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The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce re-elected Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya as its Chairperson during the Chamber’s 181st Annual General Meeting on Thursday (25).

In his capacity as the Chief Executive Officer – Telecommunications Business and Group Executive Vice President, Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya heads the Telecommunications Business of the Axiata Group Bhd.

Mr. Vish Govindasamy, Group Managing Director of Sunshine Holdings, and Mr. Duminda Hulangamuwa, Senior Partner and Head of Tax at Ernst & Young, were re-appointed as Vice Chairperson and Deputy Vice Chairperson respectively.

Further to the office bearers above, the following were re-elected to the Board of The Ceylon Chamber:
Mr. Krishan Balendra, Chairperson, John Keells Holdings PLC; Mr. Husein Esufally, Chairperson, Hemas Holdings PLC; Mr. Pravir Samarasinghe, Director/ Group CEP, Overseas Realty (Ceylon) Ltd.; Ms. Shiromal Cooray, Chairperson and Managing Director, Jetwing Travels Ltd; Mr. Asoka Peiris, Managing Director of Cargills Food Company Ltd; and Mr. Manjula de Silva, Secretary General and CEO of The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

The Guest of Honour at the AGM was His Excellency Gopal Baglay, High Commissioner for India in Sri Lanka. Addressing the meeting, H.E Baglay stated that as a friendly neighbour, India has been the first responder to floods and other natural calamities in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, there is a keenness by numerous Indian Chambers of Commerce for exploring opportunities with Sri Lanka, as India is among the top investors in the island.

“Going forward, there is substantial potential for cooperation in areas like energy - both conventional and non-conventional - as well as infrastructure and connectivity projects. Sri Lanka needs to look no further beyond India for a partner that can ensure “post-millennial energy security”. This is especially relevant in areas such as renewable and solar energy,” he said.

H.E Baglay also requested the Chamber to redouble its advocacy towards promoting engagement between India and Sri Lanka, for further success between both countries.

“The leaders of our two countries have set out a new agenda for our cooperation.  A new agenda to build on existing strengths, and expand the emerging avenues and synergies,” he added.

Thereafter, Dr. Hans Wijayasuriya addressed the gathering on the Chamber’s role as the voice of the private sector, the public-private dialogue on the economy, and of the twin Black Swan events over the last year.

Full Speech:

Our Guest of Honor this evening His Excellency Gopal Baglay, High Commissioner for India in Sri Lanka, Valued members of the Chamber of Commerce, Distinguished Past Chair Persons, Vice Chair Person Vish Govindasamy, Deputy Vice Chairperson Duminda Hulangamuwa, Secretary General Manjula De Silva, Members of the Secretariat, Committee and Board of the Chamber of Commerce,  Distinguished Invitees, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to present the Chairman’s Statement for the Year 2019/20.

Twin Black Swan Events

The Year under review was no doubt an exceptional one – and featured the twin black swan events of the Easter Sunday incidents in April 2019 and the COVID-19 Crisis in 2020.  Let me however report on the principal activities of the Chamber before moving to matters pertaining to economic revival on the backdrop of these twin shocks.

Advancing Trade and Business

Advancing Trade and Business remained at the forefront of the Chamber’s agenda. Notwithstanding the disruptive externalities, the chamber continued its business promotion activities including but not limited to business matchmaking, facilitation of inbound and outbound trade delegations and joint promotions with Sri Lanka’s missions overseas and Government agencies such as the BOI and EDB. The adoption of online platforms has been central to the continuance of these activities notwithstanding the COVID-19 crisis.

The Chamber also strengthened its focus on SME development through the establishment of a  Centre for SMEs which consolidates the SME related offerings of the Chamber to a single delivery interface.

The Voice of the Private Sector

The Chamber continued to place emphasis on the impactful execution of its role as the voice of Sri Lanka’s private sector -  a voice which is non-partisan and raised solely in the national interest. The Chamber launched an electronic survey system which enables the soliciting, collation and analysis of Member viewpoints on topical issues. This inclusive approach to response formulation will ensure that the Chamber comprehensively represents the views of its members when engaging with the Government, and other external stakeholders. 

