‘If you don't know the ground, how can you formulate policies?’: S'pore's 'loving critic' Ngiam Tong Dow

Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.

Mothership | July 03, 2022, 10:26 AM

Ngiam Tong Dow was one of Singapore’s pioneer civil servants, with a career that stretched over four decades from 1959.

In his first decade, Ngiam joined the Economic Development Board (EDB) when it was first formed in 1961, starting the country on the path to industrialisation. From the 1970s, he became permanent secretary in a number of key ministries, including the Ministry of Finance (1972–79), the Ministry of Trade and Industry (1979–86), the Ministry of National Development (1987–89), and the Prime Minister’s Office (1979–94). He also served as the EDB’s chairman from 1975 to 1981.

Ngiam eventually retired in 1999 from the civil service.

Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book The Last Fools: The Eight Immortals of Lee Kuan Yew about how Ngiam was also known for being outspoken on certain issues, and how this was informed by his difficult childhood. In 2013, Ngiam made several statements about the high concentration of well-educated Singaporeans in the civil service, and the impact of high ministerial pay on the dedication of political officeholders. He subsequently retracted these statements.

Edited by Peh Shing Huei, The Last Fools is published by The Nutgraf Books and you can get a copy of it here.

By Prabhu Silvam

In its September 2013 issue, the Singapore Medical Association (SMA) newsletter had published a dialogue between Ngiam Tong Dow and its editor.

When asked how the current crop of People’s Action Party (PAP) politicians differed from the pioneer generation, Ngiam – whom the late Lee Kuan Yew once described as lacking guile – held no hostages.

He questioned their motive for taking up office, alleging that high salaries for Cabinet ministers were turning the ruling party into a coalition of yes-men.

"In the early days, Lim Kim San and Goh Keng Swee worked night and day, and they were truly dedicated. I don’t know whether Lee Kuan Yew will agree but it started going downhill when we started to raise ministers’ salaries, not even pegging them to the

national salary but aligning them with the top ten,” said Ngiam. “When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollars, every minister – no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell Hsien Loong off or whatever – will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary. Even if he wants to do it, his wife will stop him."

He went on to recount how the Old Guard Minister Lim [Kim San] used to stress the importance of finding a job that ensured financial stability. Ngiam suggested that the fear of relinquishing handsome pay cheques was affecting political discourse. This, he believed, was paralysing the country’s growth trajectory.

What’s worse, he added, was the apparent groupthink within the party. "The civil service has definitely become tamer, which is not good because we need a contest of ideas. The difference is that no one wants to make a sacrifice anymore. The first generation of PAP was purely

grassroots, but the problem today is that PAP is a bit too elitist," he said. "I think that they don’t feel for the people; overall, there is a lack of empathy."

Criticism shocks the country

Ngiam’s words sent shockwaves across Singapore. In a country where it was almost blasphemous for the ruling elite to criticise one of their own, this was a brazen show of defiance.

The public was enraptured. Online chatter about political in-fighting within the elites spread across social media platforms. Tabloid websites had a field day, seizing the opportunity to boost readership numbers.

This was not the first time that Ngiam had spoken his mind. On the surface, all seemed well. There were no outright allegations of slander, defamation, or even a mention of Ngiam’s controversial comments in Parliament.

Then came the letter that stunned the nation.

On Oct. 10, Ngiam sent a clarification statement to the SMA News Editor stating that he had given the “wrong impression” and that he “had not been fair” in the statements he made.

Among others, he said:

"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. Thus my statement that ministers will not speak their minds before PM Lee is unfair as it was made without knowing what actually happens at Cabinet meetings today. I have been told by civil servant colleagues that Cabinet discussions are robust – as robust as they were when I attended cabinet meetings as PS (Permanent Secretary), when Mr Goh Chok Tong was PM, and Mr Lee Hsien Loong DPM."

On the issue of ministerial pay, Ngiam added that he knew some ministers who had given up successful and well-paying careers in the private sector to join politics at a much lower pay.

He also added that while some could have joined the private sector to make more money, they decided to put the country before themselves.

"They have no reason not to speak their minds when they are convinced that they are doing right by Singaporeans," he said.

