Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Ngiam Tong Dow: Singapore the Nation is Bigger than Singapore the Country

Addendum:Report of Mr. Ngiam's talk plus Q&A session available here (from SIIA website)



Thank you for giving me this opportunity to address and interact with a younger generation of Singaporeans. I have just celebrated my 69th birthday, so I am really of your parents' generation. My generation of Singaporeans were born just before or during the Japanese occupation of Singapore (1942-1945). We went to school and grew up into young adulthood in the immediate post war years in the 1950s.

Singapore: Then and Now

Living today in clean and orderly HDB eats, or spanking new condominiums with swimming pools and gymnasium, it is even difficult for my generation to recall the fetid slums of Chinatown or the swampy unsewered mosquito-infested kampongs of Toa Payoh, Ang Mo Kio or Geylang. Other than Raffles Institution and the five leading mission or community-based schools of AGO, St Josephs and St. Andrews, Chinese High and Chung Cheng, most of us went to what we would be known today as neighbourhood or vernacular schools.

As someone who went to a neighbourhood school, no general science was taught. My classmates who aspired to be doctors studied general science at the privately run Singapore Institute of Science. Additional mathematics was taught only to the "A" class long before the concept of streaming in school was introduced. However all classes did elementary mathematics. There was no stigma being in the "B" class.

Forty years later, I glowed with pride when I was privileged to be the guest of honor when my alma mater, the Serangoon English School, moved into its state of the art new school building at the end of Upper Serangoon Road. The school is now teaching life sciences, instead of plain biology.

The British Colonial Administration

The British colonial administration which returned victorious to Singapore in 1945, quickly re-established the English medium schools. The Chinese clan and the various Christian missions followed soon after, restarting their schools. School fees at $2 or $4 a month could be considered high when household incomes were probably less than $100 a month.

Fees were waived for children from poorer homes. Schools operated on two sessions. To make up for the lost war years, my classmates and I were given double promotions so that we could complete Primary I and II, and Standard I and II in two, instead of four, calendar years. We were none the worse for the accelerated promotions.

Equal Opportunity in Education

I believe that a key foundation for Singapore's success is that we have been able to give equal opportunity and access to education to all our children Imagine where we would be today, if half our population is illiterate. We would be nowhere in the global rankings of a knowledge-based world. Knowledge is now the very essence of globes competition.

Asian cultures have always placed the highest priority on education. However didactic and doctrinal teaching alone will not help to position a country to compete in today's knowledge-based world. Knowledge for survival has to embrace more than just science and technology. Some of Singapore's research institutes may excel in the acquisition of hard original scientific knowledge.

However Singapore can probably do better in the integration of knowledge to provide what modern management calls holistic solutions.

Unglamourous, Unsex, Infrastructural Projects

In any case, application of technology does not require rocket science. Singapore has in fact invested heavily in several highly advanced though unglamourous, unsexy, infrastructural projects.

Our Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) System built in the 1980s, our four incinerator plants costing half-a-billion dollars each, our ongoing deep tunnel sewerage project, are all state of the art projects. My regret is that after paying billions of dollars to build them, we remain only as users and operators.

Unlike the Japanese and the Chinese we did not organise ourselves to design these technologically advanced systems for export. This was brought home to me vividly when I visited the Tuas incinerator plant as PS (Finance) In the 1990s.

The representative of the German consulting company which designed our incinerator plants shook my hand and thanked me profusely for what I thought was his consulting fee of $50 million. Being German, he was direct in telling me that he was thanking me not for the fee but the operating data he was able to collect from our plant burning wet rubbish. Our data would help his engineers to work out the optimum injection of fuel to bum the garbage. This data would position his company to win similar design consultancies in other humid tropical cities such as Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta.

Without diminishing the excellent work of A*Star in life sciences. I would think that it would serve Singapore better if we encourage more down to earth applied research in meeting the basic infrastructural needs of our neighbouring countries. Our water reclamation companies are doing just that.

Knowledge-based competition is an unavoidable reality in today's world. Let us learn to choose the areas where we have a comparative advantage.

Connections Connectivity and Affinities

International competition for national survival is not just knowledge-based in the narrow sense of the word. It is also about connections, connectivity, and racial affinities.

The country of Singapore with a population of 3 million, even doubling to six, will not have the depth of talent that countries like China, India, Japan, Indonesia, or Brazil with their billion-sized populations will have. Though I believe firmly that the individual Singaporean is as competent and as talented as anybody else in the world, the law of numbers will challenge us in a knowledge-based world.

