DBS Asian Insights Conference
Ngiam talks about what scholars and civil servants and the civil service should do to future-proof Singapore.
Civil servants must ‘walk the ground first’ before making policies: Ngiam
By Kelly Ng
SINGAPORE — Young civil servants should first walk the ground and understand the problems before they formulate policies, said former top mandarin Ngiam Tong Dow at the DBS Asian Insights Conference today (July 10).
Mr Ngiam, who had served 40 years as Permanent Secretary in various ministries, was one of the panellists discussing the topic, How Can Singapore Future-proof its Relevance for the Next 50 Years.
Responding to a question from the audience on whether high salaries in the civil service are diverting talent and growth away from the private sector, he said that civil servants are worthy of their salaries but the way they are trained is important.
“When a young scholar comes back, he should not be sent to the Ministry of Finance’s Treasury division and become the regulator. He should really be sent to the Economic Development Board (EDB), or the Housing and Development Board, and serve an internship of a year to learn the problems of the ground,” said Mr Ngiam, who is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
“Unless the civil servant knows the problems on the ground, he would become just a regulator. And regulators, there are too many (of them) in Singapore,” he added, prompting applause from the audience of about 900 Government, business and thought leaders.
Weighing in on the question, Banyan Tree Holdings executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping said that while tweaks to the public sector’s pay structure may have to be considered along the way, it is better to “err on the side of overpaying”.
“It is better to tweak and reform the system from where we are today than to have a system where civil servants are all forced to be corrupt because they are so underpaid,” he said.
However, he noted the danger that this approach poses to the private sector. “(Companies) either have to keep up with the salaries, which are high, or you have an overbalance, or perhaps a hollowing out of the best and brightest in Singapore all going to the public sector. That may not be good for Singapore in the long run,” he said.
Mr Ngiam added that well-educated Singaporeans should be spread across various segments of society and not concentrated in the public sector. “If you just keep them within the Government, in the long run, (they) become an elite, become fossilised,” he said.
[In GUTS Part 2: What Singaporeans need:
We can tell if there are not enough "A" scholar graduates in the civil service - poor regulatory oversight, private sector running circles around the regulators, etc.
How do we know if there are too many "A" students in the civil service? How can we tell if there is not enough innovation in the private sector?]
Size, lack of access to markets ‘barriers to entrepreneurship here’
By Kelly Ng
SINGAPORE — It would be “foolishly romantic” to think that the Singapore economy could be fired up by producing a “whole bunch of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates”, Banyan Tree Holdings executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping said today (July 10), referring to the two legendary American tech entrepreneurs.
Cautioning against the over-romanticising the notion of entrepreneurship, Mr Ho pointed to the fact that the Republic is constrained by its small size and lack of immediate access to global markets.
“The barriers are going to be there, and it’s not because we don’t have entrepreneurs. It’s because if you put a Steve Jobs in Singapore, it would be harder for him than if he was in Silicon Valley,” said Mr Ho, who was speaking at the opening plenary of the fifth DBS Asian Insights Conference.
Nevertheless, there is a place for entrepreneurship here, especially for those who have gained experience and formed networks in multinational companies (MNCs), he said. “(After) they leave the MNCs, they work with the MNCs they used to work with and become suppliers to the MNCs. That is a form of entrepreneurship that fits into the food chain of the Singapore economy very well,” he added.
He quipped: “Entrepreneurship is not just (about) lawyers leaving law firms to set up cafes, which seems to be the rage nowadays.”
At the conference, Mr Ho was also asked about the link between freedom of the press and economic vibrancy. He responded that while press freedom is crucial to any city’s well-being, a Charlie Hebdo-type of “totally unrestrained” freedom would not be desirable.
He added that Singaporeans recognise the need for out-of-bound markers in sensitive areas but these markers are blurring as the country becomes more diverse.
“We have already seen (it) with the case of Amos Yee … that a lot of young people are going to try to test the system and push the boundaries. And these boundaries are not well-defined in Singapore,” said the former journalist, referring to the teenage blogger who was sentenced to four weeks’ jail for posting an obscene image online and posting content intended to hurt the religious feelings of Christians.
Mr Ho said the greater challenge for Singapore is in strengthening its civil societies as it moves towards “collaborative self-governance”.
“Given the uncertainties ahead ... the only way you can maintain a cohesive society against political (and) socio-economic change is to ensure that the fabric of that society is kept intact by many different players at different levels, rather than just the old paradigm of the governed and governors,” he said, noting that a poll conducted among the audience before the conference started showed that six in 10 respondents felt that there will no longer be a single-party majority in Singapore in 50 years.
On the Republic’s productivity woes, Mr Ho, as well as fellow panellists Economic Development Board chairman Beh Swan Gin and former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow, all felt that technology is no silver bullet. Mr Ho and Dr Beh noted the “global paradox” of technology advancements destroying jobs while contributing little to productivity.
Dr Beh pointed out that there is success in raising productivity in some sectors, including manufacturing, despite the “dismal numbers” at the national level.
Boosting productivity in high-skilled sectors is a worldwide challenge, said Mr Ho, who added that the Republic should focus on deepening its capability in areas that it is already competent in. Citing the aviation industry as an example, he said: “Emirates may have already surpassed Singapore Airlines ... but as long as we keep deepening our capability in global aviation, having aircraft leasing, avionics manufacturing and having a Rolls-Royce turbine maintenance centre ... I think we can continue to stay ahead of the game.”
I want to future-ready Singapore. Not a future-proofed one.]