Story of a ‘St. John’s College Jaffna Boy becoming a top banker at the prestigious Citibank’

By Ananth Palakidnar
Citibank’s Managing Director and its Global Head of Electronic Foreign Exchange Solutions, Bernard Sinniah, who retired from his London office recently, describes himself as a ‘Jaffna Boy’ who didn’t achieve anything remarkable during his school days, but his determination to be successful in life made him a top official at Citibank; one of the top three banks in the world, with an extensive network of branches in 102 countries.

Sinniah, who is enjoying retirement, was in Colombo recently, returning after a brief spiritual journey in North India, where he had bathed in the holy river Ganges and spent several days in Rishikesh the region known as the abode of sages.

Sinniah, who is a Christian, commenting on his spiritual adventure in North India, says the days he spent there were marvellous. “I had the opportunity to go to Lourdes in France and to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. It doesn’t matter which religion you follow as far as the spiritual experience is concerned. The Arti ceremony on the banks of the Ganges and bathing in the holy river were amazing experiences.”

He begins his interview with Ceylon Today, with his journey to success – from being a backbencher at school to later becoming a top banker at the prestigious Citibank.

Sinniah refers to himself as a carefree student, up to all sorts of mischief as a hosteller while at St. John’s College, Jaffna – one of the oldest educational institutions in the island. He hails from Chavakachcheri, Jaffna and he had his schooling during the era of two of St. John’s iconic Principals – the late K. Poornampillai and the late C.E. Anandaraja, which was significant, as both of them stood by great educational values.

Sinniah also remembers several of his old teachers, who had played a tremendous role in moulding even students who were poor in studies, to blossom with confidence and to face challenges in their lives.

Leaving school without a focus, thinking of what the future would hold for him, Sinniah says, he tried his hand at almost everything to build himself up.

Leaving Jaffna

As Jaffna was on the threshold of turbulent days in the late seventies and eighties, Sinniah joined the prestigious Citibank in Colombo in 1979.
“In 1986, I was elevated to Assistant Manager of Citibank, Colombo.

The same year, I was posted to Citibank’s Sydney office in Australia and joined the Bank’s Melbourne office in 1989. Thereafter, I joined the Citibank office in London in 1999 and reached the position of Managing Director and Global Head of Electronic Foreign Exchange Solutions,” he says.

Despite reaching the helm of the internationally reputed Citibank, Sinniah still enjoys recollecting the days he spent at St. John’s Jaffna, where he was subjected to frequent punishment by his teachers, as well as Principals.

However, Sinniah returned to his alma mater, which had produced a significant number of reputed personalities, in 2014, as Chief Guest, at the school’s prize giving and delivered an awe inspiring keynote address, in the presence of some of his old teachers and schoolmates.

In his speech he emphasized the need to believe in one’s self, and said it was his fundamental belief that everyone had the capacity to achieve success. He pointed out that it didn’t mean becoming over confident and arrogant about the talents one possessed but believing in achieving one’s goals.

“I am not sure how many years have gone by since the first College Prize Giving was held, but surely I must be the only Chief Guest, who had never won a prize. I see some of my former teachers who would never have dreamt that I would be standing here one day, as Chief Guest. I would like to say that it feels like a dream for me, too. When I was a student, we, the non-prize-winners, were always asked to sit at the back of the hall.

As the winners were getting their well-deserved prizes, the one thing that constantly crossed my mind was – ‘Could I ever be successful?”

Reward of endurance

In his speech, Sinniah who loves to play golf and is a fan of Sri Lankan cricket also referred to the World Cup semi finals at Sabina Park, in the West Indies, in 2007, and recollected the performance by Mahela Jayawardena to strengthen the Lankan team with confidence, at a time when the team was in a crisis state.

“Mahela scored 115 runs in 109 balls. But, the scorecard will not tell you the hard work that went into getting there – how his innings was formed, how he was patient, how he let go of so many opportunities to score and how he built partnerships. The scorecard will also not tell you how he used his strengths and used them perfectly to overcome the challenges he faced, to build and deliver a great innings.

“Most importantly, Mahela Jayawardena, the Sri Lankan Captain believed in himself. He knew he was good enough to deliver a quality innings. That was the key component of his success and of his beautiful innings that day. Well, we can all learn from that. Therefore, it is important to understand that all of us can and will achieve success through different routes.

“Successful people know and acknowledge their limitations. Your limitations will throw you challenges and obstacles. There is no point fighting them. It is better to overcome them; otherwise they will hold you back from achieving success.”

“As we go on to live our lives outside the school environment, we will have wickets falling around us. We will have commentators predicting what we could achieve and commend or condemn the way we bat. The challenge for us is not to allow these external factors to affect us. Success doesn’t come overnight. One has to work for it patiently and build it up slowly. We should run a marathon, not a sprint.

You will need to take your own time, according to your own plan and ability and then go and achieve your own success!”

Sinniah launched his autobiography titled ‘Jaffna Boy’ in Colombo, last year. Commenting on the present post-war situation, he says Sri Lanka has a long way to go to establish itself as an economically vibrant country.

He also points out that the Corporate Sector should change itself to be on par with other successful countries by modernizing activities.

“Several countries in the world have modernized their systems with regard to banking and other financial activities. But I find Sri Lanka still sticking to the old systems,” Sinniah says.

He adds that infrastructure had improved significantly in post-war Jaffna, but more attention should be paid by schools and civil society to teach good life values to the younger generation.

Referring to peace and reconciliation, he says a collective effort by all people despite ethnic, religious and regional identity is the need of the hour, to strengthen unity and integrity in the once war-torn country.

Holding a top position in London and living there for nearly two decades and interacting closely with the Sri Lankan Diapsora, Sinniah says that where the peace building process and post-war development activities in the island were concerned, the Sri Lankan Diaspora could not be left out, as they had left the country due to the intensity of the turbulent days.
“So their participation as well as their contribution to rebuild a newly reconciled Sri Lanka is inevitable,” says Sinniah who loves to refer to himself as a ‘Jaffna Boy’.

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