With forty years in the civil service, and a ringside seat with the likes of Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen, Ngiam Tong Dow should have more war stories to tell about Singapore's history of governance, twists and turns, success and setbacks. Unfortunately the compilation of speeches, interviews and articles delivered and written between 2004 and 2010 quickly become repetitive, and the same anecdotes are sprinkled with each retelling.
Some are rehashed in the recent interview with Dr Toh Han Chong, published in the September issue of the Singapore Medical Association’s newsletter. Included are his pet peeves about F1 as a “frivolous” use of taxpayers’ money, what today’s younger politicians lack, and the folly of millionaire ministers.
In the light of Mah Bow Tan's revisionist recollection of the reason for his retirement (“There have been numerous rumours about why I resigned from the Cabinet, including bearing the responsibility for high HDB prices. I disagree."), some of Ngiam's quotes should be enumerated for posterity, lest our memories be challenged by unscrupulous politicians.
The secret origins of the COE:
Citing an example of creativity in government, Ngiam thought it was brilliant of Goh Keng Swee to put a tax on public utilities, arguing that the tax was small enough for people not to feel the pinch.
"Another example was is the Certificate of Entitlement. This was then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's idea. It is quite a feat to create money out of nothing. It is only a piece of paper, but the revenues are substantial." (page 138)
Planning for the floods:
It was the Ministry of Finance's practice of "robust" brand of economics that established Singapore's Bird Park at Jurong before the Zoo at Mandai because, Ngiam wrote, birdseed costs considerably less than meat for tigers and lions.
"The Ministry of Finance also rejected flood alleviation works at the Bukit Timah Canal. As it flooded only three or four times a year, it was too costly to build flood control works to enable motorists to arrive home in time for dinner." (page 122)
Separating chaff from the wheat:
Indranee Rajah may be forgiven for not understanding why tuition is essential for the PSLE survival course. At the heart of it is some notion why there should A* and "ordinary" A's. Ngiam thought it makes for the difference between the competent and entrepreneurial.
"I suggested to the National University of Singapore that we ask external examiners to set two out of ten examination questions from topics outside the core syllabus to identify the brilliant from the merely competent. We need to differentiate the firsts from the upper twos.
The Trojan Horse identified:
They told me I had misunderstood the external examination system. In fact, our own professors set all the questions." (page 134)
The politically correct story is that foreigners are essential to address the declining birth rate. Then there is the other story.
"Singapore's GDP increases of the last twenty years were due largely to expansion rather than growth. Import large numbers of foreign work permit holders enabled the economy to expand at GDP rates of 6-8 percent. Productivity stagnated at one percent. In some years it was negative.
Housing before Mah:
This is the Archilles' heel of the Singapore success story. We expanded but did not grow. We scaled up but failed to skill up." (page 6)
Once upon a time, HDB flats were truly affordable. Then the Minister invoked the existence of The Valuer who alone decides how much HDB has to pay for land, with rates marked to market. Back then, the valuer used to be a nicer guy.
"The chief valuer does not take into account the potential commercial value of the land. The economic rationale is that it it the state that builds the infrastructure, such as roads, utilities, sewerage, and rail transit systems. The community pays for public infrastructure out of tax revenue." (page 148)
Enough of the Mah bashing already; another hit of the hammer, and his short stature may not survive another diminishing whack on the head. Truth be told, the germination of greed started earlier.
"In the 1960s, Dr Goh Keng Swee's viewpoint was that a normal family has a household income of only S$400 a month. Therefore, the monthly rent could not be more than S$40. Lim Kim San had argued with him then and asked, "Isn't that like asking me to build slums?"
("HDB Should Also Build Condos", interview with Lianhe Zaobao, September 23, 2007, page 156)