It was 27 years ago, on February 13, 1983, that Philip Upali Wijewardene, considered the business tycoon of Asia, disappeared in his private Learjet plane, along with his business associates, staff and crew.
The incident sent shockwaves through the world. The government of Sri Lanka took steps to trace him with the help of Sri Lanka Navy and the 7th Fleet of US Navy, which was in Suva Bay, in the Philippines at the time.
The only son of the late Don Walter Wijewardene of Sedawatte Walawwe, in Kelaniya, Upali was educated at Royal College, Colombo, where he excelled in his studies and in sports, especially horse riding. He studied at the University of Cambridge, in England, and graduated with a BSc and an MSc in Economics. On returning to Sri Lanka, he started work as a management trainee at the well-known British company, Lever Brothers Ltd. He left Levers abruptly, after a falling out with the company chairman.
His uncle, the late Senator Sarath Chandradasa Wijesinghe of Adampane Estate, Kamburupitiya, gave Upali substantial shares in his Ceylon Chocolates Company Ltd. With great initiative, Upali forged ahead with this business. He amalgamated the chocolate business with other industries, from electronics, motor and consumer products to newspapers, printing and publishing, travel and tourism, and aviation.
Upali developed his own brands: Kandos and Delta for chocolates and confectionary; Crystal, Tingle and Sikuru for soaps; Unic for electronic goods and air-conditioners; Divaina, Island and Navaliya for newspapers; UMC Mazda and Upali Fiat for motor vehicles, and Upali Air for aviation.
With every launch, Upali would present the first product to the Kelaniya Temple, and sell the first product to the late Lawrence Tudawe, chairman of Tudawe Brothers.
Upali was the chairman, board of stewards, of the Sri Lanka Turf Club, and in early ’70s, together with Ajit Chitty, Bernard Halahackone, the late Wasantha Coomaraswamy, the late Mervyn Perera, Upatissa Hulugalle and Sirimevan Senanayake, restarted pony and horse races at the Nuwara Eliya Race Course. Upali also took part in motor races in Katukurunda and Nuwara Eliya.
Upali was the Chief Basnayake Nilame of the Kelaniya Raja Maha Viharaya. This temple was restored in 1927 by his grandmother, Helena Wijewardene.
In 1978, Upali Wijewardene was appointed by his cousin, President J. R. Jayewardene, as the first Chairman/Director General of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (now the Board of Investment) of Sri Lanka to develop industries with foreign investors. This he did very successfully in Katunayake, Biyagama and Koggala by organising Free Trade Zones for exports that generated employment.
Upali organised the “Ruhunu Udanaya” to develop Ruhunu Rata in the spheres of vocational training and IT, and to provide employment for youth.
May he be born among us until he achieves Nibbana in his journey in Sansara.
“Netham Mama, Neso Hamasmi, Na Me So Atta” – “This is Not Mine, This I am Not, This No Soul of Mine.”
– The Dhammapada
Capt. L. B. Lanka (Wilbawe) Jayaratne