The SIIA and Singapore Institute of Management (SIM) presented the above talk looking at Singapore’s economic successes and its future challenges. Singapore Institute of Management Governing Council Vice Chairman, Mr Raymond Kwok, opened the dialogue with his hope for a lively session. Expressing SIIA’s delight to partner SIM for this talk, Professor Tay1 provided a background of the speaker’s contribution to Singapore’s civil service. Mr Ngiam’s experience was all the more relevant today as:
Singapore was going through a lot of changes and needed people who understood the past and who were still active today to help us see what could potentially happen in the future.
We were at a time where Prime Minister Lee’s had said that we needed more voices to tell Singapore’s history, and had challenged us to remake Singapore, and even question the sacred cow. Having a former senior civil servant do that was very important.
Mr Ngiam had written a book that had been very much worth the read.
The talk was about some thinking Mr Ngiam has had over the last few years - whether Singapore can go beyond our physical confines and mental boundaries to become, as the talk title says, “Singapore the nation is bigger than Singapore the country”.
Mr Ngiam expressed his appreciation for the opportunity to address and interact with a younger generation of Singaporeans. He spoke widely on the various foundations for Singapore’s success thus far, such as the focus on equal access to education and equal opportunity, principle of meritocracy, and the various infrastructural developments. He also shared his experiences in the Singapore of the past, the history and outcome of Singapore’s development strategies, and also outlined the challenges for succeeding generations in ensuring a thriving economy in Singapore. He concluded his speech by posing a question to the audience on whether Singapore can move beyond a successful economy or a place to become a nation. The full speech is available below.
The question and answer session opened with Dr Geh Min from Nature Society Singapore. As Mr Ngiam had pointed out, Singapore had had a global economy since independence but there was now talk about becoming a global city. What was the difference between being a global city then and now?
On becoming the nation of Singapore, Mr Ngiam hoped that, as a first step to becoming one nation, we have to become “one people”. He recalled in his days in English-speaking schools, where his classmates were of different races, he felt that they did not see each other as Malay, Indian or Chinese, but today he wondered if by being very efficient now, we were reintroducing racial consciousness, citing the example of Special Assistance Plan schools. He wondered if there was such openness today and felt that “one people” could only be achieved if we could all interact with less consciousness of race.
His concept of one nation was an inclusive one, including of Singaporeans who had left and become citizens of other countries; what Professor Shih Choon Fong called the “diasporean” – the Singaporean who had left Singapore, but whose heart was still in Singapore. It was worth looking into how to engender that. Calling Singapore a nation in the making, he said the question was whether, at the end of the day, if one was successful, mobile and in another country, would one come back to raise one’s family in Singapore?
A knowledge-based economy depended on a holistic approach, including the sharing of expert knowledge. Dr Geh Min had had many experiences of difficulty in accessing information in Singapore. She believed that this was a fairly common complaint in Singapore. She asked how Mr Ngiam thought this should be dealt with, particularly by policymakers.
Mr Ngiam felt that in a way, the Singapore government was an open book, if one knew how to search.
Dr Liew Kian Heng of Liew Strategics concurred with Dr Geh Min on the difficulties of access to information and knowledge. He was also concerned about the trend in many organisations in Singapore, mostly in the public sector, of retiring experienced senior people as quickly as possible. He felt this was a great loss of knowledge that might pose problems in the future.
In response, Mr Ngiam shared his experience in running his own company, Surbana Corporation, an offshoot of the Housing Development Board (HDB). While the architects and engineers in HDB were looked down upon by private architects as “dull and unimaginative”, once out of the HDB bureaucratic framework, the very same people were winning design competitions and getting consultancy business based on design competitions, demonstrating that rewards come with allowing people freedom to take risks.
On the matter of retiring people, he felt it allowed people like himself greater freedom to think. For example, building on the Singapore brand overseas, Surbana had gone beyond constructing buildings, to the bigger job of planning a city. He had been asked to assist his clients on how to make the area self-sustaining in economic terms, taking Surbana beyond technical consulting, to consulting in administration.
Singapore needed to have a more gung-ho spirit; there are many areas of knowledge in Singapore which we had not learnt to package and we needed to do so in order to sell this knowledge.
Adding on to Mr Liew’s question, Professor Tay asked whether Mr Ngiam thought the Singapore government’s creation of Singapore Corporate Enterprise is useful in helping Singapore statutory boards and ministries venture overseas.
Mr Ngiam did not see how one could bureaucratise consultancy. He used an anecdote of how some ministry’s decision to build facilities for the old men who used to bring singing birds to the Tiong Bahru area had led the old men to stop this practice, in order to relate how bureaucracy sometimes takes the spirit out of spontaneous activity.
Mr KC Lee from SIM asked what Singapore needed to do while it was developing into a nation to remain welcoming and inviting to non-Singaporeans who want to contribute, and how to leverage on these friends of Singapore, since many have contributed significantly.
· On friends of Singapore, Mr Ngiam shared his thoughts of how in the early days, Singapore really had friends who felt for the country - foreigners who helped when it really mattered, for example, with industries and the Economic Development Board (EDB).
· On the issue of foreign talent, he thought somehow Singaporeans were made to feel we were no good, and that might inevitably set us back in our confidence. We should be open to foreign talent from all over the world but at the same, Singaporeans should always be in charge. As an analogy, he said, "When we hire foreigners as CEOs, we're asking the CEO to drive the car for [us]. That's a pity ... We can hire the excellence from outside to teach us, tell us where to go, how to go … [but] if Singapore wants to be a knowledge centre, we've got to drive the car ourselves."
