The following is an extract of the transcripts of an interview held by Dr Toh Han Chong (THC) of the Singapore Medical Association News (SMA News) newsletter, with former head of the Civil Service, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow (NTD).
Read the full interview here.
THC: Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kim San, etc, are all different in strengths and personality, what were the key qualities they possessed that helped to build this country in those early years?
NTD: Lee Kuan Yew has the ability to attract the best people in the country – Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye, Hon Sui Sen and Lim Kim San.
Goh Keng Swee is a real thinker and very innovative. Hon Sui Sen is the perfect Permanent Secretary; he once told me, “When I look at you, I never think of your weak points. I always think of your strong points, and I use your strong points to do my work for me rather than spend day and night on your weak points.”
Of course, we need to be aware of the weak points of a person but we should always identify the strong points and develop them.
Lee Kuan Yew is the political messiah, Goh Keng Swee is the architect, Hon Sui Sen is the builder, and Lim Kim San provides business insights.
In a way, Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew were lucky to have such a team then. Sorry to say, but I don’t see such a team today.
THC: You have been very outspoken after your retirement. Is the perception that you are more outspoken now in retirement than before while in the civil service accurate?
NTD: I have always been outspoken. When I was Permanent Secretary to then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, he invited me for lunch twice a year, only the two of us. He was always a perfect gentleman.
He once said, “Ngiam, we’re not having lunch today as Prime Minister and Permanent Secretary. We’re both intellectual equals. You can tell me what you think, and I’ll tell you what I think.”
Those were very robust conversations.
One of these conversations involved the Certificate of Entitlement (COE) scheme. I had a big fight with him over this because the implementation of the COE scheme meant that we were taxing every man, woman and child in Singapore, from the day of his birth till the day of his death.
As COE taxes transportation, nobody can avoid it. You can avoid eating good durians, but you cannot avoid using transportation.
He saw that I was right, but he was a charmer. Looking at me, he asked, “Ngiam, are you the Permanent Secretary of the Budget and Revenue Divisions at MOF?” I said yes, to which he replied, “What’s wrong with collecting more money?”
THC: You have said that you were worried that some of the politicians today do not have the same qualities as the pioneer generation. What are you hoping to see in the newer and younger politicians today?
NTD: 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.
When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollar, 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.
Lim Kim San used to tell me, “Ngiam, if you want to leave your job, make sure you have enough walkaway money.”
When the salary is so high, which minister dares to leave, unless they decide to become the opposition party? As a result, the entire political arena has become a civil service, and I don’t see anyone speaking up anymore.
THC: You said that there were many exchanges of ideas and even criticisms in the pioneer years of the civil service. Do you see this happening much today?
NTD: 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.
THC: In what way do you mean are they elitist?
NTD: I think that they don’t feel for the people; overall, there is a lack of empathy.