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Corporations, Boards and Foundations – The Island


By Leelananda De Silva

One of the occupational hazards of the Planning Ministry was that one is obliged to serve on boards of corporations as a member. By statute and by practice, the Planning Ministry was represented on many governing boards. I represented the Ministry on several of them, and serving on these boards was interesting and instructive. Whether I contributed to the work of these organizations is something I cannot say.

I had a busy schedule of my own, and the time I could spare to the work of these boards was not much. My policy was to attend board meetings whenever I could and keep myself informed of the board agendas whenever I could not attend, so that I could inform the chairmen of my views on any relevant item. I made it a policy to be engaged at the board level only on key policy and other substantive issues. I did not want to be involved in the administrative items which were a major part of board agendas. I left it to the chairmen to handle that kind of subject.

In this way, I could focus on the issues that interested the Planning Ministry. Throughout my service on these boards, I had a cordial relationship with all the chairmen. I had a free hand in my decisions at these board meetings and it was rarely that I kept (Gunasekera, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs) or the Prime Minister informed. The fact that I was representing the Planning Ministry and the minister who was Prime Minister gave me considerable influence whenever I was intervening on an issue of interest to me. Whenever I was out of the country, the chairmen always kept me informed and adjusted agendas on any important item which they thought the Planning Ministry would be interested in. It is in these ways that I could be an effective representative on these boards.

I was a member of the Tea Board from its inception in 1974 until 1977. The Tea Board brought together the separate entities of the Tea Controller, Tea Research Institute and the Tea Promotion Board, and it functioned under the Ministry of Plantation Industries. There were three chairmen in my time. The two most notable of them were Doric de Souza and Bertie Warusawitharane, and I was to travel with them to Rome for FAO meetings.

One board member was G.V.S. de Silva, who had been a brilliant economist, university lecturer and the man behind the Paddy Lands Act, advising Philip Gunawardana in the 1950s. Another was Hector Divitotawela, a well known planter, who happened to be the Prime Minister’s sister’s husband. The chief executive was Mahinda Dunuwille, highly competent and very knowledgeable on all aspect of the tea industry. So was T. Sambasivam who was the deputy.

I do not want to describe in any detail the work of the Tea Board and I shall confine myself to one or two snapshots of my experience there. I have already dealt with elsewhere the paper I presented to the Tea Board on the London Tea auctions. Another paper I presented to the Tea Board was on the subject of a tea museum. The sterling and rupee company estates were being taken over and there were many artefacts on these estates, which would be valuable in relating the story of tea in Sri Lanka. With the transfer of ownership, there was a danger that they would be lost, and I know that such losses took place.

My proposal was to establish a tea museum somewhere in the upcountry, preferably on a tea estate which would relate the history of Ceylon tea over a period of 75 years. While the proposal was adopted, nothing came of it, as the climate of opinion at the time was to forget about colonial experiences. A tea museum was later established and that was after many of the artifacts that would have been of interest had been lost.

There is another little nugget of a story. I was visiting London on official business and happened to visit the London Tea Centre which is run by the Tea Board. Attached to the Centre was a Sri Lankan restaurant which was very popular. The main purpose of the Tea Centre was to promote Sri Lankan tea with appropriate displays of various types of tea, and the restaurant was an ancillary business. What I found when I went there one day for lunch was that the Centre was closed during the lunch hours of 11.30 a.m. to 2.00 p.m. and the reason for this was that some of the staff were engaged at the restaurant and the others were out for lunch.

This was a ridiculous practice, as those were the hours when there were visitors and opportunities for tea sales. I explained this to the Tea Centre people and when I came back to Colombo, I told the Tea Board about it. This practice was changed, and the Tea Centre remained open during the lunch intervals subsequently. What I was amazed was that the Tea Centre people had so misplaced their priorities that running a restaurant became more important than running the Tea Centre.

I was a member of most of the boards dealing with ports and shipping between 1972 and 1977. I was a member of the board of the Port Cargo Corporation, Ceylon Shipping Corporation, Colombo Dockyards Limited and the Central Freight Bureau. All these boards had one thing in common. The chairman was PB Karandawela (Karande). He was one of the most efficient public servants I have ever met. He was master of the organizations he ran, apart from being Secretary of the Ministry of Shipping and Tourism.

During these years, he crafted a comprehensive policy for the development of the shipping industry in Sri Lanka and built up the Ceylon Shipping Corporation as a profitable enterprise. He stood up to the strong vested interests, specially the British shippers who dominated the carrying of cargo in and out of Sri Lanka. There was a gentleman by the name of P.J Hudson, representing the Conference Lines of the time, coming annually to Sri Lanka always with bad news for Sri Lanka’s freight rates. The Conference Lines had an iron grip on Sri Lanka’s trade. Karande broke that monopoly.

