The news that would destroy the privileged upbringing of the future chief executive of Macquarie Group arrived at their London terrace in an envelope stamped with a Colombo postmark.
A senior health department official in Sri Lanka had written to Shemara Wikramanayake’s father, Ranji, to advise that he had been removed as a consultant physician at Colombo’s top hospital. He was ordered to abandon his medical studies and return immediately home, where he was to be posted to a regional hospital.
Until that traumatic moment, Ranji was an illustrious son of Ceylon, one of the richest countries in Asia – on a par with Singapore. His father, Emil Guy, or E.G., was one of the island’s leading barristers. Living in a sprawling house that later became the Egyptian ambassador’s residence, E.G. sent his children to Colombo’s best schools, where they were taught in English along with other members of the island’s elite.
“Most homes in that time spoke English in the family and Sinhalese, or Sinhala to be more precise, to the servants,” says Shemara’s paternal aunt, Dileeni Wickramasinghe. “It was a very strange kind of society.”
The children watched horse races at the Ceylon Turf Club from their father’s private box, a servant standing behind to provide refreshing tea in the tropical heat. E.G. paid for his children to attend university in England, where he wanted them to absorb a culture that had shaped his life.
Members of the British Empire
Before modern communications and cheap transport created global social networks, the Wikramanayakes were part of the tiny professional elite with global connections. They epitomised, in a way, the success of the British Empire’s aspiration to imbue English customs, culture and norms in other races.
E.G. was presented to Prince Philip when he visited with the Queen in 1953. “How many more of you bastards do I have shake hands with?” the prince asked, according to family lore. Shemara’s grandmother was named Ethel Winifred, even though she had no English heritage. “The natives are more English than the English,” one of Shemara’s uncles, Nimal Wikramanayake, says today.
Ranji graduated from medical school in 1958, and went to London with his young wife, Amara, for specialist training. In England they had two girls, Roshana and Shemara, in 1960 and 1961. Starting to emerge from the post-war austerity, London welcomed educated foreigners. Women on the street would admire Amara’s colourful saris and her long-haired, dark-skinned daughters.
The family returned to Ceylon in 1962. Ranji was hired as a consultant physician at Colombo General Hospital, at age 32, where he treated patients and researched diabetes in his spare time. Even as a young man he was considered among the top five general physicians in the country.
“It was a great achievement because one had to have specialist degrees,” he says. “There were hardly any people who had passed the exams. I was the youngest anyone had achieved that.”
A return to England
Amara gave birth to a third child, a boy they named Priyan. In 1969 Ranji was awarded a one-year Nuffield medical scholarship. The family returned to England, where Ranji studied to qualify for membership of the Royal College of Physicians, an important step in his plan to become one of his country’s great doctors.
In Colombo, Shemara’s grandfather’s career was thriving. E.G. and one of his brothers, Eric Bird, or E.B., had been made Queens Counsel – an honour granted to only two barristers biennially. (E.B. was minister for justice in the 1950s). E.G. was also chairman of a large department store, in business with the Japanese motor giant Nissan, and a committee member of a horse racing club. “He had money dropping out of his pockets,” says Ranji.
“We had a very privileged life,” says one of Shemara’s uncles, Pren. “We didn’t want for anything.”
As he rose through the legal profession, E.G. had become close to an important client: Dudley Senanayake, Ceylon’s second prime minister and the son of its first.
Ceylon was a young democracy with a relatively sophisticated legal system, which meant political disputes often ended up in court. E.G. represented Senanayake personally and his centre-right United National Party in many cases from 1960 to 1964, when the party was in opposition.
E.G. died in 1980, aged 77. Nimal, now 85, frequently appeared with his father as a “junior”, or assistant barrister. He says E.G. deliberately arrived late to hearings so he wouldn’t be obliged to bow when the judge entered the court. “He was a stunning cross examiner,” Nimal Says. “As good as Tom Hughes or any of the great Australian lawyers.”
In 1963, E.G. and two friends paid 100,000 rupees to four politicians to switch sides and bring down the left-wing government, Nimal told AFR Weekend. The money came from United National Party supporters was the equivalent of $10,000, he says.
“My father and two of his friends bribed four members of parliament to get them to cross over to the United National Party,” he says. “I was there when they organised all this.”
(Nimal retracted his claim after Macquarie Group became aware he had spoken to AFR Weekend. “I made the whole thing up,” he said on Wednesday. “The government will be furious; they have been accused of bribery.”)
Any payments to the unidentified MPs would be impossible to verify. There was no change of power in 1963. But the following December the United National Party convinced more than a dozen MPs who were supporters of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to defect. The world’s first female head of government was brought down by one vote.
The United National Party won an election three months later. E.G.’s client, Dudley Senanayake, became prime minister a third time, and the first to serve a full five-year term. E.G. became so influential that he helped select lawyers for Ceylon’s top court, even though he held no formal government position, according to Nimal.
Standing up for the law
Nimal’s younger brother, Pren, disputes their father was overtly political or involved in surreptitious partisan activity. E.G. resisted Bandaranaike’s government because she undermined the rule of law, he says.
