Appreciation: Vijaya Malalsekara

Wednesday, 16 February 2022 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In appreciation of a friend, a colleague, a mentor, a godfather who was a legend and most of all a great human being



5 February will never be a day that I will forget in my lifetime. I landed in Sri Lanka in the early hours of the 5th and was looking forward to my long-awaited visit to see Mr. Vijaya Malalsekara. I was planning to see him even before I could go and see my father. That visit never happened as he left us at dawn on 5 February 2022. I am sad I could not make it as he was waiting to see me. 

The last message I received from Mrs. Malalasekara was on 4 February morning; it said, “He is waiting to see you.” This is fate; I was planning to visit Sri Lanka after two long years on 20 January 2022 but had to delay by two weeks as I was infected with COVID. I last saw Mr. Malalsekara in February 2020 and we planned to visit many friends when I returned in March 2020. But COVID stopped all those plans. 

COVID prevented us from meeting in person but there was never a day that we did not speak. Either early in the morning or early evening Mr. Malalasekara called me or I called him. There were days when my wife used to ask why I had not received a call as she had not heard a chat; my response was he did call but for two minutes to say he was busy but will call tomorrow. These chats included various topics; politics, corporate issues, sports, family, but always ended with the question how is Asanka and the two boys, ‘adadarayen mathak kara kiyanna’. 

Mr. Malalsekara was keen on family unity and a great family culture. I can clearly see that in his family. He always told me to look after Asanka and teach good values to my sons, which I did. He was also keen that my two sons continue their higher education and every call had the question, “Have Aksith and Akila considered studying for a Masters.” I don’t think these questions were only asked from me; everyone who he associated was asked similar questions. He genuinely wanted all our children to do well in life. Vijaya Malalsekara was and will remain a household name in our family and I am confident in many other families too.

Mr. Malalasekara cared for the wellbeing of others. He was a friend, a father and a mentor not only to those close to him but for anyone who approached him. I remember many times I had to stop my work or change direction of my journey on the road and head to Malalsekara Pedesa to meet him as he required help for someone or wanted to discuss an urgent matter that he had promised to address for someone else. Sometimes they were requests and at times they were orders; I had to go, no matter what I was doing. 

Whoever came to him for help, be it a job, getting a child into a school, speaking to a doctor for help or speaking to someone in the government service, to name a few, he did without any hesitation and helped others without expecting anything in return from them. There are a number of occasions I had shared CVs of people requesting jobs as I did not have a contact base similar to him. Initially he would shout at me saying I am not a Job Bank but somehow speaks to an appropriate contact and shares the CV. The requests always had a short note explaining the circumstances. He didn’t know most of these people but helped them as he had a good heart.

Those who worked with him adored him. Gamage who took him everywhere he wanted to visit in the last couple of years and also cared for him every day, Sundaram who cooked special hot chilli meals and Devi who looked after the household needs, were treated like friends and treated humanely. They in turn loved him. All the drivers from Ceylon Tobacco who worked at the Malalasekara residence and those who worked with him shared the same feeling; some came to pay their last respects, some could not, but they called me and shared their sorrow. I am sure they will all miss his presence, cheer, jokes and advice. 

Not only those I noted above, there were others too, staff who visited his home from Carsons or Bogala to get documents signed were first asked to sit, offered cups of tea and it was after all those rituals that he got to the task he was expected to perform. These human qualities were admired by these people too as quite a number of them visited the funeral parlour to pay their last respects. They all said, ‘raththaran mahaththayek’. His team at Ceylon Tobacco was like a family. Even after leaving the company that team considered Mr. Malalsekara their father and mentor. So were staff who interacted with him when he was a Non-Executive Director at Carsons Group and Bogala Graphite. I met quite a number of them at the funeral parlour paying their last respects. 

