The Straits Times: Singapore ‘bigger than PAP’
Ngiam Tong Dow is well known in local circles as one of those rare Administrative Service officers with iron in his spine. Some years after the publication of the article below, he even questioned the relevance of the Public Transport Council. Mr J.Y. Pillay, the man who was at the helm of Singapore Airlines in the early days and set the foundation for the heights it has reached today, popularly referred to Mr Ngiam as a ‘cult hero’. In this interview given to the The Straits Times in 2003, Mr Ngiam went further than any former public servant in sharing his views on where Singapore was headed. On the overwhelming majority of issues, he continues to prove uncannily prophetic.
The Straits Times: Singapore ‘bigger than PAP’
by Susan Long
28 September 2003
(c) 2003 Singapore Press Holdings Limited
Time to get off the autopilot, says a former civil servant
Since Mr Ngiam Tong Dow retired from the civil service in 1999, affairs of state have weighed heavily on his mind. The highly respected former Permanent Secretary worries about Singapore’s long-term survival and the kind of society the next generation will inherit. At 66, the HDB Corp chairman insists he is ‘no radical’, just a concerned Singaporean with three grandchildren, who wonders ‘whether there will be a Singapore for them in 50 years’ time’. In Tea with Think, a weekly interview series, he gives a candid appraisal of the civil service, and his prognosis of what the lack of an alternative political leadership means for Singapore. The interview will be continued next week.
Q. With all this pessimism surrounding Singapore’s prospects today, what’s your personal prognosis? Will Singapore survive Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew?
A. Unequivocally yes, Singapore will survive SM Lee 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.
Q. What would be a useful first step in opening up?
A. 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.
But it takes a certain temperament and mindset to be a civil servant. The former head of the civil service, Sim Kee Boon, once said that joining the administrative service is like entering a royal priesthood. Not all of us have the temperament to be priests.
However upright a person is, the mandarin will in time begin to live a gilded life in a gilded cage.
As a Permanent Secretary, I never had to worry whether I could pay my staff their wages. It was all provided for in the Budget.
As chairman of DBS Bank, I worried about wages only 20 per cent of the time.
I now face my greatest business challenge as chairman of HDB Corp, a new start-up spun off from HDB. I spend 90 per cent of my time worrying whether I have enough to pay my staff at the end of the month.
It’s a mental switch.
Q. What is your biggest worry about the civil service?
A. The greatest danger is we are flying on auto-pilot. What was once a great policy, we just carry on with more of the same, until reality intervenes.
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.
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.
There is also a trend of intellectualisation for its own sake, which loses a sense of the pragmatic concerns of the larger world.
The Chinese, for example, keep good archives of the Imperial examinations which used to be held at the Temple of Heaven.
At the beginning, the scholars were tested on very practical subjects, such as how to control floods in their province. But over time, they were examined on the Confucian Analects and Chinese poetry composition.
Hence, they became emasculated by the system, a worrying fate which could befall Singapore.
Q. But aren’t you an exception to the norm of the gilded mandarin with zero bottomline consciousness?
A. That’s because I started out with Economic Development Board in the 1959. Investment promotion then was all about hard foot slogging and personal persuasion, which teaches you to be very humble and patient.
I learnt to be a supplicant and a professional beggar, instead of a dispenser of favours. These days, most civil servants start out administering the law. If I had my way, every administrative officer would start his or her career in the EDB.
Hard foot slogging
1959: First class honours in economics from University of Malaya.
1959: Joined Administrative Service. Postings to the former Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Finance Ministry, and the Economic Development Board.
1964: Topped his Master’s in Public Administration programme at Harvard University.
1970: Became the youngest-ever Permanent Secretary at age 33 at the Ministry of Communications. Subsequent postings as Perm Sec in the Ministries of Finance, Trade & Industry, National Development, and the Prime Minister’s Office.
1990: Appointed chairman of Development Bank Of Singapore. Later also of the Central Provident Fund Board and HDB.
1999: Retired from the civil service as Permanent Secretary (Finance), a post he held for 13 years.
2003: Named chairman of HDB Corp. Currently also a director of Yeo Hiap Seng Limited, United Overseas Bank and Singapore Press Holdings.