by Tan, Joanna Hwang Soo
Suppiah Dhanabalan (b. 8 August 1937, Singapore–), also known as S. Dhanabalan or just Dhana, is a banker and former politician who served in various ministries, notably foreign affairs and national development. Since his retirement from politics, he has held chairmanships for large corporations including Temasek Holdings and DBS Group Holdings.
Early life and education
Dhanabalan was born in 1937, the third child and eldest son in a Tamil family of three girls and three boys. His father was a construction worker at a naval base, and he grew up in a kampong (village) in Paya Lebar. A good student, he attended the now-defunct Rangoon Road Primary School – an all-boys school and one of the few government schools at the time.1 Some of his contemporaries at school later became prominent politicians, such as former president Devan Nair and former law minister S. Jayakumar.2
Dhanabalan went on to complete four years at Victoria School and graduated in 1954. He received a teaching bursary from the Ministry of Education to study economics at the University of Malaya, eventually graduating with an honours degree in 1960. In his final year, the ministry wanted him to switch to studying English literature, and he credits then minister for finance Goh Keng Swee with a timely intervention that allowed him to complete the course in economics. After graduation, Dhanabalan joined the civil service.3
Career in civil service and politics
Dhanabalan began his career in the civil service as an assistant secretary at the Ministry of Finance. He helped to draft the proposal for the formation of the Economic Development Board (EDB), and became its first industrial economist when it was established in 1961.4 He was at EDB until 1968, when EDB chairman Hon Sui Sen recruited him to help establish the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS). Dhanabalan joined the bank as vice president, and was executive vice president from 1970 to 1978.5
In 1976, Dhanabalan entered into politics. That year, he was elected as the member of Parliament (MP) for Kallang – a position he served in until 1991. While he had initially been reluctant to become a politician, he was aware of the shortage of candidates for public office, and felt that it would be irresponsible if he did not step forward.6
He was the senior minister of state for national development (1978–79) before moving to foreign affairs (1979–80), and thereafter succeeded S. Rajaratnam as the minister for foreign affairs (1980–88).7 His tenure as foreign minister was dominated by Singapore’s active participation in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and ASEAN’s preoccupation with the Indochina crisis.8 In the ’80s, Dhanabalan also served as minister for culture (1981–84) and then minister for community development (1984–86), before taking on the national development portofolio (1987–92).9 In 1988, Lee Kuan Yew revealed that Dhanabalan had been a possible candidate to succeed him as prime minister but then concluded that Singaporeans were not ready for an Indian prime minister, an assessment that Dhanabalan later agreed with.10
During his term as minister for national development, Dhanabalan helped to shape housing and land-use policies with the launch of the Concept Plan 1991, liberalised home-ownership rules, introduced more varied designs for public housing through the participation of private-sector firms in the Design and Build Scheme, and handed over management duties from the Housing and Development Board to town councils.11
In 1981, opposition member Chiam See Tong sued Dhanabalan and Howe Yoon Chong for libel over remarks they made about him at an election rally. Both Dhanabalan and Howe made separate public apologies and the matter was settled out of court, making Chiam the only opposition member ever to win a libel suit against a People’s Action Party (PAP) politician.12
In the August 1991 general election, Dhanabalan became one of the MPs for the Toa Payoh group representation constituency (GRC). The following month, he announced his intention, together with cabinet colleague Tony Tan, to retire from cabinet.13 In September 1992, he resigned from his ministerial position to pursue a career in the private sector but remained as an MP.14 Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong persuaded him to return to the cabinet several months later when Lee Hsien Loong, then the incumbent minister for trade and industry, was diagnosed with cancer. Dhanabalan took over the portfolio from Lee during the latter’s treatment for and recovery from cancer, serving as minister from 1992 to early 1994.15 Dhanabalan revealed years later that his departure from cabinet in 1992 had been due to differences of opinion with the government over the arrests of 22 people under the Internal Security Act in 1987. The group, many of whom were linked to the Catholic Church, was accused to be involved in a Marxist conspiracy.16
Dhanabalan retired from Parliament in 1996.17 During his years in the civil service and politics, Dhanabalan was widely respected by both colleagues and staff for his intellect, fairness and integrity. Staff members recalled his consultative style of management, decisive manner, down-to-earth character and concern for the under-privileged.18
Activities outside politics
Dhanabalan’s background in economics and banking has served him well in a number of large corporations. He was director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation from 1981 to 200519 and chairman of Singapore Airlines from 1996 to 1998, during which time he dealt with the aftermath of the crash of SilkAir Flight MI 185 in December 1997.20 He was also chairman of DBS Group Holdings from 1999 to 2005.21