The post Easter Sunday economic rebound challenges were supplemented by an overriding priority for the maintenance of national harmony. In the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday incident, the Chamber provided leadership to a  Joint Chambers platform which championed a Pledge for Unity which brought together representatives of over 300 corporates with a singular commitment to national harmony.

Public-Private Dialogue on the Economy

The Chamber continues to maintain a progressive public-private dialogue on matters pertaining to the advancement of the national economy.  The Sector Steering Committees and National Agenda Committees made a foundational contribution towards the policy agendas pursued by the Chamber. With a view to enhancing the Chamber’s policy and engagement coverage, two additional National Agenda Committees for Public Sector Reform and Entrepreneurship Ecosystem respectively, were formed during the course of the year.

Macro-Economic Performance

Moving on to Macroeconomic performance, Economic growth in 2019 fell to 2.3%, the lowest since 2001. Sri Lanka’s key fiscal indicators deteriorated during 2019 with the budget deficit expanding to 6.8% of GDP compared to a deficit of 5.3% in 2018.

Merchandise exports grew 0.4% in 2019 while imports contracted by 10%. The resultant reduction in Sri Lanka’s trade deficit by 2.3 Billion USD was central to the positive performance of the Sri Lanka Rupee which recorded a near 1% appreciation against the US Dollar out-performing regional currencies.

The resilience of Sri Lanka’s private sector was aptly demonstrated in the form of the Post-Easter Sunday rebound of Tourism leading to a turnaround in the Balance of Payments at the end of Q1 2020.

Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 related economic challenges in the medium to long term will be based largely on the recovery of external sectors due to the high reliance of the economy on Tourism, Exports and Foreign Worker Remittances. Economic growth is likely to be muted to approximately 1% in Rupee terms for the Year 2020, with a year-end GDP level of 80-82Bn USD relative to the 2019 closing of USD 84Bn. The sharp fall in global oil prices will however provide relief to Sri Lanka’s outflows while also easing challenges faced by the Sri Lanka Rupee.

Post COVID-19 Economic Revival

The Chamber is firm in its view that an accelerated post COVID-19 recovery will be predicated on the effective execution of a Public-Private Shared Vision for Economic Revival and Social Sustenance based on a set of founding principles which include

First, the Primacy for Protection of Life and Livelihoods whereby Sri Lanka’s Human Development and Socio-Economic base line indicators are protected as an immediate priority.

Second, the setting of an ambition to achieve a “U Shaped” Economic Recovery at National Average level with parallel focus on achieving “V Shaped” Recovery in targeted internal sectors centered on domestic production and services.

Third, the need and appetite for exceptional, bold and innovative measures which in the longer run will benefit all Sri Lankan Citizens and Businesses.

Bold strategies supported by the Chamber would include those exceptional measures required to fund an adequately expansive stimulus towards Livelihood Protection, Employment Sustenance and Institutional Survival on the backdrop of external sector dynamics.

During the course of the past months, the Chamber has shared its views both at a macro and national level, as well as at a level of sectoral detail, with His Excellency the President as well as with the Task Force for Economic Revival and Poverty Alleviation.  We congratulate the Government on the stimulus initiatives launched to-date and on the structured approach being adopted with respect to the country’s Economic Revival framework.

The Private Sector as an Equal Partner in Economic Revival

It is our view that the Private Sector is an equal partner in securing an accelerated economic recovery and is equally called upon to transform, to meet the challenges of the new normal.

Sri Lanka’s private sector was quick in embarking on transformation, commencing with employment retention initiatives centred on the adjustment of production and service portfolios to meet adjacent demand, alongside the retraining and redeployment of human capital. Equal focus was directed at re-engineering Supply and Value chains with primacy for domestic supply eco-systems and the sustenance of SMEs.

The Private sector has also actively supported the Government with respect to pooling of logistics and fulfilment capacities, and mitigating Sri Lanka’s Foreign Exchange Liquidity challenges via restructuring foreign supplier credit terms. Focus as also been applied to the Digital Transformation of Operations including interfaces to Suppliers, Partners and Domestic and Global customers.

The Chamber is confident that the Private Sector will continue to transform ahead of the curve and thereby form a cornerstone of the nation’s economic revival.

