BY FARAZ SHAUKETALY
The passing away of one of the last of Sri Lanka’s ‘Big Men’ drew immediate concern as to the state of independent broadcasting in Sri Lanka. Such was the impact that Rajendram Rajamahendran – who passed away in July 2021 – had on the political and commercial landscape of this island nation.
Our paths crossed some years ago when I decided to compile a book on the wealthy in Sri Lanka. I had to create some hype and awareness and I called on good fortune from the past. A maternal uncle of mine had worked for the Maharaja Organisation, and had maintained a good rapport with Mr Rajamahendran. After my uncle’s death the friendship continued, with my aunt keeping in touch along with my cousin who was working in the region. I called my cousin and aunt and asked for a reintroduction to Mr Rajamahendran. I got an email invitation to see him in his office. We had a brief chat and he then said I was to coordinate with Chevaan Daniel for whatever publicity I needed for the book. I had coverage on radio, television interviews and cover on the prime-time news. My friend, Angela Seneviratne, assured me that I had got more than anyone would have wanted.
After the launch I asked for an appointment and went to the head office, armed with limited edition copies of the book. Mr Rajamahendran greeted me and as we walked towards his office he laughed and said, ‘With all your detective work you could not get a photograph of me’. I admitted that was the case and related that my printer had sourced one for me and had quoted Rs 50,000 over the phone. I explained to the Boss that even if the man had quoted 250,000, I would have happily paid and confirmed over the phone. It was his turn to smile, but he was happier when I told him that the offer of a picture for Rs 50,000 was not of him anyway! He was very private and didn’t want any publicity for himself. The boss thanked me for the books I presented to him, and told me that he had purchased several copies off the shelf from a leading departmental store, which was the first to stock the book. He had already supported me!
Mr Rajamahendran was truly a colossus. When I saw an advert for a fireside chat proclaiming that six daring businessmen would be present, I immediately took umbrage. ‘What’s the point I would say to anyone who would listen, the only daring person in our country has to be ‘RR’ – my favourite mantra was ‘RR built the Maharaja Organisation twice over. We are now better than ever before’. The boss believed not in publicity, but in truth. I always found it interesting that despite his private personality, he owned easily the most vociferous media stable in the country. He was passionately and pro-actively involved in his media stables. He uniquely possessed an intrinsic understanding of the people’s unspoken voice.
In 2015, the story that would eventually change the Governor of the Central Bank, replace the then Minister of Finance, responsible for the calling of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry and perhaps reshaping the trajectory of the political landscape in Sri Lanka, broke ground. News1st led the way in highlighting the blatant conflict of interest, and the political patronage extended to the perpetrators, in what was to become popularly known as the Central Bank Bond Scam. The Attorney General’s department described it as the largest ever financial fraud inflicted upon the people of Sri Lanka.
Not once did Mr Rajamahendran flinch from carrying on the expose of all exposes in contemporary Sri Lankan history. By then Mr Rajamahendran had already spotted a niche in the market, and Newsline Live was born in July 2015. We broadcast at the almost god forsaken hour of 7 am. My colleague, the former Presidential Spokesperson and later diplomat, Bandula Jayasekera, had his own early-morning programme “Pathikada” on Sirasa. Internally there was opposition to both Bandula and me. The boss made the final decision and we were on our way. Bandula always reminded me that we were opening the batting for the Group. Ensure, he warned me gravely, don’t put the Boss in a bad mood with a poor performance; the rest of the Group will blame us, he assured me. What more inspiration did we need other than to satisfy the exacting expectations of our Chairman. We were both mature enough to understand that he was in effect mentoring our programmes.
