Former civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow tells Susan Long why Singapore should just aim to be a solid "second-upper" city.
The Straits Times, 12 Jan 2013
RETIRED senior civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow's worry for Singapore today is that it has begun to believe its own propaganda that it has arrived as a First World city.
"It's a complete delusion on our part to think that we can become a First World city such as New York, London and Tokyo," says the 75-year-old adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. "As a 'little red dot', we suffer from inherent limitations of space, size of population, depth of talent pools and political influence."
While being a First World city may be beyond it, he says Singapore should focus on being a solid "second-upper" city. "It's more pragmatic to position ourselves as the best in class of the world's second-tier international cities, such as Zurich, Boston, Sydney and Tel Aviv. These are all cities with populations of five million to six million of well-educated people and they compete on knowledge."
Increasingly, he says, the differentiator for successful cities is "not cheap labour but competent labour". Singapore's Achilles heel, as he sees it, is that over the past decade, it chose to pump in cheap foreign labour instead of drilling down to the unglamorous task of improving productivity, skilling up its workers for higher- level jobs and improving standards of schools.
"Productivity is low because we went for imported cheap labour and now we're stuck in a time warp. We can compete only in industries of low technology. This time around, I hope the Cabinet has the political courage to push this through," says the former permanent secretary in the Prime Minister's Office and the Finance, Trade and Industry, National Development and Communications ministries before he retired from the elite Administrative Service in 1999.
He recently stepped down from the boards of Singapore Press Holdings and United Overseas Bank.
Although Singapore's official unemployment rate is at a low of 2 per cent, the pro-chancellor of the National University of Singapore, who helps give out about 9,000 degree scrolls a year, notes there lurks "disguised unemployment and underemployment".
"How many and what kind of quality jobs can we provide for school leavers a year?" he asks. "In the 1950s, they became hawkers. Today, we have hundreds of young graduates becoming property agents or relationship managers selling esoteric products."
He fears also that Singapore has lost the knack of asking the right questions. "We often start with the answers we want and ask the questions to support it."
For example, in discussions on the "right" size of Singapore's population, he charges that the authorities mainly debated how to create a higher-density city with more high-rise flats and condominiums to cater to more people. "That's only a physical constraint, not an economic constraint."
He says the right parameters to frame the question instead are: "Can we sustain the economic livelihoods of five or six million people? Surely, the size of the population is as much as you can sustain the economy of Singapore.
"Asking the right questions today is the most important factor for Singapore's future sustainability. If you ask the wrong questions, you're in trouble."
What weighs heavily on his mind these days is what kind of Singapore his three grandchildren, aged 15 to 21, will live in years from now. "I want them to live in a Singapore where they can hold their heads high, be of value to the rest of the world to earn their living and not have to kowtow to others," declares the first- generation Singaporean born to a court interpreter and washerwoman from Hainan.
He lost his father at age nine to tuberculosis, attended Serangoon English School and St Andrew's Secondary, then 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. As a default, he continued studying, and won an open bursary to the University of Malaya, where he scored a first in economics.
In 1959, he started life as an Economic Development Board officer, earning a reputation for being both a "thinker and a doer". At 35, he became Singapore's youngest permanent secretary in 1972. After his retirement, he was appointed chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board, Development Bank of Singapore, Central Provident Fund, and Housing Board.
Since then, he has refused to fade into the sunset and has spoken up - often critically - about his worries for the future of Singapore and the People's Action Party. He concedes: "People think I'm a fool... I'm no longer in a position to change things but ideas can change societies. It is my duty as a Singaporean to leave behind ideas for the younger generation."
He admits it hurts when ex-colleagues say: "Tong Dow, why are you still stirring the mud?" Or when they accuse him of "playing the old gramophone record".
"The politest has been: 'Why didn't you say all these when you were still in the civil service?'"
For the record, he says he dissented on policies back then, such as the certificate of entitlement balloting system, which he believes has irrevocably raised Singapore's key production costs.
These days, he speaks at universities and think-tanks about six times a year and is busy compiling his fourth book. He also golfs and spends time with his retired schoolteacher wife.
The best way is to view Singapore, he suggests, as a work in progress. One of his dearly departed friends, Mr Roop Vaswani, a Sindhi merchant, always told him: "It's best to be climbing up a mountain to success and never to arrive. The moment you reach the summit, the only way is down."
He sums up: "Likewise, in Singapore, we should not believe that we're already First World. Or that we have arrived at the pinnacle."