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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

THE ASIAWEEK BUSINESS HALL OF FAME

J.Y. Pillay:
PIONEER STOCK

A bureaucrat with an entrepreneur's flair for profit


Dhirubai Ambani Mr. Self-Reliance

Jaime Zobel de Ayala The Patrician

Yamauchi Hiroshi Toyman

Entrepreneurs Making money in the Crisis

REMEMBER SINGAPORE GIRL? What a great way to fly, the TV commercial said. With her attentive ways and her ice-melting smile, she always seemed to half-promise something more than just another plane journey. For male business travelers, she was the Viagra of the 1980s - but she would never have existed had it not been for the support of a career civil servant who reads books obsessively and harbors something close to a phobia about publicity.

That is just one of the paradoxes in the remarkable career of Singapore's J.Y. "Joe" Pillay, a dutiful servant of the state and a corporate leader to match any his country has produced. A mechanical engineer by training, Pillay was chairman of Singapore Airlines from 1972 to 1996. During that period, he took the carrier from a small-town operator with just 12 aircraft to an industry leader admired as much for its profits (after tax last year: $699.5 million) as for its service, reliability and modern fleet (86 planes, including advanced "megatop" B747-400s, flying a network spanning 41 countries).

Singapore Airlines is the city state at cruising altitude: focused, efficient and proud of its humble beginnings. And, in some ways, that is how Pillay is. A Malaya-born Indian Catholic, he likes to quote the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture penned 2,600 years ago, as a management tool. "The follower of the true path has one object, and that object is the end of his determination," the good book says. Those who have worked with Pillay, now 64 and Singapore's High Commissioner in London, recognize his style in those words. He is deliberate, unwavering and absolutely sure of his objectives. In a rare interview, he once explained how he used this approach with his colleagues: "Look," he would tell them, "whenever you embark on anything, please tell me what is your object. And there must be one. I don't want five."

Focused? Enough to have the courage in 1978 to splash out a mighty $900 million on 19 Boeings when sky-high losses were cowing many other state-owned airlines. So there's another paradox: a cautious bureaucrat prepared to spend so much public money that an American newspaper was moved to dub the deal the "sale of the century." Not that Pillay saw it that way. "You don't get responsible organizations placing orders with an eye toward the history book," he retorted. "We have done our sums." Nobody doubts that. Says one official who has worked with him: "His analytical skills are tremendous."

These are the qualities - among others - that earned Pillay a place among a clutch of pioneers who helped build the Singapore government's vast corporate empire from the confusion of the 1965 split with Malaysia. Variously, they ran ministries, served as permanent secretaries, supervised industries and directed companies. They were contrarians - up against the perceived economic wisdom that government-owned companies could not make money.

The early days were shaky. The cream of the British-trained civil service had taken flight when the People's Action Party came to power in elections in 1959. Bureaucrats with a vision to match the government's were needed. Pillay joined the Ministry of Finance in 1961 and swiftly showed the abilities that were later to lead Lee Kuan Yew, now Senior Minister, to describe him as "equal to the best brains in America."

In 1979, Pillay took over as chairman of the Development Bank of Singapore (now DBS Bank) - a position he held simultaneously with his role at Singapore Airlines. Another paradox. Here was a man who said he believed in staying focused on one objective - and yet he was responsible for a glamorous airline and a bank that was seen as dull and overly dependent on the wholesale market. In fact, the two jobs were essentially the same: to popularize the product. By 1984, the year before he left to take over as managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the bank's after-tax profits had nearly tripled to $56 million, and it was operating 27 branches. Today, the DBS is ASEAN's largest bank, with group after-tax profits last year of about $293 million.

J.Y. Pillay never ran a ministry. He didn't need to. He had more power than a number of ministers, and by the time he retired on the home front in 1995, after 34 years in public service, he was also being paid more than some. But perhaps that's no paradox.

- By Andrea Hamilton/Singapore


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