It became a matter for concern amongst colleagues that no matter what the subject of discussion was, Newsline found a way to highlight the bond scam and the sheer audacity of then Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Chevaan Daniel came up with the 6-minute radio talk segment on YesFm ‘Talk of the Town’. There were rumblings of discontent about my continuous highlighting of the then Prime Minister’s failings in the Bond Scam. The prime time Talk of the Town was shifted to an hour later. The boss advised me that I ought to stand my ground. Boss gave me as he did to all, opportunity. As the de facto Editor in Chief he could have ordered me to change my content – but no he did not interfere.
Mr Rajamahendran was forthright. Not once did he ask me to change my presentation of the Bond Scam. We collected a team of regular commentators, one of whom was described by a then serving Judge of the Supreme Court as a TV Advocate. Mr Rajamahendran was incensed that the public’s monies had been squandered and virtually robbed by the perpetrators of the Bond Scam. He did not leave any stone unturned. He even called whilst on holiday abroad to remind the Editorial team to keep the Bond Scam in the spotlight.
Mr Rajamahendran to me was the ultimate creator of opportunity. So many youngsters were quietly funded by him to further their education. When they succeeded more responsibility was thrust upon them – enabling them to shine on. Some even left the Group but Boss did not hold anything against them. Even the gentleman would only have expected them to have the courtesy of informing him they were going. Mr Rajamahendran’s gentlemanly ways were infectious. Boss would routinely walk down to the car park and bid his goodbyes there. Once a visiting Head of State wanted to have a cuppa with the Boss after a small event. They retreated to what I often called ‘the comfort zone’ – Boss’s office. The Leaders’ security detail were beside themselves, when a very long time had elapsed with no sign of the Leader emerging. They had tried to guide the Leader to his car after the event only to be told by their Leader, ‘I am having a cup of tea with my friend’. Boss insisted that no matter how contentious the topic of discussion, guests on our network were just that – guests, visiting our home. We were not to get personal and ‘attack them’ – debate the issue professionally and be gentlemanly about it. And of course, the Boss was intensely loyal. Woe betide anyone who made false accusations against any of us journalists. On a live programme once he demanded that a guest retract his accusation against me that I was slinging mud. He wanted the guest to know that I was very much part of the CMG networks.
Yet another occasion, when I was discussing a national leader, I kept referring to him as Mr So and So. He looked at me and said you know the proper way is to use the title, Honourable. I said but this person is anything but. That’s the way it must be – counselling, ‘give the correct title.’
There was a boyish, mischievousness in him as well. One weekend I decided to take my friends from Britain’s Channel 4 to Mannar. It was a visit that had nothing to do with the Group, and I was careful to not involve them. The Londoners were convinced that the skeletal remains being uncovered were related to the troubles of the ethnic conflict. I wanted to show them that in the so-called new ambiance Sri Lanka was ‘uncovering’ as opposed to ‘covering up’.
Imagine my surprise when I was on the primetime news that evening highlighting me as being on the trail of a big story! Well if Channel 4 had been right it would have been a scoop. The remains were later identified by a Florida lab as being 600 plus years old – long before Prabhakaran was even dreamt of. When I went to South Korea with my friend Asoka Wijegunaratne, with a stop over in Hong Kong, everyone in the office including and especially Bandula Jayasekera, were convinced I was on the trail for Arjuna Mahendran. It was a lot of fun but it was serious too.
Many were the times that I was sent off to meet legal eagles about some angle that manifested itself. At times I feared the cost involved. But I soon learned that what Boss wanted was to be perfectly correct, not only from a moral perspective but also from a legal view. It would be fair to say that My Boss found the advisories from legal frustrating at times, holding him – us – back from going gung-ho after culprits. It never stopped him and the News1st identity kept going year-in year-out, whoever was in power. It didn’t mean in the slightest that he downgraded legal counsel, merely that he found it impinging on his style of news – a free spirit of news. It was clear to me that thanks to the opportunity created by Rajendram Rajamahendran, our network was the permanent opposition to any government in power. On air, live, I could not simply be quiet – I announced that in my view my Boss ought to be the Prime Minister. Boss was unimpressed – he chided me immediately with one word by SMS. I had a cup of coffee with him immediately after the programme.
