Dr Ng

Ng Eng Hen speaks on Optimism, Lee Kuan Yew, and the “Purity of Intentions” at NUS


By Melanie Chia

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen spoke earlier this evening at an event organised by the National University of Singapore Political Association. Ng presented on Singapore’s progress from 1900, using the Padang as a lens to view the nation’s development. Ng noted that Singapore has gone through much adversity since its days as a British colony and Singaporeans should have continued optimism for the country even as they work hard for the future.

A Wide-Ranging Talk

Some of the challenges that Singapore overcame included the recession in 1984, the global economic slowdowns after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, the Bali bombings, and SARS. Each time, Ng claimed, Singapore bounced back with the PAP government at the helm. He noted that not all countries were the same and that Lithuania now has to reintroduce national service given a growing Russian threat.

In his wide-ranging talk, Ng discussed his—sometimes misremembered—views of history, albeit admitting that he had no time to fully prepare for his talk. Ng claimed that things could have been very different for Singapore, as it could have been a Dutch colony if not for the Napoleonic Wars and the 1824 Anglo-Dutch Treaty. Ng said that the Netherlands was allied to Napoleonic France, and Britain’s victory secured Singapore’s position as a British colony. In fact, the British and Dutch were allied against France and Britain’s presence in Singapore was secured by a swap of influence and control over parts of Sumatra, Riau, Peninsula Malaya, and other places in the East Indies between Britain and Holland.

Ng further claimed that the end of World War II brought the end of British imperial rule because the Americans were calling back their Lend-Lease. Britain was in debt and bankrupt from fighting World War II and had to request for an additional loan from the United States to prop up its faltering economy. This loan was only fully paid off in 2006 and came on top of Marshall Plan assistance to Europe.

Ng also talked about how because of the challenges they faced, members of the older generation tended to prepare for war. His father-in-law grew tapioca in his garden and had a shelf full of canned food next to his garage. Singapore’s ability to defend itself was important for the country. In this regard, the SAF is able consistently demonstrate strength. This was the case with the showcasing of the AMX-13 tanks during the 1969 National Day Parade, just as it was the case of the mobile column in the most recent National Day Parade.

During the presentation, Ng briefly talked about his childhood. He said he grew up in a rental flat that his family shared with three other families. His Chinese-speaking family had six children, and he was lucky to first go to ACS and then NJC before going to study medicine and becoming a cancer surgeon. Going to NJC helped Ng focus on his studies, as Ng claimed that ACS was “very playful.” He felt that the opportunities he received as a child spoke well of the system.

Lee Kuan Yew as an Idealist

Ng also discussed his view of Lee Kuan Yew as an idealist during the talk. Specifically, he pointed to Lee’s insistence that the PAP campaign on a multiracial, multiethnic platform, even though Singapore was 75 percent Chinese. Moreover, Lee was able to see both realism and idealism and “meld the two perfectly.” According to Ng, Lee had no cognitive dissonance when it came to putting realism together with his idealism. Hence, despite his commitment to a multiracial and multiethnic Singapore, Lee opposed NMP Viswa Sadasivan’s call for legislation on equality and non-discrimination. Lee had highlighted the special position accorded to minorities, especially Malays, in the constitution.

Ng shared that as head of the committee organising the funeral for Lee Kuan Yew, he was afraid that what he did would be incommensurate with Lee’s contributions to society. He originally thought that about 40 to 50 thousand people would attend Lee’s wake. Instead, more than 250 thousand people turned up. Ng said the way Singaporeans cared for and encouraged each other during the wake, waiting for hours, without grumbling or a stamped impressed him.

Singapore continues to need good leaders who can, like Lee Kuan Yew, persuade other Singaporeans to choose the path with some sacrifices for the greater good of the nation. It would be a mistake to seek leaders who rest on their laurels. This can help Singapore to continue to turn challenges into opportunities. This enables Singapore to have vibrancy, to be both optimistic and realistic.

Trade-Offs and Challenges

In answering questions from the audience, Ng pointed to Singapore’s aging population as a major challenge for the country. Singapore’s financial prudence allowed it to afford the $9 billion set aside for the Pioneer Generation Package and Silver Support Scheme. The core of Singapore’s approach to taking care of citizens is individual responsibility, then family responsibility, and then the state. If the state had to take care of an aging population, it would have to run thousands of nursing homes. Ng felt that option was unsustainable.

