Ngiam: Robust cabinet strikes back

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Ngiam Tong Dow

By Tan Bah Bah

Ngiam Tong Dow“Wrong impression”, “illogical”, “not fair” , “spoken without realising” – these were the phrases Ngiam Tong Dow used to describe his comments in an interview on current government ministers and policies.

The sudden public backtracking by the former Civil Service head in response to reactions from quarters not exactly identified must have dismayed quite a number of admirers. They see in him an important inside track espouser of alternative views on government policies and directions.

Hitherto, they also regard Ngiam as an establishment figure, part and parcel of a brilliant pioneer team of leaders – political and civil service – behind Singapore’s economic success. There has been no official frowning on his previous observations (that we know of, anyway) – till now. He has, in the past, called the government elitist in its outlook and criticised its obsession with making Singapore a First World country.

Because of his impeccable background, he seemed untouchable. He is, after all, an Adjunct Professor in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

What he said in an interview with the editor of Singapore Medical Association News has been widely reported. We need not go into the details here. Among other things, Ngiam, in his retraction statement, said it was unfair of him to describe today’s ministers as elitist and imply they did not speak up at cabinet meetings because they were worried about losing their high salaries. It has been pointed out to him that several ministers came from humble backgrounds and quite a few could command higher salaries in the private sector and were not afraid to speak up at cabinet meetings.

Ngiam said: “I have been told by civil servant colleagues that cabinet discussions are robust – as robust as they were when I attended cabinet meetings as PS (PMO), when Mr Goh Chok Tong was PM, and Mr Lee Hsien Loong DPM.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has welcomed his clarifications, “especially his comments about my ministers”.

On surface, the two sets of statements – retraction and the PMO reaction – seemed to have settled the issue. Ngiam said his piece, was told he was wrong and he took it back. End of episode.

Not quite. Ngiam’s retraction raises several points.

It seems improbable that the ex-top civil servant could be so well off the mark about the robustness or lack of in most cabinet meetings, in the earlier years and now. Perhaps he was truly unaware, so carried away as he was during his interview. But most observers would interpret his clarifications as more likely made under pressure. Did someone throw an OB marker at him? OB markers are said to be “out of bounds markers” to denote what topics are permissible for public discussion.
The PM said: “I hope that in retirement he will continue to support the institutions and systems that he helped build during his long and illustrious career.” Will Ngiam now be less vocal? Worse, will he now disappear quietly into the golden sunset?

Let us hope not.

People like Ngiam and civil service leaders of his generation (and the one immediately after) should be listened to. They have a collective wealth of experience which should be fully tapped. They are practically NGOs, each a custodian of history and a resource to help younger Singaporeans look at problems beyond their own often limited perspectives and what they learn in classrooms and textbooks.

These early civil service stars offer useful alternative views and are a bridge between the pioneer and current generations. They fill an important gap in the telling of the Singapore story which has so far been rather monophonic.

Apart from Ngiam, Prof Lim Chong Yah reappeared in public last year to call for a shock therapy to lessen the wage gap. The former chairman of the National Wages Council urged the raising of salaries of low-income workers over three years while imposing a moratorium on the country’s highest wages during the same time. That set off a very lively discussion and refocused the country’s attention on the need to help low-income workers.

A really new normal should be one where our best talents from the past will come forward unhindered to share their views with others. A better informed public is the most precious legacy which people like Ngiam, Lim, Philip Yeo and J Y Pillay can leave for future Singaporeans, governments included.

Tan Bah Bah is a retired journalist. He was a senior leader writer/columnist with The Straits Times and managing editor of a  local magazine company.