Upali Wijewardene the colossus | Daily News

Upali Wijewardene the colossus



The 13th is generally considered inauspicious, as the Christ was said to have been crucified on the 13th of a month; and how true, for in this instance too, February 13 was the day that Upali's plane was blown up over the Malacca Straits in Malaysia.

Incidentally there are persons here who think that he is still alive but I can confirm that he is no more and that he died when the plane was blown up, yes BLOWN UP for fishermen in Malaysia had found a wheel of the Lear Jet and the Ministry in Colombo telexed our Embassy in Washington, where I was serving at the time, and wanted us to check with the Lear Jet company as to whether the numbers found on the wheel were those of the Upali's plane and they confirmed that it was from the wheel of Upali's jet; Colombo was informed and for reasons best known to the authorities here they did not pursue the matter.

An unforgettable experience

In 2012, when I was serving in Malaysia as High Commissioner, I inquired from the Malaysian authorities about this, they checked their records and confirmed that the plane had been brought down over the Malacca Straits but said that they did not pursue the matter as the government in Colombo did not show any interest!

It was indeed a privilege and an unforgettable experience for me to have got to know him and to have worked with him, I was indeed enriched by the friendship. I was head of Mission in the Philippines at the time and was suddenly recalled to Colombo and appointed as the Executive Secretary of our first Board on Investment, the GCEC, of which Upali was the head; I learned later that it had been the father of our present Prime Minister, the late Mr. Esmond Wickremasinghe who was known to me, and my friend Lalith Athulathmudali, that had recommended to President JR that I be appointed as the Executive Secretary of the GCEC.

This appointment also gave me the opportunity of working with another truly great Civil Servant Mr. Raju Coomarasamy, who was the Deputy Director General; (President JR held him in very high regard, if there was any issue on which we needed Presidential approval, (for we served immediately under the President), I recall that we went to see the President with our letter of request and (Mr. C who also functioned as an Economic Advisor to HE and hence had Presidential letter heads), with an approval letter of our request prepared for the signature of HE!, the letter of approval was always signed by HE, such was the trust President had for Mr. Raju Coomaraswamy.

Upali's leadership

To revert to our flamboyant Upali W, he was, at that time, considered our only Dollar millionaire and was much feared by many leading UNP politicians who thought that Upali's ambition was to succeed his cousin JR as President someday; they sought to block him at every turn; I recall that the High Posts Committee of Parliament found him unsuitable to head the GCEC, holding that there was a conflict of interest; the next day Upali, Mr. C and myself were summoned by the President and he referred to the decision of the High Posts Committee and then asked Upali the question "who thought you were suitable for the post and who appointed you?", Upali answered "You, was it not?"; and the President then said "You remain as Chairman of the GCEC' until I decide to remove you". He remained as Chairman and the Parliament did not take on the President.

The President called Upali, Raju C and myself a few weeks after I had assumed duties and said "I don't want to belong to the poor man's Club (referring to the Non Aligned Movement of which we held the Chair) go West and bring investment and create jobs" and that was what we did under Upali's leadership. We worked on the basis that Capital goes where it is most welcome and stays where it is best treated; we created over three thousand jobs in under three years in the Katunayake FTZ.

The three of us, along with Rohan Weerasinghe, who was our Investment Promotion Manager, travelled extensively to bring investment to our country; the fact that we were a "One stop shop" assisted us in our efforts. In 1979 and 1980 we went to the Silicon Valley as Upali was of the view that we must move beyond the garment industry and that we must be the hub for the knowledge industry in South Asia. The GCEC signed no less than five agreements with giant Chip manufacturing companies including Motorola! When we returned to Colombo, Upali a had a party to celebrate our success. Most unfortunately Upali had a falling out with his cousin President JR and resigned in 1981 December.

By 1983 the Chip manufacturing companies had begun building their factories when certain monsters launched a island-wide attack on innocent Tamils in Colombo and elsewhere following the bombing of an Army convoy by the LTTE in Tinnaveli in the north; among those killed in Colombo had been two Tamil engineers who had been supervising the construction of the Motorola and Harris factories; the two Corporates decided to leave and cancelled their projects in our country; they moved to Malaysia, where I found (when I was the High Commissioner there) that there were over forty thousand employed in the Chip manufacturing industry alone; that was a part of the price we have paid for the pogrom of 1983.

Business ventures

As for Upali, he not only went back to developing his business ventures, in 1981 with the help of his friend Upatissa Hulugalle, he started a newspaper --- The Island newspaper along with a Sinhala newspaper the Divaina; The first Editor of the Island was none other than Vijitha Yapa who was our Media Manager at the GCEC. It was he who laid the foundation along with Upali for the Paper, which is a respected newspaper in our country today. Upali also started the first Car Assembly plant in our country. He also established 'Kandos Chocolates' and manufacturing plants for a number of other products.

Upali had class and whatever undertaking he embarked upon was always above board and he always ensured that the staff were treated well. His lineage and Cambridge education helped him to advance his life. Upali was not just another business tycoon, he was also helpful to others.

As a business tycoon he had a Cocoa plantation in Malaysia, he had business interests in Singapore and a 'Futures buying office' in New York. He also helped many people and institutions; it may surprise many to know that he helped a Sinhala Left Wing paper, which would have folded up had it not been for the support he extended. I am aware that he did not interfere with his newspapers and did not dictate editorial policy. He had a friend who used to write a column titled the A'pura Diary and the only condition he laid down was that the facts must be checked. He was indeed a broad minded liberal thinker and had values. His death was indeed a great loss to our country.

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