Upali Wijewardena: Memories of the Unforgettable Tycoon
February 16th, 2008
If Philip Upali Wijewardena was among the living he would have reached the biblical life span of three score and ten today (Feb 17th).
Alas, this was not to be as he disappeared twenty-five years ago just four days before his forty-fifth birthday.
This article is written as tribute to the man in this eventful week of significant anniversaries.
Legally Upali Wijewardena is presumed dead though his body was never found. He was travelling in his own lear jet from Malaysia to Sri Lanka when the plane disappeared.
The disappearance continues to linger in the collective memory of the nation as an unresolved myatery. There are people who ask me even now “I say what really happened to Upali? Dont know, no?”
Upali Wijewardena was a man who achieved much in the short period of his life. He was perhaps Sri Lanka’s first indigenous tycoon who captured the imagination of the masses.
Despite his privileged background Upali was basically a self – made man who reached the pinnacle through his own efforts.
The Nation at large recognized this and was proud of him. Though he hardly ever visited Jaffna the people of the peninsula appreciated him greatly. They admired his commercial success.
Needless to say the South was proud of Upali too.The flamboyant business magnate was to many a symbol of success and a role model to be emulated.
The name Upali Wijewardena became familiar to the Country in the early seventies. Yet it was in the late seventies that he was really well – known .
This was when he assumed duties as Director – General of Sri Lanka’s first “Free Trade Zone” the popular name for the Greater Colombo Economic Commission. The GCEC has transformed into BOI nowadays.
I first came to know Upali Wijewardena personally after he became head of the GCEC. I was then a journalist on the Tamil daily “Virakesari”. run by express newspapers ceylon Ltd.
Our chairman then was the well – known industrialist AYS Gnanam. When the GCEC was formed AYS Gnanam was made a deputy – director general by President Junius Richard Jayewardena.
Chairman Gnanam apparently did not inform his newspaper company of the appointment. When news of the GCEC appeared in other papers the “Virakesari” had “missed” it.
When the GCEC held its first press conference at the Upali group premises on Bloemendhal road I was assigned to cover it. I was also asked by my editors to get an exclusive interview with Upali Wijewardena..
When I approached Upali for the interview he agreed immediately.
When I went to see him the following day his greeting was “So you missed the story about your chairman being in the GCEC and now you are trying to make amends by doing a belated write – up”
He then guffawed heartily! I warmed to him immediately.
He was a wonderful subject to interview. He answered each question informatively and at times wittily. He did not bullshit!Pelee Muhandhiram who disaapeared along with Upali was present throughout as a silent observer.
The interview turned out well and my editors were pleased. Upali got it translated and was happy too. Thereafter I was assigned the GCEC as one of my regular beats.
The GCEC was something new and controversial. The “Shannon” experiment was catching on in many parts of the world. The leftists were firmly opposed to the concept.
The idea of providing massive tax concessions and financial incentives to foreign “capitalists” to come and invest in Sri Lanka was a novel project at that time.
One of the attractions was our skilled yet cheap labour. “Exploitation” thundered the left. JR’s famous comment “Let the robber barons come” did not help either.
The fact that a well known “dhanapathi” was heading the GCEC aided the “vahamanse sahodharayo” to attack the project.
It was a difficult time for the pioneering venture. Looking back I think Upali was the ideal man for the job at that time. The GCEC went about its task methodically and diligently.
The much travelled Upali undertook many foreign trips to promote the FTZ. On one such occasion he was in Singapore. At a press conference Upali was asked about the Tamil minority being discriminated against in Sri Lanka.Upali responded to it in his inimitable style.
“Gentlemen” he said “Seated on my right is deputy – director general Raju Coomaraswamy; on my left is Treasury secretary Chandi Chanmugam. Further down is our High Commissioner to Singapore C. Gunasingham.. I am the minority here”Everyone laughed. That was Upali!
