ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday February 24, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 39
Financial Times  

N. U. Jayawardena - A rare Sri Lankan

By Irvin Weerackody

Neville Ubesinghe Jayawardena

Neville Ubesinghe Jayawardena, ‘NU’ to all, is best remembered for controversies and for turning the Sri Lankan banking system inside out– of course the latter taking precedence over the former. Controversies he faced with equanimity and strength of character; banking reforms he trail-blazed like a colossus.

I first met NU when he was engrossed in setting up Sampath Bank. One day, early in the morning, the telephone rang. The voice at the other end asked, 'are you so-and-so?' When answered in the affirmative, the voice went on, 'My dear chap, are you free to see me today at 5 o'clock at my house?' That was NUJ at the other end.

I was at his residence sharp on time and was ushered into his library. NUJ talked non-stop. It was like a gushing cascade. It was all about his vision for the proposed Sampath Bank. After holding forth for nearly 40 minutes, he abruptly shot at me, 'how would you set about getting a campaign going?' He was insistent.

I was no Gogia Pasha to produce rabbits out of top hats. A rabbit, however, came to my rescue. I asked NUJ for a piece of paper and sketched something that looked like a tortoise. For all I know, it may have looked like a frog. I wrote an instant headline: 'The hare and the tortoise'.

This is the way I would like to commence the campaign,' I explained.

The idea was that although a late starter in the banking landscape, we would not take anything for granted like the proverbial hare.

NU chuckled delightfully and approved with his characteristic gesticulation of the right hand. We had clicked.

'The banking sector,' NU stressed, 'has so far failed to realise its full potential because it continued to lay emphasis chiefly on financial capital and to ignore a vitally important resource, the human capital; dynamism, ingenuity, motivation, industry and character of the people.' This would have been Greek to the bankers of the day. However, he never underestimated, not even for a moment, the predominant position banking had assumed then, in the country's economy. 'Although,' NU asserted, 'banking up to now has contributed significantly towards the growth of the import-export trade, the wholesale and retail trade, and has also played a leading role in the development of agricultural, industrial and plantation sectors, its policies could not keep pace with the changing national trends, nor has it defined its most urgent priorities.' He remarked with a tremendous sense of confidence: 'This era of banking will soon be history from now on.' A progressive new chapter in the banking story of Sri Lanka was about to begin. On May 15, 1987, Sampath Bank was born, revitalising the banking sector with dynamic, innovative, flexible and sound banking policies.

Its architect, NUJ, was a happy man. He ushered in the era of state-of-the-art technology in the field of banking in Sri Lanka, resulting in networking. The worn-out token system was done away with. A whole series of new banking products and services saw the light of day in quick succession. The then mandarins of the banking sector were jolted from a deep slumber.

In this Sampath Bank saga, there is one other highlight we both took a vast delight and pride in, and that was the overwhelming success of the first ever Sampath share issue. It was oversubscribed and this at a time when people were not quite in the know about share issues and its implications.

Moreover, it brought in 17,500 shareholders from every nook and corner of the island.

Now and again I used to ponder that the much-celebrated US economist, John Kenneth Galbraith and our own NUJ had some similarities. Both were born in 1908. They both dabbled in politics, although in different ways. Galbraith serving in the administrations of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson; NUJ was a Senator during the SWRD regime. Galbraith was not for a free-for-all free market system; neither was NUJ.

When Ronnie De Mel presented his first budget in the JRJ government in 1977 his cabinet colleague, the much-respected M.D.H. Jayawardena criticised some aspects of the free economy referred to in the budget on the floor of the house.

This cost him his portfolio. Winding up the budget debate, Ronnie De Mel took a swipe at MDH, saying that he (MDH) was guided or rather misguided by Mercantile Economics.

This statement clearly underscored NUJ's influence on MDH's thinking. If I remember right, MDH was a director of Mercantile Credit Ltd., of which NUJ was the chairman.

This demonstrates that NUJ too was not very much in favour of the free-for-all market economy, like Galbraith - but, he was all for free enterprise. He was a devout Buddhist and one could occasionally see him sweeping the precincts of the Lunawa Temple of which he was a prominent dayaka, in his upasaka garb. A few hours later NUJ would be in his elegant Saville-Row suit, holding forth to a most distinguished gathering on the proposed draft bill for debt recovery.

NUJ was fighting hard to get this bill passed in Parliament. If debt recovery is made easy and swift without leaving loopholes for defaulters to creep through, then NU firmly believed that you could lend more to more people and even the interest rate could be brought down. But, this draft bill was never to become law. Some powerful legal luminaries did not quite welcome the idea because; it would have put an end to protracted legal proceedings for recovery.

He was the first Sri Lankan Governor of the Central Bank. He took great pride in the fact that it was hard work that took him to the commanding heights of the financial sector of the country.

He was a workaholic and a voracious reader. Even at the ripe age of 90, he was at his desk at 5 o'clock in the morning at his Cambridge Place residence.

There is a story I have heard from a journalist friend of mine. Once, his son Nimal, had asked him why he barks at people at times instead of talking to them. NUJ's answer was, 'You are the son of a one time Governor of the Central Bank; but I am the son of a rest-house keeper!’. He never forgot his beginnings. (The writer is a veteran ad industry professional).


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