One of a handful of men who helped Lee Kuan Yew build today's
Singapore, the retired bureaucrat feels perturbed enough
to speak his mind publicly. By Seah Chiang Nee
Oct 3, 2003
an unprecedented, frank interview (with The Sunday Times)
that shook up many Singaporeans.
interviewee was Ngiam Tong Dow one of Singapore's most accomplished
civil servants (for 40 years) - and the subjects covered
will survive SM Lee (Kuan Yew) but provided he leaves the
sort of legacy he wants to leave is for him to say, but
I, a blooming upstart, dare to suggest to him that we should
open up politically and allow talent to be spread throughout
our society so that an alternative leadership can emerge.
the People's Action Party's tactic is to put all the scholars
into the civil service because it believes the way to retain
political power forever is to have a monopoly on talent.
But in my view, that's a very short-term view.
the law of nature that all things must atrophy. Unless SM
allows serious political challenges to emerge from the alternative
elite out there, the incumbent elite will just coast along.
first sign of a grassroots revolt, they will probably collapse
just like the incumbent Progressive Party to the left-wing
PAP onslaught in the late 1950s.
our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than
Singapore to survive, we should release half our talent
- our President and Overseas Merit scholars - to the private
ten scholars come home, five should turn to the right and
join the public sector or the civil service; the other five
should turn to the left and join the private sector.
scholars should serve their bond to Singapore - not to the
Government - by working in or for Singapore overseas. As
matters stand, those who wish to strike out have to break
their bonds, pay a financial penalty and worse, be condemned
our industrial policy. At the beginning, it was the right
thing for us to attract multinationals to Singapore.
some years now, I've been trying to tell everybody: 'Look,
for God's sake, grow our own timber.' If we really want
knowledge to be rooted in Singaporeans and based in Singapore,
we have to support our SMEs.
not a supporter of SMEs just for the sake of more SMEs but
we must grow our own roots. Creative Technology's Sim Wong
Hoo is one and Hyflux's Olivia Lum is another but that's
been flying on auto-pilot for too long. The MNCs have contributed
a lot to Singapore but they are totally unsentimental people.
The moment you're uncompetitive, they just relocate.
has this come about?
A. I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda.
is also a particular brand of Singapore elite arrogance
creeping in. Some civil servants behave like they have a
mandate from the emperor. We think we are little Lee Kuan
has earned his spurs, with his fine intellect and international
standing. But even Lee Kuan Yew sometimes doesn't behave
like Lee Kuan Yew.
Ngiam Tong Dow, 66, who retired from the civil service in
1999, is among a handful of permanent secretaries who had
helped Mr. Lee shape today's Singapore.
others include JYM Pillai, Sim Kee Boon, Howe Yoon Chong
and Philip Yeo.
frank, straight-talk interview with The Sunday Times came
as a surprise to most Singaporeans, young and old. It caused
a ripple among readers who read it.
many had missed it, skipping it as just another establishment
figure talking of his past life and former colleagues in
passive, polite tones.
and a former journalist now in public relations totally
missed it and are now frantically seeking a copy of the
report on Sept 28.
chairman of HDB Corp, a privatised company, Chiam had been
known to people in the civil service and old journalists
as a quiet doer, rather than a high-profile public articulator
was, of course, when he was in the civil service from 1959.
In 1970 he came Singapore's youngest permanent secretary.
had shown his brilliance to people who worked with him -
and of course to his political bosses. In public he had
always maintained a silent profile.
he has spoken out in this manner points to of several things.
he must be perturbed enough by what is happening in Singapore,
especially in the civil service, that he felt compelled
to speak out.
what he said confirms a freer political atmosphere in Singapore
in which the authorities are encouraging people to speak
out, even critically, as long as it is in Singapore's interests.
point is his frank reference to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew as still
the overriding authority in Singapore. All his suggestions
are addressed to him, not Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
Singaporeans possess his countrywide, historical perception
of Singapore straggling three generations now mired in one
of its worse economic crises.
off some discussions in the Internet chat-sites with some
people wondering whether the government will take action
why was Singapore on auto-pilot for so long, Ngiam replied:
"I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda."
he said about government scholars, a freer political environment
and allow some of the brightest to be used outside the government
- and if necessary, serve as an alternative elite leadership
was a total surprise.
call to cut (by half) the number of scholars in the bureaucratic
or political leadership, elitism in government and intellectual
arrogance reflect what some critics have privately said.
Ngiam, being an insider with longtime access to the policy-making
process, is the first to have articulated his thoughts clearly.
lifelong civil servant, he is not allowed by law to join
the ruling People's Action Party, all these years the line
separating them is hardly visible.
most telling suggestion is for Lee to leave behind a "free
politics" legacy by allowing talent to be spread throughout
Singapore so that an alternative leadership can emerge.
is in the midst of a "remaking" exercise that
will include restructuring its economy and loosening its
political and social environment.
a whole generation, thousands of parents are pushing their
children towards scoring "A's" in their O- and
A-level exams to win a prestigious government scholarship.
1,400 "A" level students score distinctions in
all four subjects, so commonplace a phenomenon that "A's"
in the tougher Special Papers are needed to qualify for
virtually guarantees them a top-level, high-paying bureaucratic
job. The road is long, tense and arduous. Some parents dedicate
their lives to help their children achieve it.
of someone whose son is in the gifted programme. The father,
with a Master degree in Mathematics, takes leave from work
whenever his son, in his lower primary classes, faces a
why, he said he wanted him to gain a top political or civil
service post through the scholarship trail. For him and
his wife, it is a 20-year plan for the 7-year-old.
one in which many take but few succeed. Once there, there
is no fear of being retrenched unlike thousands of other
mortals when profits plunge.
By Seah Chiang Nee