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Tribute: Upali Wijewardene 1938 – 1983

February 13, 2020 (LBO) -

By: Ranjit Hulugalle

On February 13th 1983, Upali Wijewardene's plane went missing, and the tycoon was thus gone too soon at the tender age of 44.

Whilst there are many theories about what happened, the one that I tend to believe is that there was some malfunction in his Lear Jet that he was travelling in, the pressure in the cabin destabilised, and all the occupants became unconscious. With all its occupants unconscious, the aircraft would have carried on on autopilot until it ran out of fuel and ended up crashing into the ocean. The reason why I subscribe to this theory is because there were three subsequent instances when it happened to Lear Jets including the death of a famous golfer, Payne Stewart, in one such incident.

There is also another theory that it was shot down by Indonesian missile mistaking it to be unauthorised aircraft. However, that too is compatible with my original theory. If it was being flown on auto-pilot, with all on board unconscious, then it is possible that it had strayed into unauthorised airspace, and hence the shooting resulted.

I was in the UK at the time, working as a chartered accountant in London for an international accounting firm, and recall being very upset about it. I was relieved at the same time that my father, who frequently accompanied him, was not on that particular flight. My father would then have been 55, the same age I am now.

More than would be the case for others, Upali Wijewardene had a direct influence on my family's life, as my father Upathissa Hulugalle was his close friend, confidant, and financial advisor. Unlike many professionals today, he never invoiced/billed/charged him for his time and work, nor requested a retainer. His accounting firm performed many of the accounting and secretarial services at the time for the various group companies, and coincidentally was the auditor of Kandos before Upali bought it. I remember going to the Kandos factory in Kundasale when I was schooling in Trinity where I used to come away with chunks of chocolate courtecy of the then MD. That is another story.

My father’s personality was and still is, of getting enormous pleasure from anyone’s success. If he was able to contribute in some way to the success of an entrepreneur, that was payment enough. No wonder his life has touched the whole gamut of businessmen in Sri Lanka, with Sir Chittampalam Gardiner being his first client when he ventured out on his own around in the early 1950s. My father recently retired at the end of January 2013 when he reached his 85th year, having been an adviser to Ajita de Zoysa of AMW and Associated Electricals.

My mother was the more rational human being who was left to put food on the table. She directly influenced Upali to pay for a boarding school education in England for my brother and I. My whole annual school fees, boarding fees, and incidentals did not amount to more than 1000 pounds per annum. It was still a lot of money at the time, and my parents did not have that kind of money in the middle of the Sirima Bandaranaike regime where one required an exit permit to leave Sri Lanka. Travel out of Sri Lanka was a luxury few people could indulge in.

In those days whenever my father came often to the UK with Upali. After their business dealings in the City of London (they always stayed at the London Hilton), and attendance at races at Ascot or Newmarket, they used to drive up to Cambridge where I was at school. We would most times go to an Indian restaurant for a meal. Upali went to Queens College, Cambridge and so we walked around the backs and into Queens on the off occasion.

Sometimes on their way to Newmarket for the races, or to meet Upali’s horse trainer Robert Armstrong (Susan Piggot’s brother), they would drop into Cambridge for a short visit to see us as it was only a few miles away and on route. Robert Armstrong trained Upali’s horses in the UK and Susan Piggot’s husband Lester sometimes rode his horses. It was fun knowing that we had a Sri Lankan who could indulge in these typically upper class British pursuits.

Stories are abound of both his audacity of thinking big and achieving the impossible. He believed he would not live to a ripe old age, and therefore was in a hurry to do things that others would more carefully contemplate before beginning.

His contribution as the first Director General of the Greater Colombo Economic Commission will be remembered as the precursor to the BOI and beginning of foreign investment in Sri Lanka. His tenure sparked the beginning of the economic take off we experienced in Sri Lanka subsequently.

It would therefore be safe to say that, but for Upali Wijewardene, my life would have been very different. I cannot say if it would have been better or worse, but definitely not as varied and adventurous as it has been. 

I knew the person more than many alive today. He was a chain smoking effusive personality who always found every incident a matter for a good laugh! Just for the record, I would like to mention the association my family has had to various generations of the Wijewardenes. My Grandfather HAJ was the Editor of the Ceylon Daily News till independence for DR Wijewardene’s Lake House, working directly under the big man. My grand aunt, HAJs elder sister, was married to the DR’s eldest brother. In the next generation, my father Upatissa worked with Upali for many years. A generation after, I also worked with DR’s grandson Ruwan Wijewardene MP.
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None of these associations in life are planned or predictable, they happen by chance. However, these chance encounters are for purposes which we cannot foresee and only time will tell after the fact on their consequence. I am sure that Upali will be looking at us today and having a great laugh at the unpredictable outcomes of peoples and personalities he left behind.

(This article, written 7 years ago, has been edited and reproduced to commemorate the death anniversary of the late Upali Wijewardene. He was one of Sri Lanka's first modern day tycoons, living a dramatic life the likes of which has not been seen again among Sri Lanka's business community.)

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