An insider
Touches raw nerves
Prominent ex-civil servant openly raises a topic that many Singaporeans often talk about  in private. By Seah Chiang Nee
Oct 19, 2013

(Synopsis: When things were going so wrong, how come no ministers sounded any public warnings that could have saved the need for the PM to apologise?)

FOR 10 years, one of a handful of civil servants who helped Lee Kuan Yew build today’s Singapore had been speaking bluntly about major issues that bothered him – and probably other Singaporeans.

In his latest round, Ngiam Tong Dow – whose government career spanned 40 years – criticised elitism in high places and ultra-high ministerial wages which apparently struck some raw nerves.

The unprecedented frankness of the former government insider, one of a growing number who turned critics, was believed to be a tad too much even in a more relaxed post-Lee political era.

A day later, the long-time ex-permanent secretary retracted his statement that ministers were currently afraid of speaking up in Cabinet because of their high salaries.

He said it was “illogical” and unfair”.

He also withdrew comments that ministers are elitist, adding that he had spoken without realising that many had, in fact, come from humble backgrounds.      

It is not known whether the respected Ngiam, aged 76, was pressurised to do so or whether he had done it on his own.

At any rate, this was the first time that he had to withdraw critical remarks made against the government that he once served.

This stance began in 2003, a year before Prime Minister Lee took office, so it was evidently not aimed at his personal leadership.

“I retired from the civil service in 1999. Since then I have not attended any Cabinet meetings, and have never seen one chaired by PM Lee Hsien Loong,” Ngiam clarified.

He had earlier said that things in Singapore began going downhill when “we started to raise ministers’ salaries, not pegging them to national salary but aligning them to the top 10.

His first candid remarks 10 years ago surprised Singaporeans when he hit out at 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.”

In one interview, he said Singapore had been on auto-pilot for so long and becoming less competitive.

Asked why, Ngiam replied: “I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda.”

His was by no means the solitary voice among prominent government or academic figures to voice dissent, but he has been the most persistent.

Several have in fact joined opposition parties and contested in elections.

Others merely voiced their disenchantment about the way that Singapore is being run.

This was generally accepted as inevitable with the political exit of Singapore’s strongman and founding leader.

The current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is less authoritarian. Pushed by a more vocal Internet-savvy generation, he has been loosening some strings.

“It’s a signal! Speak, speak your voice, be heard, take responsibility for your views and opinions,” Lee said after he assumed office in 2004.

The message was repeated in 2011 when he exempted indoor meetings from licensing requirements.

“We have opened up over the years. I think we can go further.”

In the past few years, a trickle of establishment economists and intellectuals began to speak up against excessive immigration and inequalities in society, albeit in modest language.

An international lawyer, professor, and diplomat Tommy Koh was the latest to add his voice to the small chorus, speaking up for the needy and condemning the widening gap between the rich and the poor as “socially unconscionable”.

While a Cabinet minister demanded workers to work “cheaper, faster”, the prominent, soft-spoken professor said that Singapore workers had long been underpaid.

Last year, the former state economic adviser, Prof Lim Chong Yah, had a dramatic proposal to narrow the economic gap – raising low-level salaries by 50% over three years and freezing top-end incomes for a similar period. Predictably, it was turned down.

This had rarely happened during Lee Kuan Yew’s “iron fist” rule.

The reason appears to run deeper than a sudden new-found courage or a propensity to tell off the PAP on policy directions.

Some critics included party supporters who may feel compelled to take a stand now for fear that the problems will become even more serious and lead to the demise of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

Another surprising critic was Yeoh Lam Keong, former chief economist at the Government Investment Corporation (GIC) headed by Lee Kuan Yew.

Yeoh appealed for the immigration policy to be reversed. “What we need to do is to be much more stringent on admitting such unskilled labour. We’ve really got no excuse to be so relaxed about this kind of immigration.”

On its overall policy, Yeoh called for the government to return to its roots to meet and serve the needs of ordinary citizens over public housing, education, healthcare and other services.

Serious-minded bloggers generally praise these elites for speaking up, although belatedly, and wish more would do so.

Prominent commentator Chua Chin Leng said that although they were financially secure, they could have chosen to remain in the comfort of their cocoons “shielded from all the noise, all the inequalities”.

Yet, they have chosen to brave the storm. Why? Chua said: “It must be a matter of conscience, of a sense of justice.”

Hence when Ngiam Tong Dow retracted his heartfelt comments, some netizens were disappointed. A few criticised him for not standing his ground.

Surprisingly, however, quite a few expressed sympathy and understanding for his action.

Wo Min Bai commented: “Mr Ngiam can retract, but the people feel him. He speaks the language of the masses and there is no turning away from that.”