Former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow dies, aged 83

SINGAPORE – Former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow, who worked closely with Singapore’s founding leaders and was known for being outspoken, died peacefully on Thursday (Aug 20) morning, his family said.

He was 83.

His family told The Straits Times that he had been in ill health for 4½ years.

Mr Ngiam spent 40 years in the apex Singapore Administrative Service before retiring in 1999 at age 62.

He stumbled on his career by a twist of fate. A first-generation Singaporean born to a court interpreter and washerwoman from Hainan, he lost his father at age nine to tuberculosis.

After completing his schooling at Serangoon English and St Andrew’s Secondary, he applied for a job as a postal clerk.

But a medical check-up showed he had contracted early-stage tuberculosis and was unfit for work. So he continued studying and won an open bursary to the University of Malaya, where he achieved first-class honours in economics. It paved the way for him to join the Economic Development Board in 1959.

He would later go on to top his Masters in Public Administration programme at Harvard University.

Few could tell the story of Singapore’s transformation from Third World to First as he could – from the days of high unemployment, slums and tin-shed factories when he began his career, to a modern high-tech economy with a First World per capita income when he finished.

In 1970, he became the youngest permanent secretary at age 33 at the Ministry of Communications, before being posted to key ministries such as Finance, National Development, Trade and Industry, and the Prime Minister’s Office.

He worked extensively with Singapore’s founding political leaders, including prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his successor Goh Chok Tong, former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee and former finance minister Hon Sui Sen.

He was also a pioneer member of the National Wages Council and chairman of several organisations, including the EDB, Sheng-Li Holdings – now known as Singapore Technologies – DBS Bank, Central Provident Fund Board, and the Housing Board.

Along the way, he notched up public service awards such as the Public Administration Medal (Gold) in 1971, the Meritorious Service Medal in 1978, and the Distinguished Service Order in 1999.

After retiring from the civil service in 1999 as Permanent Secretary (Finance) – a post he held for 13 years – he joined the boards of companies such as Temasek Holdings, Singapore Press Holdings, Yeo Hiap Seng, and United Overseas Bank.

Even after his retirement, affairs of state continued to weigh on his mind.

He was known for not mincing his words, often speaking up about his worries for the future of Singapore and the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

In an interview with The Straits Times in 2003, he said Singapore is “larger than the PAP”, and talent should be allowed to spread throughout society.

“So far, the PAP’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,” he said.

He credited the EDB for his hands-on approach to public service. “Investment promotion then was all about hard foot slogging and personal persuasion, which teaches you to be very humble and patient,” he said.

“I learnt to be a supplicant and a professional beggar, instead of a dispenser of favours. These days, most civil servants start out administering the law. If I had my way, every administrative officer would start his or her career in the EDB.”

He was also an advocate for growing local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) instead of over-relying on foreign multinationals. He believed that this was the way to ensure that knowledge would be rooted in Singaporeans, and based in Singapore.

In the same interview, he said: “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.”

He left a lasting impression on Mr Han Fook Kwang, the Editor-At-Large at The Straits Times, who had joined the EDB as an officer at age 25.

Mr Han said: “I first met Mr Ngiam in 1978 when he was EDB chairman and I had just joined EDB. My cohort of public service officers learnt and looked up to Mr Ngiam and the pioneer generation of civil servants not only for what they could teach us about public policy, but more importantly about their values and what drove them to serve.

“For Mr Ngiam, his work was his life and he was completely devoted to it. Even after he retired, he was concerned about Singapore, always worrying whether it was heading in the right direction.”

It was not the dollars and cents, but the compassionate side of policymaking that ultimately mattered to Mr Ngiam.

He said in an interview with The Business Times in 2010: “We should become a highly educated society and keep adding to our knowledge.

“We should also be a humane society where people have respect for each other. Then we can survive. That’s the Singapore I would want for my grandchildren.”

Mr Ngiam is survived by his wife Jeanette Gan Choon Neo, daughter Selina, son Kelvin, and three grandchildren.

The wake will be held at 4 Chestnut Avenue between noon and 10pm on Friday and Saturday, with a prayer service at 8pm. The cortege will leave for Mandai Crematorium on Sunday for a private service.

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