Perhaps one of the greatest tributes came from former Governor and President’s Counsel Maithri Gunaratne. He said that Mr Rajamahendran was the real opposition to any government of the day. It was almost like no matter who won and how handsome the margin of victory was, the real opposition was found in the voice of his media stables, all popularly known by the one name: Sirasa. It has been said that had the circumstance of his birth been different – that is if he had been born a Sinhalese son of the soil – he would have attained the highest office in this independent nation.
Many regretted the timing of his passing: with Sri Lanka in the throes of its most exacting and challenging period in its entire history. The CV19 pandemic has affected every nook and cranny of the nation, and there has been no let in the amount of money and time being squandered, either on vanity projects or projects purely designed to please the in-house stooges of the day. The people only ever got the fungi-laden crumbs anyway – the principal mitigatory power remained the Maharaja Organisation (CMG) media stables Sirasa, Shakthi and TV1 and its radio stations. Boss was the driving force and was unafraid to remain strong in the face of the most intense intimidatory tactics. Many others of lesser stature would have done a U-turn a long time ago. Not for him the U-turn. The Boss was truly the Iron Man of Sri Lanka.
President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, where he is now the Speaker, described Mr Rajamahendran’s success as sheer hard work. Indeed it was. Some years ago I asked for an appointment to see him. My SMS went out at just past 5 am. He responded immediately, ‘come now’. I met him two and a half hours later – after my programme. Naturally I asked about the early timing. He assured me that he had been in office since early morning as he had discovered an issue with our flagship operation, and he wanted to get to the bottom of it. He was intense, He was always decisive and constantly incisive.
It has taken me a long time to finish this article, which I started within minutes of learning of his passing from a friend. Chevaan Daniel is not in the habit of waking us up in the early hours. When my Samsung displayed Chevaan Daniel, I knew this was the confirmation that I had just heard. I was devastated. Boss was strong in mind and in physique. In my view Boss had a good 12 years of leadership in him. Incongruously he passed on July 25th – when, on that same day, several years ago, our group was burning to ashes. Rajendram Rajamahendran rose from those ashes, Phoenix like, to recreate the Maharaja Organisation to be better, stronger than we ever were.
The ‘Killi’ legacy is a springboard for our Group’s future. No one will be happier than ‘RR’ that all of whom he has left behind will aspire to use that springboard, to take all our businesses to even greater heights, whilst fully and unequivocally being truly representative of Sri Lanka’s opportunity, hopes and aspirations. Boss was intensely proud to be Sri Lankan. He was proud of his roots despite the many sticks and stones – and bombs – that were thrown his way.
In a philosophical way it was perhaps comforting that this gentle giant left in the way he did – a victim to the pandemic CV19. The alternative may well have been leaving us all as a victim of a lack of political self-confidence, perhaps in a far more brutal and malicious manner.
The wreaths that we did not receive we know all about – from the hundreds of thousands of people in Sri Lanka and around the world, who were shocked by his untimely demise and expressed their sorrow and prayed for the soul of Mr Rajendram Rajamahendran.
Ultimately the facts are these: that a young man from Colombo took his business with for a while his brother Maha, to enormous heights ending up as one of the largest privately held conglomerates in Sri Lanka. To appreciate the enormity of his contribution to the broadcast media, one must understand that Boss was a man from the minority community. He had no need to wear a badge of honour. He truly was a son of this soil. He truly believed that we in Sri Lanka were as one – save for some miscreants who traded then and even do so now, on the cheapness of the communal card. That did not detract Boss, and he strove on his forward trajectory of the ultimate: One Sri Lanka.
Rajendram Rajamahendran was born a Maharaja. He lived his life as a Maharajah. Farewell Boss, forever missed, forever will you remain My Chief Inspirator. Lala Salama Mzee Rajendram Rajamahendran – One of a Kind.