As a top civil servant, Ngiam Tong Dow was known among his peers for being forthright in expressing his views. Today he continues, with spirit and insight, to critique the Establishment he once served. Lee Siew Hua meets the builder of organisations and a salesman of the Singapore story
MR NGIAM Tong Dow, 70, says his friends often quiz him: “How come you are so garang now?”
They’re using the Malay colloquialism for “fierce” or “daring” on the straight-shooting economist who helped Singapore’s founding leaders shape bold survival policies.
Implicit in the playful garang comment by his pals is a barb: Surely Mr Ngiam could have spoken up earlier, forcefully, from inside the system, on policy and politics?
For he was integral to the Establishment from 1959 to 1999 as a key leader in the civil service.
Yet, after retirement, he has voiced differences of opinion. He commented on the lack of alternative political leadership, for instance. And worried aloud that the civil service may slip into auto-pilot.
So did he make his strongest views known or signal them to the leadership while he was a policymaker?
“When I was in the civil service, I had expressed my views as expressed today,” he tells Insight. “The only difference is that I didn’t shout from the rooftop.”
Not defensively, Mr Ngiam says: “I’m not a hypocrite.”
In a career that spanned 40 years, he rose to be a permanent secretary at the young age of 33. In all, he helmed five ministries, including such heavyweight portfolios as Finance plus Trade and Industry, and the Prime Minister’s Office.
He also held chairmanships at the Economic Development Board, DBS Bank and Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board.
His ex-colleagues, Mr Ngiam continues, know he held strong views. “But within the system, I speak softly and I can tell you that whether it’s Mr Lee Kuan Yew or Dr Goh Keng Swee or Mr Hon Sui Sen, they do listen.
“In fact, they treat you as intellectual equals,” he adds.
They may not agree on the spot. “But one week later, months later, you find, lo and behold, they’ve taken in your idea.”
Still, he tended not to raise questions of political leadership at that time.
Possibly that was because Singapore was “searching” for its political paths, he indicates.
“If I may say so to the English-educated liberals, whatever you learn of the American or British systems, they have their useful reference points.
“But we don’t have to benchmark ourselves absolutely to them.”
This is the upshot: “We have to find our own salvation, so to speak.”
Just as Singapore sought its own salvation in economics, it must do the same politically. “And, so far, we’ve done quite well.”
He is distinctly non-controversial.
But the garang moments flash again when he speaks his mind on social welfare and foreign workers.
The man, whom Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew once described as lacking guile, is “hopping mad” that the Government spends tens of millions of dollars on the Formula One race when it will not lift Public Assistance rates higher.
A person living alone will receive $330 a month from this week, up by $40.
“What is that for?” he says of the official largesse for F1. “And yet you are so penny-pinching when it comes to helping the poor with a bit more Public Assistance because you talk very high-mindedly about losing the work ethic,” he fumes.
“It’s all a matter of priorities.”
He’s not saying that the F1 should go, he clarifies. “But let’s have a sense of balance.”
The public purse should be spent in a diversified way, not just poured out on projects that fit Singapore’s profile as a renaissance city, he says. “If I am still the Finance Perm Sec, I’ll never agree to this.”
Instead, he counsels: “Let’s spread out what we can afford to more people, more causes, more problems.
“In that way, I think you have a healthier society.”
To him, this also means helping the poorest 5 per cent directly and meaningfully.
He has floated to official circles the idea of a system of boarding schools to house and supervise children from dysfunctional families five days a week. “If we can save 10 per cent of these kids from a life of crime and destitution, I think it’s worth it.”