It was my duty then to record its progress regularly in the columns of the “Virakesari”. Because of the Gnanam connection the GCEC received top billing in the paper.
I interacted a lot with Upali while covering the GCEC. When working for a Tamil newspaper I have come across many Sinhala persons who simply did not care a hoot about the Tamil media.
I have also come across many Sinhalese who were extremely concerned about what appeared in the Tamil newspapers.Upali Wijewardena belonged to the latter group.
I met him on more than one occasion then.Also he was always ready to answer my questions whenever I telephoned him. Sometimes I pestered him but he didn’t seem to mind.
I remember once Mrs. Wijewardena gently admonishing me on the phone “He is a busy man you know and you shouldn’t disturb him like this”.
Little did I realise then that one day I would be working on Upali Wijewardena’s newspaper “The Island”and that someday Mrs. Wijewardena would become my chairperson
The opposition papers used to regularly publish negative stories about the GCEC. I remember one particular news item in the Communits party’s “Forward”. I asked him some questions based on the news item.
He started chuckling and said ” You have read the “Forward”. Sheepishly I said “Yes”. He then proceeded to answer. This demonstrated that Upali was keeping abreast of all the media reports on the GCEC.
Though he could not read Tamil he got his Tamil employees at Upali group to inform him of what was appearing in the “Virakesari”. Thus he was happy with my work and perhaps due to that made himself easily accessible.
As I stated before the GCEC was a novel project and there no Lanka based precedents to go by in writing about it. Still I managed to write regularly on various aspects concerning the GCEC.
There was very little about the GCEC in the Tamil language then.
But the GCEC became a question at the GCE Advanced level Economics paper. I was immensely gratified when many teachers and students from Tamil schools wrote to me and the paper saying that they had only relied on the “Virakesari” for the exams.
Incidents like those makes journalists feel that they are doing something worthwhile instead of writing about third – grade persons masquerading as political leaders.
Vijitha Yapa who later became the pioneering editor of “The Island” was media liaison officer at the GCEC. Ranjan Perera was Upali’s secretary.He was very helpful. As most journalists know the secretaries can cut you off literally and metaphorically.
One of the biggest criticisms against the GCEC then was that our workers were being exploited by the global capitalists. Being somewhat left of centre in my political beliefs during the days of my youth, I felt this was perfectly valid.
My perspective changed when I interviewed many of the girls employed at the FTZ. Though factory workers many of them were well educated in the Sinhala medium and politically conscious. But they were realists.
One of them observed pithily in Sinhala that she knew she was getting only half a plate. If she agitated for a full plate then she may lose even this half – plate and go hungry.Their families depended on them.
For some reason Upali used to talk freely on many matters with me. Perhaps he was at ease with me a young journalist on a Tamil newspaper.
There was much speculation then in the media about his political ambition. I thought then that he would focus on Kelaniya but I was surprised when he said “No the South”.
It was then that I came to know of his Southern roots from his mother’s side and the Sarath Wijesinghe relationship. Later he earmarked the Kamburupitiya electoral division and began nursing it.
When I was working on the “Virakesari” I once asked Upali how he would resolve the ethnic crisis if he became Sri Lanka’s head. Of course the problem was not as bad it is today.
He thought a while and said that all people should be able to study and communicate with the Government in their own language, Official administration to be done in all three languages and no person to be discriminated on grounds of race or religion.
Subsequently I left the “Virakesari” and joined “The Island” . Upali had nothing to do with my entry into English journalism. My joining “The Island” was due to Ajith Samaranayake, Ravindran Casinader, Gamini Weerakoon and Vijitha Yapa.
Upali did not interfere with recruitment of personnel for the editorial.I also never approached him.
My interaction with Upali ceased after I became his employee. . I ran across “Mr. Wijewardena” a few times. We simply smiled. He seldom visited the editorial then.
I remember Upali speaking to me only once after I started working at “The Island”. This was about my column.
