Amidst the gloom and doom – at least what one sees in Colombo came a breath of fresh air and good news this week.
On the previous page, the Business Times is quoting Bank of Ceylon (BOC) Chairman Gamini Wickramasinghe as saying that the BOC is setting up a fully fledged banking operation in the UK, transferring its assets.
The bank, now in its 61st year, was ceremoniously opened during British colonial rule by Sir Andrew Caldecott on August 1,1939 in Colombo.
It opened its first branch in 1941 at Kandy and subsequently in towns such as Galle, Jaffna and Trincomalee. Bank of Ceylon opened its first overseas branch in 1949 in London.
The BOC’s UK branch was set up in line with colonial interests where British-run tea and rubber plantations were exporting their produce to the UK, but this branch has had limited authority and never really functioned as a bank in the real sense of the word.
The BOC plans to use this new entity in the UK as a stepping stone to venture into other overseas markets by setting up branches in Canada or Australia where there are sizable Sri Lankan and South Asian communities.
While this is the good development and should have been done long time ago, the timing of the move is connected to the new economic direction that Sri Lanka is driving ahead with following the end of a bloody 30 year-long battle with the LTTE.
With the advent of more Sri Lankan banks across the planet, the BOC joins a small group of Sri Lankan companies that have become multinationals in a globalised world.
Sri Lanka’s best known multinational is Dilmah, whose tea brand is popular and running side by side with other international brands like Brooke Bond, Lipton or Tata.
The other known multinationals are Hayleys, MAS Holdings and Brandix with manufacturing and sales operations in many countries overseas.
The ‘new kid on the block’ and making waves is the Aitken Spence Group’s hotel sector which has a chain of resorts in Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East and the Maldives, with the list growing.
Growth is also taking place locally with more and more foreign and local banks opening out and widening their horizons. HSBC opened this week in Jaffna and plans more units in the South and North Central region while the Indian Overseas Bank, among other banks, is also keen on Jaffna.
The good news comes at a time when the government appears to have miscalculated in the arrest of Retd. General Sarath Fonseka.
From a fallen hero, after his defeat at the January 26 Presidential poll, the former army commander’s brief political career has been resurrected and has provided a new rallying call to the opposition ahead of parliamentary polls due in April.
The opposition alliance that was cobbled together to position Gen. Fonseka as a common candidate was rudderless and moving in different directions after the election while President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) prepared to secure a 2/3rds parliamentary majority win at the April poll.
Now the UNP, JVP and the SLMC have regrouped and are leading a renewed challenge to the government with bloody mass protests and demonstrations against the arrest of the defeated candidate, which is seen intensifying in the days to come and weeks ahead.
The opposition has been energised by the arrest and this could lose a few votes for the UPFA
The way developments are evolving in Sri Lanka, and as a Business Times email poll shows on business confidence, it’s going to be an uncertain three months till the end of election somewhere around the third week of April.
Then in May or around that period the new government will present its policy direction through a full-year 2010 budget. The temporary budget (vote-on-account) covers spending for four months ends in April and business confidence will hopefully be restored by then.
There is also a silver lining as the events that emerged this week viz-a-viz Sri Lanka’s biggest bank taking off as a multinational and foreign banks aiming to expand across the country, show, there is always a positive side of Sri Lanka amidst the gloom and doom that one reads, hears or sees.