Fri, Jun 05, 2009
Interview with Chairman of MDIS

[Photo: The 10 sages and a wise man... Mr Theyvendran cuts a dapper figure at the MDIS campus in Stirling Road.]

By Patrick Jonas

YOU will not miss them. Three sets of statues catch your eye as you drive into the Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) campus in Sterling Road. One is of a family, another of a brother and sister and the third, which occupies pride of place, is of the 10 sages of the world.

The statues are the brainchild of Dr R. Theyvendran, the secretary-general of MDIS. It is his way of inspiring young minds.

Born to parents who came to Singapore from Sri Lanka, he is the oldest boy in a family of 10 children. Their early days were tough and his father, who was the sole breadwinner, wanted to put the children on their own feet with minimum education.

However, in the pursuit of just looking after the basic needs, Dr Theyvendran recalls, not much emphasis was placed on values. The family hardly went to the temple. In fact, till he took over as chairman of the Sri Senpaga Vinayagar Temple rebuilding project in 1998, he had been to a temple only about six times. The family bond was not strong.

Now 65, Dr Theyvendran wants students at MDIS to have strong values and says the statues serve to remind them not to take for granted those closest to them - their family. The statues of the sages are to motivate students to greater learning.

"The value system is breaking down. Old parents are being chucked into homes. In my youth, people did not realise that to produce a holistic citizen, there has to be a value system in place. What I lacked in my youth I have brought in at MDIS. Students must attend an ethics and moral value course of three hours or their certificates are not released.

"The idea is that there is no point in only producing a bright student. Money must be used as an evil necessity to do good, not to do bad. If you do good, then your whole life is blessed even further," he says.

Whether the statues achieve their aim or not, the institute certainly attracts students in droves - 13,000 at last count.

Dr Theyvendran says that when he joined MDIS on a voluntary basis in 1988, the independent not-for-profit institute was operating at a loss of $60,000. Today it has assets worth more than $100 million.

For his contributions in the field of education and public service he was conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of the University by the University of Bradford in 2000.

Dr Theyvendran has a reputation of sorts for turning around loss-making companies. Stamford Press was running at a loss in 1983 when he took over. Today, the Stamford Media International, as it is known now, has an annual sales turnover of more than $20 million and has business ventures in England, Australia, India and Sri Lanka.

He has handed over the running of the company to his son Rameson, an only child. But he does have an eye on what his son does.

Says Dr Theyvendran: "I follow the Singapore Government. I have the key to the company's reserves while he runs the day-to-day operations. Manpower requirements are also his responsibility. My philosophy is: Cash is king."

Dr Theyvendran is fondly called Denan by those who know him well. It is a name given to him by his mother. "She felt that her Chinese friends found it difficult to pronounce my name and so she started calling me Denan."

He does not play any sport nor do any form of exercise, and he must always catch a short nap every afternoon. That does not mean he is a person who shunned outdoor activity. In fact, it was on a football ground that he met his wife Sushela.

"She was an athlete and was cheering for her school when we were playing against them. I was playing for a social group and, you know, opposites click. This was in the early 1960s and we courted. She soon found that our views were not all that different," says Dr Theyvendran of his younger days. His wife is now retired, having been a school teacher.

The voluble and dapper Dr Theyvendran says he is a recycled teenager - "always very energetic, full of life, always thinking".

He says that even though he supports meritocracy, he feels that we should not place too much emphasis on it. "Government scholars sometimes are not in touch with the ground. They go by the book. There is so much emphasis on meritocracy that the humane aspect is lost. This can be rectified by attaching scholars to the People's Association or some voluntary associations for three years," he says.

He also has some advice for Indian youngsters, whom he categorises into two groups. He says students who come from India are in a hurry. To put them on the right track, he gives them pep talks. "They go more for the pay rather than a job which will, in the long term, pay. They go for short term gains. In the last part of their course, many of them are focused on jobs."

Local Indian students, he says, have become complacent. "They take life for granted. They don't push themselves."

When these words come from a man who rose up the hard way, students better pay heed.

DR R. THEYVENDRAN Chairman/Managing Director Stamford Media International, Secretary-General, MDIS

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