By Seran Senguttuvan –
The urbane and suave Minister (Dr. Professor) G. L. Peiris waxed eloquent last week at the AGM of the Chamber of Commerce of Young Lankan Entrepreneurs (COYLE) and noted with pride within 14 years of its being, the enterprising body has made astonishing strides. He added COYLE, comprising of business persons of age 50 and under, provide jobs for 400,000 producing economic wealth of an impressive combined turnover of Rs.600 billion. There were, however, a few factors that proved somewhat intriguing. One was the head of the line ministry concerned – Minister of Trade and Commerce Rishard Badiudin did not appear to have come into the configurations of the organisers as someone who should be leading the show. The Minister of External Affairs – instead, was chosen for the honours. So much so for what responsible citizens think of the capacity of ministers the government has chosen to serve particular tasks. Square pegs are placed in round holes is the obvious conclusion. One certainly cannot fault the organisers for their choice as to whom they are comfortable with on an occasion of much import to them. The host body has the right to chose those who would fit to win the respect of the gathered Captains of Commerce and Industry. Dr. Peiris, predictably, delivered with an appropriate and elegant address in line with his learning, oratory and experience.
It is not coincidental the chief patron of the BBS is the President’s brother and Secretary to the Ministry of Defence
The other point that struck visitors was that almost all of the officials of the host body were seen dressed in spotless white in what is commonly referred to as Arya Sinhala dress. After all, this was an occasion where this socially uppity yuppies would have loved to cover themselves and be seen in their Armani, Boss, Versace and Austin Reed suits. The Arya Sinhala suit, in the Rajapakse era, represents the overwhelming majority and is a symbol to be seen in and swim with the current tide. If you take that path you need no other to succeed appears to be the message of the regime pronounced by its Patron Saint – Defence Secretary – no less a government servant to boot. No wonder those fine gentlemen of COYLE willingly succumbed and traded their western finery for a few hours of pseudo-patriotism camouflaged in a combination of sycophancy and hypocricy. One cannot blame them. Their prerogative is not to ask why in the intimidating climate obtaining – but to robot-like obey.
It is obvious the business community is sent the message if they are to get somewhere in their chosen trades, it is best they go along with the tide of majoritarianism the regime is keen to foist on the business community – or “Sinhala-Buddhicise” the business world, if you like. Already the Opposition is brought to its knees – together with much of the media. The Police and Justice system is now controlled by the regime as so many other sections of the government. This new reality is clearly enunciated by the Bodu Bala Sena, the new weapon. The BBS did not mince their message to the minorities in the country “this is a Sinhala Buddhist country” It is not coincidental the chief patron of the BBS is the President’s brother and Secretary to the Ministry of Defence . And as that simpleton, former President D.B. Wijetunge was to comment infamously during his time “minorities are like creepers around a large tree”and the suggestion – they better behave . This was to be better characterised later by army man and Presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka , when he was riding high in the cocky and misplaced belief the people will automatically place him in the highest chair . He described his optimism then in his inimitable English “Other communities can live here. But they must not ask for this and that”
It is understood although COYLE had been around for a good 14 years, during much of the earlier period they seem to have opted for a rather below-the-surface existence – surreptitious being far too a harsh word on these well-meaning talented business folk. Why? The reason for their original formation, their decision to come out open “to dance in public” as it were, the identity of their patrons and their role in the current times all remained shrouded in mystery. Considering when the three different communities seem to be divided on a number of issues, all these factors taken together provide interesting but macabrish reading. It is whispered COYLE was originally formed to cater to the exclusive interests of the Buddhist Sinhala business community in the emerging commerce- oriented Sri Lanka – surrounded by invisible “enemies” Understandably, the inspiration has come from Malaysia’s much contested and divisive Bhumiputra scheme – frowned upon by the Chinese, Indian and European communities there.
