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When Suppiah Dhanabalan retired this year after 17 years as chairman of Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, the city state’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, paid tribute to a man who had for half a century served in senior roles in government and business.
He was, said Lee, an exemplary and inspirational leader, committed to serving with the highest standards of integrity and probity, backed up by thoughtfulness, resilience and care.
I first met Dhanabalan, or Dhana as he is popularly known, after I arrived in Singapore from New York to take up my post as dean of NUS Business School. It was October 2008, the global financial crisis had erupted and I was lecturing on the causes.
Dhana and I quickly connected around a shared understanding: the crisis was a wake-up call to the lack of accountability in the business world and an alarming decline in ethics. An emphasis purely on transactional value – on equating success with wealth – had, we felt, shifted the focus of business leaders away from the values of stewardship.
He and I share the view that the unethical, morally questionable or even illegal practices that came to light stem from a corporate culture that views actions through a simple cost-benefit perspective: is the expected benefit worth the possible cost, even if it is wrong?
The pervasiveness of this attitude, we feel, is the greatest challenge to the credibility of the business community. As businesses educators, and with Dhana chairing our school’s management advisory board, we have a duty to awaken future leaders to their responsibility to society.
It is a responsibility that has been exemplified throughout Dhana’s career and practical application of the principles of servant leadership. Propelled by a strong values, in-depth understanding and a unique combination of humility and sharp judgment, Dhana is an advocate of doing things not purely for their transactional value or self-promotion but because they are right.
A devout Christian, he has internalised principles of his faith, inspiring in those who work for and with him a passion to serve and create social value. He has earned respect for speaking out of conviction, rather than political correctness, and for putting serving people ahead of serving his career.
During his time in government, he held a succession of senior ministerial roles, helping to shape Singapore through some of the key episodes in its development. He was a close associate of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, who frequently referred to Dhana as one of his cabinet “heavyweights”.
In the late 1970s, Dhana accompanied Lee on an official visit to Beijing to meet Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. It was a visit that began a close interconnection in the development paths of China and Singapore and, perhaps, helped kick-start Deng’s open-door policy – the results of which have reshaped the world.
Later, as head of Temasek, he steered the fund through a succession of international crises, at the same time more than tripling the value of its portfolio to more than S$215bn ($171bn) and transforming it into a globally admired model of accountability. A fellow board member described Dhana as having transformed a successful organisation into a significant one.
As a business school, we believe in a need for business leaders to recognise that we hold and control resources not for personal gain but for the betterment of our communities.
Many of those who are accepted into business school will go on to join the elite of society. They must not see their qualification as simply a leg-up, from which to extract the maximum for their own benefit. We have made it our mission to inculcate a moral and ethical framework across our teaching. This cannot be taught as a separate subject but must be an integral and universal theme.
In Asia, our growth path has reached a transition point – one that requires leadership committed to the principles of stewardship and accountability. As the region moves from government-led to business sector-led growth, the constraints of a limited pool of talented leaders will affect the way forward.
For Asia to enjoy continued and sustainable growth, we must encourage a two-way flow of leaders between government and business. To do so we need role models such as Dhana to lead and inspire.
Bernard Yeung is dean of the National University of Singapore Business School