Malalasekara’s friends have known him for more than 50+ years. My association with him is not that long. I was first introduced to him in 1993 by the then Ceylon Tobacco Company Finance Director and was tasked to learn the art of external Stakeholder Management from the expert and in return, I had to help him familiarise in Finance Management and Accounting. I had seen him and heard about him, but that was the first time we spoke with each other. The first lesson was not about external Stakeholder Management, it was about dress code. I must confess I was working in the factory as an accountant and had no sense of a dress code nor how to dress well. He told me it’s not the brand or value of clothes that matters, but it is how you dress. 

After one week the then Managing Director of Ceylon Tobacco saw us together and asked Mr. Malalasekara what have you taught Shaktha. Immediate response was, “I have taught this young man how to wear a tie; see how smart he is.” The partnership that commenced in 1993 ended on 5 February 2022 but for those 30 years what I learnt and enjoyed will remain forever. During that period in different circumstances, he was a friend, a father, a mentor and a colleague to me. 

He considered me as part of his family. I am sure he had a long list of extended family. It was not words, his actions demonstrated that too. I remember an incident which showed me how genuine some of these comments were. Ashan was the first to get married from the Malalasekara boys. He told me I must come for the wedding with my family. I was working in Japan and had a tough boss. It was the busiest period for me but I spoke to my boss and got permission to attend the wedding. Asanka could not attend as the boys had school but I promised to attend. 

Mr. Malalasekara told me you are family, so sit at the family table with us. I thought it was just a comment and I assumed by being at the wedding I had performed my duty. When the wedding ceremony at Waters Edge commenced, I sat with some of my friends. I could see from a distance everyone was seated except Mr. Malalsekara. I saw him walking around looking for something. He spotted me in the crowd and walked straight to me, grabbed my hand and said come with me. On the way he whispered to me, “There is a reason why we allocate seats and request people to sit in specific places; you are allocated a seat at our table, learn about these ethics and manners too.” He took me to the empty seat which was allocated to me at their table and said ‘sit here’. I was leaving the country the next day but before I left, I knew I would get a call and some advice. The call did come and the subject was social behaviour. I apologised to him if my actions caused any embarrassment and as usual, he said, “Bon voyage my boy, see you again soon.” 

Mr. Malalasekara was very knowledgeable and had a good knowledge of history and geography. There were many discussions where he would very promptly share his knowledge in world politics, history and countries he had visited. When I was posted to Czech Republic, his first comment was, “I will be there very soon with Niri, I want to show her places like Karlovy vary, Wenceslas square and Ceske budejovice.” When I asked how he knew these places so well, he proudly said, “Young man, my father was the ambassador to Czechoslovakia, and I have travelled a lot in Europe. I know lots of nice places.” He did visit Prague with Mrs. Malalasekara and we all had a great time visiting places and also listening to his experiences from his first visit to Czechoslovakia many years back. 

The next trip he did with me was to Cambridge University. Ashan and Mrs. Malalasekara were both there with him on that trip. He proudly showed us the dorm he had been in and the Trinity College chapel, and then said let’s go to the university cricket ground ‘Fenners’. He took us to the Fenners pavilion and showed the plaques displaying his name along with Mano Ponniah in the playing eleven for the annual cricket encounter with Oxford. But the icing on the cake was yet to come. As we were leaving the Fenners pavilion and coming down the stairs, an old gentleman walked up to him and asked whether he was Malalasekara. He introduced himself as the groundsman at Fenners in the 1960s and then told us how a young Malalasekara smashed some famous fast bowlers for sixes and fours during his time at the university. He looked at me and said, “Young man, you should now respect me.” 

Another trip we did together was visit Bowral to explore the Bradman Museum. Mrs. Malalsekara told me that she will not join as she had visited the Bradman Museum many times with him. It appeared he had a liking for the place and loved visiting Bowral. I didn’t ask him but I am sure he had a liking for Bradman and his style of cricket. We spent more than half a day walking around and chatting about the history of cricket and also sharing his knowledge on many players in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Although he enjoyed traveling to many places, he chickened out when I invited him and Mrs. Malalasekara to visit Japan. He was afraid of earthquakes and did not want to visit Japan. I used to have fun reminding him that despite demonstrating strong leadership at corporate level he chickened out because he was worried about earthquakes and that I lived for three years experiencing them. I am sure I would have had the opportunity to learn more about the Japanese culture had he visited as he would have requested visits to historic locations and shared his knowledge. 

