An interview with Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, former head of the civil service, in 2003. (First published on Straits Times)
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.
Q. YOUR idea of creating an alternate elite is not new. What do you think of the oft-mooted suggestion of achieving that splitting ranks within the People’s Action Party?
A. Quite honestly, if you ask me, Team A-and-Team B is a synthetic and infantile idea. If you want to challenge the Government, it must be spontaneous. You have to allow some of your best and brightest to remain outside your reach and let them grow spontaneously. How do you know their leadership will not be as good as yours? But if you monopolise all the talent, there will never be an alternative leadership. And alternatives are good for Singapore.
Q. In your calculation, what are the odds of this alternative replacing the incumbent?
A. Of course there’s a political risk. Some of these chaps may turn out to be your real opposition, but that is the risk the PAP has to take if it really wants Singapore to endure.
A model we should work towards is the French model of the elite administration. The very brightest of France all go to university or college. Some emerge Socialists, others Conservative, some work in industries, some work in government. Yet, at the end of the day, when the chips are down, they are all Frenchmen. No member of the French elite will ever think of betraying his country, never. That is the sort of Singapore elite we want. It doesn’t mean that all of us must belong to the PAP. That is very important.
Q. What do bad times mean for the PAP, which has based its legitimacy on providing the economic goods and asset enhancement? Is its social compact with the people in need of an update?
A. Oh yes. And my advice is: Go back to Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s old credo, where nobody owes us a living. After I had just taken over as the Housing Board’s chairman in 2000, an astute academic asked me: ‘Tong Dow, what’s your greatest problem at HDB?’ Then he diagnosed it himself: ‘Initially, you gave peanuts to monkeys so they would dance to your tune. Now you’ve given them so much by way of peanuts that the monkey has become a gorilla and you have to dance to its tune. That’s your greatest problem.’
Our people have become over-fed and today’s economic realities mean we have to put them on a crash diet. We cannot starve them because there will be a political explosion.
So the art of government today is to wean everyone off the dispensable items. We should just concentrate on helping the poorest 5 to 10 per cent of the population, instead of handing out a general largesse. Forget about asset enhancement, Singapore shares and utility rebates. You’re dancing to the tune of the gorilla.
I don’t understand the urgency of raising the Goods and Services Tax. Why tax the lower-income, then return it to them in an aid package? It demeans human dignity and creates a growing supplicant class who habitually hold out their palms.
Despite the fact that we say we are not a welfare state, we act like one of the most ‘welfarish’ states in the world. We should appeal instead to people’s sense of pride and self-reliance. I think political courage is needed here. And my instinct is that the Singaporean will respect you for that.
Q. So what should this new compact consist of?
A. It should go back to what was originally promised: ‘That you shall be given the best education, whether it be academic or vocational, according to your maximum potential.’ And there will be no judgment whether an engineer is better than a doctor or a chef.
My late mother was a great woman. Although illiterate, she single-handedly brought up four boys and a girl. She used to say in Hainanese: ‘If you have one talent which you excel in, you will never starve.’
I think the best legacy to leave is education and equal opportunity for all. When the Hainanese community came to Singapore, they were the latest arrivals and the smallest in number. So they had no choice but to become humble houseboys, waiters and cooks. But they always wanted their sons to have a better life than themselves.
The great thing about Singapore was that we could get an education, which gave us mobility, despite coming from the poorest families. Today, the Hainanese, as a dialect group, form proportionately the highest number of professionals in Singapore.
Q. You say focus on education. What is top of your wishlist for re-making Singapore’s education system?
A. Each year, the PSLE creams off all the top boys and girls and dispatches them to only two schools, Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls’ School.
However good these schools are, the problem is you are educating your elite in only two institutions, with only two sets of mentors, and casting them in more or less the same mould.
It worries me that Singapore is only about ‘one brand’ because you never know what challenges lie ahead and where they will come from. I think we should spread out our best and brightest to at least a dozen schools.
Q. You advocate a more inclusive mindset all around?
A. Yes, intellectually, everyone has to accept that the country of Singapore is larger than the PAP. But even larger than the country of Singapore, which is limited by size and population, is the nation of Singapore, which includes a diaspora.
My view is that we should have a more inclusive approach to nation-building. We have started the Majulah Connection, an international network where every Singaporean – whether he is a citizen or not, so long as he feels for Singapore – is included as part of our diaspora.
Similarly, we should include foreigners who have worked and thrived here as friends of Singapore. That’s the only way to survive. Otherwise, its just four million people on a little red dot of 600 sq km. If you exclude people, you become smaller and smaller, and in the end, you’ll disappear.
Q. What is the kind of Singapore you hope your grandchildren will inherit?
A. Let’s look at Sparta and Athens, two city states in Greek history. Singapore is like Sparta, where the top students are taken away from their parents as children and educated. Cohort by cohort, they each select their own leadership, ultimately electing their own Philosopher King.
When I first read Plato’s Republic, I was totally dazzled by the great logic of this organisational model where the best selects the best. But when I reached the end of the book, it dawned on me that though the starting point was meritocracy, the end result was dictatorship and elitism. In the end, that was how Sparta crumbled. Yet, Athens, a city of philosophers known for its different schools of thought, survived.
What does this tell us about out-of-bounds markers? So SM Lee has to think very hard what legacy he wants to leave for Singapore and the type of society he wants to leave behind. Is it to be a Sparta, a well-organised martial society, but in the end, very brittle; or an untidy Athens which survived because of its diversity of thinking?
Personally, I believe that Singaporeans are not so kuai (Hokkien for obedient) as to become a Sparta. This is our saving grace. As a young senior citizen, I very much hope that Singapore will survive for a long time, but as an Athens. It is more interesting and worth living and dying for.