Over the years, Dhanabalan had a close association with the Singapore labour movement. In 1970, he was appointed to insurance co-operative NTUC (National Trades Union Congress) Income’s board of directors.22 He received the NTUC Friend of Labour award in 1979 and the NTUC Medal of Honour in 1992 for his contributions to the labour movement in Singapore.23 He then served as chairman of the Singapore Labour Foundation from 1993 to 1996, replacing Ong Teng Cheong, who had been elected president of Singapore in August 1993.24
A staunch Christian of the Baptist denomination, Dhanabalan has been active in social and voluntary causes. He served as president of the Singapore Indian Development Association (SINDA) from 1996 to 2002. Due to his own experience, he was a strong advocate for education as the key to developing the potential of the Indian community in Singapore.25
He is also the patron of the Singapore chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit Christian organisation that builds housing with the help of volunteers. A regular participant in its building events, he worked with other volunteers in September 2004 to build houses on the Indonesian island of Batam.26
On 9 August 2007, Dhanabalan was awarded the Order of Temasek (Second Class) for his distinguished service to the country.27 In July 2009, he joined the advisory board of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. In November the same year, he received the NUS Eminent Alumni Award,28 the university’s highest honour for alumni who have distinguished themselves nationally or internationally through their contributions and achievements.29
Dhanabalan assumed chairmanship of Temasek Holdings on 1 October 1996.30 During his tenure, he presided over the introduction of greater transparency at Temasek, including the publication of the company’s first-ever annual report in 2004, as well as updating of the company’s charter to emphasise its commercial nature and downplay its government links.31 On 1 August 2013, he was succeeded by Lim Boon Heng as chairman of Temasek Holdings.32 He currently sits on the Council of Presidential Advisors, and is a permanent member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights.33
In 2015, he was conferred the Order of Temasek (First Class), Singapore’s top civilian honour.34
1960: Graduates from university and joins the civil service
1961–1968: Economist, EDB35
1968–1978: Vice president, then executive vice president from 1970, DBS
1976–1991: Member of parliament for Kallang36
1980–1988: Minister for foreign affairs
1981–1984: Minister for culture
1981–2005: Director, Government of Singapore Investment Corporation
1984–1986: Minister for community development
1987–1992: Minister for national development
1991–1996: Member of parliament for Toa Payoh GRC
Sep 1992: Leaves the cabinet
Dec 1992–1993: Returns to cabinet as minister for trade and industry
1993–1996: Chairman, Singapore Labour Foundation
1996–1998: Chairman, Singapore Airlines
1996–2013: Chairman, Temasek Holdings
1998–present: Permanent member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights
1999–2005: Chairman, DBS Group Holdings
2004–present: Member, Council of Presidential Advisors
2015–present: Chairman, Mandai Safari Park Holdings37
Awards and honours
1979:Friend of Labour Award, NTUC
1992: Medal of Honour, NTUC
2007: Order of Temasek (Second Class)
2009: NUS Eminent Alumni Award
2015: Order of Temasek (First Class)
Wife: Christine Tan Khoon Hiap39
Joanna HS Tan
1. Doraisamy, S. (1999, July 6). From village boy to bank chairman. The New Paper, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Victoria School. (n.d.). League of extraordinary Victorians. Retrieved 2016, March 16 from Victoria School website: http://vs.moe.edu.sg/extraordinary.html; Doraisamy, S. (1999, July 6). From village boy to bank chairman. The New Paper, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Dhanabalan, S. (2010, May 23). Eulogy delivered by S Dhanabalan, Chairman, at the state funeral service for the late Dr Goh Keng Swee. Retrieved 2016, March 16 from Temasek Holdings website: http://www.temasek.com.sg/mediacentre/speeches?detailid=8599
4. Dhanabalan honoured by EDB Society. (1999, March 27). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Dhanabalan honoured by EDB Society. (1999, March 27). The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Au Yong, J. (2007, December 12). Reluctant politician reveals why he entered the fray. The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Tan, S. (1992, August 31). A kind boss and a man of vision under the stern demeanour. The Straits times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Mulliner, K., & The-Mulliner, L. (1991). Historical dictionary of Singapore. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, pp. 76–77. (Call no.: RSING 959.57003 MUL-[HIS])
9. Tan, S. (1992, August 31). A kind boss and a man of vision under the stern demeanour. The Straits times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Chua, M. H. (2007, November 23). S’poreans not ready for non-Chinese PM. The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Tan, C. (1992, August 25). Dhana leaves ministry. Hu takes over; tributes from industry. The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Chiam withdraws suit against Dhana. (1981, April 10). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG. Election remarks: Chiam accepts Howe’s apology. (1981, March 16). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Apology, (1981, February 28), Business Times, p. 12.
