Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has welcomed former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow's clarification of comments he made recently about the current crop of ministers being afraid to speak up, and the People's Action Party (PAP) being elitist.
In a short statement on Friday, PM Lee said in reply to media queries: "I am glad Mr Ngiam has clarified the statements in his interview in the Singapore Medical Association's (SMA) newsletter, especially his comments about my ministers.
"Mr Ngiam served as my permanent secretary in MTI years ago. I hope that in retirement, he will continue to support the institutions and systems that he helped build during his long and illustrious career." Mr Lee's comments came a day after Mr Ngiam made public a statement clarifying controversial comments he had made in an interview carried in the SMA newsletter last month.
Mr Ngiam was the permanent secretary of several ministries, including the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI), and chairman of the Economic Development Board before he retired in 1999.
In a letter on Thursday to Dr Toh Han Chong, editor of SMA News, Mr Ngiam said his view that ministers do not speak up in Cabinet discussions because of their high salaries is "illogical" and "not fair". He also said his claim that the PAP today "is a bit too elitist" had been made without realising that many of the current leaders come from humble backgrounds.
"I retired from the civil service in 1999. Since then I have not attended any Cabinet meetings, and have never seen one chaired by PM Lee Hsien Loong," Mr Ngiam said.
Thus my statement that ministers will not speak their minds before PM Lee is unfair as it was made without knowing what actually happens at Cabinet meetings today.
"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," he said in his letter, which bore the title Clarification Statement.
Mr Ngiam added that he knows some ministers have given up successful and well-paying careers in the private sector to join politics at a lower salary, while others could have chosen to join the private sector to make more money but did not.
They have no reason not to speak their minds when they are convinced that they are doing right by Singaporeans, he said.
The interview in the September edition of SMA News focused on health care, but was widely circulated online for the comments on politics and the civil service. In the interview, Mr Ngiam said that any minister who wants to disagree with the Prime Minister "will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary", and that the civil service had become tamer, resulting in less contestation of ideas.
Mr Ngiam also charged that former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had said the certificate of entitlement (COE) system was introduced to "collect more money" for the Government. In his letter, Mr Ngiam clarified that "it was not the case".
"The fundamental purpose of the COE scheme was to limit Singapore's car population. If the intent had been to raise revenue, I would not have supported the policy as permanent secretary at the Finance Ministry," he said, adding that he had revealed the discussion to show Mr Lee's openness in discussing policies, even with civil service officials. Dr Toh declined to comment yesterday when contacted by The Straits Times.
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