A rare breed of leader lost with Dhana's exit

When Mr S. Dhanabalan stepped down as chairman of Temasek Holdings on Wednesday, he ended a glittering 53-year career in the private and public sectors.

His retirement at the age of 75 marks the exit of another of Singapore's second generation of leaders.

It also means Singapore loses a rare breed of leader who brought corporate experience into the world of government.

When he entered politics in 1976, Mr Dhanabalan left behind a career as a rising star in DBS Bank.

Handpicked and mentored by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee - Singapore's foremost economic architect - Mr Dhanabalan rose quickly through the People's Action Party (PAP) ranks, eventually holding a variety of key portfolios in government including foreign affairs, trade and industry, and national development.

His generation was the first of the technocrats, plucked from a high-flying career in the corporate world to serve their country in politics.

Mr Dhanabalan's generation of political stars included Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, former managing director at container shipping firm Neptune Orient Lines, the late former president Ong Teng Cheong, who was an architect with his own practice, and President Tony Tan Keng Yam, who was being groomed to take over the helm of OCBC Bank.

Having vastly successful private sector careers were key attributes of that generation of leaders who took Singapore forward. But that may not be the case in the future.

Looking at PM Lee's current Cabinet, out of the 18 members, five have private-sector experience. Among them: Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who was a top surgeon, and Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, a top lawyer.

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong left the Administrative Service and later headed Nat-Steel; Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Grace Fu was chief executive of the then PSA Corporation, which manages Singapore's ports; and Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan was the chief executive of Singapore General Hospital.

Looking further ahead to the fourth generation of leaders, the numbers dwindle further. All four men identified as potential leaders are either from the military or the civil service.

Education Minister Heng Swee Keat and Acting Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong were career civil servants.

Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing and Acting Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin are former army generals.

The difficulty of bringing in people from the corporate world into politics is not a new one, and the debate on ministerial salaries over the last few decades speaks to that.

But beyond salary, a more contestable political arena and a vocal electorate, often nasty and brutish, means politics is becoming less attractive even as it becomes more complicated, challenging, and in need of the diversity of talent available in the private sector.

We can only hope that the call of public service will continue to attract good men and women into politics. But will we see the likes of Mr Dhanabalan in politics again? I do not think so, and Singapore will be the poorer for it.

chanckr@sph.com.sg

 


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