Ngiam Tong Dow
Speaks out
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

It was an unprecedented, frank interview (with The Sunday Times) that shook up many Singaporeans.

The interviewee was Ngiam Tong Dow one of Singapore's most accomplished civil servants (for 40 years) - and the subjects covered included (excerpts):

Politics

Singapore will survive SM Lee (Kuan Yew) but provided he leaves the right legacy.

What 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.

So far, 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.

It is 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.

At the 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.

I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP.

Government scholars

For Singapore to survive, we should release half our talent - our President and Overseas Merit scholars - to the private sector.

When 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.

These 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 as quitters.

Economics

Take our industrial policy. At the beginning, it was the right thing for us to attract multinationals to Singapore.

For 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.

I'm 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 too few.

We have 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.

Q. Why has this come about?
A. I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda.
Civil Servants

There 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 Yews.

SM Lee has earned his spurs, with his fine intellect and international standing. But even Lee Kuan Yew sometimes doesn't behave like Lee Kuan Yew.

Littlespeck comment:-

Mr. 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.

The others include JYM Pillai, Sim Kee Boon, Howe Yoon Chong and Philip Yeo.

His 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.

Apparently many had missed it, skipping it as just another establishment figure talking of his past life and former colleagues in passive, polite tones.

A lawyer and a former journalist now in public relations totally missed it and are now frantically seeking a copy of the report on Sept 28.

Currently 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 of policies.

That was, of course, when he was in the civil service from 1959. In 1970 he came Singapore's youngest permanent secretary.

Ngiam 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.

That he has spoken out in this manner points to of several things.

Firstly, he must be perturbed enough by what is happening in Singapore, especially in the civil service, that he felt compelled to speak out.

Secondly, 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.

A third 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.

Few Singaporeans possess his countrywide, historical perception of Singapore straggling three generations now mired in one of its worse economic crises.

It set off some discussions in the Internet chat-sites with some people wondering whether the government will take action against him.

Asked why was Singapore on auto-pilot for so long, Ngiam replied: "I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda."

What 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.

Ngiam's 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.

But Ngiam, being an insider with longtime access to the policy-making process, is the first to have articulated his thoughts clearly.

As a 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.

His 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.

Singapore is in the midst of a "remaking" exercise that will include restructuring its economy and loosening its political and social environment.

For 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.

(Some 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 overseas scholarships.)

This 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.

I know 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 year-end exam.

Asked 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.

It is 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