Nonetheless, Singapore must be careful not to overspend and be mindful of the trade-offs social policies entail. Singapore must also work to maintain economic growth, as it is foundational for the country. This means increasing productivity as well as labour force growth, which are going to be a challenge given Singapore’s low reproductive rate. Having slower economic growth than its neighbours would cause Singaporeans to leave Singapore in search of opportunity. Economic growth and not leaving debt for future generations allowed Singapore to invest be nimble and vibrant.

For Ng, the PAP is democratic socialist and stays true to its principles. That sense grounds its policies, and Ng was well aware of ground sentiments as he speaks to residents at least once a week and treats them like his relatives. That was the advice he also gave to new candidates. PAP policies, such as the Medishield Life, are for everyone. The centre of gravity for PAP policies is the people who live in 3 or 4 bedroom flats, and they party will not deviate from them. The PAP will continue to bolster meritocracy and help people move up. This means reducing inequality, and housing is a big part of that process. Ng claimed that the PAP has kept the faith and kept true to the Singapore’s heartlands.

Other challenges Ng identified including a more fractious society. There are people who would prefer to preserve heritage and green spaces versus those who want to modernise. Here, Ng cited Lim Kin San in asking if people preferred the government looked after their ancestors or them. He cited further tensions over sexuality, religion, and faith. Extremism would pose a security challenge to Singapore, especially with people who self-radicalise. Countries that can surmount challenges such as these can succeed; those that cannot would be beset and besieged by them.

Defence and Security

Ng received several questions about defence and security from the floor. He stressed the importance of the freedom of navigation through the South China Sea for Singapore and the world, given that 60 percent of oil from Asia to Europe passed through those waters. Consequently, even though Singapore is not a claimant state, it seeks the development of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, further dialogue, as well as hotlines to manage disputes. Ng acknowledged that no party wanted a dispute over the South China Sea, but that the external environment was unpredictable. A strong SAF would pacify tensions where need be.

Singapore cannot juggle between the major powers, according to Ng, even though he felt encouraged that younger Singaporeans had such confidence. Yet, Ng stressed that Singapore had a good reputation for seeing things through and integrity. This would help Singapore make friends around the world, something which he sees as key to the country’s defence and security.

For Ng, a key danger came from hybrid warfare which intends to use information and kinetic means to defeat an opponent. This meant total warfare, according to Ng. Singapore was prescient in developing its concept of Total Defence, which can counter such threats. Ng was happy to note that 97 percent of Singaporeans think that the nation is defensible.

On the issue of female enlistment, Ng felt that the country must find an overriding reason for such a move. Singapore is not at that stage yet. At present, technological enhancements mean that there is no need for female enlistment. He encouraged the woman audience member and other audience members to have more children so the country does not have to worry about female conscription.

On Elections and PAP Performance

When asked about the forthcoming election toward the end of the evening, Ng said that the election would rest on who can take care of the town council and political succession. Voters’ choices can mean that good leaders lose office, like George Yeo, Lim Hwee Hua, and Zainal Abidin Rasheed in Aljunied GRC. He noted that what some people see, as political apathy among young people may be a desire to work within the system.

The next election is one where Singaporeans get to decide on how Singapore will be run, and Ng hopes that serious messages will get through. This is particularly important since all the seats will be contested and there is no certainty that the PAP will form the next government on nomination day. Ng said it was a good thing that Singapore has compulsory voting so everyone will have a say.

Ng was coy when asked to rate his own performance and that of the current PAP administration. He said that looking back at government performance was “not a productive game,” and he would leave it to others to judge. In this respect, Lee Kuan Yew was a great influence on him, as Lee was happy to leave history to judge. He did not have an internal scorecard, but hopes to leave a better home environment and a safer Singapore despite the changes in international circumstances beyond Singapore’s control every few decades.

Ng pointed out that what was important was to “keep persisting until I am proven wrong, or what I do for Singaporeans comes to fruition.” He noted that is important to stay the course until proven wrong, much like Lee Kuan Yew, although it was hard to prove Lee wrong. Change is necessary when proven wrong. Until then, it is important to persist with good intentions and people will see it. Key for Ng is the “purity of intentions.”