Pandora Papers also reveal more on his hush-hush dealings with setting up HCBT; Chairman says he did not disclose Mr Paskaralingam’s involvement due to then prevailing ethnic strife
Ramalingam Paskaralingam–who called the shots during the presidency of Ranasinghe Premadasa and was later one of then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s key adviser’s –pushed members of the Yahapalana Government’s top education committee to grant permission to an institution his family was secretly associated with to start a lucrative new Bachelor of Education (BEd) programme.
His effort to secure expedited approval only failed because members of the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Education and Human Resources handling the proposed introduction of new BEd courses in State and non-State institutions insisted the process couldn’t be rushed and that minimum standards must be met. This was supported by Mr Wickremesinghe.
Mr Paskaralingam also backed Horizon College of Business and Technology (HCBT) to secure an interest-free loan of Rs 400mn from a State bank in order to set up regional centres –rent buildings, build infrastructure, etc–for the BEd programmes, well before its sister group, Horizon Campus, received approval for it.
But the senior bureaucrat, who was an influential Treasury Secretary under late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, kept his longtime ties with HCBT completely under wraps. Not even close associates of Upul Daranagama, the HCBT Chairman, knew of the partnership.
The details came to light only through the Pandora Papers, a global investigation led by the International Consortium of International Journalists (ICIJ) that saw hundreds of journalists from media organisations worldwide examining a trove of 11.9-million confidential documents from 14 offshore service providers.
They revealed that Mr Paskaralingam had for years funnelled funds into HCBT through a Singapore-based company owned by a Trust registered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). His niece now holds 80 percent of the school through St John’s Pte Investments, a company that Mr Paskaralingam transferred to her in 2013. The Singaporean entity was first held by an offshore BVI Trust he created before it was settled in a new Trust the niece set up.
HCBT was registered as a private limited liability company in January 2008. Another institution in the group, Horizon Campus, received degree-awarding status in November 2014.
The Yahapalana Government’s Sectoral Oversight Committee on Education and Human Resources floated a proposal to improve the quality of A/Level graduates in the science and math streams; and to see that they secured a BEd before going on to teach. This was to be achieved through existing educational institutions which would need to open regional centres for the purpose.
State and non-State could qualify but the latter, particularly, had to ensure standards were met. There was to be monitoring by the Higher Educational Ministry. Mr Paskaralingam initially proposed the name of Horizon Campus for the initiative, even sending an internal memo to this effect, authoritative sources said. At the time, nobody knew his ties with the school. Between 2018 and 2019, he wanted the process “speeded up” but technocrats insisted it could not be rushed.
By then, HCBT had already taken the interest-free loan. The idea was to secure infrastructure in the regions to set up centres, and to then rent them out to Horizon Campus which had sought approval to conduct the BEd programme.
In an interview with ICIJ, Mr Darangama confirmed the loan was taken in 2017. He said Mr Paskaralingam helped him set up HCBT 13 years ago, at a time when he wasn’t in politics or did not hold an administrative role. And that the interest-free loan scheme had been open to all approved educational institutions, not just HCBT.
Asked why he had hidden Mr Paskaralinga’s involvement in his business, Mr Darangama curiously blamed ethnic strife. It was because he set up the school at the peak of the LTTE war, where “Tamils and Sinhalese were fighting, killing each other”. This had caused a social rift with no trust of Tamils in the South, including Colombo and the Western Province.
Even though Colombo has all communities, those in the rural areas and outskirts felt “very uneasy about the tiny minority”, he claimed. “That is one of the reasons even up to now (why) I do not mention anything about Mr Paskaralingam.”
“Due to me being a Sinhalese, he basically had an understanding which is that we should not put their details into the website, especially HCBT,” he reiterated.