HE WAS the boss who would speak up for his subordinates, even if it meant reversing the Prime Minister's decision.

This was how Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong remembered Mr J. Y. Pillay, 78, who was his superior at the Ministry of Finance.

Mr Goh recounted the snippet yesterday at a dinner organised by the Singapore Indian Development Association (Sinda) to celebrate Mr Pillay's Order of Nila Utama (First Class) - this year's top National Day Award. Mr Pillay was the first president of Sinda.

In his speech, Mr Goh recalled how Mr Pillay had nominated him for a master's at the Centre for Development Economics in Williams College in the United States.

When he returned, he was told by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew that "he was looking for a general factotum, you know, an errand boy to do all kinds of work". "At the end of the interview, he said that he would arrange for me to be his Principal Private Secretary," he said.

When Mr Goh reported this to Mr Pillay, he was "visibly annoyed", saying that "he did not send me to Williams College only to lose me".

Mr Pillay would later speak to then Minister for Finance Lim Kim San, and a few days later, the matter was settled. He would remain in the Economic Planning Unit instead.

"My respect for him went up a few notches," said Mr Goh. "Here was a civil servant who dared reverse the Prime Minister's decision."

Mr Pillay was awarded the order - conferred by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister - for his outstanding work as a public servant as well as his contributions to the private sector.

His distinguished career spanning 34 years in the civil service gave him a key role in helping to forge Singapore's fortunes alongside the Old Guard. Mr Pillay helped shape the economy during modern Singapore's early years, from managing the withdrawal of British troops in the early 1970s to formulating the country's tax policy.

In the civil service, he took charge of several ministries, including Finance and National Development. He was managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation.

He also built Singapore Airlines (SIA) from a staff of just 12 in 1972 to a world-class carrier.

After retiring from the civil service in 1995, he went on to oversee the creation of the Singapore Exchange (SGX) in 1999 from the merger of the Stock Exchange of Singapore and the Singapore International Monetary Exchange. He continued to chair the SGX until 2010, and still plays an active role in public life, chairing the Council of Presidential Advisers and the board at Tiger Airways.

Said Mr Goh: "He was a great teacher, sharp, analytical though a little impatient at times. I have often wondered how my life would have turned out if Joe had not been there at my formative working years.

"Thank you, Joe."