It is learnt the biggest encouragement came to COYLE when President Rajapakse took office. Sources close to both sides then worked out an arrangement where COYLE was tol use its enormous influences to help in Mahinda Rajapakse’s election and the Rajapakses will reciprocate where COYLE members will be rewarded on the basis “while all are equal under the law” as the Constitution lays down, COYLE will benefit in that old dictum “while all are indeed equal some are more equal than others” The first major break-through came when President Rajapakse first visited China after his victory. He took along a jumbo-delegation that boasted of several COYLE heavy-weights whom he introduced to the Chinese Government and the many business delegations present. The message was these are the men who have the government’s official blessing – a message that will be difficult to ignore by the other side. Imaginative COYLE officials were quick to the emerging scenario where there was a convergence of JHU, PNM types in collusion with influential members of the clergy and the political activists within the new power base of the armed forces working in cohorts. The message was “in defeating the Tamil LTTE we have saved the Sinhala Buddhist Nation both from the dreaded tigers and a more hostile Western-Indian cabal under the pay of the Tamil diaspora” The implied suggestion was to narrow ranks by working closely with the patriotic Rajapajkse Brothers – where “ we will build an unassailable platform for you”. COYLE cannot be blamed for taking advantage of emerging new opportunities. It is not in the fitness of things for them to battle on the morals and ethics of the issue. After all , to survive and develop their own enterprises in a domestic and global disenabling climate they have to sail with the existing trade winds.
How does this new development impact on the Constitutional and other rights and expectations of the organised business community – represented by other strictly business and secular groupings. This will include the century old Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, the National Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Chambers and Industries. When the regime unwisely hand-picks a group of business persons from one religion-community this clearly places established Chambers of Commerce in the new order in much difficulty. They are at a disadvantage to serve their own membership they have judiciously performed for many decades.
The commercial wealth of the country was not produced by members of the Sinhala community alone – although there were a large number of them who served the motherland well. From colonial times until the 1970s Trading families of unquestionable integrity like the Amarasuriyas, de Soysas in the Plantation industry, the Kotelawalas in mining, Insurance and Finance; the Wijewardenas in publishing come to mind although, admittedly, the list is hardly absolute. The Open Economy introduced by the pro-West regime of President J.R. Jayawardena opened the doors for a new breed of multi-millionaires from the Sinhala community. The late Upali Wijewardena quickly established himself as a leader in the newspaper, Confectionary and auto-making industry. He was the first among industrialists in the country to own and fly about overseas in his own airplane. The activist Sinhala trading community also was quick to align themselves with various political groups and there emerged the different Mudalali groups – the Nawalokas began in small time tea-boutiques and graduated into timber, building and now into the Health industry; P.D. Gunadasa (Dasa Mudalal) of the Dasa Industries Group went into textile manufacturing but did not go far. The Maliban Mudalai group went from biscuits and now are leaders in the field and into the 2nd-3rd generations.
Lankan communities of recent Indian origin like the South Indians, Borahs, Sindhis, Gujeratis, Memons as well as the indigenous Tamil community, by far, made the greatest contribution to the country’s economic wealth in terms of the emerging Garment-export industries, tea and other commodities, Plantations and many other. The Selvanathan Brothers, who bought over the former British Plantation-Export group Carsons Cumberbatch, developed into different fields including Plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. The late Samuel Gnanam who built the successful St. Anthony’s manufacturing group in hardware, textiles; the Maharajah’s in milk foods, media and exports; The Thambiyah’s from the original Cargo Boat Group and the Sellamuttu’s moved into Hotel and the investment industry; From the Borah community the Jafferjees, Akbar Brothers, Hebtualbhoys in exports and agriculture; the Sindhi Hirdramanis, Kundanmals in retail, manufacturing and exports; Gujeratis Amaleans in garment exports and the Gujerati-Memon MAS Group of Haji Omars in garment exports; the Hemas Group of Esufally’s in Agriculture, Health industry and exports have all made immense contribution to the economic advancement of the country from pre-WW2 days to date. The combined jobs provided by these Lankan entrepreneurs will by far exceed into the millions.
An intriguing factor in COYLE was they restricted their original membership, when they were functioning below surface, to Buddhist Sinhalese only . In the course of time, seeing this could be a moot point they resolved to accommodate a few leading Catholic/Christians, who at any rate, were both successful and influential with different administrations
The indigenous Muslim community were the pioneers in the lucrative and specialised gem and precious stones exports trade from pre-British times. NDHA Abdu Gaffoor, Macan Markars and Beruwala’s Naleem Hadjiar (late) are names associated with this old export trade. Jabir Cader (late) made a mark for himself in the film distribution industry and went into Hotelling.
The question arises if commercial goals alone were the criteria why were those from the Tamil, Muslim and other communities kept out. After all there are many in the present generation of these groups coming within the under-50 category where many of them also with impressive overseas qualifications and conforming to COYLE’s criteria for membership. If the intention is to introduce the race and religious element into the commercial life of the country by no means can this be described as one that promotes national integration – the sole need of the moment.