PM Lee issues a reply to Ngiam

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on his Facebook page: “Mr Ngiam Tong Dow’s recent interview in the Singapore Medical Association’s newsletter attracted some attention. I am glad that he has clarified the statements he made, especially his comments about my ministers. Mr Ngiam served as my Permanent Secretary in MTI years ago,” he said, referring to the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

And then came the kicker: “I hope that in retirement he will continue to support the institutions and systems that he helped build during his long and illustrious career.”

The episode shook up Singaporeans and watchers of the island in more ways than one. In a country where the ruling party has had an unbroken rule of more than half a century, the top men toed the official discourse and silence was a virtue.

Ngiam’s criticisms and revelations were uncharacteristically bald, blunt, and brutal by Singapore’s standards. Even though he had built a reputation after his retirement in 1999 as a vocal critic of the government, there were little or no repercussions, at least in the eyes of the public.

But now, his seemingly impenetrable fortress of immunity had turned to ashes.

Like Icarus, his wings were no more. The message here was clear: nobody was bigger than the government, not even Ngiam. The unthinkable had happened. There was sufficient pushback that forced the loud and proud critic to backtrack on his statements.

Why and how did he morph from an establishment heavyweight into this punching critic?

Viewpoint was informed by a challenging childhood

Ngiam was always someone who not only paid extra attention to the people on the ground, but also remained close to them. He fully understood the intricate psyche – the hopes and fears – of the man on the street.

After all, he was one of them. In 1946, at age nine, he lost his father, a court interpreter, to tuberculosis. His mother, a washerwoman, was tasked with raising five young children on her own.

His hard early life informed him for the rest of his years.

In 2008, he already took aim at younger Cabinet ministers for being out of touch with the ground because of their privileged upbringing. In an event hosted by the EDB Society, he pointed out that most of the younger Cabinet ministers hailed from upper-middle class backgrounds and "so really do not know" the impact of a policy on ordinary folks.

"So you do not know the effect of a 10-cent bus fare increase on a family," he said. "But if you’re from a poor family like my generation...you know very well if the bus fare goes up by 10 cents, multiply by three or four times, 50 cents a day for the whole family. So I don’t know how are they going to get this sort of empathy for the people."

Ngiam said in Fullerton Stories:

"I learned frugality from Dr Goh Keng Swee. When he took Sim Kee Boon and myself for lunch, we would order food from the canteen on the sixth floor (of the Fullerton Building). In those days you got meat, soup, towgay (beansprouts) for 50 cents a dish, and so the three of us would have lunch for just three or four dollars."

Ngiam: Policies cannot be formulated if you do not know what’s happening on the ground

Go to the ground, solve the problems, get the job done. Ngiam was a rising star in the new Singapore Inc, emblematic of the young can-do spirit of the nation. In 1970, he became the government’s youngest permanent secretary at age 33 at the Ministry of Communications.

By 1975, he was made Chairman of EDB. The bottom guy had reached the top in record time.

Ngiam took his EDB experience to other parts of the government. When he died in 2020, former Head of Civil Service Peter Ong shared that there was "constant admonition" from Ngiam "for all public servants to behave like EDB officers to help land investments into Singapore."

It is thus perhaps no surprise that Ngiam would warn in 2003 that the bureaucracy’s biggest danger was that "we are on autopilot."

Instead of taking on the frontier spirit, like at the EDB, he was concerned that the Singapore government had softened and grown complacent.

In one of his most famous comments, he explained in the same interview with The Straits Times why he believed the civil service was cruising:

"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," he said, referring to Lee as SM, or Senior Minister, the title he held after stepping down as Prime Minister.

Ngiam was a titan by the 1980s, purportedly described as a “cult hero” by his contemporary J. Y. Pillay.

When Singapore ran into its first recession after independence, he pushed for the unpopular and potentially politically suicidal move to slash wages.

He urged Lee Hsien Loong, who was a relatively new politician in charge of the committee, to overcome the recession: "I said, cut the CPF contribution rate for employers because we want to bring down wage cost fast and drastically to be competitive."

CPF refers to Central Provident Fund, which is Singapore’s national mandatory pension savings. Ngiam said that he learnt later that Lee had wondered why he was "so fierce" on the recommendation.

But as Ngiam shared, he had consulted Goh earlier, and the retired leader had said: "Ngiam, in politics, there are no sacred cows."

The economy rebounded quickly. "Just one course correction, just do it," he said. "The main thing about policy-making is to know the key problem, and have the guts to deal with it."

Top collage Left photo via MParader, right photo via NUSCast Youtube screenshot