We can however take comfort in the model of biblical Israel. It is said that the Jewish race is Gods chosen people. The funny thing is that there are mare Jewish people living outside Israel than inside. The nation of Israel is therefore larger than the country of Israel.

Singapore: The Nation Is Larger Than The Country

Can there be a nation of Singapore larger than the country of Singapore? How each one of us answer this question will determine our long-term future as a people.

Mr Robert Kuok, the Malaysian Chinese entrepreneur par excellence, in reply to a question asked at a private function at the National University of Singapore said unequivocally that Singapore as an economy would survive. More so now that economic competition is knowledge more than resource based.

When Singapore separated from Malaysia in August 1985, barely two years after we merged with Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. to form the Federation of Malaysia, we lost the prospect of a Malaysian common market. Whatever the unspoken agenda of the political leadership of the four states seeking merger were, the compelling rationale for Singapore was to form a common market to enhance our chances for economic survival.

Import Substitution and Infant Industry Protection

In the 1960's, third world oriented UN economists, such as Paul Prebisch, the first Secretary General of the United Nations Commission for Trade and Development (UNCTAD), advocated a policy of import substitution and infant industry protection for developing countries. The idea was simple and seductive.

Developing countries should produce their own consumer products instead of importing them. They would also impose high import duties to protect the new infant industries from foreign competition. The problem was that the infants never grew up. The crony capitalists of the licensing bureaucrats grew fat by exploiting the highly protected high-cost domestic markets.

Like all developing countries at the time, Singapore also adopted the strategy of import substitution. We merged with Malaya, hoping for a protected common market to grow our infant industries. Separation in 1965 took us back to square one. We had to start all over again.

Being the First Global Economy

Without a common market, we made a virtue out of necessity. We took the plunge, removing all our import duties leaving many small Singapore-owned industries in the lurch. We decided on an export-oriented industrial policy. In plain language, we were forced to compete with every other country. Without recognising it at the time, Singapore was the first original global economy. We never looked back.

I am amazed therefore when some Singaporeans continue to cherish the thought of re-merger with Malaysia. In the two years we were in Malaysia, we lost our freedom of action. Economic decision-making was in the hands of the Treasury in Kuala Lumpur, without any countervailing advantages for Singapore.

Over the last forty years since 1965, Singapore has survived economically without the Malaysian hinterland. In fact, in a WTO ruled world, the concept of economic hinterlands has become redundant.

Singapore will thrive as an economy and as a state if we are able to apply knowledge intelligently. This is the challenge for our succeeding generations.

My book is very much about being a successful economy and a nation. Can we be more than just a place? Can we become a nation?

(End of Talk)

My comments:

Hi friends,

Attached above is the transcript of Mr. Ngiam Tong Dow's talk on :


held this morning at the Grand Hyatt Singapore (18.7.06)

I find that the talk today was less intriguing to me than the interview which Mr. Ngiam gave to Susan Long ( of Straits Times) some time back.

I have thus linked the interview here for your enjoyment: (this is mandatory reading for all who are interested in Singapore current affairs)

1. Part One:

Singapore, bigger than PAP

2. Part Two:

Stop dancing to the tune of the gorilla

I find the above interview very significant for what Mr. Ngiam has to say about various issues including political atrophy; need for alternative political elites;danger of Singapore becoming a Sparta which started as a meritocracy and crumbling after it became a dictatorship etc

What is even more surprising is that the above interview is recorded in the opening chapter of his newly-launched book, " A Mandarin and the making of Public Policy".

This can only mean that Mr. Ngiam feels that those concerns are still very relevant now.

There was also a Q & A session after the talk. I will try to recall this and post salient comments when I have more time. But the questions were generally mundane and quite forgettable stuff ( to tell you the truth)


Dr. Huang Shoou Chyuan


Cappella said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Cappella said...

Hi Dr Huang, I have OCRed the pictures into Word file for you. How can I send it to you?

My email is cappella [at] mail dot com.

nofearSingapore said...

Hi cappella
I have already replied and given you my email.
I await your OCRed file

waterchild said...

The notion of Singapore being bigger than the country is alive and well.
I know of friends who have migrated and remained concerned about Singapore.
With technology, it is not difficult for them to continue to monitor developments and keep in touch with people.

Anonymous said...

The notion of Singapore being bigger than the country will always be alive and well. It begins to falter and the danger arises when a political party entrenches itself too deeply and aims to be synonymous with the country, to the extent that when people think of the country they think of the party, or the personality that symbolises it.

That is not healthy, and we are at an advanced stage of this illness.