“That was his preoccupation and he was disturbed by the fact the government was interfering in the judiciary and the separation of powers,” he says. “If he thought something was wrong he stood up to it. That upset people.”
An election in 1970 was a turning point for the nation and the Wikramanayake family.
The United National Party was easily defeated by the left-wing Sri Lanka Freedom Party. Returned as prime minister for a third time, Bandaranaike restricted free enterprise, nationalised industries, appropriated land, and renamed the Dominion of Ceylon the Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The court system switched from English to Sinhalese.
Sri Lanka detached itself from the Western sphere of influence. Bandaranaike became a feminist hero of the global left and chairwoman of the non-aligned movement.
A prime minister’s murder
The prime minister seemed to hold a personal grudge against E.G. Wikramanayake over the murder in 1959 of Ceylon’s fourth prime minister, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. She had reason to be upset. He was her husband, and was shot in the stomach by an assassin who bodyguards hadn’t searched because he was a robed monk.
E.G. successfully defended one of the accused conspirators, a decision that led the prime minister to propose a law specifically to execute E.G.’s client and others allegedly involved. E.G. asked the Privy Council in London to intervene. It refused.
“The fact that my father appeared for people she believed assassinated her husband … she took it quite personally,” Pren says.
The effects of nationalisation saw the economy rapidly deteriorate in the early 1970s. To stop money flowing out, the socialist government introduced capital controls. E.G. figured he could secure part of his wealth through a property sale to a buyer in London. Someone may have been listening when E.G. arranged the transaction. Given international calls by private individuals were relatively rare at the time, E.G.’s natural confidence may have led him to discuss potential law-breaking on the phone.
“My father thought that nobody could touch him,” Nimal says. “Can you believe what a fool he was?”
Pren, now 67, has a different take. “My father didn’t transfer any money out of the country,” he says. “It was a trumped-up charge.”
Either way, the family feared the government was planning to arrest E.G. for criminal breach of the exchange-control laws. A judge he had helped place on the supreme court was apparently in charge of the case.
There was only a few weeks to get him out. “With our contacts in Ceylon we knew everything that was going on,” Nimal says. ” He was in very great danger. He would have died in jail.”
Not long before, E.G. had suffered a stroke. On the pretense of seeking treatment in England, E.G. and his wife fled Sri Lanka in 1973 for London, where they stayed with their youngest son, Pren, in Holland Park. The family fortune was lost.
Every family member had suffered greatly from the political changes at home. The language switch in the Sri Lankan court system snuffed out Nimal’s promising career at the bar. The young barrister emigrated to Melbourne, where he was failing as a solicitor in a motor-accident law firm.
Pren’s physics degree from Sussex University was useless without a graduate qualification he couldn’t afford. Likewise the cost of taking up an offer to study law at Cambridge. He trained to become a chartered accountant. The only employer he could find was a small Jewish firm that paid a meagre wage in London.
The loss of Shemara’s father’s prized medical job in Colombo had put her family under emotional and financial stress. The decision appeared to have been made by a jealous rival seizing on the Wikramanayakes’ loss of favour. “He had a personal vendetta,” Ranji says.
Racism on London’s streets
Ranji didn’t feel he could return home. But he had lost his scholarship and couldn’t find a permanent job in the clubby British medical world. He filled in for other doctors, and spent six months commuting to Birmingham. He left Monday mornings, slept in the hospital’s residents’ quarters, and returned to the family Friday nights, emotionally and physically drained. “Trying to find a job was impossible,” he says.
Adding to their distress, the atmosphere in Britain had shifted. Rising social discontent had spilled over into racism towards citizens of Britain’s former colonies. “There were Paki-bashing skin heads,” Ranji says. “I don’t like to think about it.”
In Colombo, Shemara and her siblings enjoyed the best education available. In London, Roshana, the oldest child, was enrolled in a poor government high school. “She was coming top of the class and she had no future,” Ranji says. “We went through very, very hard times in England.”
The leftist government in Sri Lanka hadn’t forgotten about them. It tried to get E.G. deported and cancel his passport, although the family used contacts in the High Commission to get a replacement, according to his sons. “I was interviewed by Scotland Yard and Interpol,” Pren says. “It was political persecution.”
In the early 1950s, the wealthy Wikramanayakes had holidayed in Australia, which they found sunny, friendly and prosperous. Crucially, Australia and Sri Lanka shared similar legal, medical and political traditions. They hoped it could become a sanctuary.
Arriving as tourists
In 1973, E.G. and his wife left London for Melbourne on tourist visas. Two years later Ranji moved Shemara and her siblings to Sydney, where Ranji had secured a part time job at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. They arrived with $200 cash.
“We lost everything in 1970 and we started life again,” Ranji says. “And we started everything again when we moved to Sydney.”
Shemara’s family rented for six months, bought a house in Rose Bay, then one in Vaucluse, a wealthy eastern suburbs enclave, overlooking Sydney Harbour, that they still live in. Shemara and her siblings would watch the New Year’s Even fireworks light up Sydney Harbour from the house each year.
