Tourism, investment and trade promoted – Consul General Hulugalle By Kathya De Silva Senarath
It has been almost a year since the new Consul General to Sydney, Australia Lakshman Hulugalle assumed duties. Even though the time spent in Sydney is short, many are the achievements for Sri Lanka during his first year, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Being in the financial hub of Australia, Hulugalle’s task is to promote tourism, investment and trade between the two countries. As such, the Australia Sri Lanka Business Council he formed is set to bring more opportunities to Sri Lanka, especially due to increased interest in the Port City Colombo among Australian businessmen.
Hulugalle also manages the difficult task of changing mindsets of Australian politicians about Sri Lanka’s humanitarian operation. This was managed due to his experience heading the Media Centre for National Security during the height of war.
The Sunday Observer spoke to Hulugalle about his responsibilities in Sydney among other matters, during his short visit to Sri Lanka. Following are the excerpts of the interview.
Q: What were the significant memories of your time at the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS)?
A- MCNS was formed on March 1, 2006 and abolished on December 31, 2013. I was the first and only Director General. There are so many memories with many ups and downs in the war against terrorism. Before the MCNS was formed, Sri Lanka didn’t have a proper media outlet to provide government information on the humanitarian operations. The news that went out of the country was wrong information.
The LTTE channels became more important. Even some Sri Lankan news channels picked up stories from the LTTE channel. At that time, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and then Secretary Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa decided to have a centre to provide proper information. That was my role and the purpose of the MCNS.
I was able to win confidence on local and international platforms within a short period of three to four months. During that time, I gave information to all foreign missions in Colombo and our missions abroad.
When the Mavil Aru sluice gate was closed by the LTTE and opened after one and a half months by the Sri Lanka Army, I was asked to make an announcement, upon Secretary Defence’s consultations that the Army has gained power and that we have opened the sluice gate.
Then President Mahinda Rajapaksa told me that this may be the most important announcement I make and it would be historic. But he also told me that I might either loose or gain faith, since if by any chance the LTTE regained power and water didn’t flow into the villages, I would become a liar.
I was up the whole night contacting the Army from time to time and finally at 5.30 am, the nearest camp from Mavil Aru gave information that water has started flowing bringing villagers out of misery. This is a significant memory during my time at the MCNS.
Also, on May 8, 2009 when LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran was killed, I was asked to make the announcement to the local and foreign press. That day, there were 13 foreign media personnel in my room with the local press. This was another historic moment that I became a part of.
Q: What were the significant challenges during the time at the MCNS and how did you overcome them?
A: I am confident when I take a job. You need to be self-confident if you take anything up. I am not a media person but I was confident that I could do my job well at the MCNS and dedicate myself to it. The Media Centre worked 24 hours since inception and closure. I had 140 staff including Army, Navy, Air Force, Police and the Civil Defence Force personnel. My part was to coordinate well between different stakeholders.
I had a close relationship with the seniors as well and managed to overcome challenges with my team. The local and international media had trust in the MCNS and sought information from there. We gave the correct information while protecting the Government. That made me confident and I gained trust from others.
During that time, I even had life threats as this was a war against terrorism and I held a high position in the Government. When the MCNS became the trusted entity for information, I had life threats. Therefore, the then Secretary Defence gave me high alert security. When there’s security all around you 24 hours a day, there is no room for a personal life. But I sacrificed it as I wanted to commit myself fully to the job which I did for nearly eight years.
Q: Tell us about your entry into foreign affairs.
A: Foreign affairs came as a surprise to me. The Media Centre was abolished four years after the battle against terroism especially because there was international criticism on the purpose of the centre when the war was over. But we managed development work after the war.
After it was closed, the President offered me the post of Deputy High Commissioner at the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia. It was a short period of one year. I did not have much challenge as Deputy High Commissioner. The duty of a senior officer is public relations and to promote the country. But you need to know everything about Sri Lanka and bilateral relations to talk about it. We meet senior officers of other countries. So it is important to have a sound knowledge. Even they prepare well with background checks before meetings. Therefore, preparation is the key.
Q: Tell us about your latest appointment and services provided by the Consulate in Sydney
A: I was appointed as Consul General to Sydney in January 2020. I was the first diplomat to be appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I assumed duties in August last year and I am completing one year. I went at a time when the world was in the middle of a pandemic. So, for the past 11 months, I’ve been laying the foundation to enhance relations between the two countries.
