I now shout from the rooftop

Source: The Straits Times  May 20, 2008

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.

By Lee Siew Hua, Senior Political Correspondent

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? Why now?

“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. < p>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.?

The Government’s objection is that this undermines parental responsibility, he says.

Still, his larger point is to focus help on the poorest, instead of giving Economic Restructuring Shares to all. “What does that achieve? Why don?t you just give us a tax reduction?”

Sharp questions like these are natural to Mr Ngiam, who is known as an astute analyst who wields facts, figures and solid arguments.

As much as he is a hard-headed economist and builder of organisations, he is also a thinker and a salesman of Singapore in the never-say-die EDB mode.

In essence, his career parallels the Singapore story of development.

Though he was a bureaucrat, he is tuned in to real-life problems.

On foreign workers, for instance, he says: “We should bring in a foreigner if his educational level is more than the Singapore average. If you are just bringing him at the same skill level, what is the value-add to Singapore?”

Better to be more selective as in the past, he reckons, instead of opening the doors wide. “That has created some unease,” he says.

“For a lot of white-collar people, if you lose your job at age 45, it?s very difficult for you to find a niche again.”

He wants Singapore to stick to tougher selection policies and, at the same time, raise the skills of indigenous labour.

He knows it’s a deeply complex issue. But he is hopeful, having watched Singapore untangle myriad complexities.

Mr Ngiam, who joined the EDB in 1961 and became its chairman in 1975, says its spirit is tenacious, never taking “No” for an answer.

He dramatises this with story after compelling story. A signature mega-project he started, in the 1970s, was the petrochemical complex on Jurong Island. Naysayers tried to quash it.

An obvious obstacle was that Singapore had no natural gas, the building block of petrochemicals.

As he tells it, two Catholics, much persistence and the Iraq-Iran war won the day.

Mr Norishige Hasegawa, president of Sumitomo Chemical, believed in Singapore and also wished to help Mr Hon Sui Sen, a fellow Catholic, build the petrochemical industry.

It was a grinding process. But the Iran-Iraq war scuttled Mitsui’s petrochemical plans in Iran and Singapore was in line. “God intervened,” declares Mr Ngiam, a Christian. “We became the next petrochemical plant in the world.”

At the EDB, he also championed technical education as a pathway to jobs.

This led to the birth of the Nanyang Technological University and the burnished status now of the Institute of Technical Education, which lifts up the less academically inclined.

Another story of tough times involves the slaughter of the sacred CPF cow.

The story is not new, but he puts new emphasis on the ‘guts’ needed to push the policy.

He was the permanent secretary for the Trade and Industry Ministry during the 1985 recession. He met Mr Lee Hsien Loong, then the trade and industry minister, and pressed one recommendation: “I said, cut the CPF contribution rate for employers because we want to bring down wage cost fast and drastically to be competitive.”

Later on, he learnt that Mr Lee had wondered why he was “so fierce” on the point.

The truth was that Mr Ngiam had spoken beforehand to Dr Goh Keng Swee, who said cryptically: “Ngiam, in politics, there are no sacred cows.”

Eighteen months later, the economy was on even keel again. “Just one course correction, just do it,” he says.

“The main thing about policymaking is to know the key problem, and have the guts to deal with it.?

He is optimistic about Singapore, having lived through the gruelling pioneer days.

“Earning a living for even 5.5 or six million people ? I may be a bit boastful ? is no sweat compared to where we started. When we started, the unemployment rate was 10 per cent.”

Meanwhile, he has started a private consultancy, iGlobe Advisors, that sells public-sector expertise to countries.

He works from home. “I’ve got to lick my own stamps now, queue up at the post office,” he quips. It?s pioneering days for him again.