“To succeed in business, one must put the best face forward to the outside world, whatever our home situation may be.” This was stated by my mentor, a Pakistani multi-millionaire businessman in Russia, the late Ghiasuddhin Sidiqi. He also said: “We Asians have an advantage over westerners. We are very lavish when we entertain guests.” [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Reflections of CHOGM Business Forum


“To succeed in business, one must put the best face forward to the outside world, whatever our home situation may be.” This was stated by my mentor, a Pakistani multi-millionaire businessman in Russia, the late Ghiasuddhin Sidiqi. He also said: “We Asians have an advantage over westerners. We are very lavish when we entertain guests.”

The Sri Lankan government adopted these same principals as I saw when we attended the Business Forum held as one of the events at the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November last year.

In preparing for CHOGM, the Government went all out to clean up the city of Colombo: dredging the Beira Lake, planting flowers and repairing pavements and generally making the city spick and span. The new freeway from the airport to the city was opened just a few days before the meeting and a brand new hall was built in Attidiya where the President hosted a grand dinner for all the dignitaries.

At the BMICH the 57 flags of the member countries were held by caparisoned elephants in the best Sri Lankan tradition. This was unique in the history of CHOGM.

File picture of the inauguration of the CHOGM Business Forum

Fleets of new buses and Mercedes cars were brought into the country to transport the dignitaries and the delegates who arrived for the various forums.

The pageantry and entertainment delightfully depicted the traditions and ancient culture of our nation. On arrival at the airport, the dignitaries walked between rows of young men dressed in traditional uniforms of the Kandyan Kings court carrying ‘Sesath’. At the dinners hosted by the President, dignitaries were welcomes by Nilames. The meals were sumptuous and the best fine food was served with wines to match each dish.

At each venue a cultural pageant was held to entertain the guests. These were original dances and other items, well choreographed by our highly talented and professional artistes. Surprisingly, some of the performers were from the armed forces and the talent and skills displayed by these were not second to the professionals. The items displayed our long and proud history and our cultural traditions going back two millennia.

One of the entertainment items was a fireworks display. Normally, in other countries I have visited a fireworks display is restricted to, at most, 15 minutes, but the one at the Parliament complex on the Diyawanna went for over half an hour. So much so, an Israeli business woman Iris Dotan Katz sitting next to me said, “The Sri Lankan government must be very rich”.

The rationale behind this “extravagance” was explained by Senior Minister Sarath Amunugama, who said that all the countries are vying for foreign investment: “There are many girls on the beach and people look at the girls with the best bikinis”. This was a correct analysis of the situation because during this period, there were many investment promotions carried out by African countries. Even the Foreign Minister of Australia, Julie Bishop, could not stop herself from plugging Australia’s business interests, when she said that “Australia is also open for business under a new management” at the cocktail given by the Australian High Commissioner at her residence.

Business confidence within Sri Lanka has undergone a spectacular transformation. Gone were the inhibitions of the past. The 800 or so Chief Executive Officers of various companies in Sri Lanka are now more outward looking and had the confidence to negotiate billion dollar contracts. Companies like John Keells are now looking to invest or have already invested in other countries in the neighbourhood.

The Foreign Minister from Seychelles, Jean-Paul Adam, thanked the Sri Lankan government for commencing flights to their country. Although the Prime Minister of Mauritius stayed away from the Heads of Government meeting to pander to the western media, his Foreign Minister implored the Sri Lankan government to extend these flights to Mauritius so they could develop their tourism.

Our ability to organise an event of this scale and importance could be seen at each of the venues. There were no technical glitches such as microphones or computers not working. There were no power failures or other unforeseen accidents occurring. The staff at each of these venues was so well trained that they anticipated requirements almost before a request was made. At one of the venues an unexpected speaker came on to the podium. Before it could be requested a chair appeared on the stage for him to sit. Sessions commenced and completed on time as indicated on the programme. Dinners for over 3000 guests went off without a hitch with no one having to wait hungrily to be served.

It was difficult to imagine, that a mere four years ago an event of this kind could not have been held, nor was it possible to imagine that only a few years ago bombs were being exploded in different parts of the country and no one felt safe.

The way that the Chairman of Bank of Ceylon, Razik Zarook, conducted the panel discussion at one of the Business forum sessions was as good as or even better than the Vice Chairman of Standard Chartered Bank, Sir Thomas Harris.

President and Managing Director for Asia Pacific Marriot International, Simon F Cooper, said that Sri Lanka was promoting tourism and in the process creating a “Sri Lankan Brand”, in the same way the “Ceylon Tea” brand was created. He also pointed out that visa formalities in Sri Lanka are tourist friendly. As an example he said that his wife who had travelled on at least three previous occasions to India was asked to produce a marriage certificate when she applied for a visa to travel to India for the fourth time.

One of the Ministers pointed out that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where you can see both the largest animal living on land – the elephant, and the largest animal living in the sea – the whale.

According to Channel 4, CHOGM 2013 was a disaster, because according to them less than 50 per cent of the heads of government attended the meeting. Although heads of government did not make an appearance, the business forum was the most successful ever held with the largest number of business people and investors participating in the Business forum. Heads of government have a maximum shelf life of four to six years. Business heads have lifetime tenure in their chosen portfolio. The media is also controlled by business heads and not heads of government, therefore it is more important for Sri Lanka that the world business community looks favourably on the investment opportunities offered. In fact, the writer asked Mr. James Packer, himself a former media mogul, what the Sri Lankan government could do to change the perception of the Western media. Mr. Packer replied that the government should hold more events like these.

Criticisms have been levelled at the Sri Lankan Government for wasting money on useless developments like building what is called a useless port at Hambantota and for extending the capacity of the Colombo Harbour threefold. The writer raised this concern with Dr. Priyath Bandu Wickrema, Chairman of the Ports Authority. I asked how the opening of the Northern route with the melting of Arctic ice due to Global warming would affect shipping traffic to our ports in Sri Lanka. Dr Wickrema, who hails from a rural area in Sri Lanka and is a young engineer, responding to the question said that Northern routes will only be open for a short period of time each year and moreover, special ships would be required to travel these routes and it would be costly to keep these ships idling for six months each year. This shows that our officials know the current world trends and take knowledgeable decisions.

Most of the government officials whom I met at the panel discussions and other forums were young, talented, dynamic, business friendly people. Some of these officials have been educated in foreign countries like the UK, US and Australia. Occupying important positions in various ministries and government agencies, they are held in high esteem. They were happy to have gone back to Sri Lanka and proud to be serving her. I met a CEO of a company whose basic salary is US$150,000 a year and with bonus he earns $400,000 a year. I would advise all those young Sri Lankans studying overseas to get back to Sri Lanka after they get their degree. They will be able to unleash their potential to its fullest extent and have a satisfying and rewarding career.

China’s early development was fuelled by Chinese living overseas. Sri Lankans living overseas also have an opportunity to become stakeholders in the future of Sri Lanka by actively contributing by investing or returning to work in Sri Lanka or encouraging their children to work with Sri Lanka.

(The writer is the former Head of Business Promotions, DFCC and is currently the MD of Kapruka Australia and founder President of the Aus-Lanka Business Council).

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