Singapore’s elites
They’ll have to sweat it out
In timely talk, Mr. Ngiam Tong Dow says the future is determined by how elites are identified, nurtured and deployed.
Oct 28, 2006

This is an extract of a speech by retired permanent secretary Ngiam Tong Dow at an Oxbridge Society function yesterday. (A fuller version is in today's Straits Times).

As Singapore is a relatively young country, we are still evolving our systems of selecting elites.

I divide elites into three categories. First, the political and administrative elites. Second, the professional and business elites. Last but not least, the social and community elites.

Political and administrative elites

EACH elite group has its own distinct identity.

The Singapore Administrative Service is in the first category. Admission into the service is largely based on scholastic achievement. The basic requirement is a first or second upper honours degree from NUS, Oxbridge, or other elite overseas universities.

In the earlier years, most of us were from the University of Malaya, which educated the elite from the Federation of Malaya and Singapore.

The first six heads of civil service were from our own university. Mr Lim Siong Guan was the first overseas-educated head. His appointment was a milestone.

It coincided with the emergence of a Cabinet dominated by foreign-educated third-generation leaders.

This structure came about because the People's Action Party (PAP), on assuming power in 1959, for reasons I am not privy to, sent our best and brightest to be educated overseas.

A Japanese ambassador just could not understand our policy of educating our elite overseas. The Japanese elite did not go overseas for their undergraduate education.

They attended Todai or Keio. Do we know something about the training of administrative and political elites that the Japanese don't?

In the tradition of the British civil service, I am political but not partisan.

There is separation between the State and the executive. The executive, however, has to remember that our duty is to implement the will of the people manifested through the elected prime minister.
Though I have combined the political and administrative leadership under one group, different skill sets are required of each.

In a democracy, the political leadership has to mobilise the different segments of society to bring in the votes.

Though led by a largely English-educated leadership, the PAP positioned itself as a mass movement.

Its MPs came from a cross-section of society embracing all the racial and language groups, occupational and educational levels, and religious affiliations.

I recall that in the first Parliament, among PAP MPs were a Malay postman, a Chinese carpenter and barber, and an Indian trade unionist. PAP MPs were largely ordinary folk who could relate easily with their different electorates.

Over the years, as the children of the first generation of Singaporeans, 'the post-65 generation', became better educated, one could not be a PAP MP, far less a minister, without a university degree.

The danger for the PAP is that this intelligentsia may become elitist and lose their instincts for street fighting.

We need to remember that the PAP came into power in 1959 after crushing the old English-educated elite in the Progressive Party.

It had on its side the leftist Barisan wing to do the street fighting until they split to form the opposition. The question to ask is how should the PAP select its elite to continue to be in power?

Business and professional talents

OUR early business tycoons were men with little formal education who rose literally from rags to riches.

Names like Lee Kong Chian, Tan Lark Sye, Lien Ying Chow, Ko Teck Kin, Govindasamy Pillai, Gan Eng Seng, the Alkaffs, spring to mind. They were men who could turn stones into jewels.

But would these men with the same sterling qualities be as successful in the 21st century as they were in the 19th and 20th century?

I would venture to say that to succeed, our future tycoons would now have to possess technological knowledge besides sharp business acumen. They have to be better educated than their fathers.

Education, however, turns most of us into wealth managers. A society desperately needs those driven few who are wealth creators.

The question to ponder is whether wealth creation is best institutionalised, or driven individually? Perhaps, both.

I have said in an earlier speech that Singapore has a surfeit of wealth managers and a paucity of wealth creators. Would your generation be different?

The creme de la creme of our students are awarded President's or Overseas Merit Scholarships to study at elite universities abroad.

This to me is only half the equation. On their return home, all of them are deployed in the public sector. Except for the bond-breaker, none is available to the rest of society.

The business or social sector is starved of talent. Except for the exceptional individual who thrives whatever the environment, there is a paucity of leadership outside the Government.

Is it any wonder then that we have a lop-sided State with a strong - some would say dominant and even domineering - public sector, which are efficient regulators but hopeless wealth creators?

Deployment of talent is crucial for the survival of the State. My personal view is that Britain, once a great industrial state, no longer holds the pole position because most of its Oxbridge elite went into the City of London, which manages but does not create wealth.

The social elites

THE social elites in our temples, churches, mosques, clan associations, voluntary charitable organisations, alumni associations, are by and large not driven by money or power.

Those who serve are generally well-balanced altruistic individuals with a higher sense of 'doing good'.

Their satisfaction is derived from the felt but often unexpressed appreciation of their fellow members and peers.

These social elites are in my book the bedrock of society. We should encourage them. In this way, there will be many hands, instead of just the Government, in helping the poor and the discouraged.

What can stop Singapore?

FROM traditional resource-based competition, competition is now knowledge-based. What can stop Singapore? This is not a rhetorical question.

Singapore will stop itself if we stop learning from first principles.

Dr Goh Keng Swee once told me that when we were poor, we made mistakes on the backs of used envelopes. But when we become rich, we make mistakes on the backs of huge computers.

At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, we cannot just throw money after problems. Singapore cannot succeed just by buying brand names or hiring trophy scientists.

Mr Evan Eriksson, a former president of Sundstrand Aerospace, told me that when he was a young research engineer, he could not wait for the sun to rise every morning.

Mr Eriksson held the patent to a device called the constant speed drive, a critical mechanism in every jet engine.

No amount of post-doctoral training can make up for the lack of passion. And no amount of sheer competence can trigger off the spark of brilliance.

The Singapore elites of the 21st century have to sweat it out themselves.

It will be futile to acquire gourmet tastes if you cannot fry an omelette. The elites of today are not starting off from ground zero.

Fifty years of rational science-based education have prepared you well for global competition. But you need to drive the process yourself. Singapore has no choice, but to choose the hard option, not the soft.
Oct 28, 2006