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Fools or Immortals? So long as they live on in our collective memory

One of the first things that struck me about The Last Fools was how thin the book was. The book on the eight pioneering civil servants stands at 222 pages. My own book, Not for Circulation, which was on one of eight, George E Bogaars, spanned 180 pages. My next question was the use of the phrase The Eight Immortals of Chinese folklore which has been used to describe these stalwarts. I wondered who would be cast as the Peony Fairy.

But the book isn’t a biography of all eight. They were definitely not fools nor people who fooled around. The title was based on a Howe Yoon Chong quip delivered in 1989. He wondered if there were fools among the young who would continue to work in public service like the fools who built Singapore. 

Fools or immortals, I don’t know.  But I would describe each of the eight chapters as pots of bonsai plants, intricately trimmed and lovingly cultivated. Okay. A potted history.  Bogaars aside, some of the seven others would be familiar to Singaporeans, like Howe, Ngiam Tong Dow, Hon Sui Sen, Sim Kee Boon and J Y Pillay. Howe and Hon later became ministers. Less familiar would be Andrew Chew and Lee Ek Tieng. Only Lee and Pillay are alive. 

Lee’s family declined to let their patriarch be interviewed because he was unwell. Pillay, of Singapore Airlines fame who is now Rector of the College of Alice and Peter Tan, was though. He was his usual reticent self.

The eight writers depended heavily on archived materials, past interviews and oral history recordings plus interviews with people who knew these old hands. What they would have given to have more from the men themselves! Then again, some stories are better conveyed as contemporaneous accounts or through the eyes of people who were more detached rather than self-interested. 

I would never, for example, have thought of the quiet J Y Pillay as the combative type. Yet he had taken on larger American and Japanese corporations, American politicians and Australian and German regulators to make sure that Singapore Airlines could chart its own course and do business its way.

If you’ve never been interested in Singapore’s early history and the men in the shadows, try reading these wonderful book written with a journalistic eye for detail and dramatic flair. It makes a change from the hard political messaging contained in books by politicians that try to drive home messages of hard work, vulnerability and resilience. This is a book about the do-ers who had to actually carry out those messages in tangible form, like cleaning up Singapore’s rivers, starting up the Singapore Armed Forces and building Changi Airport. 

What stood out for me were some common traits they had, which seem to me pretty uncommon in civil servants these days. They were people who simply charged ahead, sometimes without waiting for the green light from the higher-ups or even the Cabinet. They asked simple questions before making decisions, rather than setting up review committees combing over cost and benefit analyses.

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Andrew Chew, a medical doctor by profession, almost got into trouble when he set up a structure for Singapore’s accident and emergency ambulance service without alerting the Cabinet. In his view, it was something that had to be done. 

The Housing Board first chief executive Howe Yoon Choong’s building philosophy was to “demolish first, plan later’’. Not for him “feasibility studies’’ when the housing need was so urgent. Permanent secretaries would bypass the Finance ministry and head to the Cabinet for approval whether for a $100million drainage programme or to build Nanyang Technological University.

They were hands-on people with a shrewd eye for detail. Sim Kee Boon would peer into the cubicles of toilets in overseas airports to judge their cleanliness. He knew the height of toilet bowls and the texture of trolley handles. Pillay would traverse the aisles of SIA planes he travelled on to see if passengers in the Economy section were comfortable. 

As a writer, I was also pretty chuffed to read that they insisted on clear and simple communication. The standard was set by former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen, who came across as the first among equals among the eight.  Permanent secretaries followed their example. Pillay, for example, insisted that 

  • Papers submitted to him should not exceed one page, with supporting details relegated to annexes
  • Each paragraph to advance precisely one point 
  • Each sentence not to go beyond one and a half lines
  • Each paragraph not to exceed four sentences. 

Ngiam Tong Dow’s writing was Hemingway-esque – direct with no qualification. It was a trait that seemed to have been his undoing. People remember him for his cutting public statements about the current political and civil service and the public reprimand in 2013 that appeared to have silenced him forever. 

They do not recall that he became the youngest permanent secretary in 1970 at age 33 and chairman of the Economic Development Board five years later. As the permanent secretary of the Finance ministry, he was almost God-like in the civil service. Based on his oral history recordings, it was suggested that he couldn’t adapt to the way the second generation leaders worked. They did not keep their top civil servants as engaged in the big issues of the day that the pioneer leaders did. 

Reading the book, there seemed to be plenty of scrapping among the immortals as well as between master and civil servant. They were intellectual equals who sparred with each other on what would be best for Singapore. 

It was a time when they acted as equals in policy input, although it was clear to the civil servants that their job was to focus on the output once the political decisions were made. Instructions were basic, along the lines of “get it done’’. And they did. 

I found the chapter on Ngiam wanting, as it focused too much on his post-retirement views than his achievements as a civil servant. (Strange that a book on Eight Immortals should have referred to Ngiam as an Icarus who flew too close to the sun!) Nevertheless, it is racy reading, especially for those who had always thought that civil servants – and even those who had retired – should be unseen and unheard. 

Howe Yoong Chong, of the infamous CPF withdrawal age controversy, had better coverage. The man maligned for the proposal to extend the CPF withdrawal age from 55 to 60 in 1984 was also instrumental in pushing for Changi airport to be built from scratch, rather than the expansion of Paya Lebar airport. He also won the battle to introduce the MRT to Singapore over the opposition from those who wanted to improve the bus service. 

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He was a “seer’’. Even his proposals regarding the adequacy of  CPF for retirement has seen some measure of fulfilment, with the introduction of annuities and a minimum sum which had to be set aside after a partial withdrawal at age 55. The proposal was among the factors that cost the People’s Action Party a 12-percentage drop in vote share in 1984 general election. He retired before that.

Scattered in the chapters are hints of how these immortals saw the transformation of the political leadership and public sector after they stepped down from heaven. 

Lee Ek Tieng, in his oral history recording, described the younger generation of ministers as technocrats who want to know every detail. “I wouldn’t say they are not good, but it is a question of where you have to draw the line.’’ One of Sim Kee Boon’s biggest laments about the modern civil service was that it was in danger of losing touch with the ground. Bogaars once chided the civil service for its “mindless efficiency”. As for Ngiam, his public diatribes about  civil servants becoming like mini Lee Kuan Yews and his criticisms of the younger ministers are well-known. 

If there was ever a man who was universally loved, both as a civil servant and a minister, it was Hon Sui Sen, a “godfather’’ to several past and present day titans. Sharp yet empathetic, with nary a harsh word for anyone, he died while in office in 1983.  

Some thought he was too soft for his own good while others pointed out that if not for his judgement of potential talent and penchant for grooming, the likes of Goh Chok Tong, S Dhanabalan and Tony Tan might not have been at Singapore’s disposal to use.  

I thank the team at nutgraf for this book which I gather is a passion project rather than a commissioned work. It is right that the people who played such a big role in building Singapore have the spotlight shown on them – whether they like it or not. If there is someone else’ story I would really, really want to read, it would that of the late Cabinet Secretary Wong Chooi Sen, who served at least three decades in that role from 1959. He died in 1998. 

Don’t know who he is? I don’t know him either. Just a name. For now.

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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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