At the Island I was put on the “Tamil” round by Vijitha Yapa.After a trip to Jaffna I began a series of articles for “Sunday Island”.
Vijitha Yapa then made it a permanent column. That was the “Behind the Cadjan curtain” column. It was quite popular then.
VIjitha Yapa;s instructions to me about the column was simple. “Remember that you are writing for a pre- dominantly Sinhala readership in English” he said. “Explain the problems of the Tamils to them. Think of it as building a bridge between the communities”, Vijitha Yapa said then.
One day I saw Upali at a distance. He was about to get into the car.Pelee Muhandhiram beckoned to me. When I went near Upali praised my column and said that he liked it. “Keep it up” he said. That was all.
Naturally I was thrilled.A few months later came their fateful “end”
“The Island” burst upon the media scene then like a burst of fresh air. Upali had undertaken a market survey which indicated there was no room for a new English paper.
But Upali being Upali he simply went ahead. It was indeed a great challenge then working for the paper
The new kid on the block achieved tremendous success within a short time. Two older kids on the block went out of business gradually.
The paper’s plus point in one respect was the colour and modern printing technology.
On another level it was due to its editorial and news content.
The paper covered events fearlessly and provided space to all points of view. One of its strong points then was its coverage of the ethnic crisis.
This was both good journalism and good business. In this the paper reflected the world view of both Upali Wijewardena and Vijitha Yapa
“The Island ” was a runaway success in Jaffna then. One reason was that the Late City Edition was put on Upali Airlines and sent to Jaffna. The “Colombo” edition was available in Jaffna by noon.
I recall then Jaffna Government Agent Devanesan Nesiah telling me happily ” Thanks to the Island we are able to read the latest sports news without delay”.
The main reason for the paper’s editorial success was the free hand given to Vijitha Yapa. This was possible then only because Upali owned the paper. A lesser man would have interfered unnecessarily.
In those days there was only one sacred cow – Upali’s uncle President JR Jayewardena.. All others were fair game. Open season was declared on Upali’s political rivals Ranasinghe Premadasa and Ronnie de Mel.
It was said that Ronnie de Mel felt Upali was eyeing the Finance minister portfolio. Premadasa thought he was trying to supplant him as Prime Minister.
This was a time when Upali was building a circle of supporters in the ranks of the UNP. But when “The Island” began its fearless journalism many shenanigans were exposed. Several of these stories were about Upali’s supporters.
Since the journalists were not told to lay off we went about our reporting without fear or favour. Those affected complained to Upali. But to Upali’s credit he never instructed the editorial “hands off”!.
One exciting night was when Upali himself became a “reporter” for “The Island”. One day President Jayewardena had taken an important decision about deciding on the criteria for staging by – elections.
Urged by the editor , we the reporters , contacted all our sources to find out the details. We failed.
A desperate Vijitha Yapa appealed to Upali Wijewardena. It was night time.
Still the Upali newspapers chairman went to see his uncle the President. He got the information from the horse’s mouth about the formula to be adopted for by – elections. It was a scoop.
Upali was pleased with himself and joked with the editor that his reporters were useless because the chairman had to personally get the story.
At the initial stages Upali himself wrote the popular A’Pura Diaries. Being a Wijewardena, printing ink ran in his veins.
The incredible achievement of the newspaper was symptomatic of the man’s golden touch. Whatever venture he launched became a roaring success within a short time.
Philip Upali ,born on Feb 17th in 1938 was the son of Don Walter and Anula Kalyanawathie Wijewardena.
He studied initially at Ladies College and then Royal College where he captained the cricket second eleven.
He then went on to England and graduated from Cambridge.
Upon his return Upali began working at Lever Brothers as a management trainee. He quit in disgust when his expatriate boss accused him unfairly of lies and deception over preparing a report.
Upali started out on his own with 15,000 rupees as capital and an old house as his only business asset.
