A civil servant who spent 40 years at the helm of Singapore’s administration has died at the age of 83. In his illustrious career, Ngiam Tong Dow became the youngest permanent secretary at age 33 and was awarded accolades such as the Distinguished Service Order in 1999 when he retired.
Having worked closely with the late Lee Kuan Yew, his successor Goh Chok Tong, Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen, it would be fair to say that Ngiam was an influential member of the old guard.
With his alignment to the Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) not in doubt, it is notable that Ngiam had observed in 2003 that Singapore was “larger than the PAP“. Yet, fast forward 17 years, has the newer generation of PAP leaders followed his advice?
Let’s take the PAP’s apparent campaigning efforts in the recent general election as an example. Amid allegations that the PAP had displayed its party’s flags in public places in violation of campaign rules, a volunteer for the PAP had said that the PAP flags were put up “as part of National Day celebrations” — something which has been done every year “for the past 20 to 30 years”. Given that the PAP is a political party, why is its flag displayed for national day as if sovereignty and the PAP are one and the same?
Is the PAP deliberately conflating party with state so that Singapore never becomes larger than the PAP? If so, is the PAP hampering the development of Singapore in a self serving manner thereby putting party over state?
Ngiam had in the same interview, gone on to say: “So far, the PAP’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.” Yet again, the current crop of PAP leaders do not seem to have heeded the advice of a man who the late LKY had personally appointed as permanent secretary as a nod to his analytical mind and honesty. It is manifestly clear in the recent general election that the PAP is still parachuting civil servants into the party to be election candidates in a bid to monopolise talent and hold on to power through candidates who are bound to the party.
An example would be Gan Siow Huang (member of parliament for Marymount Single Member Constituency), who left the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) after becoming Singapore’s first female general to join the PAP. As noted by the Straits Times: “The SAF has long been a hunting ground for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and Ms Gan, though a trailblazer in her own right, follows a long list of men plucked from military service to enter politics.”
Yet, will parachuting civil servants with no political experience straight into the political arena really serve Singapore best? Arguably, the civil service now is seen as an iron rice bowl, a safe option for guaranteed life long employment. Will individuals from such arguably cushy roles really rock the boat to help Singaporeans? Is this methodology best for Singapore or best for the PAP?
As we honour the passing of Ngiam, we can only hope that the PAP will also pay heed to his sage words of wisdom.