Reactivation of the Economy

Today we stand at the cusp of the reopening of Sri Lanka’s economy and marketplace.  

The Chamber congratulates His Excellency the President and the Government of Sri Lanka on the exemplary outcomes with respect to the control of the pandemic and the prevention of community spread cumulating to the protection of Life.

We join the nation in saluting with gratitude the effort and commitment of the Government, Task Force leadership and the many thousands of frontline workers who enabled the achievement of this outcome.

While we collectively aim for an accelerated revival of Sri Lanka’s economy, it is now crucial that a Second Wave of the disease is prevented at all cost.  As segments of the external sector are successively activated, and movement restrictions relaxed, it is crucial that both the private and public sectors apply singular focus to compliance with the stipulated safety measures – a commitment which will need to be supported by requisite caution and restraint.

Foundational Tenets of Economic Acceleration

Achieving an accelerated economic recovery in the post COVID-19 era will call on Sri Lanka to double down on the fundamental tenets of domestic production, narrowing of the trade deficit, a high degree of commitment towards the strengthening of fiscal and monetary disciplines, maintenance of macro stability and the elevation of sector competitiveness alongside a progressive approach to global market access.

These fundamentals mirror the principal policy proposals featured in the Sri Lanka Economic Acceleration Framework published by the Ceylon Chamber in September last year.

The Sri Lanka Economic Acceleration Framework, or SEAF for short, was developed by a large team of experts drawn from across the multiple sectors of Sri Lanka’s economy and addressed the challenge of re-calibrating   Sri Lanka’s economic trajectory, targeting a rapid escape from the middle-income trap. The SEAF envisioned and put forth an action plan for the elevation of Sri Lanka’s 89Bn USD economy (in 2018), to a 134Bn USD economy by 2025.

The black swan events, in particular the COVID-19 crisis, have forced a reset on the economic ambitions set out in the SEAF. That said, the structural proposals espoused in the SEAF remain valid and are in fact of elevated importance given the challenges of a Post COVID-19 Economic Revival.

Therefore, and not withstanding post COVID-19 imperatives, we look forward to a recommitment of Government focus towards the recalibration of public sector expenditure, the empowerment and upskilling of the civil service, a concerted effort towards SoE reform and Public Private Partnerships as modalities of capital mobilisation.

It is also fundamental that balanced sectoral growth and strengthening of growth enablers encompassing digitisation, health, education, food security and energy sufficiency should be shared priorities of the Private and Public Sectors.

Appreciation

 Prior to closing my review, I would like to acknowledge the contribution of a broad spectrum of organisations and individuals towards the effective execution of Chamber agendas.

The Chamber is deeply grateful to the Officials, Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the Government of Sri Lanka whose collaboration and engagement have been invaluable with respect to the ongoing development of a progressive public – private dialogue on matters pertaining to the advancement of the National Economy.

I would also like to express my appreciation for the invaluable contribution extended by the Chamber Committee, National Agenda Committees and Sector Steering Committees, towards the multiple agendas pursued by the Chamber. The collaboration extended to us by associate and joint chambers, trade associations, diplomatic missions and partner organisations across multilateral and non-government sectors is also deeply appreciated. We are also grateful to Print, Electronic and Digital media institutions for their invaluable contribution, in facilitating our role as the voice of the private sector. 

My colleagues on the board of directors join me in extending our sincere gratitude to immediate past Secretary General/CEO Mrs. Dhara Wijayatilake, incumbent Secretary General/CEO Manjula De Silva, Deputy Secretary General Alikie Perera, Chief Economist Shiran Fernando  and the dynamic Ceylon Chamber Team, for their dedication and unfailing commitment towards furthering the contribution of the Chamber to its Members and the nation at large.

In alignment with its Vision and Mission, the Chamber will continue to be a driving force in National Economic Development and Social Advancement, within a framework of Sustainable Social Equity. Accordingly, we look forward to accelerated economic revival in a Post COVID-19 context, a revival which is inclusive and gives primacy to the protection of livelihoods. A revival which will secure for Sri Lanka the position of an Economically stable, Safe, Healthy, United and Happy Nation.