A 21 year-old young man armed with Rs 25, 000 set out to Colombo from Kayts to find his fortune. He clutched onto the bag tightly for the money in it was a gift from his father. “The train ride will be a long one,” he thought. This was the early ’20s, and Alfred Leo [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Alfred Leo Thambiayah: Trailblazer in entrepreneurship


A 21 year-old young man armed with Rs 25, 000 set out to Colombo from Kayts to find his fortune. He clutched onto the bag tightly for the money in it was a gift from his father.

“The train ride will be a long one,” he thought. This was the early ’20s, and Alfred Leo Thambiayah was beyond excitement. “It’s not clear why he wanted to leave his hometown, but it is said that he was farsighted,” Ravi Thambiayah, Alfred’s son reminisced to the Business Times, last week.

It is now over 100 years since Mr. Thambiayah was born on November 8, 1903, in Karampon, Kayts. He received his education at St. Anthony’s College, Kayts, St. Patricks’s College, Jaffna, St. Benedict’s College and St. Joseph’s College, Colombo.

Alfred Thambiayah broke the monopoly of the Indian businessmen in the theatre business by leasing the Olympia Cinema at a young age of 21, thus beginning his career as an entrepreneur. Mr. Thambiayah’s business acumen led him into several branches of trade and commerce. At 21 he was a pioneer in the local film industry, a venture that blossomed into Ceylon Theatres Ltd. in partnership with the late Sir Chittamplam A. Gardiner. “Ceylon Theatres Ltd later on acquired Cargills & Millers, where he was Chairman/Managing Director for many years,” his son recalled.

The acquisition of the Greek shipping company, Cargo Boat Dispatch Co. would have been close to his heart as shipping was in his blood, with his father being a ship owner in the port of Kayts.

He was also one of the first to venture into the hospitality business with the introduction of tax incentives to the industry by the state when he set up Hotel Renuka in a family property in Kollupitiya in 1970.

In 1947, he decided to contest the Kayts Seat as an independent candidate and to his credit it must be stated that, while practically every other seat in the Northern Province was won by the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress, Mr. Thambiayah was one of the few independents, who won a seat.

He was responsible for completing the causeway connecting the Leyden Island with the mainland (Jaffna), Leyden Island with Punguditivu, and for establishing a good launch service connecting all the outer islands He also spent millions of rupees on school buildings, hospitals, roads, dispensaries, post-offices, etc. “In fact, when he become the Member of Parliament for that area, only one mile of road was tarred in the entire extent of the island of Leyden. By 1951, there was not an inch of road yet to be tarred,” the younger Mr. Thambiayah recalled.

He had an understanding of the problems faced by the people living in the islands. “He completed linking the two most populous islands by the Pannai Causeway which connected Jaffna and Kayts and Pungudutivu. Radio-telephone links with Delft and Nagadipa were established and a regular motor boat service between the islands was inaugurated. He has made a lasting contribution to his native Kayts and his community,” his son added.

Having won that seat as an independent, he soon decided to throw his lot with the rest of the Tamil Congress members. In 1952 he contested and won the Kayts Seat once again – this time as a member of the All-Ceylon Tamil Congress. Although he was defeated in 1956, he had not lost interest in politics, particularly in the affairs affecting the Tamil people.

“Although he retired from political life, he continued to evince great interest in Tamil political movements, helped the Tamil university movement financially, and was also very helpful to anyone who sought his help,” Mr. Thambiayah said, adding that this is why he is remembered by the people of Kayts.

In his career as a parliamentarian, business magnate and philanthropist, he has left a lasting imprint in every sphere of activity he was associated with. He was a man of quiet disposition and amiable ways.

Vision care programme to honour Thambiayah’s memory

‘So others may see’, a vision care programme sponsored by the Chairman of Hotel Renuka and Renuka City Hotel, Ravi Thambiayah and its board of directors, will be held this month for the people of Kayts and neighbouring islands in memory of the late Alfred Leo Thambiayah (MP for Kayts 1947 to 1956) on his 110th Birth Anniversary.

A non-profit organisation, So Others May See Inc. (SOMS) will be organising this vision care programme based on a request received from the Jaffna medical authorities. SOMS will collaborate with these authorities and the Vision 2020 Secretariat to conduct a series of mobile clinics in mid July. The proposed programme will begin at the Kayts base Hospital as a full-day clinic and continue with half-day clinics at other islands’ divisional hospitals. It is anticipated that there would be about 500-600 patients who are in need of eyeglasses but are unable to afford them, who will undergo further testing by qualified optometrists and receive a SOMS custom – fit pair of eyeglasses. In addition, it is anticipated that there would be about 250 cataract patients who would need surgery. The cataract surgeries will be conducted at the Jaffna Teaching Hospital.

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