Tuesday, February 06, 2007

when T T Durai lost the plot - by PN Balji


Hot News // Monday, February 5, 2007

P N Balji
Editorial Director


HERE is a question about Mr T T Durai's National Kidney Foundation (NKF) every one of us, its employees, donors, directors, well wishers and the Government must ask: Who created this bulldozer of an organisation?

More importantly, a related question: What could we have done to put a brake on it?

No straightforward answers here because Mr Durai operated with the shrewdness of a politician, the zeal of an evangelist, the sophistication of a businessman, the smoothness of a marketeer and the killer punch of a lawyer.

As a student activist in the National University of Singapore in the early 1970s, his single-minded obsession was to make a name for himself in the establishment. The young man worked as a grassroots leader under two former Ministers, Mr S Rajaratnam and Encik Othman Wok. He did not make much progress.

Failure was not a word in his dictionary.

That's when he chanced upon the NKF. It was all altruistic. He gave his spare time, while practising as a lawyer, to the charity.

But as he spent more time there, he must have seen it as an alternative route to recognising his ambition of becoming somebody.

I got a measure of the man at one of his regular Saturday sessions with the staff in 2004. Close your eyes and you would think he was a doctor, talking about the debilitating effect of kidney failure and the treatment processes. "I am competitive and combative,'' he said, all sound and fury, at one of those Saturday sermons.

He told me after that meeting: "I am a great admirer of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I watch tapes of his speeches regularly.''

His use of movie clips to show his people how to sell NKF as a product is legendary. His master stroke was to understand a core part of the Government's philosophy that welfarism, especially medical welfarism, is a no-go in Singapore.

Mr Durai exploited that to the fullest by taking on the role of caring for kidney patients, thus taking a big burden off Government hospitals.

He understood the Singapore psyche so well that he used the opt-out strategy to get more people to will their kidneys.

And when the Government wanted to extend this drive to other organs like heart and liver, no prizes for guessing who was very supportive of that PR campaign.

But there was one tenet of the Government's ideology that he somehow missed: Succession planning.

I remember asking him once: What is your hierarchy?

His Duraiesque answer: What hierarchy?

It was this part of his style that became his Achilles heel. Operating in a lonely bubble in his spacious 12th-floor office, listening to his own voice and that of his believers and using the threat of Singapore's libel laws to silence his critics, the man thought he was untouchable.

He thought it was success that mattered in Singapore and he wanted to be remembered for that.

But today he is not remembered for helping kidney patients, for trying to make NKF a world-brand charity run like a business, but as a corporate case study of a failed company chieftain.

What a pity!

Now to try and answer the two questions raised in the initial paragraphs of this article.

On hindsight, knowing Mr Durai's habit of using the might of the law, people like key staff of the IT department who had evidence, however small, could have submitted them to the Ministry of Health for some kind of behind-the-scenes action.

The whispers against Mr Durai's NKF were many. But there was really no one, especially after he had silenced two of his critics over his first-class travel, who dared to blow the whistle.

And what about the Government?

Once the issue blew up, the Government acted fast to limit the damage. Mr Durai announced his and his top management team's resignations at a press conference with Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan present.

Mr Khaw also acted quickly to appoint a replacement to try and contain the donor backlash.

But, could this public blood-letting have been avoided in the first place?

That opportunity could have presented itself between 1999 and 2001 when the Ministry tried to appoint a representative to NKF's executive committee.

Court documents tell of how her appointment was resisted for two years and, when she was finally appointed, she was given a hard time, even being treated like a spy.

That could have been a trigger for action which, hopefully, would have led to a smoother leadership transition at NKF.

P N Balji spent six months, four of them in a part-time capacity, in NKF's corporate communications department in the first half of 2004.


No comments: