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On the centenary of his birth:

Remembering N.U. Jayawardena - the skilled businessman

The birth centenary of N.U. Jayawardena falls on February 25. In many ways, his life, which spanned almost the entire 20th century and saw in the dawn of the 21st century, mirrors the many social, political and economic changes that Sri Lanka has undergone during its transition from a British colony to an independent nation.

During the first half of his career, from the vantage point of government service, N.U. Jayawardena played a key role behind the scenes in shaping some of the systems and institutions required by an independent nation.

He later helped develop the private sector as a leading businessman, policy-maker and visionary.


N.U. Jayawardena

NU had an unusually long and multi-faceted career, as he served in many different capacities and institutions. Older generations may have heard of his phenomenal rise in government service, which culminated in his appointment in 1953, as the first Sri Lankan Governor of the Central Bank; while later generations may remember him as a leading personality within the private sector for several decades from the early sixties onwards.

Born in 1908 in Hambantota, the poorest district of Sri Lanka, and son of a Resthouse keeper, NU’s early life was not one of privilege, conducive to moving rapidly up the social ladder. Sent to live with his maternal grandfather Gajawira in Devundara at the age of 8, NU had to learn to cope on his own early in life.

His move to St. Aloysius’ College, Galle was probably the first major turning point in his life. The Jesuit fathers who taught at the time, though stern, were devoted to teaching and must have recognised his innate talent and potential as his records show that he excelled in his studies.

NU’s experience at St. Aloysius’ would have opened up a new world of knowledge to him and it was probably here that NU’s spark for learning was ignited.

For NU, books were what had made his amazing intellectual leap possible - and shown him the way out of poverty to prosperity. Equipped with an incisive intelligence, the ambition to succeed and the will to work hard, he lost no time or opportunity for study after leaving St. Aloysius’.

He became the first government clerk to hold a B.Sc. (Econ.) degree and eventually amassed one of the best collections of books and journals on economics in the country. His legendary writing skills were honed early, from his school-boy days when he would study and memorise the Oxford English dictionary while waiting for the train.

The course of NU’s entire career with its many fluctuations was comparable to the vagaries of the trade cycle. There were years of steady rise, with occasional minor set backs, further rapid advances, a momentary sharp decline followed soon after by a phoenix-like rise to even greater heights in both the public and private sectors.

The first period of advance included his work for the Banking Commission of 1934, his great career advances especially during World War II and the postwar period (when for a time he served as the head of four government departments simultaneously), and his remarkable achievement in becoming successively, the Controller of Exchange, Deputy Governor and finally, Governor of the Central Bank in 1953.

The trauma of his interdiction from the Central Bank was a test of his character and stamina.

He weathered the storm with his usual grit and courage and demonstrated his mettle when he was appointed the first Sri Lankan Joint-Managing Director of a British-owned firm, Vavasseur & Company - the first of a series of achievements in the private sector. After his subsequent exoneration in 1957, like the economic indicators he was so familiar with, he moved further upwards again, when a few months later he was appointed a Senator.

The Senate provided an arena where he could publicly air his views; he spoke authoritatively on a wide range of political and economic issues, such as fiscal and monetary matters, insurance, the banking system, and the development of tourism.

A little known fact about NU, is that in 1959 he had proposed that the electoral system be changed from one based on “first-past-the-post” to one based on proportional representation.

He had also proposed changes to the composition of the Senate by electing a certain percentage of senators on a functional basis to represent specific interests, such as education, arts and sciences, agriculture, and law.

NU was a Buddhist and a great supporter of many Buddhist causes. Although he had traditional loyalties to his caste and concern for his relatives, he was paradoxically a moderniser and tireless champion of reform.

While concerned for the community, the spirit of enterprise, so strong within him, was reflected in his drive toward achievement. NU wanted the best of everything, the most advanced.

On the personal side, this was reflected in his elegant style of entertaining, as well as in his Cambridge Place residence, designed in 1960 by the Danish architect, Ulrik Plesner.

NU, who was a disciplined person by nature and had an enormous capacity for work, implemented innovative measures at the workplace to increase efficiency.

He was for change and modernisation and wanted everything to be, not merely ship-shape, but also consistent with current methods and practices in other countries.

At the same time, having risen in his career through application and his own abilities, he appreciated talent and hard work and was a strict but generous employer.

Being born into a family in relatively straightened circumstances, NU saw affluence as the key to freedom and contentment. He had disdain for those who relied on their status or position in society and rested upon their laurels. Through much of his career he sought to make the economic system more of a level playing-field through economic and commercial reform, and was an active participant on many government and private sector policy-making committees.

All his working life, NU had an abiding interest in finance, commerce and economic issues, especially banking. NU’s training in economics provided him with the theoretical background for his views.

He agreed with Adam Smith, Ricardo and the laissez faire economists of the 19th century, who advocated free enterprise and free trade, and were against the trappings and constraints of feudal society and a mercantilist state-controlled economy. NU (who in 1938-39 studied Business Administration at the London School of Economics) was also influenced by some of the leading economists of the 20th century - some who taught at the LSE - such as Lionel Robbins, Friedrich von Hayek and others, who advocated free-market capitalism, without government controls and restraints.

NU’s expertise and experience covered many areas - economic ‘intelligence’, commerce, banking, export and import control, exchange control, and central banking.

When in 1957, NU moved into the private sector, he brought to his new endeavours an encyclopaedic knowledge of all aspects of the economy of Sri Lanka, and an irrepressible drive that would place him at the centre of the intellectual and social life of the community.

NU’s polemical views, stated with pungent frankness in impeccable English, were often sought by leaders from across the entire political spectrum - and also at times riled those holding separate views. Although influenced by the work of the great economists and political thinkers of the West, those views were nevertheless claimed by NU as having been derived from his own undeniably authentic experience in Sri Lanka.

NU was a prolific writer as well, leaving behind over 200 papers on a wide range of economic, banking, commercial and financial issues.

His pragmatic concepts and ideas still bear relevance today, as they were ahead of their time, and offer many prescriptions for economic development and government policy in a number of areas.

NU’s business skills spanned a vast array of interests including finance, leasing, tea-broking, stock-broking, shipping and tourism.

He not only pioneered many quoted companies including - the Sampath Bank, National Enterprise Bank (later known as DFCC Vardhana Bank), Mercantile Shipping, Mercantile Leasing and Mercantile Credit - however, he continued to make many contributions to government policy in a number of areas.

The title of Deshamanya was bestowed upon him in 1991 in recognition of his contributions to the nation. NU died on April 24, 2002 at the age of 94, continuing to work actively to the end of his long and full life.

(A biography about the first half of NU’s life, “NU - The First Five Decades,” will be published shortly by the N.U. Jayawardena Trust).

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