M.S. de Silva, Lanka’s first (successful) journalist/entrepreneur

The 20th death anniversary of M.S. de Silva, the only Lankan journalist in my memory, who left journalism and carved out a business empire, fell two days ago. His wife, Karuna, asked me to write something about this ever smiling man, always in his trademark whites, who never forgot his friends whatever heights he scaled. Immensely proud of his southern roots, he was one of the many entrepreneurs in this country, born south of the Bentara river, who made a name for himself as a business baron. This, like others of his ilk, he did with very little seed capital of his own, making and losing a fortune but never demonstrating the slightest trace of bitterness. When I was made the editor of what was then the Ceylon Daily News in the early eighties, he rang to congratulate me and tell me, rightly or wrongly, that I was the first southerner to get there.

MS, as I wrote some time ago on his 90th birth anniversary that fell on April 18, 2019, cut his journalistic teeth in the once British-owned Times of Ceylon which together with the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., or Lake House as it was (and is) best known, dominated the news industry in the colonial days and well into the post-Independence period. He then moved to Radio Ceylon, and the Government Information Department probably for the security of a pensionable government job, and was assigned by the department to the Trade Ministry under Mr. T.B. Ilangaratne, a veteran left-inclined politician.

Older readers will remember that the Times, located in the Colombo Fort, once owned the country’s tallest building until Mr. Justin Kotelawela’s Ceylinco House rose some storeys higher. All this is history today with Colombo’s skyline replete with high-rises dwarfing buildings of the mid-1950s. MS was one of a kind with a shock of curly hair, a broad smile that seldom left his face and a warm heart. He as ever ready to dig into his deep pockets to help his many friends in an ill-paid profession who were often broke.

Those were the days the Information Department was housed in what was previously the British High Commission in Colombo, a stone’s throw from Queen’s House. While the Director on Information sat in that building where the photographers and their darkroom as well as the necessary, though somewhat rudimentary, infrastructure was located, the press officers were assigned to various government ministries where they had offices but came to Queen’s Street for meetings with their bosses and other business. Karuna probably requested me to write this because I am possibly the only journalist yet in harness who was privy to those days when MS was a press officer. Among his colleagues were several prominent newsmen of the day and names like BH Hemapriya, Kenneth Somanader, Dalton de Silva, UG Wimaladasa, HB Dissanayake and Victor Sumathipala come readily to mind.

As my late friend and colleague, Ajith Samaranayake, wrote some years ago in a piece on MS, these press officers had a strong foundation in journalism having begun their careers in newspaper publishing houses, and were well informed about the activities of the ministries to which they were assigned. They were not mere peddlers of handouts written by others or what we in the profession called “sunshine stories” (not about what has been done but what is going to be done often on the never never) and hurrah boys of their ministers ever-hungry for publicity, then as much as now. I know that Karuna was not altogether happy that MS was giving up the security of a government job to get into business, but MS had Minister Ilangaratne’s assurance that he could always come back if things didn’t work out.

Like Ilangaratne, MS too was left-inclined and was proud that he, as a 14-year old teenager had been the legendary communist Pieter Keuneman’s interpreter at a political meeting in the south when Keuneman was not quite fluent in Sinhala. There was a news clip of a photograph of that meeting that MS treasured.

His plunge into business was perhaps inspired by his genes. Although MS was orphaned at the age of 12-years, his father like many from Galle, had struck out to Malaya setting up a business in Penang. Fate was kind to MS and his Trade Exchange (Ceylon) Ltd., across Chatham Street from the Pagoda Tea Rooms. His was among the first companies that traded with China and the business proved a success. I remember him importing a Chinese bike, branded Phoenix, at a time Raleigh was king, which he could price very competitively. He was also among the first to export coconut seedlings to Cuba.

It was Trade Exchange that set up Laklooms, one of the early batik brands with a showroom on Galle Road, Bambalapitiya, close to the Green Cabin. Karuna stamped her own personality on the batik business which also prospered. The proximity of both their father’s offices to two landmark Rodrigo Restaurants was a bonus to MS’s children, his daughter Nilupul tells me.

I remember attending Press Officer Hemapriya’s wedding at MS’s home at Raymond Road, Nugegoda, which MS and Karuna hosted. Karuna made the cake and the reception, befitting the host’s southern origins, was lavish with old friends from his newspaper and Information Department days present. Nimal Karunatillake’s wife, Chandra, very much a part of the journalist/press officer circuit at that time, whom I drove to the reception, called that house, from where he moved to Rosemead Place, Colombo-7 when the gods smiled down on him, “MS’s palace.” But good times were not for ever and for reasons I never knew MS hit hard times and had to fight a protracted case against the People’s Bank, which went on for years. He won both the case and the appeal the bank instituted and asked me to publish the results.

MS died prematurely at 70 and his family believes that these travails shortened his life. He faced adversity stoically and success never went to his head. May he attain nibbana.

Manik de Silva

Thank you

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