Mandarin Ngiam on “elitism”, “social divide”, education etc

In Political economy, Political governance on 19/04/2012 at 6:58 pm

(or “Analysing Ngiam Tong Dow’s March 2012 speech (Part II)”)

As I wrote in Part I, because Professor Lim Chong Yah’s “shock therapy” proposal is a variation of what was implemented the early 1980s (until the 1985 recession: neutral article on the recession and one blaming it on the original “shock therapy”), when one Ngiam Tong Dow* was Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industry, I thought it would be interesting to reread a speech Ngiam made in March because MTI had once upon a time analysed the problem of severe manpower shortages and the economy’s increasing reliance on lowly paid foreign workers. Its solution was to restructure the economy by raising wages substantially to dampen employers’ demand for lowly paid workers, what Professor Lim is recommending.)

The speech is long and can be broken down into a sociopolitical analysis of S’pore, and an economic analysis of S’pore.

 This post reports and comments on the sociopolitical aspect of his speech**. In Part I, I did the same on the economic part of the speech.


Colonial system

Although this appears in mid-speech, it’s a good introduction to his sociopolitical thoughts.

“When Sir Stamford Raffles founded Singapore in 1819, his town planner demarcated the town into several ethnic enclaves. Kampong Glam (Malays/Arabs), Chinatown (Hokkiens, Cantonese, Teochews), Little India (Tamils), and Tanglin (Europeans). Empress Place on the left bank at the mouth of Singapore River was the administrative and civic centre. The British governor presided from the Istana … Each racial group was free to conduct their own trades, practice their own religions, set up their own schools, and largely married within their own race and ethnic group. The colonial government provided the overarching framework of law and order and schooling in the English medium.

‘Being a British colony, the language of administration was English. Access to English medium schools was open to all races. English became the lingua franca acceptable to all the races as none has any
in-built advantage over the other.”

Differences in the body politic

He talked of the difference between his generation of undergraduates at the then University of Malaya (NUS today) and those of today, “Except for the few activists of the University Socialist Club, my contemporaries at university were politically passive but not naive. In the political environment … we thought it prudent to keep our thoughts to ourselves.”

(So they were not sheep, just cautious, crafty mouse-deer of Malayan folklore?)

But “NUS undergraduates today are more articulate. They have courage of their own convictions,expressing their views vigorously at tutorials or the cafeteria.” (But are they wiser than Ngiam and his contemporaries, or just more noisy? “Remember “Still waters run deep” and “Empty vessels make the most noise”.)

He pointed out that the PM “has to deal with an electorate that is vastly different from … his father’s generation”. “The command politics of his father no longer works … PM has … to appeal to reason”. What surprised me was his comment that Lee Kuan Yew “appealed to emotions”. What I respect abt LKY’s speeches from that era are their simplicity and internal logic.

Uniquely S’porean

“[C]an Singapore be considered a democratic state?”. His answer was it can’t. “We are not a theocratic state like the Vatican or present day Iran. We are … not ideological states like North Korea, Cuba or China.”

He compared the western concept of democracy (“government of the people, by the people, for the people”) with that of the Chinese imperial system, “China’s emperors had to gain the consent of the people to earn the mandate of heaven to rule.” He seems to imply they are somewhat similar.

A difference is that losing heaven’s mandate often involved some form of violence. Mind you, in places like Nigeria, Kenya, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh and India, democracy often involves violence.

He went on to say, “In my view the core purpose of government is to raise the livelihood of the people.” and says, “The PAP won the mandate to govern because it delivered jobs and housing”, pointing out that the PAP has “won every one of the seven general elections since independence in 1965.” Can’t argue with these points.

“There are two competing strands in our body politic.”

“ The first strand is meritocracy. It is modelled on the Chinese imperial scholar system where the best minds compete in nationwide examinations presided over by the emperor himself. The Singapore President Scholar is akin to the Chinese Imperial Scholar.

‘Both systems aim at identifying the best talent to serve the country.” What he missed out is that the Chinese intellectuals and activists (admittedly they usually had some form of Western education often via Christian missionaries) who wanted to reform and modernise the Chinese system in the late 19th and early 20th century criticised the imperial examination system for producing people who were only good in memorising the set examination texts (Classics like the Analects of Confucius). These “modernisers” argued that rule by these scholars under the Manchus led to the decline of China as a military, economic and scientific superpower, repeatedly being bullied and humiliated by the Western powers and Japan. The facts seem to support this analysis.

If the Chinese system was meritocracy at work, give me something else, please. Enlightened nepotism or Plato’s philosopher king, anyone?