Sri Lankans living in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland obtain services from our Consulate. There are about 60,000 Sri Lankans in NSW and 20,000 to 22,000 in Queensland. My section caters to the biggest populated being in the most important city.
We look after the interests of all Sri Lankans from passport renewal, dual citizenship matters, birth certificates and so on. Since the border closure, there were no requests for visas within the last year. Without the Australians, I get about 75 visitors a day. We have a staff of around 12. Australia has low numbers in the pandemic. This is due to their discipline, especially because of the large fines for breaking quarantine rules.
When I assumed duties, the office was in a very bad state. It was done about 18 years ago and the office was different from the high tech offices I previously worked in. We were paying AUS $ 17,500 for 200 sq metres. However, the lease agreement came last December and I managed to get a good deal after negotiations and brought the rent down to AUS $ 11,000 per month for the next five years.
I also gave a condition to renovate the office building. After many discussions, they did it free and that included refurbishing and renovating the entrance, reception, hall and so on. The building owners said the renovations cost them AUS $ 48,000. But I managed to get it done free of charge and reopened in March.
Later, the Australian Government is doing the metro railway and the station will come to our section. Therefore, the building where we are at will be a main station. They are taking six buildings to the government and we are getting a new office in the city, free of charge. The architecture and building will be done by them. Before December, I’m getting a new office with more space. I am happy that I negotiated to save Sri Lankan money. For such negotiations, you need to have the personality.
Q: What are the significant achievements during your time as Consul General within the last year?
A: Meeting people were difficult but I always try to push myself. Even during the Covid-19 lockdown in Australia, I was able to meet the Governor of New South Wales (NSW) Margaret Beazley, the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and several ministers. With all the restrictions, I was able to bring some benefits to the country.
When I met Minister for Skills and Tertiary Education Dr. Geoffrey Lee, I apprised him of Sri Lanka and was able to bring a donation of over Rs. 6 million worth equipment to the Vocation Training Authority of Sri Lanka trough the Australian High Commission in Colombo.
I also formed the Australia-Sri Lanka Business Council set to launch later this year. Through this, I managed to bring Australians forward to take leadership in doing business in Sri Lanka. Even in my absence, this Council will continue. It is not headed by the Consul. As the Consul General in Sydney, we are there to guide them. We need investors to come to Sri Lanka.
Also, the Tamil Diaspora in Australia is very strong with a lot of connections with Australian MPs and Ministers. NSW State Member for Prospect Huge McDermott had been openly helping the pro-LTTE Diaspora, attending functions and making speeches in their support.
He had refused to meet any of the Sri Lankan Consuls for the Past 12 years. When I inquired about this, his office said he is not giving any appointments. However, I saw him at a function and met him by force. He couldn’t refuse me and had to speak to me. I even took a photograph with him. Later, without me asking, he sent me a message saying he wanted to meet me. I went to Parliament house and had a 45 minute chat. During the first meeting, I didn’t convince him to go against the LTTE.
He is the one who brought the resolution similar to the Genocide Bill against Sri Lanka passed in Canada recently, to the New South Wales Parliament. But it was only presented and not passed and no votes were taken.
I met him after two days of that presentation. After the meeting with me, he was scheduled to attend the Maha Viru Day celebration. But after I told him our side of the matter, and that he was given wrong information, he cancelled his attendance at the Maha Viru celebration.
Me being from the government side and having played a significant role during the time of the humanitarian operation, I was able to apprise him with correct information. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a proper booklet to give him on the subject. But I managed for the first time in 12 years to stop him from attending the Maha Viru celebration.
When I go back, I will be meeting him again with documents written by independent writers as instructed by the President.
I have invited him to Sri Lanka for a visit as soon as the country is open so that he knows the real situation. The Foreign Ministry Secretary also appreciated this as it is a huge achievement for the country.
Q: What can you say about the interest of Australians to invest here?
Australians are interested in Sri Lanka, especially with the opportunities they could have with the Port City Colombo. They think that geographically, Sri Lanka is in a significant position. The Port City is going to be the most important place in the world. Australia is at a corner. We are in the middle where we can get to other parts of the world without spending a lot of time.