13. Dhana: No firm plans in private sector. (1991, September 6). The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Tan, C. (1992, August 25). Dhana leaves ministry. Hu takes over; tributes from industry. The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Dhana returns to cabinet on Monday. (1992, December 2). The Straits Times, p. 1; BG Lee to oversee MTI and Mindef in new Cabinet. (1993, December 22). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Dhanabalan, S. (2015, March 24). A leader who was ruthless in demanding honesty. The Straits Times, pp. 22/23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. 18 former PAP MPs left political arena this week. (1996, December 25). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Tan, S. (1992, August 31). A kind boss and a man of vision under the stern demeanour. The Straits Times, p. 26. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. GIC. (n.d). S Dhanabalan – board of directors. Retrieved 2016, March 16 from GIC website: http://www.gic.com.sg/our-business/70-corporate-governance/board-of-directors/overview/directors
20. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1997, December 24). Dhana apologises to families of crash victims. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. DBS Group Holdings. (2005, October 5). Dhanabalan to retire as DBS chairman [Press release]. Retrieved 2016, March 18 from DBS website: https://www.dbs.com/newsroom/Dhanabalan_to_retire_as_DBS_chairman_MIGRT
22. Dr Goh elected chairman of Income’s trustees board. (1970, September 11). The Straits Times, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Nine presented NTUC awards. (1979, May 2). The Straits Times, p. 6; Dhana to receive Medal of Honour from labour movement. (1992, April 19). The Straits Times, p. 19. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Dhana replaces Teng Cheong as SLF chairman. (1993, September 18). The Straits Times, p. 29; Chuang, P. M. (1996, October 15). Many top execs in union activities. The Business Times, p. 4. Retrieved rom NewspaperSG.
25. Nirmala, M. (1996, February 29). Dhanabalan replaces Pillay as Sinda president. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Yap, S.-Y. (2004, September 10). Take a brick, build a house for the poor. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Dhanabalan conferred Order of Temasek award. (2007, August 9). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. National University of Singapore. (2009, November 10). NUS Alumni Awards 2009: 20 outstanding alumni recognised for achievements and contributions [Press release]. Retrieved 2016, March 15 from National University of Singapore website: http://newshub.nus.edu.sg/pressrel/0911/091110.php
29. NUS Business School. (2009, June 30). NUS Business School appoints new management advisory board [Press release]. Retrieved 2016, March 16 from National University of Singapore website: http://bschool.nus.edu/tabid/1575/NewsID/386/Default.aspx?view=news
30. Raj, C. (1996, October 1). Dhanabalan appointed Temasek Hldgs chairman. The Business Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Lee, B. (2004, November 3). 3 reasons for publishing Temasek's annual report. The Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
32. Lim Boon Heng to take over as chairman of Temasek Holdings from S. Dhanabalan. (2013, July 22). The Straits Times. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
33. President’s Office. (2016, February 15). Council of Presidential Advisers. Retrieved 2016, March 18 from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/roles-and-responsibilities/presidents-office/council-presidential-advisers; President’s Office. (2015, July 21). Other presidential councils: Presidential Council for Minority Rights. Retrieved 2016, March 18 from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/roles-and-responsibilities/presidents-office/other-presidential-councils
34. Ex-minister given top civilian honour. (2015, August 9). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
35. Dhanabalan honoured by EDB Society. (1999, March 27).The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. Au Yong, J. (2007, December 12). Reluctant politician reveals why he entered the fray. The Straits Times, p. 32. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
37. S Dhanabalan to head company behind Mandai rejuvenation. (2015, October 20). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/
38. Doraisamy, S. (1999, July 6). From village boy to bank chairman. The New Paper, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Up, up and up. (1999, March 27). The New Paper, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
40. Doraisamy, S. (1999, July 6). From village boy to bank chairman. The New Paper, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
41. Doraisamy, S. (1999, July 6). From village boy to bank chairman. The New Paper, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Dhanabalan: How Dr Goh changed my life. (2010, May 24). Today, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Henson, B. (1991, September 7). Decision to step down not a hasty one, says Dhana The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Lee, S. S. (2007, August 9). A prime mover in nation’s economic success. The Straits Times, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1991, September 7). Dhana’s open and consultative style will be missed. The Straits Times, p. 25. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.