Also selection by examinations should not be the only criteria of identifying “the best talent to serve the country”. What abt execution of duties? Or courage or integrity? Or manners? Or even sexual restraint?

“The second strand relates to the system of selecting leaders. It is modelled on Plato’s Republic [where] peers select their own leaders until the philosopher king emerges. As the first among equals, he is accountable to no one but himself. Over time, peer selection breeds a leadership that becomes complacent. Though our state is rooted in meritocracy, we must beware of the dead hand of peer selection. Elitism creeps in imperceptibly.”

He gave an example,“The recommendation by the ministerial salaries review committee to peg ministerial salaries to the median income of the top 1,000 income earners reflects an elitist mindset which is troubling. If the primary purpose of government is to raise the livelihood of the people, a better statistical measure of livelihood would be the median income of all workers, not just the top 1,000 income earners or the MX9 salary scale of the Civil Service.”

He pointed out the WP shares this elitism, “Curiously, both the government and the Workers Party accept that ministerial salaries be pegged to high income earners rather than the median of the work force, which is [US]$3,070 a month as at June 2011.” (WP is close clone of the PAP?)

He said that bonuses for the Cabinet should be pegged to increases in the median income of the work force, rather than the GDP.

Social divide

Much later in the speech, after talking about the economic situation here (covered in Part I), he returned to the theme of the social divide caused by the “widening income gap”.

“In 2012, what will be the threat to social stability? …Future social unrest will arise not from racial or religious differences [He had reminded that even though from its founding 1819 to when Singapore was granted self-government in 1959), S’pore’s races lived lives of passive co-existence, S’poreans witnessed the three racial riots in the 1950s-60s] but from the growing class divide caused by widening income gaps.”

‘The top 1,000 earn million-dollar annual salaries while the rest a monthly median income of US$3,070. The gap is untenable. In the past, equal opportunities in education have provided the social mobility to enable the bright boy from a poor family to make good … The spread of private tuition has changed the [level] educational playingfield.”

He said that during his school days in the 1950s (and mine too in the early 1970s), “only the academically weak students of rich parents take remedial tuition … Today, any parent who can afford the fees will send their children not for remedial but enhancement classes to give their children a head-start”.

This means that, “Though there will still be the exceptional individual who triumphs against all odds, more and more of our state scholars will come from upper, middle income families with professional parents.”

“There is no easy answer to the problem of an uneven playing field in our schools.”

His solution? “The challenge is to level up, not to level down. One suggestion I have is to make classes for academically weaker children smaller. The student-teacher ratio should be more favourable than in brighter classes so that the teacher can give more personal attention to each student, which is what private tuition is all about.”

He acknowledged that the government is doing something about the income gap, “The 2012 budget is politically adroit, replete with spending proposals which basically are income transfers from the taxpayer to the poorly paid, the disadvantaged and the aged.” But there is a hint of criticism, “Income transfers are palliatives, temporary reliefs to abate rising social discontent.”

Fostering entrepreneurs

He said that spending money to expand the then industrial training centres fostered entrepreneurs,

“[O]ur ITC [Industrial Training Centres, the precursor of today’s Institutes of Technical Education] trainees with barely O levels went on to start their own factories producing parts and components for MNCs.” (Bit of an exaggeration this. These entrepreneurs included teachers who were recruited to be managers, then moving on. In the 1960s and 1970s, MNCs recruited teachers because the workers were young and inexperienced, and teachers were experienced supervisors of the young. But the teacher-managers who moved on were often the non-graduates.)

Higher education not compatible with entrepreneurship

“It is hard to find the university graduate who becomes a successful entrepreneur. The prevailing reward system drives our graduates to become bureaucrats/managers both in government and business. White collar jobs pay better than blue collar jobs”


I’ll end with this remark, “[W]hy our concentration on engineering and science-based education is not yielding dividends in productivity and innovation. Instead, the employment share of low-wage, low-skilled personal services is rising. Are we overeducating our children? This is a heretical thought contrary to all my basic EDB instincts. In EDB, our article of faith is that the higher the education level, the more rewarding will our jobs become.”

He tried to answer this issue when he talked of S’pore’s reliance on “low-wage, low-skilled foreign labour to drive economic growth” and why S’pore should be“raising total factor productivity” a priority. I covered these in Part I.


*Ngiam was in the 1980s one of Lee Kuan Yew’s and Goh Keng Swee’s most trusted civil servants and if anyone, could be called a co-driver of S’pore’s drive from third world to first world, it would be he.

**The quotes are taken from a transcription published in BT.


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