Australians believe that Sri Lanka will become the world’s hub in 10 years. If we really develop to become the hub, the importance of Singapore and Dubai will lessen.
We can take that entire economy to our country. But we have to plan it properly. More than me, businessmen in Australia talk about the Port City Colombo. I will be launching the Australia-Sri Lanka Business Council in September or October.
If I can get people to come to the forum and manage to get four good investors; that would be a huge achievement. My target is to bring four investors to Sri Lanka within the first two years.
If we provide the proper services, they will come and invest. Honestly speaking, we can make the Port City Colombo the number one hub in the world. Business people understand very well that it is going to be the future of Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately, due to borders being closed, they are unable to travel and it is a challenge to promote businesses. However, Minister of Finance Basil Rajapaksa and State Minister for Finance, Capital Markets and State Enterprise Reforms Ajith Nivard Cabraal gave me the assurance that investors can meet them directly to explore investment opportunities in Sri Lanka. This is a good assurance for any investor.
Q: What are your future plans while in Sydney?
A: I’m trying to promote Australia’s Technical and Further Education (TAFE) certificate for vocational training. This certificate is recognised internationally. We have vocationally skilled people but they do not have the recognition. Our diploma certificate is not well recognised.
So I’m working with the Government of Australia into introducing the TAFE certificate to Sri Lankans. If Sri Lankans get this opportunity, they will be able to find jobs abroad.
In Australia, Sydney is the financial hub and Sri Lankans settled there are doing well especially those in the IT sector. A lot of businesses love to have Sri Lankans as they believe Sri Lankans are efficient. If we could get the TAFE recognition to the Vocational Training Authority in Sri Lanka, we would be able to open more doors for our youth.
I’m also looking forward to promote tourism. About 11 percent of tourists to Sri Lanka are Australians. Now Australia feels that Sri Lanka is a safe country. So we’ll be able to bring more tourists when borders open in both countries. Now the exchange rate is about Rs. 152 for an Australian dollar. So they would be able to enjoy what Sri Lanka offers at a reasonable rate.
Australians feel that Sri Lanka’s current leadership is powerful and disciplined. This is a good point for investors for their security. When they talk about the image of South East Asia, they talk about President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan in a positive manner – as honest and disciplined statesmen.
They say that this is because they are not politicians but rather they entered this position from different fields. The image of our President helps bring investors to the country. There is a Consul General forum in Sydney with about 75 – 80 countries. The Indian and Pakistani Consuls General are close with me and they speak about us. All of them say that they have confidence in our President. This confidence is reflected among the investors.
Q: What are the significant achievements of Sri Lankans in Sydney?
A: Only a few Sri Lankan business persons are operating in Sydney. One such person is Shemara Wikramanayake, who is the Managing Director and CEO of Macquarie Group Ltd. She is the highest paid CEO in Australia. Sri Lankan business people are doing well, owning wineries and other businesses. But mostly, Sri Lankan professionals are doing very well heading institutions. Sri Lankan people are being recognised as educated people. Educated professionals get good opportunities there.
Q: What is the nature of collaborations between the Consulate and the Australian Government?
A: I really appreciate the support by the Australian Government to the Consulate. From the Governor to the Cabinet ministers, all of them love Sri Lanka. The Minister of Finance in Australia has visited Sri Lanka before he was a minister and on two private visits.
He is prepared to support Sri Lanka. The Governor was the former Attorney General of New South Wales and she assured her support. We have to provide the correct information and good proposals for them to help us. This is crucial.
Q: What are your thoughts on students leaving to Australia for studies?
Australia has some of the best universities in the world. We must promote those private universities to come to Sri Lanka. If not, our foreign exchange is going to those countries. To save that, we have to persuade them to open branches here and give the certificate here. Then the money would be circulated in Sri Lanka.
Australians are looking for educated people. They are not worried about money as they have enough resources including untouched gold and platinum. They have enough wealth in the country. But they want educated people to come and develop the country.
I don’t promote students to settle down in other countries as Sri Lanka needs the brains. I encourage students studying in Australia to come back and serve in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, students are provided education and healthcare free. That’s how the Government supports them. So they should not forget Sri Lanka.
Pix: Sudath Malaweera