He developed a farseeing training policy for Shipping Corporation staff, equipping them with all the range of skills that a shipping firm requires. He left a highly skilled and very competent staff. I have not seen that kind of commitment to training in any other Sri Lankan institution. Karande died young after joining the UN in Geneva as Registrar of Shipping and serving for 10 years. We saw a lot of him and his wife, Geetha during his time in Geneva. He left for Tasmania as his wife was teaching maritime law there. A few months before his death in Tasmania, he visited us in England, and came for our daughter’s wedding in 1992. He was a great friend and it is sad that his life ended so prematurely. His services to the Sri Lanka shipping industry has never been adequately recognized.

There was a dedicated team of officers at the Shipping Corporation. I came to know many of them. David Soysa, was an old hand from the Commerce Department, and now a close colleague of Karande in both the Ministry and the Shipping Corporation. There was Ranjith de Silva, general manager of the Corporation and Mahinda Katugaha, the legal officer, who later joined the World Food Programme in Rome. These were all highly competent officers. The Minister whom I met many times was P.B.G Kalugalle, and his private secretary Wilbert Perera, a charming Mr. Fixit if ever there was one.

A major concern of the Minister was to get employment for as many constituents from Kegalle (he was MP there) in the various corporations under his ministry. He left Karande to get on with his job. I must record that although I was on their boards, the Freight Bureau and Colombo Dockyards were of marginal interest to me. There is one person I cannot forget who was involved in many of these things and that was Harold Speldewinde, who was a real authority on every aspect of ports and shipping. He had long experience with the private sector and Karande brought him in to the ministry. I enjoyed talking with him and if I have any knowledge of shipping and ports, I owe a lot to Harold.

There was also Tommy Ellawala, whom I got to know well who was an advisor to Karande on various matters although he was in the private sector. Michael Mack also served in a similar capacity. At that time, there was a very friendly atmosphere among Karande’s extended shipping circles. On the board of the corporation I was privileged to work with Chandra Cooray of the Treasury, Dr. S.T.G. Fernando from the Ministry of Trade, and Charlie Amarasekara.

Before I leave shipping, there is one little contribution of my own. I prepared a brief paper and got the approval of the board for Shipping Corporation vessels to carry cargo destined for charitable organizations in Sri Lanka free of charge. This could be done without any costs to the Corporation as there was much free space in most vessels.

I must mention one foreign trip which I made with Karande and David Soysa. We went to New Delhi in 1974 to negotiate an agreement with the Indian Shipping Corporation, whose chairman was C.P. Srivastava, who was later to become the head of the UN International Maritime Organization in London. It was a friendly discussion over three or four days and we enjoyed our stay at the Ashok Hotel in New Delhi. I did not have the time to travel on Shipping Corporation business on any other occasion.

I was fascinated by the ports and shipping industry. There were many colourful characters I came across. At the Port Cargo Corporation, the Chairman was Hubert A. de Silva and later Babu Dolapihille. Hubert left early to join the private sector, and I worked with Babu who knew everything about the port. The Colombo port ran smoothly during those days, and that period saw the start of containerization. On the Board of the Port Cargo Corporation were D.B.I.P.S Siriwardhana, then Principal Collector of Customs, whom I got to know well over a period of five years.

Then there was K. Sittampalam, Director of Finance at the Treasury and very knowledgeable about the intricacies of government finance. Among the officials, the one I came to know well was Dayasiri Muthumala, the chief accountant, with an extensive knowledge of port operations. He was later to have a long career in London with the International Maritime Organization.

The Shipping Corporation nominated me to be on the board of Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co. Ltd, when it bought 40 percent of that company. That was a mandatory purchase by legislation. I looked upon this assignment as a fascinating experiment in public-private partnerships. The management was with the private sector, as they controlled 60 percent of the company. I hardly ever missed attending their board meetings, and they were good enough to schedule these meetings to suit me. They were anxious to have a good working relationship with the Shipping Corporation and the government.

My policy once again was to allow them to manage the company and for me to be kept informed on key issues. I had a very happy time with Mackinnons. When I first joined the board, the chairman was Adrian Wijemanne whom I had known from my days in the Land Commissioner’s department, where he was deputy. He had left the public service and joined the private sector. The next chairman was F.G.N (Ricky) Mendis, who owned Mackinnons. Ricky and his wife Charmaine were to be good friends of ours from that time (much later, Charmaine and Ricky visited us in Geneva and we drove to Leichtenstein for a holiday). Ricky sold his shareholding to John Keells a little while later. With the sale to John Keells, D.P.D.M de Silva, a charming gentleman became chairman and we worked very well together. Mark Bostock, a legendary British businessman who had a major say at John Keells also came on to the board.

The board during this time was a very enterprising one and the experience in working with the private sector was illuminating. Two of the chief executives of Mackinnon’s, D.S.P.S. de Silva and Cyril Lawrence were outstanding business executives. Much later on a history of John Keells has been written and I am pleased to see an extensive reference to me, and to my contribution in making this private public partnership work. I learned a lot about business and the private sector from my experience at Mackinnon’s.

