Following is the English translation of an interview conducted by Chaminda Munasinghe of our Sinhala language sister newspaper Lankadeepa with P.G. Kumarasinghe, the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom PLC (SLT) and its fully-owned mobile arm, Mobitel, over the financial performance of the two companies and the allegations levelled against him on several contentious matters.
Can you give us a basic overview of the financial performance of the SLT group in the first quarter of 2016, as the interim results are not yet released to the Colombo Stock Exchange?
I can confidently say that we have done exceptionally well in the first quarter of this year (1Q16). We have set ourselves a revenue target of Rs.70 billion this year (FY16) and the first quarter results reflect that we could even pass that full-year revenue target. In achieving this, I would first of all like to thank our customers, who have unwavering trust in us as the national telecom services provider. I’d also like to extend my appreciation to all the director board members, the SLT group senior management and all employees for their contribution in achieving such commendable results.
What are the strategies the SLT group has employed to sustainably wade through to the future, as Sri Lanka’s telecom landscape remains very competitive?
Now the country has a separate ministry—the Digital Infrastructure Development Ministry—to set up policies for the development of the communication/ IT industries in the country. With the instructions of the president and prime minster, policies are being made by the ministry to take Sri Lanka to the digital age. In this plan, the SLT group is doing its bit by covering for the communications needs of over 50 percent of the country’s population.
As the national telecommunication services provider, apart from business interests, we also have public and social interests. To fulfil such duties, we reintroduced the ‘Upahara’ scheme for public servants and also we have introduced a plan to address the communication needs of the Samudrdi officials, agricultural officers, economic development officers, Grama Sevakas. Also, we have launched a programme to equip the journalists, who are doing a great service to this country, with smartphones and provide them with free voice and data facilities up to a limit. For the senior citizens who are over 60 years, we have introduced a scheme called ‘Meth Garusaru’ and for these packages, data facilities will come free of charge.
At the same time, special packages for the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF), Employees’ Trust Fund (ETF) contributors and university students have also been introduced. We are trying to provide all voice facilities for these packages free of charge with a minimal monthly charge. With all this, I can responsibly say that this is the biggest relief package announced in Sri Lanka’s communication industry’s history
Relief packages to such extent – aren’t they a burden to a profit-oriented company with responsibilities to shareholders?
Well, we have planned all this to have the least burden on the company. We do these things as our corporate social responsibility (CSR). We believe that we have to empower the lower and middle classes of this country for their economies to grow. With that, they can become very valuable customers to us in the future. Therefore, in a way, we consider our CSR initiatives as future investments.
Many have today embraced the facilities and comforts provided by the telecommunications industry. How is the SLT group planning to capitalize on it?
I believe data is the future and smartphones are the key. Though many Sri Lankans use mobile phones, only 25 percent of them have smartphones. If we can get those who don’t use smartphones to use them, their living conditions will definitely go with the facilities provided by such devices through mobile data facilities. Hence, what the SLT group is trying to do is to empower people to adopt such new technologies and devices. Not enough adoption of smartphones, in my opinion, is a major impediment in creating a digital economy. Mobile devices for only voice facilities are of no use today. What is important is data. With this we can adopt many innovative concepts such as smart home, smart city, smart agriculture, smart irrigation, etc. The future will be designed upon the concept of ‘mobile is everything’. Therefore, I believe if we focus on data and data-enabled devices, despite the competition, the SLT group can emerge victorious.
There were reports that the SLT group incurred losses during the last financial year (FY15). Would you like to comment?
During the first three quarters of the last financial year, we were able to achieve all our financial targets. But in the last quarter (4Q15), we had to face a situation where the country’s exchange rate played a key role. As a result, SLT and Mobitel collectively incurred a Rs.2.8 billion forex translation loss. As you can see, this was a side effect of the country’s economic performance. In this backdrop, despite the challenges, the SLT group is the only telecom company in the country, which recorded profits of Rs.5 billion in the last financial year. We have adopted strategies to minimize such impacts on our financials going forward and I believe such losses will come down significantly this financial year
What is the SLT group’s contribution to national development?