In Sri Lanka, the government began criminal charges against E.G. Australia was asked to extradite the ageing barrister, who had given up working and had moved in with his second son, Nimal, in suburban Melbourne, according to the family.
After being fired from his law firm, Nimal had ignored well-intentioned advice and become one of Melbourne’s first dark-skinned barristers. “All the Sri Lankan solicitors said ‘you are mad’,” Nimal says.
One day two Commonwealth Police officers arrived at the house and asked for E.G. Nimal, who had an anti-authority streak, played dumb. “Who?” he said. “What? When? How?”
“You’re trying to be funny,” one of the officers said, according to Nimal.
“I am a member of the Victorian bar,” Nimal says he replied. “Now, I would prefer it if you bugger off.”
In another telling of the story, Nimal says he was more aggressive: “Forgive my language. Why don’t you just f— off?”
(After Macquarie Group intervened, Nimal said he made up the anecdote. “Please don’t write about my father,” he said on Wednesday. “You are going to bring my family down.”)
Despite the bravado, E.G. was in a precarious position. He was a visitor to Australia, where his children lived, and had suffered financially by fleeing Colombo. Sri Lanka wasn’t going to back down, according to his sons.
They weren’t without supporters. Influential members of Victorian society helped E.G. apply for residency, including Desmond Whelan, the chief justice of the county court, and Louis Voumard, QC, the author of the standard text on Australian property law. Both men are now dead.
Pren, E.G.’s youngest son, believes his father tapped into political connections too. E.G.’s Privy Council appeal in 1962 over the assassination case was led by Sir Dingle Foot, who became England’s solicitor general two years later. Foot’s brother, Michael, was an MP who eventually became leader of the Labour Party, which had close links to Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government.
“If you scratch the Sri Lankan connections they were all part of the Old Boy’s network,” Pren says. “Certainly there was some influence brought to bear on getting him to stay here.”
The unusual application was successful. “My father was the only person who got permanent residence coming in on a visitor’s visa,” Nimal says.
The family rises again
E.G. suffered another stroke in 1976 in Melbourne. He moved to Sydney and never worked again. In 1977 a right-wing government took power in Sri Lanka and pardoned E.G., who had been tried in absentia under the previous government, according to Nimal.
Macquarie Group disputes the assertion that E.G. was convicted or pardoned, which Nimal made several times over times two months. “He was convicted wrongly,” Nimal said on Friday afternoon. “He was tried without a summons being served on him.”
Macquarie hired a lawyer or investigator to check through Sri Lankan court records and says it couldn’t find any evidence of legal proceedings against E.G., although the bank acknowledges the Queens Counsel left Sri Lanka after or because his legal work upset the government. Contacted this week, Sri Lankan diplomats in Canberra said they wouldn’t have enough time to confirm any conviction or pardon.
In Australia, the Wikramanayakes flourished.
Even though Nimal encountered racism at Victorian bar – he was once called a nig-nog – Voumard’s publisher asked him to complete The Sale of Land when the barrister died in 1974. Nimal was made a Senior Counsel, which was later converted to Queens Counsel, and believes he and E.G. were the only father-son combination to become silks in separate Commonwealth countries. The Sale of Land was eventually declared one of the top 20 legal books in Australian history.
Pren transferred to Melbourne in 1973 with an accounting firm that is now part of Deloitte. He then moved to Sydney, was hired by Citibank, and set up a financial services firm with his wife, which they sold. He still works as a chartered accountant.
Dileeni took a degree at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She became the first Asian woman to broadcast on the BBC, which saw itself, at the time, as a guardian of the Queen’s English, according to her siblings. She joined the family exodus in the early 1970s to Melbourne, where she married a Sri Lankan pediatric surgeon, settled in Kew and had two children.
Ranji set up what may have been the world’s first computerised diabetes services at the Royal Prince Alfred in 1976. He became one of Australia’s top diabetes experts and dabbled in Sydney property investment. At the urging of their children, Ranji and his wife, Amara, donated $1 million for an annual diabetes research scholarship in 2016. They also funded a research grant administered by the Ceylon College of Physicians.
Shemara’s oldest sister, Roshana, is a senior policy lawyer at the NSW Bar Association. Her brother, Priyan, is a surgeon at the Southern Highlands Private Hospital in Bowral, NSW.
Shemara joined Macquarie Group in 1987. She was made head of its asset management division 21 years later. On December 1 she is due to take over as Macquarie’s chief executive, becoming the first Asian woman to run a large Australian public company.
In keeping with the investment bank’s conservative culture, she has never discussed her family history or answered questions about her personal life. “It’s an amazing family and we are very private people,” her father, Ranji, says. “Under impossible odds we have all succeeded.”
In the last nine months of his life, E.G. was placed under Ranji’s care, which allowed him to remain in a hospital rather than a nursing home. E.G.’s wife, who was known as Girlie, visited him every day. She took his ashes back to Colombo and buried them in a family grave.
The Wikramanayake family was enormously proud of E.G., a pride that has now transferred to his granddaughter, Shemara. The key to her success, her father believes, is determination. “She has inherited my drive,” he says. “My father was like that.”