I was a director of the National Savings Bank, which came under the Ministry of Finance. M.Sanmuganathan (Sam), its chairman was a friend of mine and be persuaded me to come on to the Board to fill the Planning Ministry slot. There was little room for any initiatives in running this bank, as its investments were mainly in treasury assets. It was also funding the government’s financial demands. I remember one incident which is instructive.

The Minister, Dr N.M Perera had told the chairman to recruit a clerk, who was a niece of the jailor who had assisted Dr N.M to escape from jail during the war years. I told Sam that this is not right and if the minister wished to have her recruited, he should give a direction to that effect, which he was entitled to do under the legislation establishing the bank. With difficulty I persuaded him to go to the Minister with me and others and to explain our difficulty. Initially the Minister was angry but he calmed down and said he would issue a directive.

I mention this incident to illustrate the independence we as public officials had to conduct official business fairly, without being frightened of politicians. Dr. N.M never held that against me and he was always friendly and had a cordial relationship even after he left office. We had a common interest in cricket and also the London School of Economics (LSE). A few years after, he came to Geneva and visited us. He was on his way to London and he told me that he would like to go to the LSE where he was a well-known figure in the late 1920s and got his DSc. He studied under Harold Laski. By the time he came to Geneva, he had no contacts with LSE. So I contacted Peter Dawson at the LSE and he met NM and showed him round. Peter told me that N.M’s thesis on the Weimar constitution was one of the well thumbed documents in the library.

In the 1970s, we still had the University of Ceylon. The Permanent Secretary of Planning was on the board of the University board of governors. nominated me to be the representative on his behalf. I attended board meetings from time to time. Once there was a most distressing episode. The vice chancellor had presented a paper to the senate to appoint a particular gentleman to be the professor of international relations. This was a newly created chair. Regrettably, the vice chancellor after a hurried advertisement and superficial interviews had recommended the appointment of a gentleman who was a lecturer in political theory and without any background in international relations, to be the new professor.

There was a highly suitable candidate in Shelton Kodikara, who was in the department of political science and who has written on international relations. He was on leave from the university and was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in Madras. He got to know about the chair after the applications had closed. When this came up to the Senate, I made a strong protest to the vice chancellor and suggested that he should advertise the post again so that Shelton Kodikara could apply. There was much recrimination at this senate meeting. The vice chancellor advertised the post again and appointed Shelton Kodikara as the first professor of international relations. Regrettably, the vice chancellor and I ceased to be friends.

Let me now go to a different type of board. I was appointed to be a member of the Board of the United States Educational Foundation (USEF), now the Fulbright Commission. It managed the Fulbright programme in this country. It was not a large technical assistance programme, but it did very useful work. The board consisted of three members of the US embassy which included its cultural affairs officer (during my time it was Dick Ross), and three members from Sri Lanka nominated by the Secretary of the Planning Ministry. The US Ambassador was the nominal chairman of the Board, and at that time, it was Chris Van Hollen who was to become a good friend of ours. appointed me to be on the board. During my time, there were many members on the Sri Lanka side. Premadasa Udagama, the Secretary of Education was there during my five years on the Board. The others who served for shorter spells were W.J.F. Labrooy, Professor of History at Peradeniya university and who had been my lecturer in history, Dr. Daphne Attygalle, Professor of Pathology and Prof. B. Hewavitharana, Professor of Economics. Aelian Fernando, a former vice principal of Wesley was the chief executive.

During this assignment of mine, I received much assistance from Miss. Diana Captain, who was in the cultural section of the embassy. She had an enormous knowledge of how the system worked. This was the start of a long friendship with Diana. During my period, the Foundation must have sent about a 100 scholars from Sri Lanka. They sent some of the best and brightest and many of them had outstanding careers later on. One of the scholars who went to the US was Mrs. Indira Samarasekara, who had obtained a first class in mechanical engineering from Peradeniya. She was exceptionally bright. Later, she was to become the President of the University of Alberta in Canada and arguably the Sri Lankan to reach the highest pinnacles of academic governance abroad.

There was another interesting committee of which I was a member. It was a non governmental body- the Ecumenical Loan Fund (ECLOF), of Sri Lanka, which was an NGO created by the World Council of Churches (WCC), around 1973. Adrian Wijemanna, whom I had known from my days in the Land Commissioner’s Department, was now with the WCC and was responsible for the creation of this new body. It had a modest amount of financial resources, from the WCC in Geneva, and these resources were channelled through ECLOF to small mini-development projects in the country.

Adrian requested me to join the board of ECLOF and the other members of the board included Chandi Chanmugam, Mark Fernando (later Supreme Court judge), Soma Kannangara (President of the Lanka Mahil a Samithi), and a couple of others. It was an interesting experience.

(Excerpted from the writer’s biography, The Long Littleness of Life. Leelananda De Silva. A member of the Sri Lanka Administrative Service from 1960-1978 he was Senior Assistant Secretary and Director of Economic Affairs of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs from 1970 – 1977)

(Editor’s note: We regret that the byline was omitted from last Sunday’s excerpt on the Commonwealth also written by De Silva.)

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