That was the time of a state controlled economy but incentives were provided in some areas including confectioneries. Upali ventured into what was called derisively as “seenibola” industry. He began manufacturing candy and toffee.
One man who stood by him in those days was R. Murugaiah an up-country Tamil. It is said that the name “Delta” was adopted for Upali’s sweets because Murugaiah was born on Delta group estate. Murugaiyah was responsible for marketing the products then.
Years later Upali was to quip publicly “behind every successful man there is a woman but behind every successful Sinhala businessman there is a Tamil” and pointed to Murugaiah walking behind him.
Embarking on a career as industrialist Upali never looked back. The confectioneries developed and soon he acquired “Kandos” chocolates from his maternal uncle Sarath Wijjesinghe.
Then came consumer produts like “Sikuru” and “crystal” soap.Upali also pioneeered the assembling of radios, clocks and TV’s under the “UNIC” brand name
He also went into automobiles . The UMC Mazda and Upali Fiat were assemebled here in Homagama.
In those days the import duty for cars was 300 % but only 100% for motor spares.
Upali brought in automobile parts as motor spares with lesser duty and then assembled them into vehicles. He avoided paying extra duty and remained competitive as a result of this stratagem.
Later in a media interview he was asked about this. Upali replied that he wandered to the edge of legal limits but never crossed them.
Upali also went into aviation and began local helicopter and airplane services.I was present when the Jaffna – Colombo flight commenced.
President Jayewardena and several senior cabinet ministers were present. Jayewardena’s affection towards Wijewardena was clearly visible.
Upali also bought up estates in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. He also had many business concerns in Singapore and Malaysia.
The “Kandos man” was hugely popular in Singapore.During Upali’s heyday more than 33,000 people were employed in his worldwide enterprises.
Upali was married on 7th November 1975 to Lakmini, daughter of Dr and Mrs Seevali Ratwatte.
Dr. Seevali being Mrs. Bandaranaike’s brother and Upali being JR’s nephew the marriage was seen then as a dynastic union.
They had no children.But Upali had two nieces and six nephews through his two sisters Anoka Wijeysundara and Kalyani Attygallle
He had a wide range of interests including race horses, pedigreed dogs and motor racing. His horses ran at Aston and Derby winning laurels. Lester Piggot rode some of his winners.
His ribbon winning canines were Labradors and retrievers.
As a young man Upali raced his mother’s “Opel Kapitan” at the Katukurunde Races in early 60s.
Later he imported an “M.G.A. Sports Twin Cam”, which he raced at the Mahagastota Hill Climb.
His also bought a “Mitsubishi Lancer” to be raced at the Nuwara Eliya Road Races and Mahagastota Hill Climb in 1980.
Upali had a luxury S-Class Mercedes Benz 126 from Malaysia. This was the first car of this type in Sri Lanka.
There were also his private Lear jet and helicopter.
He would conduct a business meeting in the afternoon in Colombo, helicopter to Nuwara – Eliya in the evening for golf and return to Colombo again for dinner.
He would fly in his own plane to England to engage in the sport of Kings. Upali had a permanent suite in a prestigious London Hotel.
Upali maintained a flamboyant lifestyle that his countrymen relished. The people were proud that one of their countrymen had really made it and was on par with the best “suddhas”.
When Upali disappeared the nation was shocked. For many months people believed that he would return dramatically. There were also many rumours of a “kehelwatte” plot and also of an international conspiracy.
A song composed in his honour was a popular favourite then. Its chorus was “Upalee Wijewardena, Upalee Wijewardena”.
Finally the Country realised that Upali was not going to return and was gone for ever. Perhaps he is in the locker of Davy Jones!
The mystery however remains still. The Upali Wijewardena mystique will continue to linger in the popular imagination for many more years.
It was my good fortune to have interacted with him as a journalist and also break into English jounalism through the newspaper he founded.
He was an impressive personality and unforgettable character.