As one of the youngestcivil servants ever appointed as a permanent secretary in the Singapore Civil Service, Ngiam has had a distinguished career witnessing and advocatingfor many key public-policy decisions made in the early years. He speaks and writes with incredible insight backed by an immense wealth of administrative experience and clarity of thought.
(on civil servants today) “I think now times are more stable, so they can take their time to plan this and plan that. But we had no time. Unemployment was 10 percent plus. Housing was crummy. We simply had to create a new reality.” He believes this sense of urgency should be re-inculcated int he modern civil servant. Singapore, he says, cannot afford to stop moving – and moving fast. “Singapore, being such a small economy, we should always work on the basis of insecurity,” he says.(Video) Dynamics of the Singapore Success Story: Insights by Ngiam Tong Dow
As a curated collection of Ngiam’s speeches and interviews, there were unfortunately multiple repetition of ideas and references, and more so, the lack of a central theme. It was left to the reader to pick up nuggets of information from different speeches across different years, and to piece them together.
True learning requires inner discipline … Initially, trainees had to learn machining manually. When CAD/CAM machines were introduced for machining, I asked the Japanese head of the Singapore-Japan Industrial Training Center whether the trainees had wasted their time learning to machine metal parts by hand. The Japanese instructor told me that working with hands requires more discipline and patient than does working with machines. Once these qualities are instilled in an individual, he will strive for perfection, machining down to the last micron of precision.
The book, however, inspired confidence and new insights about how Singapore in the 21st century should, and ought to, look like. A key theme emerged: that Singapore would need wealth creators and not just wealth managers. As Ngiam astutely observed: “Education, however, turns most of us into wealth managers. A society desperately needs those driven few who are wealth creators.”
Those who are not our friends are already pointing out that our export-oriented economic model will no longer work in the new post-crisis global economy. As our costs rise, we will no longer be able to compete with he BRIC economies in the production of goods and services. But there is no reason for us to produce goods and services only in or from Singapore. Had we just gazed at our own navel, there would be no Singapore Airlines today. I was one of its founding directors. The taunt that SIA is an airline that flies between Changi and Seletar still rings in my years. … As Singapore Airlines has shown, we can develop a dozen more in other knowledge domains. We have to do it ourselves. No one else will. We need to wean ourselves from our recently acquired habit of hiring outside consultants and foreign CEOs to do the job for us.
Will the imminent rise of the BRIC economies lead to the relative decline of other countries in the world? BRIC countries are formidable, emerging, as they are, as low cost, high tech economies. The United States, Japan and Western Europe are high cost, high tech economies. These established advanced countries can keep their lead so long as they continue to be innovative and creative in their science and technology. Will their societies and educations systems be able to identify their best and brightest talent and nurture them? Or will the best and brightest gravitate toward their Wall Streets and bourses managing other people’s wealth, unable to generate any of their own?
Inevitably, wage and other infrastructural costs will rise. Will we then be in danger of being a high cost, medium tech economy? We have to move up to the league of the high cost, high tech countries in North America, Russia, Western Europe and Japan. We must aim to be a high cost, high tech country like Finland, which overcomes competition in low cost, high tech countries like China and India through sheer superior engineering. It is telling that, in Finland, the engineer is more valued than a manager. In fact, engineers decline promotion to managerial jobs.(Video) Minister George Yeo's speech at launch of Ngiam Tong Dow's book, 19 Nov 10
“How many new enterprises have we started in Singapore? Have we started any great Singapore companies in the last twenty years? I can’t think of any. So Temasek and GIC have just become fund managers. They are just investing our reserves … “When you really think about it, we have expanded, but we have not grown. In economic terms, there’s a great difference.”
Ngiam remains a keen observerof the civil servicetoday even uponhis retirement. Pointing outchanges that have swept through the culture of the civil service,he betrays a ruefulness that captureshisuncertainty of ourfuture. His instructive insights, as one who had dedicated much ofhis life developing Singapore,will certainly goa long way in encouraging a new wave of civil servants poised to carry our island state into her next jubilee.
One could say that Singapore practices “strategic pragmatism”. Professor Edgar H. Schein coined the term in his book Strategic Pragmatism: The Culture of Singapore’s Economic Development Board (EDB), published in 1996 by MIT Press. This is the first study of the working of the EDB, thirty-five years after its establishment in 1961. As its name suggests, the Economic Development Board was set up by the Ministry of Finance to spearhead the economic development of Singapore. We practiced strategic pragmatism, strategic in thinking and pragmatic in execution.(Video) Ngiam Tong Tau: Sustaining Singapore's farming heritage
“He recalls receiving instructions, back then, from Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee that cabinet papers should not be more than two-and-a-half pages long, double-spaced, and stated in plain language. “They’d say, don’t give us three options or four options, just state what is your opinion, recommending action. Whereas today, at least until the time I retired, the papers become too scholarly, with too many options …” he says with a laugh. This, he believes, is also a result of a different breed of ministers who want several options at hand.
The civil service is more adept at achieving quantitative than qualitative targets. Topping up our population en masse with immigrants may well create a population base larger than what our economy can sustain. Paradoxically, we may yet regress to unemployment. Unlike our earlier policy for admitting more work permit workers to meet the cyclical demand for labor, immigrants, once given permanent residence, are here to stay. … To me, population is the most pressing social, economic, and political policy issue. Our best brains should be mobilised to think through its many facets. The best administrators should be tasked to coordinate and implement what has to be a coherent multidimensional long-range policy.
WhoShould Read This:civil servants, those with an interest in understanding Singapore’s key public policies
Based on his rich, forty-year experience in Singapore government as a senior civil servant, Ngiam’s thoughtful reflections that resulted in a clear picture of the Singapore way to economic success are embodied in this book. The book is, then, especially useful for three groups of people. First, for those interested in Singapore’s past experience, this book indulges, at least partially, their curiosity about why and how Singapore succeeded; second, for those in developing countries eager to learn from and make use of Singapore’s public policies, this is a guidebook that identifies the underlying dynamics; and third, for this with a scholarly interest in development economics, this provides a Singapore case study, with its new mode of economic development. — Introduction, by Zhang Zhibin