Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 17 February 2013
Growing up in a very different Sri Lanka during the 1970s and 1980s, I used to have a recurrent dream.
A daring press baron takes on an overbearing Lankan government. As the irate head of state lines up the formidable powers of bureaucracy, police and even the military to muzzle the last untamed newspaper standing, the publisher ups the game.
A special evening edition, laden with incriminating exposés of government misdeeds, rolls out and is distributed for free. As people scramble to get copies, battle tanks line up outside the newspaper’s suburban printing press, and take aim…
I always woke up at this point, alarmed and restless. Oh, we shouldn’t interpret our dreams too seriously, but as later events showed, my childhood imagination had some eerie parallels in the real world.
We haven’t had too many press barons in Sri Lanka. The original one was D R Wijewardene (1886 – 1950), founder of the country’s largest newspaper publishing company Lake House (nationalised in 1973). The older Times of Ceylon company was run by unseen managers rather than by a prominent publisher. The owners of Independent Newspapers, launched in 1960 by the M D Gunasena family of publishers, also remained behind the scenes.
In contrast, there was nothing low key about the flamboyant Lankan billionaire Upali Wijewardene (1938 – 1983) who launched his national newspapers – The Island and Divaina — in November 1981. That bold move revitalised a complacent industry and energised a new generation of readers and journalists.
In the end, Upali was a press baron for less than 500 days before his abrupt and dramatic exit. And although I never saw him in person – I turned 17 on the day he disappeared — he inspired my own career choice…
Upali didn’t make his fortune in government supply contracts, property development or dubious stock market deals. Instead, it was mostly everyday products – ranging from confectionary to consumer electronics – that formed the foundation of his business empire.
His aristocratic lineage and Cambridge education no doubt helped, and import restrictions in the early 1970s created a captive market for home grown products. But Upali always offered good value for money to the Lankan consumer.
He wasn’t just a busy tycoon running a diversified group whose holdings, at its peak, included cocoa plantations in Malaysia, holdings in Singapore and an office at World Trade Centre in New York. He was also his group’s de facto chief marketing officer – always in the public eye, enjoying the limelight and constantly promoting the Upali brand.
Importantly, the sub-brands he chose — Delta toffees, Kandos chocolates and UNIC electronics — were not locked into any single cultural tradition on this multicultural island. While he played the dutiful Buddhist when family heritage demanded, he engaged all Lankans in business ventures.
It was these same inclusive, broadminded and liberal values that he wanted his newspapers to promote. For sure, producing newspapers is different from making chocolates. But then, readers ‘vote’ for newspapers everyday – maintaining their trust is an on-going challenge.
Upali launched his media venture despite a market survey saying there was no room for another English newspaper. He assembled the finest journalistic talent, invested in modern facilities, and most importantly, gave his editors a free hand. (Read reminiscences of founder editor Vijitha Yapa)
Journalist D B S Deyaraj, part of the original team at The Island, recalls: “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.” (Read full tribute on dbsjeyaraj.com)
Upali made no secret of his political ambitions, and the newspapers were admittedly part of that grand plan. But he didn’t seek cheap publicity in his own newspapers – he wanted to create a platform for discussion and debate on matters of public interest.
There was only one ‘Sacred Cow’: President J R Jayewardene, his cousin. All others were fair game…
He took a keen interest in how readers reacted to his newspapers. The story goes how, in the weeks after launching his newspapers, Upali used to visit newspaper distributors and newsstands early morning to watch how his products were moving.
What if Upali’s private LearJet 35 didn’t disappear mysteriously over the Malacca Straits on 13 February 1983?
Alternative history scenarios remind us how a single event could rule out a whole range of possibilities, while opening up many others.
Upali was four days short of 45 when he went missing. Considering what he’d accomplished in that time, we can expect him to have been similarly transformative in public affairs and political life had he lived for longer. This month, he would have turned 75.
He wasn’t the first entrepreneur to enter politics, but unlike most others, he had a modernistic and global vision. His early engagement with the Kamburupitiya electorate, in the south, offered some glimpses.
He wanted our youth to learn English, master new technologies and go out to the world – not as manual labour, but as providers of high-end, high-paying skills. (Compare that with the insular thinking of our ultranationalists today, who want us to remain aloof and suspicious of the world, revelling in our own misery.)
Might he have succeeded Jayewardene as head of state? If so, could President Upali have helped Lanka avoid the dreadful times during 1988-90, when violent southern insurgents were brutally suppressed by the state that unleashed greater terror on its own people?
How might President Upali, with his insights into race relations in Malaysia, have approached northern separatism and Tamil nationalism?
Upali the maverick billionaire pushed the limits of enterprise and innovation. Could he have instilled a bit of that spirit into our conceptually moribund, mostly unproductive and divisive politics?
We can only speculate, of course.
I also wonder: how differently might his newspapers have evolved, had their founder been around for longer to nurture, defend and gently challenge its editors and journalists? (Press barons are reviled by media freedom activists, but brave ones can be journalists’ best bulwark against state repression.)
Not all Upali ventures survived his demise; some – like his aviation operation – folded up shortly afterwards. Others are an integral part of Lankan life: Kandos is the finest Lankan chocolate ever.
Sadly, however, The Island has lost most of its original flavour: it isn’t the progressive and multicultural newspaper that it once was, when I was proud to be part of that particular Upali enterprise for a few years in the late 1980s.
And as years pass, Upali’s legacy becomes a distant memory. Vijitha Yapa, founder editor of The Island, started writing Upali’s fascinating biography (‘Upali: A Man in a Billion’) which he serialised in the mid 1980s. But it stopped mid-way when he left the newspaper, and has never appeared in book form.
Politics and economics have changed much in the past three decades. But Upali’s story is timeless and highly inspirational: proudly Lankan, at ease in the Global Village, unapologetically making money while also offering good value to society. Capitalism at its finest.