PM Lee Pays Tribute To Schoolbus Driver Seah Chin Heng, Ex-Perm Sec Ngiam Tong Dow

In the past week, 2 men who played a part in Singapore’s history passed away — Mr Seah Chin Heng and Mr Ngiam Tong Dow.

Saddened by their departures, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has paid heartfelt tributes to both men.

While Mr Ngiam was a top civil servant of Singapore’s founding generation who won plaudits from colleagues and the public, Mr Seah was a humble bus driver who played no small role as a volunteer in the People’s Action Party (PAP), most memorably driving election campaign lorries.

Mr Seah Chin Heng (left) and Mr Ngiam Tong Dow both passed away in the past week.
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Mr Seah passed away earlier this week

In Facebook post on Saturday (22 Aug), Mr Lee revealed that Mr Seah had passed away earlier this week.

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Describing Mr Seah as a PAP pioneer, Mr Lee said he was an “active and dedicated volunteer” for the 61 years since joining in 1959.

That was the same year in which late founding father Lee Kuan Yew became prime minister.

Drove campaign vehicles during GE

Though Mr Seah was best known, especially to Choa Chu Kang and Yew Tee residents, as a humble schoolbus driver, he put his driving skills to good use.

During general elections, he helped PAP candidates by driving their campaign perambulating vehicles across Singapore.

Some of the PAP politicians that Mr Seah helped campaign for are former Cabinet minister Yeo Cheow Tong and former Choa Chu Kang MP Low Seow Chay.

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For his contributions, the PAP awarded Mr Seah a gold medal in 1995 and a dedicated service medal in 2011.

Mr Seah getting a dedicated service medal from then PAP chairman Khaw Boon Wan.
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Voted in GE2020 in a wheelchair

Mr Lee also revealed that despite being confined to a wheelchair for the last 2 years, his passion for Singapore was undimmed.

That’s why he insisted on voting during the recent 2020 General Election.

Saying that Mr Seah’s service to Singaporeans personifies the PAP’s mission, Mr Lee also sent his deepest condolences to the Seah family.

Ngiam Tong Dow mourned by many

Another Singapore pioneer who sadly left us this week was top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow.

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Mr Ngiam passed away on Thursday (20 Aug), after being ill for 4.5 years, reported The Straits Times.

He was mourned by many politicians and civil servants including PM Lee, who posted a heartfelt tribute on Facebook.

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Ngiam served under PM Lee as perm sec

Mr Ngiam’s civil service career brought him to the heights of permanent secretary.

In fact, he became Singapore’s youngest perm sec at 33, when be was appointed to that position at the then Ministry of Communications

He went on to serve at other ministries, including the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI).

At MTI, he worked closely with Mr Lee, when he was Minister of State for Trade and Industry.

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According to Mr Lee, he benefited greatly from Mr Ngiam’s advice.

After retiring in 1999 as perm sec for the Ministry of Finance (MOF), Mr Ngiam held positions such as:

  1. Central Provident Fund Board chairman
  2. Housing and Development Board chairman
  3. Economic Development Board chairman
  4. DBS Bank chairman
  5. National University of Singapore pro-chancellor
  6. Temasek Holdings board member
  7. Singapore Press Holdings board member
  8. Yeo Hiap Seng board member
  9. United Overseas Bank board member

In fact, Mr Lee credited Mr Ngiam for implementing schemes like the Build-To-Order system and Lift Upgrading Programme during his time at the HDB.

Chan Chun Sing, Goh Chok Tong, Tommy Koh pay tribute

Current Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing also paid tribute to Mr Ngiam, saying he cared deeply for Singapore.

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He also credited Mr Ngiam for shaping Singapore’s economic policies.

Former emeritus senior minister Goh Chok Tong, in his tribute, said he was “deeply saddened” at the passing of someone he called a “friend, colleague and highly-respected civil servant”.

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He revealed that he had actually worked under Mr Ngiam at the MOF, then worked with him when he later became Minister at MTI.

Even when Mr Goh became prime minister, he found it useful to continue seeking Mr Ngiam’s views on Singapore’s economy.

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Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh took a personal tone in his tribute. Apparently, both men go way back — all the way to Harvard University, where they were classmates.

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Mr Ngiam was Professor Koh were “life-long friends”, and he reminisced about their meetings for dinner every Saturday night.

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Prof Koh also had an anecdote about Mr Ngiam’s thriftiness: When he was perm sec at MOF, Prof Koh asked for more funding for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Mr Ngiam said no.

But Prof Koh had to remind him that it was established Dr Goh Keng Swee, his mentor, and “there is no leading city of the world without a resident orchestra”.

Prof Koh also described Mr Ngiam as a “loving critic of Singapore” — a description that has also been used on others, most notably playwright Alfian Sa’at.

A loving critic of S’pore

Why did Prof Koh say that Mr Ngiam was a loving critic?

It might be due to his occasional criticisms of the Government, most notably in an interview by the Singapore Medical Association (SMA) News way back in 2013.

In it, he spoke on the issue of ministers’ salaries, saying,

When you raise ministers’ salaries to the point that they’re earning millions of dollar, every minister… will hesitate when he thinks of his million-dollar salary… When the salary is so high, which minister dares to leave, unless they decide to become the opposition party? As a result, the entire political arena has become a civil service, and I don’t see anyone speaking up anymore.

On the PAP, he said,

The first generation of PAP was purely grassroots, but the problem today is that PAP is a bit too elitist.

When asked to elaborate, he said,

I think that they don’t feel for the people; overall, there is a lack of empathy.

A transcript of the interview is still on the SMA website, and can be found here.

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Ngiam retracted what he said

However, shortly after the interview, Mr Ngiam sent a letter of clarification to SMA News.

He retracted the statements he made in the interview, saying they were unfair as he retired from the civil service in 1999 and hadn’t attended any Cabinet meetings since then.

He also hadn’t attended any Cabinet meeting chaired by PM Lee, thus,

My statement that ministers will not speak their minds before PM Lee is unfair as it was made without knowing what actually happens at Cabinet meetings today.

On the “elitist” statement, Mr Ngiam also said he didn’t realise that many of the newer government leaders came from humble backgrounds.

At the time, PM Lee welcomed Mr Ngiam’s clarification, saying that he hoped that as he’s in retirement, he will “continue to support the institutions and systems that he helped build”.

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Ngiam cautions against elitism in 2015

However, Mr Ngiam was also quoted as saying by TODAY Online in 2015 that younger civil servants should walk the ground and understand residents’ problems first, before they formulate policies, and well-educated Singaporeans shouldn’t be concentrated in the public sector.

Rather, they should be spread across various segments of society, he said, adding,

If you just keep them within the Government, in the long run, (they) become an elite, become fossilised.

S’pore’s pioneers are worthy of respect

Whether as a PAP stalwart or a top civil servant, both Mr Seah and Mr Ngiam are Singapore’s pioneers who’ve contributed immensely towards building up the country to what it is today.

That’s why is deeply saddening that they’re no longer with us.

However, Singaporeans can keep the memories of these great men in our hearts, as a way of thanking them for their many years of service.

Featured images adapted from Facebook and Facebook.