Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Temasek Holdings 39th Anniversary Dinner

6 August 2013

Mr Lim Boon Heng
Chairman of Temasek Holdings

Mr Dhanabalan
Former and recent Chairman

Officers of Temasek Holdings

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen

1.     I am very happy to join you tonight, firstly to celebrate Temasek’s milestone – 39th anniversary; and also to thank Dhana for his many years of service as Chairman. I shall leave the Finance Minister to talk about Temasek, and I shall focus my speech tonight on Dhana.

2.     Dhana’s multiple contributions in government are on the public record; I don’t have to recite them.

3.     But I would like to thank him for having been a good friend and a trusted colleague, an able minister and a wise advisor for more than 30 years.

4.     I already knew Dhana socially before I entered politics.

5.     The first time I worked with him was before the 1984 general election, which I stood, when we were drafting the party manifesto. We were discussing how to express our commitment to help every Singaporean achieve his best, the best that he was capable of – an issue which is very much alive and remains with us today. And I remember well Dhana’s comment in the exchange: that he deeply believed that every person had a talent, and each one of us was precious in our own way. It left an impression on me, because it reflected his deep respect for people, whatever their abilities or station in life.

6.     After election, our next task was to draft the President’s Address for the Opening of Parliament. We went through multiple versions, and this was in the days before Microsoft Word. So after umpteen versions, I commented that this was like the novelists and poets of old who worked on draft after draft of their brilliant masterpieces. And Dhana said, yes, the best parts were often those that the writer had cut out and thrown away. That I think, reflected another aspect of his personality – the ability to laugh at himself and not take himself too seriously, which reminded us to keep our heads sober too, as his friends and colleagues. I reminded Dhana of these old conversations this morning; he said he can’t remember. I don’t think I imagined them, but it reflects the person and the man.

7.     As Cabinet colleagues, we dealt with a wide range of issues, often cutting across ministries, and not infrequently politically sensitive. Dhana handled them ably. In the 1980s after the big recession in 1985, we had a Ministerial Economic Committee, a committee of Ministers chaired by then DPM Mr Goh Chok Tong. Dhana was on the committee. I was then in MTI, and Dr Richard Hu was then in the Ministry of Finance. And I always appreciated Dhana’s contributions on this committee – clear, logical, articulate, dispassionate. After (former Minister for National Development) Teh Cheang Wan died, Dhana took over in the Ministry of National Development. He restored confidence, brought policies up to date. And one of the things which he did which has had lasting consequence, was to highlight the problem of ethnic enclaves forming in HDB estates, actually reforming after they had been dispersed. And he advocated setting ethnic limits in HDB precincts and blocks. And so we acted – we set the ethnic quotas in each block, in each precinct, and nipped a very difficult problem in the bud before it became impossible to solve. Sometimes a matter would arise which would raise core issues of values and principles. Dhana would search his conscience and try to do the right thing. For example, the idea of GRCs to ensure minority representation in Parliament; Dhana resisted this for a very long time, because he felt that Singaporeans should and would vote for or against a person based on his character, his abilities and his policies, regardless of what his race is. So he didn’t really believe in the GRCs, although we implemented them. But eventually he concluded that it would be many years before race would cease to matter in Singapore, and that we did need some safeguard to ensure minority representation, and he said so publicly.

8.     Another example was when we passed the Bill on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony. This was 1990, after we had had some issues with various religious groups. It was a very delicate matter for us to legislate and tread upon. Because for a religious person, his conscience and religious convictions take precedence over the laws of the state, and yet in a multi-religious society like ours, all groups have to exercise restraint and good sense, and it becomes crucial to keep religion strictly separate from politics. Dhana was not the only religious member of the Cabinet, but his perspective on this issue was most valuable to us in working out a practical and reasonable approach. His support for the Bill helped it to be accepted by the religious groups and the public. This was his value as a Minister – he spoke and acted out of conviction, and people knew that.

9.     Dhana retired as a Minister in 1992. A few months later, I was diagnosed with lymphoma, at around the same time as Mr Ong Teng Cheong was also diagnosed with lymphoma. Confidence was wobbly, and Dhana agreed to come back into the Cabinet to relieve me as Minister for Trade and Industry, and served for a year. He tided us over a difficult period, and made a big difference to confidence in the team.

10.     After a year, Dhana “retired” again. I said “retired” in quotation marks. But he stayed on as a backbencher for the rest of the term. He did not speak often in Parliament, but when he spoke, which he did in important debates, it carried weight and people listened.

11.     A few years later in 1996, we needed a new Chairman for Temasek. Dhana was the obvious best choice. I asked him if he would take it on; he thought it over and agreed. Seventeen years have passed since then, I suspect longer than he expected to serve.

12.     Dhana has transformed Temasek from what it was when he took over. At the time, he admitted to not knowing what exactly Temasek should be, but he simply knew that it could become much more than it was. He steered Temasek through major economic storms: the Asian Financial Crisis, the recession post-9/11, the Global Financial Crisis more recently. He reshaped Temasek’s investment strategy, from one focused mainly on Singapore to one harnessing the twin engines of growth in Singapore and in Asia. He tripled the value of the portfolio, from $70b in 1997 to $215b today, enhancing Temasek’s international standing and thus Singapore’s. He has also assembled a good team to take Temasek into the future. And he did all these while technically being the non-executive Chairman, and in between also serving as Chairman of SIA and Chairman of DBS Bank.

13.     Singapore has been lucky to have had stewards like Dhana to take care of our affairs. They believe in what they are doing; they dedicate their hearts and souls to the task.

14.     I would like to thank Dhana for all his contributions, to Temasek and to Singapore. I am sorry to see him retire, again. I wish Dhana and Christine many happy and fulfilling years ahead. And I am sure that even in retirement, he will find many ways to contribute to society.

15.     Thank you Dhana, and thank you all.