Datuk N. Sadasivan Pillay
Civil Servant Extraordinaire

by Seelen Sakran
MALAYSIAN BUSINESS December 16, 2003


If one adjective could best describe Datuk N. Sadasivan Pillay, 64 - itís people friendly. There is something about him that can make people engage in a warm conversation with him.

Perhaps this very quality is reason alone for him to be appointed director of the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority's (MIDA) first overseas promotion office in Dusseldorf, Germany. He was in charge of attracting European investment MIDA 20th Anniv to Malaysia. Among his prize catches were Robert Bosch, Siemens, Kim Fabrics, Schott Optical Glass, O&E Designs and ZDF. Suffice to say these companies are still operating, if not expanding, in the country. Siemens is one good example.

This affable ex-civil servant asks Malaysian Business, 'Where shall I begin? Shall I start with my life at MIDA or my personal life?'

So what is he up to now? Well, after having spent a fruitful life in government service, rising from head of promotions and public relations at the Federal Industrial Development Authority (FIDA) to Director-General at MIDA and finally retiring in l995, Sadasivan is now busy with what he does best - providing advisory services to local and foreign companies wishing to undertake industrial development. As the chairman of SK Management Sdn Bhd, Sadasivan has managed to rope in local, Australian, Japanese and American clients from the mining, printing, automotive and petrochemical sectors. He adds that it is a challenging business to be - but very competitive.

Incidentally, Sadasivan celebrates his birthday once in four years. As a leap year child he would have his limelight of sorts. He recalls that, on his sixteenth Sadasivan birthday, he told his teacher that he wanted to go home early that afternoon because of his birthday. 'The teacher found it so amusing that he decided to give the whole class a break,' he quips.

So how was Sadasivan's early years like? Born in Ipoh in Feb 29,1940 he had other eight siblings - three boys and five girls. His father, a clerk with Tenaga Nasional Bhd (then the Central Electricity Board or CEB) found it hard to support all nine of them. His mother was a housewife.

'My father was working for Perak Hydro which was absorbed by the CEB. His salary of about $800 to $l,000 did not take care of all our needs. As such my father never owned a house, always renting one until very much later in his life, when my elder Sadasivan 1954 brother and I started to work.' Only some twenty years later, in 1964, was a modest family house purchased, along Jalan Ipoh in Kuala Lumpur.

However, even under those conditions Sadasivan and his siblings made it good in life - one became a banker in Singapore, another a doctor and still another a lawyer here - 'all through sheer grit and determination even though our studies were interrupted'.

'My father was transferred to various states and we followed him. I did my schooling in KL, Taiping and Klang.' He had also lived in India for nine years, during and after World War II. 'My father sent my mother and three of us there for our safety while he stayed on in Malaya.'

Sadasivan (front, right) at a mock election rally at the V.I. (1959)

Right after his sixth form at the Victoria Institution, Sadasivan wanted to do law. 'At that time, Universiti Malaya's (UM) law faculty was in Singapore. My father could not afford to send me there. So my second choice was to study economics in UM here. That somehow carved my career.'

In fact, Sadasivan became the second batch to study at UM. 'In 1960 there were about 800 students. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, PC Shivadass (NSTP Director) and Tan Sri Khalil Yaacob (Information Minister) were in my batch.'

'With my father having to support my brother's medicine studies in India I was Student Conference 1962 grateful that I got a scholarship of $150 per term, adequate to cover each term's costs of $158.'

Soon after graduation and mindful of the fact of scarcity of money in the family, Sadasivan applied for jobs as quickly as possible through the newspapers.

'A small advertisement by the Economic Development Board (EDB) of Singapore which was looking for a junior assistant economist caught my eye. Back then Singapore was still part of Malaysia.'

As brilliant as his friends describe him, he was promoted within three years to become chief of a division within the EDB.

Kanny Sadayandy, who has known Sadasivan for almost 23 years says, 'He is an intelligent man. When it comes to industrial policies he is an expert. While he sits and listens he absorbs whatever someone says. I came to know him as my boss at MIDA, and much later as a friend. I have deep respect for him. He is a genuine friend who takes a risk in helping someone - if he believes in his calibre.'

However, Sadasivan prefers to be modest about his achievement at the EDB. 'It so happened I was at the right place at the right time. My immediate boss was S. Dhanabalan (former Singapore Minister and currently Development Bank of Singapore chairman). Back then the British Army base was closing down in Singapore. A new growth initiative was needed. It so happened the EDB was given much clout to enable Singapore to become industrialised.'

With such a successful career why did he move back to Malaysia? 'I was not ready to give up my citizenship. As everyone knows, in 1965, Singapore became an independent nation. We were all given an option within five years of that date to become Singapore citizens, failing which, we could still work at the EDB but would not be allowed access to confidential documents. That would make our jobs difficult.'

'The fact that the Malaysian High Commission was one floor above the EDB made it even Wedding Day 1966 harder to stay on. I had so many university friends working there. Finally, four of us left the EDB to come home.'

Another reason Sadasivan chose to return was that his wife, Visalakshi, was also a Malaysian. (Many Malaysians had taken up Singaporean citizenship because their spouses were born in Singapore.) He married in 1966 and has two sons - a lawyer, 33, and a business development executive, 26. 'Both are single and squatting in our house,' he laughs in his trademark deep voice.

When he returned to Malaysia in 1968, FIDA, which had similar objectives like the EDB was being kick started by the government. Much later and perhaps because of his quick grasp of knowledge in trade relations, he was sent to Germany in 1972 and then to Paris in 1975.

'My job was to sell and market Malaysia to the whole of Europe. It was hectic but I enjoyed it.'

'I returned to Malaysia in 1976 and became MIDA's Deputy Director-General'. Not surprisingly, after almost eight years, he was promoted Director-General in February 1984.

These days Sadasivan still starts his day at 9.30am. He also finds plenty of time to play golf. He adds, 'There is only one regret in life - that I picked up the game late. In those days I used to play badminton a lot but now...'

Apart from trust funds and golf he also likes gardening and reading fiction, especially Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett.

With T. Razaleigh

Datuk Lim Say Chong of CCM, who has known him for 43 years says, 'I have known him since our university days in UM. Sada knows when to diffuse a tense situation through his clean jokes.' It is not by chance then that Sadasivan likes reading humour books by Tom Sharpe.

Lee adds, 'Sada is always dependable and full of good manners - and always composed. Whenever there is an issue at hand he very quickly analyses the situation objectively. He also has high ethical standards. No way will he support an idea if he feels something is not right, not even for a friend.'

Any advice for the young generation? 'They should take pride in what they do. And they should do it well. Because they live far more comfortable lives than us they do not find the need to work their guts out. That should not be so!'

His words could not be more powerful and to the point.

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