Nation builder

President Tony Tan Keng Yam (L) and Mr S. Dhanabalan (R).
PHOTO: The Straits Times

ONLY eight people have been awarded the prestigious Order of Temasek (First Class) - Singapore's highest civilian honour.

The latest addition to the illustrious list is Mr S. Dhanabalan, who received the award from President Tony Tan Keng Yam on Nov 8 for his vast contributions to nation building.

Mr Dhanabalan has worn many hats in his long and distinguised career - in and out of politics. As a minister, he helmed five different ministries and served under Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and later PM Goh Chok Tong.

Prior to his political career, he was one of the pioneers of the Economic Development Board and played a key role in starting DBS Bank, which he later joined. As Temasek Holdings chairman from 1996 to 2013, he guided the investment company through difficult and uncertain periods in the global economy and is currently its senior international adviser.

The Indian community also owes much to Mr Dhanabalan, one of the pioneers of the Singapore Indian Development Association or SINDA. He was its president from 1996 to 2001 and has been a life trustee since its inception in 1991.

Like many of his generation, Mr Dhanabalan grew up in a kampung home, one of six children. His father was a clerk in various establishments.

He attended Rangoon Road Primary and Victoria Secondary where he played cricket and hockey. After completing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics at the University of Malaya on a teaching bursary, Mr Dhanabalan joined the Ministry of Finance as an administrative officer and later played a key role in driving Singapore's economic strategies.

His talent soon caught the eye of the People's Action Party (PAP) leadership and he was asked to consider serving in politics in 1976. But he felt he wasn't ready and wanted to be considered for the next round of elections. However, PAP stalwarts Dr Toh Chin Chye and Mr S.

Rajaratnam told him that if people with successful careers did not enter politics, then what would be the quality of those who did come forward.

Said the soft-spoken Mr Dhanabalan: "It was put to me this way: View a Singapore which will be run by those who were not successful in their own careers and chose politics as their second or third option as a way to make a living.

"In 1976 I was 39 years old and I thought it was reasonable for me to request to stand in the next round and to work a few more years in the bank.

Dr Toh pointed out that if I waited for another four years I would be 44 or 45 years old. How many years would I have left to serve in the leadership? It was better not to wait."

And so Mr Dhanabalan stood in the 1976 General Election and was elected as the Member of Parliament for Kallang. His political career took off quickly and he often helmed two ministries concurrently. He retired from politics in 1992 but returned three months later to be the Trade and Industry Minister when Singapore's two deputy prime ministers were diagnosed with cancer.

Two challenging and memorable ministries

Foreign Affairs and National Development proved to be the most challenging and memorable ministries for him. When he was Foreign Minister in the 1980s, Communist Vietnam had occupied Cambodia and ASEAN joined hands with Thailand in opposing it and calling for a UN-supervised election to prevent the return of the Pol Pot regime.

"ASEAN gelled as a group at that point and they were good years for ASEAN. All the countries were cooperative both politically and publicly for the same cause. It was an exciting moment for me," he said.

When Mr Dhanabalan became National Development Minister, most of the housing problems had been solved. But he helped bring about a more flexible pricing system for flats depending on their location in the estate. He also looked into the quality of the flats and the surrounding area.

Explained Mr Dhanabalan: "The first phase of HDB blocks and flats put the emphasis on giving people a decent roof over their heads as quickly as possible. There was less emphasis on creating a good physical environment for the blocks.

"People spent much effort to beautify the interior of their homes but conditions outside their homes did not match what they had inside their homes. Later, HDB put more emphasis on creating pleasant surroundings for the HDB blocks and improved the construction and design of the blocks and apartments. We were concerned that residents of the older estates and flats would become dissatisfied when they compared their flats with the new ones."

Thus a scheme was introduced to upgrade a flat while the owner of the house was occupying it, with the Government subsidising the cost.

Urban redevelopment also entered a new phase under Mr Dhanabalan's watch. Until then, redevelopment was regarded as demolition and rebuilding.

Mr Dhanabalan and his team decided to introduce an element of conservation.

"Elements of heritage in places like Little India, Chinatown and Geylang were preserved while upgrading and introducing new elements," he said.

Indian community issues

Mr Dhanabalan was also asked to look into the issues affecting the Indian community in Singapore. Together with Mr J.Y.M. Pillay they identified education as a weakness. Teaching English, Science and Maths became SINDA's focus. Maths, in particular, showed a worrying trend and many Indian children struggled to cope. Maths results have improved over the years but more needs to be done. Indeed, the situation would have been much worse, if not for SINDA.

"I tell you what our real problem is. The parents who send their children for SINDA's programmes, they are people who have already discovered or realised the importance of education. The challenge is to get Indian Singaporeans who are not coming for SINDA's programmmes to attend," added Mr Dhanabalan, who is well-known for speaking his mind.

Mr Dhanabalan feels Singapore is a very unique country because of its multiracial system and this should be closely guarded.

"Almost no other country in the world has it the way we have it in Singapore. And it gives Singaporeans an edge in dealing with people of many different backgrounds, different races and different nationalities.

"An Indian from India will not be able to deal so well with a Chinese businessman as an Indian from Singapore because we live among them, we know them, we know how they conduct themselves, we know how to deal with them. We also have no problems dealing with Westerners because many of them are here and we are quite used to dealing with them. The same cannot be said for a Chinese from China or an Indian from India. So we have a very unique advantage which we should capitalise on."

Racial and religious harmony is also a big plus for Singapore and he cited the example of a charity dinner he once attended where people from different religious backgrounds mingled freely with each other.

"It was a charity that was started by Muslims, but now it's basically led by many non-Muslims because they do charity work outside Singapore. There was a kind of celebration. People were sitting round the table and there was a Muslim, an imam, a Roman Catholic nun, and others. They were taking photographs with each other, laughing, talking, something which we can't find in many parts of the world.

"They are very comfortable with each other. And that's something we take for granted in Singapore. But the world is not like that. It's not the norm.

"We are quite unique, so we have to work very hard in order to keep these values and qualities and advantages that we have."

Asked what Singapore would be like over the next 50 years, Mr Dhanabalan said: "That's a tough question. It will continue to be a very competitive place because that's the only way we can survive. But we are not the only place in the world which is competitive.

"You go to Korea and see how they slog for the exams. The Chinese slog for their exams because they are a big country and people work very hard. Even India, for the major exams people are working very hard."

Mr Dhanabalan, who became a Christian in his teens, is married to Madam Christine Tan. They have two children, Shandini and Ramesh.

"I would not be the person I am today if I had not become a Christian. I was 18 or 19 when I became a Christian. I'm 78 now. It's been the defining experience of my life," he said.


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