Mr KC Lee quoted the three areas of soft capability that Mr Ngiam mentioned Singapore has a chance to export - education, wealth management and health management. Mr Lee wondered if, as the majority of education and medicine in Singapore seemed to be locked up in the public sector, we had a structural problem since our institutions were publicly run and publicly funded, and therefore might not be the best to go into business.
On education, Mr Ngiam said Singapore had spent the last forty years developing an excellent education system. The fact that many middle-class parents in India, China and Indonesia were sending their children to be educated here said something about its success. But in order to extract that value, for example, Mr Ngiam said retired teachers should hold themselves up as experts in curriculum development and help do that for other countries. He said it was no use advising on education since there were many advisers from the World Bank and the United Nations. Instead we should look at the concrete areas we are good at in order to meet a specific need.
On medicine, Mr Ngiam said Singapore can develop and design hospitals for other countries, based on our experience building and running the Singapore General Hospital and National University Hospital for example, allowing us to build better versions for other people. He thought our strength was more in the industrial engineering of the hospitals, and less in medical advancement and treatment, etc. From experience, we can distil the best layout for hospitals and schools, the best curriculum for schools, etc.
On wealth management, he cited an example of how because of over-cautiousness Singapore had missed out on an opportunity in the 1970’s when it refused a banking license to a bright Iranian who eventually set up the Arab-Malaysian Bank. He also thought Singapore’s comparative advantage for managing Chinese wealth over Hong Kong would be its distance from Beijing. He lamented that the bulk of consultancy fees during the bank mergers in Singapore had gone to foreigners from multinational financial consultancies, while those doing the work had been Singaporeans employed in their local office.
Ms Euleen Goh of IE Singapore asked how we could make Singapore the nation an inclusive society that did not regard Singaporeans and non-Singaporeans, but a nation where people wanted to come and stay. She felt the problem was that we have too many people who come, learn, gain and then leave. Was there a way to make Singapore a nation with a heart, branded in a way that people understand?
Mr Ngiam agreed that Singapore should be an inclusive society. He had been upset with Senior Minister Goh’s speech about “stayers” and “quitters”. Mr Ngiam believed there were no “quitters” because even if they work abroad, but think of Singapore and have a heart here, they remain “stayers” and Singaporean.
Mr Samuel Lock from Clarion Consultants asked if, for Singapore to integrate foreign talent, it needed a paradigm shift from cutting the dividend pie to growing the pie together as the former results in anti-competition practices.
Mr Ngiam agreed that Singapore should invite foreigners to come and grow the pie. He said foreigners sometimes thought better of Singapore than locals as locals tended to be more critical.
Singaporeans tended to have a “buy” and “sell” kind of attitude but not everything was about “buying” and “selling”. We needed some friendship and to learn to appreciate others. Each Singaporean could cultivate someone to become a friend of Singapore - it did not have to lead to business. He thought that if this happened more, our security would be enhanced.
Business writer Mr Lee Han Shih asked if the EDB had served its purpose and should now be dismantled.
Mr Ngiam replied that the EDB was not like the National Wages Council or the Public Transport Council, though he admitted EDB had failed to grow local SMEs by taking the shortcut to invite MNCs, for whom Singapore had been an unsentimental matter of profit and loss - leaving when Singapore was no longer cost competitive.
He felt Singapore should grow its own people and had suggested the EDB take a risk on our young people by inviting them to propose business ideas and investing in them. 5% would survive to become the Sim Wong Hoo’s and the Olivia Lum’s of the world. He said Singapore had become managerial and professional but lacked the creative or entrepreneurial spark.
Mr Daniel Teo of Hong How Corporation wondered about the effects of high land cost and restrictive planning policy on the aging population.
Mr Ngiam wondered if the term ‘aging’ should be used. People could stop work, but should never retire. Expressing his basic beliefs, he said they should learn to use the one talent God had given them to remain active to serve and benefit. Aging was not necessarily a problem, but rather how one changed one’s way of life.
He felt that the idea of a retirement village was psychologically bad. Instead, we should integrate the old people in “normal” housing. Isolation was not good and the old should remain part of the “normal” community until the day they die. If he was still Chairman of HDB, he would not build separate blocks for old people.
Student Nicholas Foo felt that people of his generation had to be convinced to present a fair face of Singapore overseas, instead of just making arms-length criticism. He wondered how youth could be engaged more.
Mr Ngiam said there must be genuine interest in the young people. He had benefited from the pupilage of Mr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Hon Sui Sen who took it upon themselves to give him one-on-one tutoring, which he in turn used to do for his young officers as well. He shared that throughout his life, he had made a conscious effort to learn different angles from other people from different fields.
Professor Tay posed the final question of the session on the issue of Malaysia. Mr Ngiam had said earlier that after separation from Malaysia, Singapore had “never looked back”, yet there was now talk of working together, for example, the fast speed train to economically integrate the two physical spaces more. Was this important to Singapore, or should Singapore forget about a hinterland for resources and synergies and look globally instead?
Mr Ngiam used the example of port development. He felt we should have taken an economic attitude - PSA should have teamed up with Tanjong Pelepas to develop a bigger port that could have competed with Shanghai and Hong Kong.
As Singapore does not want to be totally dependant on any one country, the world becomes its economic hinterland.
Re-merger was out of the question for him, saying one does not know freedom until one has lost it. He recounted that during the period of merger, they had to wait for the federal government to approve everything they wanted to do.
Report by Cynthia Chang
SIIA Researcher and Public Education Coordinator