It's all about Amelioration

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Insights to the Singapore Dilemma

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Credit to TOC for the heads up on this interview with the former head of the civil service, Mr Ngiam Tong Dow.

Talk about hitting the nail on its head. No interview comes close in terms of addressing the future concerns of the civil service and the government. Mind you, this interview was done in 2003, and we are facing the exact same problems which Mr Ngiam highlighted. Bloody insightful.

Here are some excerpts form the interview. You can read the full one here.

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Q. With all this pessimism surrounding Singapore’s prospects today, what’s your personal prognosis? Will Singapore survive Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew?

A. Unequivocally yes, Singapore will survive SM Lee but provided he leaves the right legacy. What sort of legacy he wants to leave is for him to say, but I, a blooming upstart, dare to suggest to him that we should open up politically and allow talent to be spread throughout our society so that an alternative leadership can emerge. So far, the People’s Action Party’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. It is the law of nature that all things must atrophy. Unless SM allows serious political challenges to emerge from the alternative elite out there, the incumbent elite will just coast along. At the first sign of a grassroots revolt, they will probably collapse just like the incumbent Progressive Party to the left-wing PAP onslaught in the late 1950s. I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP.

Q. What is your biggest worry about the civil service?

A. The greatest danger is we are flying on auto-pilot. What was once a great policy, we just carry on with more of the same, until reality intervenes. Take our industrial policy. At the beginning, it was the right thing for us to attract multinationals to Singapore. For some years now, I’ve been trying to tell everybody: ‘Look, for God’s sake, grow our own timber.’ If we really want knowledge to be rooted in Singaporeans and based in Singapore, we have to support our SMEs. I’m not a supporter of SMEs just for the sake of more SMEs, but we must grow our own roots. Creative Technology’s Sim Wong Hoo is one and Hyflux’s Olivia Lum is another but that’s too few. We have been flying on auto-pilot for too long. The MNCs have contributed a lot to Singapore but they are totally unsentimental people. The moment you’re uncompetitive, they just relocate.

Q. Why has this come about?

A. I suspect we have started to believe our own propaganda. There is also a particular brand of Singapore elite arrogance creeping in. Some civil servants behave like they have a mandate from the emperor. We think we are little Lee Kuan Yews. SM Lee has earned his spurs, with his fine intellect and international standing. But even Lee Kuan Yew sometimes doesn’t behave like Lee Kuan Yew. There is also a trend of intellectualisation for its own sake, which loses a sense of the pragmatic concerns of the larger world. The Chinese, for example, keep good archives of the Imperial examinations which used to be held at the Temple of Heaven. At the beginning, the scholars were tested on very practical subjects, such as how to control floods in their province. But over time, they were examined on the Confucian Analects and Chinese poetry composition. Hence, they became emasculated by the system, a worrying fate which could befall Singapore.

Q. You advocate a more inclusive mindset all around?

A. Yes, intellectually, everyone has to accept that the country of Singapore is larger than the PAP. But even larger than the country of Singapore, which is limited by size and population, is the nation of Singapore, which includes a diaspora. My view is that we should have a more inclusive approach to nation-building. We have started the Majulah Connection, an international network where every Singaporean – whether he is a citizen or not, so long as he feels for Singapore – is included as part of our diaspora. Similarly, we should include foreigners who have worked and thrived here as friends of Singapore. That’s the only way to survive. Otherwise, its just four million people on a little red dot of 600 sq km. If you exclude people, you become smaller and smaller, and in the end, you’ll disappear.

Q. What is the kind of Singapore you hope your grandchildren will inherit?

A. Let’s look at Sparta and Athens, two city states in Greek history. Singapore is like Sparta, where the top students are taken away from their parents as children and educated. Cohort by cohort, they each select their own leadership, ultimately electing their own Philosopher King. When I first read Plato’s Republic, I was totally dazzled by the great logic of this organisational model where the best selects the best. But when I reached the end of the book, it dawned on me that though the starting point was meritocracy, the end result was dictatorship and elitism. In the end, that was how Sparta crumbled. Yet, Athens, a city of philosophers known for its different schools of thought, survived. What does this tell us about out-of-bounds markers? So SM Lee has to think very hard what legacy he wants to leave for Singapore and the type of society he wants to leave behind. Is it to be a Sparta, a well-organised martial society, but in the end, very brittle; or an untidy Athens which survived because of its diversity of thinking? Personally, I believe that Singaporeans are not so kuai (Hokkien for obedient) as to become a Sparta. This is our saving grace. As a young senior citizen, I very much hope that Singapore will survive for a long time, but as an Athens. It is more interesting and worth living and dying for.

photo by notsogoodphotography

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Written by Nabs

June 1, 2010 at 11:18 am

Posted in MIND, Politics

4 Responses

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  1. […] Daily Discourse – It’s all about Amelioration: Insights to the Singapore Dilemma […]

  2. Do you think Ngiam Tong Dow is cleverer than LKY? Why can’t he do what he now says when he had the power to do so? It is easy to talk than do. Mr Ngiam should reflect on himself. Anyway, a former civil servant, how much we should believe and listen to him?

    waysswayss

    June 3, 2010 at 2:18 am

  3. I totally concur.

    It’s not so much of who is cleverer or more capable, but what kind of policies you think are good for us citizens. And reading the points Mr Ngiam made, I reckon he is spot on.

    But I do understand where you are coming from, as a former head of the civil service, HDB, Surbana Corp, you would expect him to have a influence to the system and put his money where his mouth is.

    As citizens, we do not know what happens at the top. Maybe he tried, but was suppressed by circumstances? Who knows? Perhaps he’ll get more vocal since he’s retired now?

    Regardless, I think his points are real poignant and relevant in today’s context. It serves as a good alternate view that not all of the incumbent’s policies are flawless and best for its people.

    Appreciate your comment and thanks for reading!

    Nabs

    June 3, 2010 at 9:33 am

  4. […] Forum: Puzzled by bank policy on Giro payments by credit card – It’s all about Amelioration: Insights to the Singapore Dilemma – The Temasek Review: Corruption-free Government Agencies, possible? – guanyinmiao’s musings: […]


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