The legend of our times
Upali Wijewardene was Sri Lankas legend of the late Twentieth century. With a traditional Sri Lankan family background and an education at Cambridge University, he returned to the country to be an industrialist at a time of the heyday of Sri Lankas socialism that was extremely hostile to private entrepreneurship. Upalis genius was that he used this hostile environment to his advantage with astounding success to forge an industrial empire within two decades that enabled him in his last days to vie for political leadership, making incumbents at that time to scream with rage. International commodity trade was his mainstay in business but in Sri Lanka at a time when industries were almost non-existent he burst into the scene with manufacture of chocolates, soaps and assembly of cars. And finally launched his own newspapers.
The business tycoon flying across the country in his helicopter and private planes and abroad in his Lear Jet was something unknown to Sri Lankans. And more. He became a leading international racehorse owner competing with the international jet set, winning the plums of international horse racing such as the Royal Ascot.
A British journalist, Matt Miller, described him in Insight Magazine: Largely through bravado and wit, Philip Upali Wijewardene parlayed a bankrupt confectionery plant into Sri Lankas only multi national business group and one of Asias leading cocoa based products conglomerates. Intriguingly he accomplished his overseas empire - building at a time when his country strictly prohibited the export of currency. And now the 43-year-old commodity wizard (this was 1981) has started what could be Upalis Third Plan... He would be willing, he says with uncharacteristic restraint, to become Sri Lankas president someday.
Few Sri Lankans could have achieved so much in so short a time. By 1983 he was a legend in his country and like many a legendary figure it was a story book ending: tragic and mysterious. On a bright sunny day his Lear Jet took off from Malaysia and disappeared over the Straits of Malacca.
Of all the enterprises founded by Upali Wijewardene, the one that keeps his flag flying each day is Upali Newspapers. Since1981 when he commenced publication, The Island and the Divaina have rolled out of the presses at Homagama each day except on days like Vesak, Christmas and the Avuruddha. Today, Both The Island and Divaina are on line paper (on Internet) with The Island recording the biggest number of hits per day from readers around the world. Upali with his global outlook would have been delighted.
Twenty-two years after the commencement of the publication of Upali Newspapers, it could be truly said that it was Upalis vision and his belief in the freedom of expression that has kept the papers going. The Upali Group newspapers from the very commencement launched a technological revolution in newspapers production Upali launched offset and colour printing for newspapers for the first time. (There was a Sunday publication that did have offset colour printing but only for its cover page.) It resulted in a revolution in printing in Sri Lanka and the old hot metal type used for over a century ended with a few years after our papers hit the streets. Today, our technology has advanced and facsimile transmission is used to send our pages from Bloemendhal Road to the Homagama printing presses eliminating road transport.
What really keeps Upali newspapers going is the spirit of independence and fearlessness he infused into the paper. No one was sacrosanct he told journalists but cautioned to handle the Old Man President Jayewardene with care. Those who were with The Island at its commencement still remember where after a few days of commencement of publication the story of a high ranking bureaucrat, very close to President Jayewardene. The bureaucrat had accompanied his daughter to the airport and flown into a fury when the Customs inspected the daughters baggage. The man of Napoleonic stature had thundered that he would have the Customs Department abolished. The Island published this story and Upali was delighted. Damned good, this kind of fellow should be exposed, he said.
After Upali, the prophets of doom, mainly our rivals proclaimed that it would be a matter of time before we folded up. We went through difficult times under Upali who was far too big for those who attempted to assail him. But after his death our papers went through immense crises but Upalis successors were able to ward off all such threats with the help of the journalists and other loyal employees. There were times when even sales points of certain newspaper groups had to be protected by the army but our newspapers, despite death threats to our staff, continued publication without interruption, each day, with only our pens to protect us.
Today, we remember our founder, who despite his achievements had many dents in his armour like all human beings. But he was a rare and outstanding Sri Lankan, certainly a legend of our times whose creations stand testimony to his greatness.
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