Former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, President’s Counsel (PC) Upul Jayasuriya recently stepped down as the Chairman of the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka (BOI). Jayasuriya PC spoke to the Nation about his resignation, the investment policy of the Government and the controversy surrounding alleged ‘tallest building in Asia’,
a foreign direct investment (FDI).

Q : What really led to you deciding to resign?

Nothing led to this. I held the position for two and half years. I had the support of all the staff and the relevant State Minister, the relevant Minister, the Prime Minister and the President in discharging the duties of the office and post. Some decisions were tough, some very pleasant while others were not pleasant. I have made all of them in keeping with my conscience and the dignity of the office. I stand by all of them. There was no pressure. The decision to resign was solely based on personal reasons.

Q : What reforms should be made to the Government’s policy with regard to attracting FDIs?

A lot of steps have been taken. There are other agencies like the Harvard Business School, the World Bank and the United States Agency for International Development involved. Certain matters are being finalized and are being incorporated while others are in the planning process in terms of incorporation. Tax relief, tax holidays and incentives are being incorporated in the tax Bill to come.

We have to be aggressive. We have to compete with other countries, including especially those in the region. We cannot be in isolation. We cannot take decisions thinking of the country alone. We have to offer incentives commensurate with other countries in the region. We cannot take a take-it-or-eave-it-approach. The Government is hell bent on attracting investments. This is the right thing. There is no other choice.

Outside agencies such as the Customs, the Central Environmental Authority, the Mahaweli Authority, the Urban Development Authority, the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development and the Ports Authority have a huge role to play. The promotion of investments must be unified. Right now, there are areas where there is overlapping due to several institutions attempting to promote investments. They must all be unified under the BOI.

Q : There are allegations that the process involving investments is rife with corruption. Why cannot the BOI be empowered to nip matters in the bud?

The BOI’s role must not be misunderstood. It is the arm of or instrument of the Government for facilitating investments. With regard to money coming into the country, there are other institutions like the banking system including the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. The BOI only promotes investments. Checking the authenticity or origin of the funds is not the role of the BOI. It is a role for the banks. Some investments in Sri Lanka which have been successful have not necessarily had a track record, yet they have made investments and been successful.

Q : Is the anti-corruption drive, in your view, genuine?

All these are human things. We do not require laws if all did the right thing. The relevant authorities and the Government have clearly shown that they despise fraud and corruption. A lot has been done in this regard. A lot of people have been brought to book. Of course one can be critical and say that still more can be done. This may be so and still more should be done but this does not mean that one goes back on what has already been done. There is more still to be done. We have to be positive. Based on the public debate, more Courts need to be created. There is no point if a case takes a year to be taken up.  There must be three to four special Courts akin to the Commercial High Court to take up cases on corruption related charges on a daily basis. This is the will of the people. Otherwise, people get frustrated, if the people’s will is not done.

Q : In an exposé in a national newspaper concerning the aforementioned project, it was reported that the company has made fraudulent claims with regard to the project’s architectural firm, location, and the height of the proposed construction, not to mention acts of plagiarism and discrepancies pertaining to the dates of incorporation of the company in question. Whether such a company exists or has been dissolved has also come into question. Why did you give the green light to this company and this project?  

No. We have taken the right decision. They have been given three months to bring the money, between USD 100 million to USD 150 million to purchase the land. In addition, by the end of this year, they have to altogether bring USD 200 million. If they do not bring the money by the stipulated period, the agreement stands terminated ipso facto (by the very fact or act itself).

So, many companies have signed agreements but have subsequently been identified as non-performing and the said agreements have since been terminated. In fact, during the last BOI Board meeting under my tenure, we terminated the agreements with 22 companies which were non-performing. Performance is the duty of the company. Monitoring is our duty.