Good Evening

Ambassador Julie Chung , Ambassador of the United States of America to Sri Lanka, Heads of Diplomatic Missions, Vice Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber Mr. Duminda Hulangamuwa, Deputy Vice Chairman Mr Krishan Balendra, Past Chairpersons of the Ceylon Chamber, Members of the Board, Members of the Committee, CEO and Secretary General Mr Manjula De Silva, Secretariat of the Chamber, Distinguished invitees, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Thank you Ambassador Chung for accepting our invitation and gracing this occasion as the Chief Guest this evening. We hope this will provide you a platform to interact closely with the corporate sector of Sri Lanka and further strengthen the ties between our two countries.

The last year has been the most challenging period for our nation, our people and our economy, first the covid pandemic and now an economic meltdown. I never expected to face such an enormous challenge when I assumed the chair of the Ceylon Chamber last year while in London in a virtual AGM; the first in our 183-year history.

But the reality has been and continues to be unprecedented. Our people are facing numerous hardships with rising cost of living. A kilo of rice that used to be 85 just two years ago is today 250. A bag of cement that was 900 is today 3,000. Moreover, essentials are not available even at a price. To stay in a fuel queue for 2 to 3 days just to get only a half a tank of petrol or to stand in a queue for 12 hours to be told that no LP gas has arrived that day is almost a cruel form of punishment.

It is a difficult environment for businesses large and small. SMEs in particular and tens of thousands of entrepreneurs are finding it almost impossible to survive with rapidly escalating costs and slowing demand.

Sri Lanka’s crisis is threefold; economic, social and political In this backdrop, the Chamber has had to rise to the occasion and provide leadership and guidance while offering possible solutions for the socio economic revival process.

As early as March 2020 when the pandemic broke out and the country’s sovereign credit ratings dropped, and the emerging scenario was disturbing we urged the then Government to seek assistance from the IMF through their Rapid Financing Instrument. The RFI funding came with no conditions, but unfortunately it was not pursued. I am told that some one hundred and thirty other countries benefitted from this scheme.

Be that as it may, the Chamber, along with several other reputed economists and research institutions continued to call for the Government to seek IMF assistance to resolve the emerging Balance of Payments crisis. Having been convinced the crisis was beyond a mere liquidity crisis but also one of solvency we urged the government to consider a process debt restructuring. The Ceylon Chamber also garnered the collective support of the private sector and provided leadership to corporate Sri Lanka through the Joint Chamber Forum. Beyond the economics issues this forum actively participated in the attempt to find solutions for the self-inflicted calamity in agriculture due to the import ban on chemical fertilizer. We also collaborated with other like-minded institutions; for instance, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the Institute of Chartered Accountants, to advocate for policy corrections to maintain stability in Sri Lanka.

In order to have a better chance of success in these extraordinary times, the Chamber revamped its committee structure. We now have 20 steering and sector committees that provide guidance to the main committee on policy related issues.

We had some successes in intervening on behalf of our members and associations on key regulations and policy-related decisions that have had negative impacts on business.

A case in point is the Chamber’s proactive engagement with the government in overturning the sudden ban on importing chemical fertilizer and associated products. We highlighted evidence of other countries and the numerous practical issues of shifting to organic farming overnight. Even though the ban was overturned it was too late. The current food shortage is a direct result of this poor decision.

The Chamber continues to highlight and communicate to government the enormous hit on the economy due to the lack of foreign exchange and the resulting shortage of fuel, food and medicine. We have proposed several mechanisms to correct the situation and use every opportunity to push the government to consider our solutions.

While our efforts were mainly focused at a macro level, the Chamber continued to be relevant and impactful with the private sector. The Chamber implemented multiple foreign funded projects which ranged from trade facilitation and supporting entrepreneurship to sustainability enabling us to bring in best practice methods and uplift the capacity of the private sector. The Chamber continued its trade promotion efforts helping its members connect with overseas partners from all continents.

The focus on SMEs, start-ups and youth continued with numerous programmes, webinars and knowledge transfer workshops. The Chamber hosted a National SME Forum under the theme of ‘Accelerating Economic Growth Through the Creation of a Dynamic SME Sector’. This we did virtually as two separate events in Sinhala and Tamil.

We are at a crucial point of our economic and development trajectory. The steps taken now by the government and private sector will determine how we emerge from our current challenges and signal the direction for the national economy and the prosperity of its people. After the May 9th debacle, the Chamber leadership held several rounds of discussions with key political parties requesting consensus for the formation of a National Government putting their ideologies aside. As we are all aware we have not succeeded thus far but hope this would become a reality as an interim measure towards a solution to the ever more complex crisis.

We will continue to proactively identify pressing issues for our members and the country and will leave no stone unturned and make representation to the Government. It was the belief of almost all professional economists that securing an IMF program while restructuring our debt to make it sustainable will be key in stabilising the economy and reinstilling confidence in Sri Lanka. We are satisfied that the government has finally engaged the IMF and appointed experts to help us with debt restructuring. The programme will need to consider the synchronisation of key policy levers across fiscal, monetary, investment, industrial and social development spheres. Trade and investment policy reform will be crucial in increasing foreign direct investments. A massive export push will be the key in getting growth back the coming years after the estimated contraction of the economy by perhaps over 5 percent this year.

A well-designed and properly targeted social safety net will be crucial to ensure social stability in what will be a difficult set of reforms across the board, including in public sector and labor, causing pain to the people However, we must build strong support among all stakeholders for these difficult yet essential reforms to be undertaken now; perhaps the best time ever. As the private sector we have over the years learnt to survive in the face of destructive challenges. We have demonstrated strong resilience and the importance of continued perseverance. Once again, it is now up to us to stand together to preserve our enterprises and survive this unprecedented crisis and then prepare our businesses to grow as we emerge from the darkness. The Chamber will stand firm and bold to lead the private sector in managing these difficult times.

On our part to assist and support the community at large, the Chamber was able to extend support to the National Institute of Infections Disease (NIID) during the third wave of the pandemic by facilitating members in donating two non- invasive ventilators and four high flow nasal oxygen therapy machines. Recently the Chamber launched a program called "Diwiyata Diriyak" – “Feed a Family, Need of the Hour” . This program is expected to assist many under privileged families to get through these unspeakably difficult times. Chamber will handout 5,000 relief packs containing dry rations as a start.

We are grateful to the membership for supporting these national causes through the Chamber.

I would like to express my appreciation for the invaluable contribution extended by the Chamber Board, Committee, Sector and Steering Committees and the dynamic Chamber Team towards the multiple agendas pursued by the Chamber. The collaboration extended to us by joint chambers, trade associations, diplomatic missions and partner organisations across multilateral and non-government sectors is also deeply appreciated. Our thanks to all the media institutions for their support in facilitating our role as the voice of the private sector. I look forward to working with the Board, Committee, the Secretariat,, members and affiliated associations of the Chamber to support and advance the causes of the private sector while adopting a “Sri Lanka First” approach.

Let me take this opportunity to once again thank you Ambassador, Julie Chung for gracing this occasion.

Thank You for your attention and I look forward to everyones support as I guide the Chamber and private sector through the un chartered waters during the second year of my tenure!