Although I learnt a lot from Mr. Malalasekara, he also learnt from me especially about Finance and Accounting areas that he was not clear with. He was never afraid to say “I don’t know” and “please teach me” and he always gave the credit where it was due. One good example is when he called me and asked why test cricket is called test cricket and said my mother-in-law asked me this question and I got stumped. I told him to google but he said it’s too complicated and to get him the answer. I provided the answer and a few days later when I was meeting him at home, he told his mother-in-law it was I who found the answer to her question. There were many examples in his corporate life where he gave credit to those who deserve it, he always said it’s not me, the credit should go to an individual or a team and named them. I have not seen this practice among many corporate leaders.  

Maintaining discipline whether in the family, in a playing field or in a corporate environment was important for Mr. Malalasekara. He always walked the talk. I have seen many instances where he did not compromise on his principles and did not care who it was, he was hard in taking action when there was indiscipline or deviations. When he was the SLC interim Chairman he demonstrated this many times. One such incident was with a Minister of Sports. We were visiting a government office one afternoon when Mr. Malalasekara was requested by the then minister to visit his office. Since I was with him, he requested me to join the meeting, so we both visited the sports minister’s office as requested. 

There were a few others when we visited the office of the minister and the minister referring to a person who was with him in the office, inquired from Mr. Malalsekara why he had been suspended by SLC for six months due to an act of indiscipline. Immediate response to the minister was he must allow SLC to manage its affairs and he should not interfere especially with regards to disciplinary matters. He then turned to the player concerned and said he would have suspended him for 12 months had he been the disciplinary committee Chairman. He warned the player for using political influence and advised him the importance of maintaining discipline on a cricket field. 

Mr. Malalsekara then told the minister he should not interfere on operational matters and he should leave it to the SLC team to manage and highlighted to the minister the risks of interfering in the affairs of SLC. The credit also goes to the minister for responding positively to Mr. Malalasekara’s thoughts and responses rather than reacting emotionally. I cannot imagine a similar discussion taking place today with positive outcomes, especially for a head of a government body to push back and highlight wrongful acts, and requesting a minister not to interfere in operational matters.  

SLC role also made Mr. Malalasekara get closer to many greats both locally and internationally. But he always cherished the relationship he built with the three Balapitiya boys and Micheal Tissera after the SLC role. He used to call Sidath Wettimuny, Kushil Gunasekara and myself his Balapitiya boys. I used to tell him it’s not only the three of us, he had very close friends from Balapitya namely Tilak de Zoysa and Chanaka de Silva, who he met socially virtually every week. He used to say they are great friends but the three of you are also special.

I can continue to write many more stories about my friend, mentor, colleague and my godfather, a man with good human qualities which are rare today, but the best way to pay tribute to him is to continue his legacy in my day-to-day life, taking forward all the good things he taught me and continuing to help people in need. Mr. Malalasekara, you will not only remain as an integral part of my family, but in many others whose lives you have touched in your current journey through sansara. 

Equally he achieved a lot and enjoyed a lot in his current journey through sansara. He associated and socialised from kings/queens to peasants. He treated all of them equally. He told me when he got sick that he has not harmed anyone, and he wants to die peacefully. He is no longer in pain. He wanted a peace of mind. He has now got what he wanted. He was always young at heart, 76 is not an age to die. Maybe this is why they say only the good die young. 

Mrs. Malalasekara, Sanjiv, Rajiv, Ashan and Prashan, you have lost a great husband and a father, we all have lost a friend, a colleague, a mentor and a godfather. This is an irreplaceable void in our lives but as Mr. Malalasekara says ‘life must go on boy’. Our thoughts are with you all.  

May Mr. Vijaya Malalasekara attain the Supreme Bliss of Nirvana!

 With lots of good memories, 

Shaktha, Shak, Short, Shakthanan Vahanse