Upali Wijewardene– rare business genius

26th anniversary of Upali Wijewardene’s disappearance

Upali Wijewardene, the only son of Don Walter Tudugalle Wijewardene was born in February 1938. Today is the 26th anniversary of his disappearance.

It is a great misfortune to the nation of Sri Lanka that Upali Wijewardene, who was a well known entrepreneur in the international business community, disappeared exactly 26 years ago today with five others over the Straits of Malacca while flying in his Lear Jet on his way to Colombo from Kuala Lumpur.

It is indeed a matter of great pride for Sri Lanka that Upali Wijewardene, during a short period of two decades, was able to rise to the stature of an international business magnate, by fair means.

He was an infant when his father breathed his last in 1938. His mother was a lady from an eminent family in the Ruhuna and inherited vast plantation lands in the Southern Province. Upali’s mother sent him to St. John’s College, Cambridge, after his career at Royal College in Colombo, at the age of 15. During all his vacations in England he returned home to be with his mother. Those days there were only a few flights between England and Sri Lanka. At times he had to come by ship.

After graduation from Cambridge, he decided to be an independent person, choosing for his career that of a businessman.At the general elections held in 1977, President J. R. Jayewardene, as the leader of the United National Party, was willing to offer him the Kamburupitiya seat, if Upali sought nomination. But he was reluctant to accept the offer. After the UNP came to power President J. R. Jayewardena offered him the chairmanship of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEU). He retained that position until the disappearance in the jet plane.

He started several industries at his home at Sedawatta in Kelaniya. He had converted this house into a factory for the adoption of different business operations. He imported parts for the assembly of motor cars, the ‘Maxda’, and for radio sets, the ‘Unic’ radio. He made rapid progress under the open economic and trade policies of the government of the day. He set up factories in Malaysia and Singapore owing to difficulties in doing so in this country. He had so many difficulties.

He finally contacted Dr. N. M. Perera, the Minister of Finance in the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Government, to export capital to set up these businesses. Upali was very grateful to him.

Further, he began to produce "Kandos" chocolates to compete successfully with the best produced in the South-East Asian countries. He soon became one of Sri Lanka’s most successful businessmen and industrialists.

He watched international market trends and took calculated risks in investments. He had studied the methods adopted by modern businessmen throughout the world. He had won the confidence of the banking community in the island and abroad. To him the sky was the limit in everything. He found money very easily for his enterprises.

When he was appointed trustee of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya,in the 1960s, he fulfiled his duties most conscientiously.

‘The Island’ and the ‘Divaina’ were his finest contributions to the nation and it is up to those left behind to carry on these two independent dailies, so dearly loved by the right-thinking, fair-minded people of this island.

Upali was interested in starting a university in Matara in the Southern Province and he was prepared to donate land from his ancestral properties at Mapalana and bear all the expenses for setting-up the buildings. He made his offer in a public statement, but some politicians who held narrow views objected to the proposal. He built an auditorium for the people of the area, but by the time it was declared open he had disappeared. ‘Ruhunu Udanaya’ was another organisation Upali started for the people of the area. He also set up a driving school for overseas job seekers and an artisans’ training scheme for such people.

Two years before his disappearance he started the newspapers, ‘Divaina’, ‘The Island’, ‘Chitra Mira’ and ‘Navaliya’. He believed that an independent press was a need of that period. He loved these newspapers and was proud of them. He used to visit newsstands and newspaper outlets as early as 5.00 a.m to find out how the newspapers were faring. He was interested in the news reports, features and advertisements which appeared in his newspapers.

He always discussed problems and made suggestions to the journalists who worked with his newspapers and gave them wide freedom of writing.

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