obtaining opinions from retired and present senior staff members (joined before 2004) of HNB about our Sir, RTW for the simple and obvious reason that this article would have become too lengthy.

Sir, RTW, as the Chairman ran the best cricket interim committee of the country in 1999. Political interference brought an abrupt end to his top quality management. That is another sad episode of cricket in our motherland.

Like King Dutugemunu had 10 giant warriors, our Sir, RTW also had such capable men around him. One special lieutenant, an amiable character like a shadow enabling his boss to reach the pinnacles of successes, was Mr. Upali De Silva. He was the best ‘midwife’ at HNB who assisted his boss to deliver at all times. His camaraderie with his boss was exemplary.

Sir, RTW retired in 2010 as the proud Chairman of HNB. Even at 80 you are still young at heart. The birthday of our former Big Boss will be on 10th November.

Your wisdom and exemplary humanity will always be etched in our memories. Along with thousands of well wishers, I wish you good health and longevity to serve the human kind for many more years to come.

‘Scent of flowers does not travel against the wind, but the fragrance of good people travels even against the wind. A good man pervades every quarter’.




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Agriculture Dept. in a slumber



The Department of Agriculture has been in a slumber for many years. Governments talk about developing agriculture in this country, but nothing happens. I am talking through experience. For the last several years I have been trying to obtain assistance from the department to fertilize my small coconut land and tea plantation, but with no success. In Galle my property is located about one km from the Highway on the Akuressa Road. I spoke to the officers through my cultivator at Walahanduwa and Labuduwa but the stock response is “SORRY the Government has not issued!” Do these officers ever visit these places ? ” NO”.

About two years ago I had to buy from a private trader to fertilize my coconut plants and part of my tea plantation. My profit is almost “NIL”. Due to lack of fertilizer the coconut crop dropped from five hundred nuts to 150/ nuts this month. Besides this, my buyer bought the coconuts @ of Rs 50/ per nut, whilst in Colombo I pay Rs 90/ per nut. Even, in my tea plantation there is a drop in the quantity of green leaf, as I have not fertilized it! Here too I am at the mercy of the buyer and have to accept whatever price he offers as there is no guaranteed price.

In my property I decided to plant cinnamon as it grows well along my fence , but the Agriculture Department told me that I will have to go to Matara to obtain plants, which is 28 miles from my place in Kalahe. Their attitude is very negative.

If one watches the Sinhala news on TV, it is quite evident that the Agriculture Department does nothing to encourage the cultivator in terms of providing fertilizer, advice against pests or even methods in improving the crop. Officers are warming their seats in the offices and never conduct field visits.

There is also no supervision or management by the Department. If from the head office they conduct surprise checks and visits, they will realise the exact situation. My visits to the branches indicated they are very poorly equipped in terms of furniture and equipment. It was found that they are poorly maintained and the premises, with broken furniture and unclean toilets, have never been swept or colour washed. A clear indication that none of the management teams from the head offices ever visit. The approaches to their offices are in a terrible state. Why cannot the management get these officers to provide a programme for the month, and get them to report on facts and figures, with acknowledgement from the growers being obtained with their comments; thus ensuring that the reports are genuine, and there must be sudden visits by the head office to these sites to check and supervise them. The department must adopt appropriate measures by giving proper directions to ensure that the cultivator/grower benefits from the department”. The Public are their Servants today.

The Vision of the Coconut Research Institute is to be the centre of excellence in coconut research technology, development and technology transfer in the region.

Its Mission – General knowledge and technology through excellence in research , towards increasing production & profitability of coconuts.

Its Mandate – 1. Maintain seed gardens.

2. Train advisory and extension workers to assist the coconut industry, guide & advise coconut industry on all matters of technical nature.

It is sad to say these so-called “Visions & Missions” are only on paper. Even the Mandate they talk about is also confined to paper! At grass root level “Nothing” happens.

There is no purpose in having any research and having great experts at the CRI, what matters is do the public benefit from them? It Is an Emphatic No!

No new seedlings are available. There is neither fertilizer nor expert advice. The Southern Province growers are completely neglected, as the so called institutions consist of incompetent and lazy officials who do not care about government or CRI policy. These CRI experts must not confine themselves to their offices; they must visit these places without giving them notice if they want to see what is happening.



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Presidential words as orders



At present two presidential inquiry commissions are working on – Easter Sunday Attack and Political Victimization. Many people come before these two commissions and mention many things that have been said/ordered by the former President, Prime Minister and various officials. It would be exceedingly difficult or impossible to check the veracity of those statements.

Now, incumbent President Gotabaya Rajapaksa asks/orders (or in a way threatens) government officials to take his spoken words as legitimate circulars. One day those officers too would have to come before various commissions and judicial courts, to justify the tasks they carried out on verbal orders by a President (may be solely to save themselves from being punished), and then who would be there to safeguard them?


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‘Amude’ also tried in Parliament



There has been furor on the dress code of NC Leader Athaullah who came to the parliament in a decent Afghan-style dress. I could remember in the years of yore, our friendly Dahanayake from my former electorate Galle, tried to come to the Parliament in an Amude, but cannot remember what followed. He tried to enter the Parliament in Amude (Span Cloth worn by farmers) to protest against the imposition by Mrs Bandaranaike in 1964 of a ration of two yards of textiles per month per person, at a time of grave shortage of foreign exchange.

 When Gandhi came to the British Parliament many decades ago – MPs referred to him as “Naked Pakir walking down the British parliament steps”, as he was dressed in 3/4th trouser style cloth for the down portion, and top part of the body was naked, except for a thin shawl draped over the body exposing parts of his chest. Also in the recent past an ex-president was attired in Modi Dress ( I am not sure if he came to the parliament) for the top part (similar to the top part of Afghan dress) and no one in the government like MP Marikkar or Harin Fernando protested.

Is the so-called Kapatiya Dress in white only admissible in parliament? What about full suits worn by brown sahibs / ex-Royal politicians – this is also a British dress; so why make a big fuss about an Afghan style decent dress. Kandyans are not protesting when down south bride grooms wear the Nilame style dress, which is trending these days?



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