Ngiam Tong Dow says he "had not been fair" in controversial interview

Former civil service veteran Ngiam Tong Dow spoke out bluntly against the civil service and PAP in a recent wide-ranging interview with the SMA. (Yahoo file photo)

[UPDATED Friday, 11 October, 11pm: Adding details of Ngiam's clarification.]

Former senior civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow has clarified that he had given the "wrong impression" and that he "had not been fair" in the statements he made in a controversial interview published in the September issue of the Singapore Medical Association's (SMA) newsletter.

In the interview, he had criticised Singapore's public service, calling it "tamer" and the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) "a bit too elitist".

"The civil service has definitely become tamer, which is not good because we need a contest of ideas," said Ngiam the wide-ranging interview. During the interview, he was asked whether he saw exchanges of ideas and criticisms in the civil service.

"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 the PAP is a bit too elitist," he added.

On 10 October 2013, Ngiam sent a clarification statement to the editor of the SMA News. Among others, he said, "I retired from the civil service in 1999. Since then I have not attended any cabinet meetings, and have never seen one chaired by PM Lee Hsien Loong. Thus my statement that Ministers will not speak their minds before PM Lee is unfair as it was made without knowing what actually happens at Cabinet meetings today."

The full clarification is carried here in the Straits Times.

In response, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on his Facebook page, said, "Mr Ngiam Tong Dow’s recent interview in the Singapore Medical Association’s newsletter attracted some attention. I am glad that he has clarified the statements he made, especially his comments about my ministers. Mr Ngiam served as my Permanent Secretary in MTI years ago. I hope that in retirement he will continue to support the institutions and systems that he helped build during his long and illustrious career."

On minister's salaries

Now 76, Ngiam spent a good four decades serving in various portfolios within the government, chairing the Economic Development Board, taking on permanent secretary roles at the ministry of finance and the Prime Minister's Office, and chairing numerous government-linked organisations, companies and agencies that included DBS, the CPF board and HDB.

He made his comments in the context of his earlier views about ministerial salaries, when asked what he was hoping to see in newer and younger political leaders.

"In the early days, Lim Kim San and Goh Keng Swee worked night and day, and they were truly dedicated," said Ngiam. "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(s), every minister — no matter how much he wants to turn up and tell (PM Lee) Hsien Loong off or whatever — will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary," he continued. "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."

On purchasing talent from abroad
Ngiam also spoke at length about Singapore's strategy of purchasing talent from abroad to boost various sectors of its economy and industry, taking, for instance, its investment into biomedical research.
"We shouldn't buy trophies," he said. "The best thing is to train our own people and give them the experience… we were spending over $6 billion trying to raise productivity.
"I found out that we have 30,000 trained workers each year, if we took into account the graduates fro all our universities, polytechnics and institutes of technical education!" he continued. "Yet, our employers refuse to take them on because they say that while the graduates may have the theories, they may not be able to do the job!"
He then said he has suggested that the Ministry of Finance pays for the salaries of new graduates that employers hire and train for their first year, so that if they are hired permanently, their training will be free-of-charge; if not, half of their salaries should be returned to the government.
"I think that's the best way, as we can reduce a lot of manpower wastage," he said. "I have not received a response yet!"

On babies, foreigners and the silver tsunami
Ngiam admitted that he, too, lacks an answer for the needs of the “silver tsunami”, referring to the elderly. He also said foreigners are important parts of Singapore's economy, particularly because Singaporeans are not always fit or willing to do the jobs they do.
He does have a message for young Singaporeans who are choosing to have fewer babies today, though.
"You are now young, successful, with First Class Honours from Cambridge University, and you live with your parents — life cannot be better. Project your mind to when you are 60, when maybe your parents are no longer around, do you want to live in a mansion all by yourself?" he asks. "Every human being has to have a mate for company, like how my wife and I are going through the golden years together. In general, we should appeal to real-life scenarios like this."
He also criticised the current incentive schemes encouraging parents to have more children, saying the policymakers responsible for them "(don't) know anything about human motivations".
"People don't have children just to satisfy your population ratios, but out of love and affection," he said pointedly. "The most important thing is for them to decide if they can live all alone when they're older."
"Your children and grandchildren will be the greatest joys in your life," he continued. "Whether they take care of you later in life, that's in God's hands, but the joy that they provide is irreplaceable."

Read Ngiam's full interview here.