Fall of ‘master of the universe’

24 March 2013 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Kumbhakarna

The ebullient Sakwithi Ranasinghe, though finally behind bars, was back in the news, having stripped in court as a protest against being jailed, and also against his treatment while serving time for fraud on a very large scale.

Removing his clothes may be seen as a symbolic act, akin to the sudden stripping away of his powers which happened when the once-mighty Sakwithi fled the country after his ‘business empire’ collapsed. The stripping can be interpreted too, as a symbol of his contempt for the establishment, over which he had such mastery through financial manipulation for almost a decade.

Sakwithi the ‘king of English tuition’ became a household name steadily through the 1990s into the new millennium. His web of island-wide tuition classes became the perfect panacea for a poorly-educated segment of society ever ready to grasp at any ‘instant English’ straw. Even the name is a fabrication. Sakwithi, which means ‘universally powerful’ or ‘master of the universe,’ is an assumed one.

" The bottom has now fallen out of this mass market for English. Sakwithi’s example only goes to confirm Kumbhakarna’s theory that people with little knowledge succeed best in Sri Lanka "

If he’s being badly treated in prison ie, in a manner similar to most other prisoners? Simply put, it’s because he’s now penniless. If he’s got ready cash to throw around, he’d still be king. Unfortunately, any prisoner without money (no matter how illustrious, industrious or praiseworthy when belonging to the civilized world beyond jail) is absolutely worthless, worse than riff raff. That’s how our prisons work.

Prison is a terrible place for the penniless (Sakwithi’s wife is still remand custody as she is unable to raise the bail money). But there was a telling moment, during January’s prison riots, when Sakwithi was able to show that his name was still associated with power. Late at night, when military personnel broke into Welikada prison, Sakwithi had enough faith in his name to get up and run out, shouting: “Don’t shoot! I’m Sakwithi Ranasinghe!”He wasn’t shot. Such is the power of wealth even in absentia.



But why did a man who amassed such a fortune in a short span of a decade commit mass scale fraud and ruin himself? It doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure out that Sakwithi is a self-destructive character. His gambling habit is only part of it. The only thing he may have loved in his life was money, and even that, he may not have loved hard enough to hang on to it.

Though he got his first big break financially by teaching English, he certainly didn’t enjoy teaching. This was what set him apart from other successful tuition gurus. There are several self-made millionaires in this category, some of them even going to the extent of bribing their way into supposedly secret exam papers. But they are primarily teachers and enjoy that activity, and the power and wealth it brings. Sakwithi, with a mediocre knowledge of English to begin with, certainly didn’t love teaching. The problem with English teaching in Sri Lanka is that, the general standard being so low, very few are able to judge the quality of a teacher. In the tuition mass market racket, a package of audio-visual teaching methods (the ‘audio’ part being huge, incoherent speakers arranged around a hall packed with 100 or more students, the ‘visual’ being the teacher  with a mike), plus free dictionaries and grammar books (which no student ever uses) were offered in full-page ads, with classes advertised in major cities and towns. This was very successful marketing hype. 

The bottom has now fallen out of this mass market for English. Sakwithi’s example only goes to confirm Kumbhakarna’s theory that people with little knowledge succeed best in Sri Lanka. It’s a paradise for those  badly educated types with marketing skills – not the skills to market a sophisticated product but rudimentary ones or copies, and the skill to market themselves. Sakwithi was a consummate artist in this regard.

" Like all good conmen, he was good at making people part with their hard-earned money. In his nationwide web of tuition classes, for example, there was intense competition to get the ‘rights’ to conduct tuition classes under Sakwithi’s name in all cities, districts and provinces. "

He succeeded so well because the people he duped – from clueless teenagers in tuition to professionals in his ‘investment ventures’ – were badly educated themselves. He gave them a tasty hook to swallow – instant, effortless fluency in English, or fantastic returns on their investments, and they eagerly swallowed it.
Like all good conmen, he was good at making people part with their hard-earned money. In his nationwide web of tuition classes, for example, there was intense competition to get the ‘rights’ to conduct tuition classes under Sakwithi’s name in all cities, districts and provinces. To obtain this right, a candidate had to deposit one hundred thousand rupees.

Moreover, each person had a target to meet, or his position would be cancelled and he would lose the deposit.
The successful candidate had to conduct English classes in his town with Sakwithi’s ‘audio-visual aids’ – a CD sold in the pavement for Rs. 100. That’s how Sakwithi raised capital for his finance company. It’s hard to understand why people who wouldn’t give a hundred rupees to someone in need willingly put their savings into this racket. But that’s the art of the successful conman.



Apart from being crooked, Sakwithi was addicted to gambling, which led to his downfall. His gambling skills would have been no better than his English. Those who would like to know what it takes to be a gambler should read Fyodor Dostovesky’s classic story ‘The Gambler.’ Good gamblers are suave and have nerves of steel. Sakwithi’s inner insecurities always showed on his face and, no matter what clothes he wore, he was always Sakwithi.

His ‘financial empire’ collapsed quickly, but the domino effect it brought about (along with the Golden Key collapse, which was gambling at a different level) was ruinous to a number of other one-man finance companies as panicky investors began to withdraw their deposits. Some of these people, while they were hard-headed financial speculators, were not crooks like Sakwithi. But they were left without a choice as the domino kept rolling.

Thus, Sakwithi ruined not just himself but several other speculators and thousands of clueless investors. One, the famous ‘Danduwam Mudalali’ was actually murdered (undoubtedly by an irate investor with powerful connections, because this murder still remains a mystery).

Has anyone learnt a lesson from this? One doubts it. It’s a matter of time before the next  Sakwithi comes along. Money gives everyone illusions of power and grandeur. How one copes with that is a matter of integrity, upbringing and common sense. What sets Sakwithi apart from other financial speculators of his time is that he was a grand illusionist, and it looks like he’s maintaining the same illusions of grandeur, based now purely on non-existent money, even in prison.

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