Mr. Kariywasam, you are the Chairman of one of the most important financial institutions in Sri Lanka. How do you think the perception that people have outside of Sri Lanka differs from the reality of what is really happening in the country?
As you are aware, we had a 30 year protracted war in Sri Lanka which ended with the assistance of the armed forces and with the stout leadership of our president. Since then, rapid development, socioeconomic activities plus resurgences in the economy have taken place. We are moving very rapidly towards economic development and a medium developed country. It is true that there are many groups of individuals in certain limited sectors overseas who still feel that we are not up to the mark. But I think that it is a limited crowd. That is why there is rapid development here, because here, we are more aware of what is happening and more eager to move forward. Also, investors are looking at our country very positively. Infrastructure development has taken place at an accelerated manner; irrigation projects are on-going; several airports are set to open very soon, as well as several seaports.
So we are on the right track to development. I do not think we should deter or stop in our path because a handful of people overseas are commenting differently. I think Sri Lanka is on track to becoming Asia’s wonder.
President Rajapaksa has stated that “the Sri Lankan banking sector has come forward to serve the nation, fulfilling the people’s aspirations despite the global economic crisis which engulfed the whole world a few years ago.” How would you asses the role that NSB is playing in the economic renaissance and national development of the country?
The National Savings Bank was established in 1972. On the 16th of March of 2012, we will be celebrating 40 years. The main objective is incarnating and assisting all Sri Lankans in savings and developing themselves, as well as being a contributor to the country’s economic progress. Since 1972 we have come a long way. As of now, we are a strong and stabilized bank serving the nation more than adequately. We are also strongly linked up to the postal network, which gives us access to the rural-most fringes of our country in spreading the message of savings.
Therefore, I think the president is quite right in highlighting the role of the state banks in the actual national development. NSB is clearly mandated as Sri Lanka’s exclusive savings bank, to be a significant contributor to financial stability and economic progress and other development activities in the country. We are geared towards making this a reality.
Having said this, NSB has a clear vision for 2012 that is to be Sri Lanka’s best managed, best administered, most respected and most profitable bank. We are working towards it, as well as towards meeting three Sri Lankan national objectives:
1) Increasing the savings distribution percentage from 18 to 25 percent GDP. We are confident this can happen by 2015 and will contribute significantly to the national coffers.
2) The second phase clearly identifies the development of 400,000 village-based entrepreneurs. We believe that we can contribute significantly to this, with our linkage to the postal system and a special scheme we have introduced in conjunction with the postal services on 31st of October of last year. We want to save a bit through this scheme and turn those savings into smaller and medium enterprise type loans. A loan on a loan makes a person more stabilized in those areas. We are hopeful that we will be a bigger contributor towards that economic objective of the country.
3) Thirdly, Sri Lanka wants our per capita income to rise up from $2,400 to $4,000 by 2015. This is another way by which National Savings Bank, together with the postal system will assist and be a bigger contributor to the national coffers.
When people see the brand of the National Savings Bank, what associations would you like them to make and how would you like them to think of this Bank?
We are known as Sri Lanka’s exclusive savings bank. We have taken a new leap forward since 2010 and have broken new ground. Also, we have refocused the bank by becoming a dynamic and vibrant force in the financial sector. The trust and confidence Sri Lankans have in National Savings Bank has not diminished since our inception. It has been further strengthened by the mere fact that we are triple-A-rated for eight consecutive years. By an act of parliament, we are the only financial institution operating in Sri Lanka that can give a 100% guarantee and protection to savings and the interest accrued thereof. We have taken new steps and established new platforms that will take us not only to where we want to be in 2012, but firmly beyond that. With it comes the added confidence, trust and belief of all Sri Lankans, and we can now boast 17 and a half million multiple accounts with National Savings Bank and seven and a half to eight million single accounts which in itself is more than adequate testimony to our strength.
What final message would you like to send to the readers of Foreign Policy both about the National Savings Bank, but also about Sri Lanka as an attractive investment destination?
The National Savings Bank is becoming an active player in foreign investment policy by acting as a facilitator for foreign investors, for which the Central Bank has given us the blessing to go ahead. Why are we transforming ourselves into an active player in the foreign investment scene? Because we have the capacity, capability and confidence to do it. Financial strength, network strength, but above all, the fact that we are a self-sustained financial institution. Not only do we lend to other institutions, we are also a very positive dividend player to the treasury. From an overall point of view, what I could tell the expatriates or foreign investors yearning to come to Sri Lanka is that this is a real heaven. As of now, come, see and wait because we are on the right track to development and becoming Asia’s Wonder. All the infrastructure facilities are very rapidly taking place.
As for the tourism sector, hotels are coming up, we have a very good health care facility, airports are coming up, and we are geared towards catering to any traffic. I think our master plan is to cater to two and a half million tourists by 2016 or a little earlier than that.
We are on track to gearing ourselves up to it. Whereas many places in the world are embroiled in conflicts, if you take Sri Lanka in isolation, we are the only country in the region that has total peace. We have fought an overcome a war that was unwinnable in the minds of the international community. We did so through commitment, dedication and leadership. We are here to stay. We are now blessed with total peace. Transactions and business can take place and investment can be made to help participate in Sri Lanka’s development.