Award Banner
Award Banner

Ngiam Tong Dow, former top civil servant and later critic, dies

Ngiam Tong Dow, former top civil servant and later critic, dies
Ngiam, seen here during an interview in 2012, spent 40 years in the apex Singapore Administrative Service.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, son of a court interpreter and a washerwoman from Hainan who rose to be a top civil servant and later an outspoken critic of the public service and the Government, died on Thursday morning (Aug 20).

He was 83.

His family told The Straits Times that he had been in ill health for four and a half years.

Mr Ngiam spent 40 years in the apex Singapore Administrative Service where he became the youngest permanent secretary at age 33 and won top accolades like the Distinguished Service Order in 1999 when he retired at age 62.

He was a forceful leader in developing policies on the economy, defence technology, transport, savings and retirement, as well as housing.

Mr Ngiam worked closely with founding leaders such as 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; and played a pioneering role as a member of the National Wages Council.

He was also chairman of several organisations, including the Economic Development Board (EDB); Sheng-Li Holdings, now known as Singapore Technologies; DBS Bank; Central Provident Fund Board; and the Housing Board.

But it was a twist of fate that put him on the road to success in public service.

Tuberculosis - a disease that killed his father when the younger Ngiam was just a nine-year-old - scuttled his ambition to be a postal clerk. A pre-employment medical check-up showed he had contracted early-stage tuberculosis.

After he was declared unfit for work, he went back to his books and and won an open bursary to the University of Malaya, where he achieved first-class honours in economics.

He joined the Administrative Service in August 1959, a few months after self-governing Singapore's first Cabinet was sworn in on June 5.

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 making the rounds in key Ministries such as Finance, National Development, Trade and Industry, and the Prime Minister's Office.

Sharp and forthright, he quickly developed a reputation for having iron in his spine.

Mr J.Y. Pillay, 86, another civil service high-flier and the man who was at the helm of Singapore Airlines in the early days, is reportedly said to have referred to Mr Ngiam as a "cult hero".

Former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan said Mr Ngiam was his first choice for permanent secretary when he was given the National Development portfolio in 1987.

The Ministry was undergoing a "major shake-up" then, he added. Its previous minister, Mr Teh Cheang Wan, had been investigated for corruption and committed suicide a year earlier.

"Then-Prime Minister (Lee Kuan Yew) said I could have a choice of anybody to be the permanent secretary. I asked for Ngiam Tong Dow, who was known to be analytical and prepared to speak his mind," said Mr Dhanabalan, 83, who joined the Economic Development Board together with Mr Ngiam when it was set up in 1961.

"He made sure policies were implemented and were good for Singapore. I trusted his opinion and judgement, which was really useful for me as Minister.

"He was a good civil servant."

Former Head of Civil Service and Enterprise Singapore chairman Peter Ong said Mr Ngiam was "his usual self and full of wit" when he last met him a few years ago.

His influence on the civil service was "legendary", said Mr Ong, adding that he set the standards for fiscal prudence and an entrepreneurial spirit in the service.

"Many of the older civil servants will recall the need to bring forth robust arguments to support their funding requests to the Ministry of Finance when he was the permanent secretary."

He added: "At the same time, Mr Ngiam's constant admonition for all public servants to behave like EDB officers to help land investments into Singapore is still a pertinent call for the (public) service to work together to achieve shared outcomes."

National University of Singapore President, Professor Tan Eng Chye, said of the university's alumnus and former pro-chancellor, who served for 19 years: "We are deeply saddened by the passing of Mr Ngiam. He spent many tireless years serving NUS as an educator and adviser, and we have greatly benefited from his wisdom and deep insights."

University pro-chancellors act on behalf of the chancellor during his absence from NUS.

Along the way, Mr Ngiam notched up public service awards, including the Distinguished Service Order in 1999, the year he retired from the civil service as Permanent Secretary (Finance) - a post he held for 13 years.

He subsequently 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.

Not known to mince his words, he often spoke 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 pushed for more Government support to grow local small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), instead of over-relying on foreign multinationals.

This, he believed, was the way to ensure that knowledge would be rooted in Singaporeans, and based in Singapore.

He further said in the 2003 interview that Singapore had 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 The Straits Times' editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang, who was aged 25 when he joined the EDB as an officer.

Mr Han, who turns 67 this year, 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 learned 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."

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

In 2010, he said in an interview with The Business Times: "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 12 noon and 10pm on Friday and Saturday, with a prayer service at 8pm. The cortege will leave for Mandai Crematorium on August 23 for a private service.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

This website is best viewed using the latest versions of web browsers.