Former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow dies at age 83

This article is more than 12 months old

Known for speaking his mind, he had developed policies on the economy, transport and housing

Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, son of a court interpreter and a washerwoman from Hainan who rose to be a top civil servant and later an outspoken critic of the public service and the Government, died yesterday morning.

He was 83.

His family told The Straits Times that he had been in ill health for 41/2 years.

Mr Ngiam spent 40 years in the apex Administrative Service developing policies on the economy, defence technology, transport, savings and retirement, as well as housing.

He worked closely with founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and his successor Goh Chok Tong, as well as former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee. He was also chairman of the Economic Development Board (EDB), DBS Bank, Central Provident Fund Board and the Housing Board.

A twist of fate put him on the road to success in public service.

Tuberculosis - which killed his father when the younger Ngiam was just nine - scuttled his plan to be a postal clerk. A pre-employment medical check-up showed he had early-stage tuberculosis.

After he was declared unfit for work, he went back to his books and won an open bursary to the University of Malaya, where he got first-class honours in economics.

Mr Ngiam joined the Administrative Service in August 1959 and became the youngest permanent secretary at age 35.

Former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan said Mr Ngiam was his first choice for permanent secretary when he was given the National Development portfolio in 1987, as Mr Ngiam was "known to be analytical and prepared to speak his mind".

Mr Dhanabalan, 83, had joined the EDB with Mr Ngiam when it was set up in 1961.

The ministry was undergoing a "major shake-up" then. Its previous minister Teh Cheang Wan had been investigated for corruption and committed suicide a year earlier.

Former head of civil service and Enterprise Singapore chairman Peter Ong said Mr Ngiam's influence on the civil service was "legendary".

"Many of the older civil servants will recall the need to bring forth robust arguments to support their funding requests to the Ministry of Finance when he was the permanent secretary."

Mr Ngiam held the post until he retired in 1999. He then joined the boards of companies, including Temasek and Singapore Press Holdings.

He often spoke about his worries for the future of Singapore.

In 2003, he told The Straits Times that Singapore is "larger than the PAP", and talent should be allowed to spread throughout society.

Mr Ngiam is survived by his wife Jeanette Gan Choon Neo, daughter Selina, son Kelvin, and three grandchildren.

The wake will be held at 4 Chestnut Avenue between noon and 10pm today and tomorrow, with a prayer service at 8pm. The cortege will leave for Mandai Crematorium on Aug 23 for a private service.