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Deshamanya N U

by Kenneth R. Peiris - Daily News Tue Mar 26, 2002

One of the most controversial characters of the last century Deshamanya N. U. Jayawardena will be missed by the corporate and banking sectors of this country very much. His contribution to his beloved country, Sri Lanka was immense. He was extremely courageous, was never compromised, and when he spoke he knew exactly what he was talking about.

He was blessed with an encyclopedic memory, and burnt midnight oil in his vast library, to sharpen his knowledge so that he had his way, in whatever controversy he was involved. That was good because he was involved in many controversies during his lifetime. He was so good at facing such situations that one could say that he enjoyed a good fight, and never shied away.

I had the privilege of observing him at very close quarters during one of his bleakest hours; his resignation from his brainchild; Sampath Bank. That day he had sent a message to me, asking me to meet him in his private room inside Sampath Bank head office, and wait there, without showing my face to anybody and everybody. By 7 p.m. when I reached his office he was inside.

He was glad to see me and told me that it is a "mutiny". From time to time he called many of his executives to clarify many points. The board members were meeting inside and every now and then he joined them for a few minutes at a time.

This went on till almost midnight and finally he informed me that he is resigning, and without giving me a chance to talk any further he walked in to the board room, tendered his resignation, came back to his private room and sent a fax message to his son Lal in Helsinki, to fax his resignation from the board.

He was tired but very well composed, showed no emotions and asked me if possible to meet him at home the following morning. When I showed up he was happy that I turned up. His wife was slightly emotional but not him. He was getting a few nasty telephone calls. We had breakfast together and me with my journalistic instincts, I asked him about his future plans regarding the Sampath Bank.

Without any hesitation he said, "Where Sampath Bank is concerned it is all over for me. This week I sell my shares of SB and today I start work again on my new bank."

In his late eighties, I just did not have the heart to remind him, his age. Most probably sensing, just that he added, "you must remember that I started Sampath Bank at an age when most others would turn to look after the grandchildren." Then he went on and on detailing his plan for just that. His bulldog attitude did not let him down as we all can see.

Poor me, in my wildest dreams did I ever think that he will succeed. How wrong I was. My first contact with him was over a very different controversy and I was on the opposing side. The then government of had appointed a commission to update the laws regarding Recovery of Debts. PC H. L. de Silva was the chairman; Justice Wimalaratne and Mr. N. U. Jayawardena were the board members.

At this time I was contributing many articles on finance companies and was well-known as a thorn to all finance companies. I sent a letter to the then secretary of the Ministry of Justice, and now a judge of the Supreme Court, Justice Amarasinghe explaining among other things that it is improper to appoint Mr. Jayawardena to his commission as the out come of the commission will effect NU's wealth very much.

The result was that I was invited to address a conference held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute to discuss the Debt Recovery law. I was the last speaker and was given 15 minutes to present my views. I tore into NU with a merciless attack on all finance companies ending up with replacing the position of the borrowers from defendants to being the grieved party.

The sleepy conference hall became alive. Poor NU sat there in the first row of the audience absolutely helpless. Looking back today I feel that I stepped over the barrier of decency in journalistic jargon. However the commission denied all the facilities that the finance companies wanted.

After the conference there was a lunch with the members of the commission, and those who were directly involved. I too was invited and both of us were seated at the extreme ends of the table. There were only around 12 of us and all of a sudden NU addressed me and said, "You said I am charging 84% interest while advertising 27%. If you can prove that it is 84% I will pay you Rs. 100,000". I shot back "challenge accepted" and closed the argument.

NUs attitude to life was just that. To fight he was prepared. He believed in what he said and was prepared to fight to the end. Both of us exchanged a number of letters on this argument and it died a natural death.

Later one of his wiz kids told me that NU had got a team to prepare all the calculations that he sent me. The point is that he acted as a gentleman in all these arguments and he had the time to get involved, even with a podian of a journalist.

NU's life was full of brick-bats and flowers and wealth, fame etc. Still he was proud of his past where he had no shoes to go to school. A man who came up to the pinnacle of his society that he associated with.

Once I asked him what his greatest day in life was. He thought for a while and said that it was the day his wife agreed to marry him.

However it is heartening to see that his bulldog attitude continues even after he is gone. His grandson Hon. Milinda Moragoda was bold enough to say that he is not going to break the election laws of the country by pasting posters.

He stuck to it and emerged with a huge lead teaching everybody a lesson in respecting the laws of the country. Typical NU style. Thank God for it

N. U. Jayawardena dies in sleep - Island Tue Mar 26, 2002

Neville Ubeysin-gha Jayawardena, popularly known as N.U. Jayawardena, the first Sri Lankan Governor of the Central Bank, died peacefully in his sleep yesterday. He was 94 years old at the time of his death.

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Jaywardena was also the founder chairman of the Merc Group of companies which includes Merc Bank, Sampath Bank and the now defunct finance company, Mercantile Credit Ltd.

His funeral takes place at the Borella Kanatte Cemetery at 5.30 pm today. Cortege leaves No 18, Cambridge Place, Colombo 7. Jayawardena was born in Hambantota, where his father was in charge of the resthouse there.

He had his early education at Servatius College, Matara. Living with his maternal grandfather in Dondra, he walked seven miles every day, to school and back. As a young boy he entered St Aloysius College, Galle, where he made his mark.

He obtained his degree in economics at Wolsley College, London and also did a course in Business Administration at the London School of Economics.

Although he aspired to be a doctor, he could not do so as his father could not afford it. His first job was a Class 2 clerk where he received a salary, just Rs 5 more than the peon. He also served as a clerk in the Trade Marks branch, of the Department of Commodity Purchase during World War 2 and Contoller of Exchange in 1948. He then came to work with John Exter, the American economist, who formed this country’s Central Bank. (PA)