Unplanned journey – From student activist to Ambassador |

Unplanned journey - From student activist to Ambassador

20111006_GopinathPillai_5w170On 6 October 2011, the Lee Kuan Yew School Of Public Policy hosted Ambassador Gopinath Pillai for a career talk series entitled “Unplanned Journey From A Student Activist to Ambassador”. He has been Ambassador-at -large since 2008 and Non-resident Ambassador to Iran from 1990-2008. He was chairman of NTUC Fair Price for 10 years and deputy chairman of Ang Mo Kio-Thye Hua Kwan hospital.

Growing up, Ambassador Pillai was deeply influenced by his family back in Kerala, India, who had participated in the struggle for independence from the British. His father used to run newspapers in both English and Malayalam covering news in East Asia. When asked by a student about his childhood ambition, he said: “I wanted to be a war correspondent.” As a student in Singapore, Ambassador Pillai joined the University Socialist Club, where he helped produce a monthly newsletter called Fajr (meaning dawn in Persian). The newsletter covered both domestic and international political issues.

After university, Ambassador Pillai joined British news agency Reuters and then went on to work with Bangkok Bank before moving to Thailand, where he co-edited his first English language book, History of Banking in Thailand. Since then, he has gone on to work in project finance, manufacturing, services, retail, education and logistics in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and India.

In the course of his career, Ambassador Pillai has been keen to take on new challenges in different industry sectors. For instance, he has undertaken projects as diverse as vegetable sourcing for Singapore, learnt how to make a fast-food chain successful, and started a logistics business in India. What’s needed is strong guiding principles to help one stay on course, he stressed. His advice: Always put the organisation’s interest first, understand the people you work with and their point of view, and try not to let a black mood follow you around like a dog. He encouraged his audience not to be afraid to take calculated risks, but at the same time to be cautious not to come across as being too self-promoting. He also had wise words on the acquisition of wealth: follow your instinct and interest, give your best and success and money will naturally follow. 

When asked what made a good leader, he said a leader was one who took action decisively and quickly after taking into consideration key information. It’s also important to have an objective mind and not allow the “noise around you” in the shape of personality differences, to cloud one’s judgement. To keep himself grounded, Ambassador Pillai professes a strong faith in the Divine. He practises meditation regularly and believes in giving back to society. Last but not the least, a stable family life and a committed relationship with one’s partner are necessary for success in life, he said.


By Ranjana Rao, a Master of Public Administration student at the LKY School.


Career planning is an excellent thing. However as you may know "the best laid plans of men and mice go awry." Sometimes it is better to go where your heart takes you or as some would say where fate takes you. Important thing is find fulfillment in whatever you do.

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Ambassador Gopinath Pillai, Ambassador-at-Large, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Chairman of the Management Board, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore

Thursday, 06 October 2011
5.15 p.m. - 6.30 p.m.

Seminar Room 3-4
Level 3, Manasseh Meyer
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
469C Bukit Timah Road
Singapore 259772

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