Steadfast leader in the face of challenges

PHOTO: Steadfast leader in the face of challenges

SINGAPORE - Temasek Holdings chairman S. Dhanabalan has had plenty of difficult decisions to make over his 17-year tenure but one of the most controversial came on May 20, 2002.

That was the day it was announced that Ms Ho Ching, the wife of then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, would become the investment firm's next head.

A decade later, he still stands steadfastly by that decision. As he spoke to the media on Monday to announce his retirement from Temasek at the end of the month, he began by stating that the appointment was "one of the most important decisions" he took as chairman.

While he had no clear idea as to what Temasek should be when he decided to bring her in, he knew that the company had to change, he said. And in Ms Ho, he found someone who had "the creative ideas, the courage to take the ball and run with it without specific directions".

That decision has played a pivotal role in his time at Temasek, said colleagues and observers yesterday.

It gave Mr Dhanabalan a trusted and entrepreneurial chief executive who helped transform Temasek from a civil servant-run investment company focused on Singapore, to a truly international, professionally run and globally respected investor today.

Under his stewardship, the investment company's portfolio value tripled from $70 billion in 1997 to a record $215 billion as of March 31.

Having the right management team enabled the firm to diversify its investments to emerging Asia and beyond, improve its transparency for the investment community and the public by issuing an annual report on its financial performance, and build up its corporate governance model.

The decision to appoint Ms Ho also exemplified Mr Dhanabalan's toughness of mind, independent streak and strong sense of purpose.

A former colleague, who declined to be named, said: "He has given a huge amount of support to Ho Ching, who has been the driving force behind Temasek's strength. To achieve that, she really needed someone like Dhana to make that decision."

Mr Dhanabalan admits that, as in any investment house, Temasek has had successes and failures during his time, but said he was happy overall.

When asked on Monday about the naysayers of Temasek throughout his tenure, he repeated his mantra: "Let the results speak for themselves... We cannot be affected in our job by what the market perception is."

Beyond his strong-mindedness and intellect, Mr Dhanabalan, a former Cabinet minister and chairman of DBS Bank and Singapore Airlines, led with a deep sense of morality and humility.

He once observed in private that everyone sits on the same type of chair at Temasek - a testament to the openness of culture that he instilled at the organisation.

He noted at the briefing on Monday: "I don't necessarily have to work through the CEO, I can contact anyone. I have lunches with senior staff, one on one, so I know what's happening."

United Overseas Bank chairman Hsieh Fu Hua, who was a Temasek director from 2010 until last year, described him as "a man who is, in the world of business and finance, a humane person".

"It is not about himself, for sure," he added.

Mr Dhanabalan revealed on Monday that he had ideally wanted to retire at 70. But just as he was called back from retirement from politics in 1992, after then Deputy Prime Minister Lee was diagnosed with cancer, he answered the pleas to stay on at Temasek until a suitable successor could be found.

Reflecting on finally retiring, one month before his 76th birthday, he expressed his emotions in his typical rational manner: "If I go away feeling completely happy, then there's something wrong. If I go away feeling tearfully sad, there's also something wrong."

A devout Christian, Mr Dhanabalan said he will now commit more time to his church, the Bukit Panjang Gospel Chapel, where he preaches occasionally. He may even write a book for his two children, he said, joking that he will not be playing golf because he is poor at the game.

What is clear is that he will be busy with something that gives him the same sense of purpose that has accompanied him throughout his career.

He said: "I want to do things that, in my personal value system, are most significant. And being successful in the corporate world is not, in my value system, the most significant in life. So I don't want to, finally, when I have the time to do it, (find that) I'm too blind to see, too deaf to hear, too weak to move."

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