We are among the top 10 institutions that provide support to the country’s economic development. Besides, Sri Lankans own 51 percent of the equity of these two companies. We pay over Rs.40 billion annually by way of taxes and other charges to the government. The SLT group is the drive force behind the government’s ‘Vision 2020’ project, which is poised to transform Sri Lanka’s economy to a digital one. Also, we are the telecom and communications partners to the government’s Megapolis project.
Although it’s obvious that the SLT group carries out so many great services to the country, why so much of criticism in media against SLT and specially against you?
As I earlier said, the SLT group is among the top 10 businesses in the country, of which, as its Chairman I’m really proud of. When you are in such an envied position, it is natural for various forces with vested interests to place obstacles in your way. For example, let’s take the tender awarded to Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation (SLIC) by Mobitel. SLIC, which is a state-owned entity, has been our insurance partner for over seven years and generates businesses to our group to the tune if Rs.130 million annually. Considering all this, the SLT board took a collective decision to extend their insurance cover with SLIC by four months, but at significantly lower costs. People with vested interests blame me for this decision, which is a collective director board decision.
What I can’t understand is why some people make so much noise when we give business to another stateowned entity? Besides, the tender procedures followed by Mobitel are extremely transparent and even I recommended Treasury Secretary to use such in the Finance Ministry. Also the tender board chairman of Mobitel is a director of SLT. I don’t have any authority override his/her decisions. Since I assumed duties, many irresponsible media have launched malicious attacks against me, which I find unfathomable.
They had filed baseless reports about a house I was to rent and the privileges and incentives I get as the SLT Chairman. I can responsibly say that I don’t get any additional privileges that were not entitled to previous SLT Chairmen. I can swear that I never misuse public property as I’m bound to protect them. People who have personal grudges against me with the support of ‘not-so-national’ media carry out these mudslinging campaigns against me. But I’m ready to face them as such c h a l l e n g e s push you to a c h i e v e m o r e and shine more.
But can there be a smoke without a fire?
SLT and Mobitel are two leading companies in this country. The chairman of these two institutions is entitled to various privileges and enjoying of such perks depends on the person who assumes such high position. As a government servant for over 30 years, I’m used to taking what is entitled to me by way of a salary or an allowance. So it may be that some people are levelling allegations against me when we discuss what is rightfully entitled to me as the Chairman, at the board level. Some may be thinking that since some people enjoyed ‘special’ privileges, I’m also enjoying them. People who really know me know that I’m not a person like that. I have no businesses registered under my name. This could be the first time a person like me to head this institution. That may be the very reason why I have to face so many challenges.
So what you imply is that there are people who don’t like to see SLT performing well?
There are eight companies under SLT and Mobitel and as a result we face a lot challenges domestically as well as internationally. I believe I made a lot of enemies when I stopped certain unscrupulous foreign telecom company entering the country. I did this, with the help of the Defence Ministry, to keep Sri Lanka’s wealth within the country’s boundaries. Meanwhile, SLT has a manpower company and there are 2,000 employees who have worked over seven years expecting to join SLT. These are problems we have to handle very carefully. These are major decisions and therefore we need a little more time to give the best deal for these employees. Other than that, we have no problems. But I know some see me as a major impediment to the unlawful activities they have been carrying out, for which, I’m proud to say I am. For example, I follow very strict policy in providing international telephony facilities because I believe that the revenue generated from such activities should come to the Sri Lankan government and to SLT in full. I know my policy has become a deterrent to many unlawful and unethical methods earlier practiced. But I’m not scared to carry out my national duties.
The person who works always gets the blame. Is that what you are trying to say?
Yes, exactly. They first tried to set the minister up against me. When it comes to work, we both are on the same track. Therefore, if someone thinks that we can be set against each other, it’s a pipe dream. With the challenges presented, our relationship has become even stronger. We have already prepared our strategic plan and increasing the spectrum of Mobitel is a major part of that. If we can do that, Mobitel can easily become the number one mobile telecommunication services provider in the country. Our journey ends when we achieve our financial and social targets and become the number one contributor to the country’s economy.