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Singapore's 'economic czar': Tributes paid to former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow after his death

Singapore's 'economic czar': Tributes paid to former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow after his death

Former veteran civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow died on Aug 20, 2020. (Photo: TODAY)

SINGAPORE: Singapore leaders including President Halimah Yacob and former prime minister Goh Chok Tong have paid tribute to former veteran civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow, who died on Thursday (Aug 20) at the age of 83.

Mr Ngiam spent more than 40 years in public service, working with some of Singapore's founding political leaders including then-deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee, as well as all the prime ministers.

He was permanent secretary for several key ministries including the finance, trade and communications ministries. 

He also served as chairman of various statutory boards and government-linked firms, including the Central Provident Fund, Development Bank of Singapore, Housing and Development Board and Economic Development Board.

Last year, the National University of Singapore, where Mr Ngiam was former pro-chancellor, conferred him an Eminent Alumni Award - meant for those who have "distinguished themselves nationally or globally for their exceptional and sustained contributions and achievements". 

In a letter addressed to Mr Ngiam's wife Jeanette, Mdm Halimah expressed her "heartfelt condolences" to the family, praising the former civil servant for his "selfless devotion".

"Singapore is deeply grateful to Mr Ngiam for his selfless devotion to our country and people," she said. "Mr Ngiam was a shining example of a gentleman who led by example and served his nation to the best of his abilities."

She also touched on his "long and illustrious career" in public service, noting that at 33, he was the youngest permanent secretary to be appointed in the civil service, heading the then-Ministry of Communications.

"Many of Mr Ngiam's contributions continued to have an enduring impact to the lives of Singaporeans, even today," said Mdm Halimah.

She gave the example of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, which Mr Ngiam played a key role in bringing about.


After retiring in 1999, Mr Ngiam continued to show keen interest in affairs relating to Singapore's development, publishing two books - the Dynamics of the Singapore Success Story: Insights by Ngiam Tong Dow and A Mandarin and the Making of Public Policy: Reflections by Ngiam Tong Dow. 

He was open with his criticism of the Government, commenting in a controversial 2013 interview with the Singapore Medical Association (SMA) News how ministers' dedication went downhill after their salaries were raised and that their pay was preventing them from speaking up.

In the same interview, he also said that the ruling People's Action Party had become "a bit too elitist", in that they didn't "feel for the people" and lacked empathy. 

Mr Ngiam later retracted some of his comments, saying they gave the"wrong impression in several ways" and were "illogical". 

"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. 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," he clarified. 

He also said that he had made his comment about the newer crop of leaders being elitist "without realising that many had come from humble backgrounds". 

Mr Ngiam's outspokenness was also mentioned in Mdm Halimah's letter.

"Always one who spoke passionately on issues, Mr Ngiam believed in the contestation of ideas within the public service, so that our people will be served in the best possible way," she said. 

"After his retirement, he continued to share his wisdom with the younger generation in his capacity as Adjunct Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore and the School of Humanities and Arts at Nanyang Technological University."


In a Facebook post on Thursday, Mr Goh said he was "deeply saddened" by the death, calling Mr Ngiam "a friend, colleague and highly respected civil servant".

"I worked under Ngiam in the Ministry of Finance as a young civil servant and learnt much from him. Later, he was my permanent secretary when I became minister in the newly created Ministry of Trade and Industry. 

"When I was Prime Minister, I invited him for lunch occasionally as I found it worthwhile to listen to his views on Singapore’s economy," said Mr Goh, describing Mr Ngiam as "Singapore's economic czar".

Mr Goh, who recently announced his retirement from politics, said Mr Ngiam had served Singapore "with distinction", and extended his condolences to Mr Ngiam's wife Jeanette and their family.

Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing also took to Facebook to express his condolences, sharing that throughout his career, Mr Ngiam had "managed many complex issues and challenges with tenacity and professionalism".

During his time at MTI, Mr Ngiam "played an instrumental role in shaping and implementing the economic policies that catalysed Singapore's transformation from third world to first, from investment promotion, economic and manpower planning to industrial estate planning", said Mr Chan. 

"Even after his retirement from public service, Mr Ngiam always cared deeply about Singapore and wanted to see his beloved country continue to grow and progress," said Mr Chan.

"Mr Ngiam has set high standards and left a lasting legacy. We will continue to uphold his spirit of innovation and resilience as we chart our new path forward together," he added. 

Source: CNA/hs(nc)


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