Ngiam Tong Dow

Singapore Infopedia

by Lim, Tin Seng


Ngiam Tong Dow (b. 7 June 1937, Singapore–d. 20 August 2020) was a veteran civil servant whose illustrious career spanned over four decades. He served as permanent secretary for key ministries and chairman of many statutory boards and government-linked companies. Trained as an economist, Ngiam was described by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as “a versatile and outstanding civil servant” whose contributions had a lasting impact on Singapore.1

Early life and education
Ngiam’s father worked as a court interpreter before he passed away from tuberculosis when Ngiam was nine years old. To support the family, his mother worked as a maidservant.2 Ngiam received his primary and secondary education at Serangoon English School and St Andrew’s School respectively.3 He studied economics on a local bursary in the University of Malaya in Singapore (now National University of Singapore or NUS), where he graduated with first class honours in 1959.4 Before entering university, Ngiam worked as a reporter for The Straits Times.5

Career in Singapore Public Service
After graduation, Ngiam joined the Administrative Service of the Singapore Public Service. He remained there for over 40 years, taking on important positions while working closely with many founding political leaders of Singapore, including Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen.6 During his first decade, Ngiam was with the Ministry of Commerce (1959), Economic Development Division of the Ministry of Finance (1959–61, 1965–70), and Economic Development Board (EDB) (1961–63). Ngiam joined the EDB when it had just formed, and he started Singapore on its industrialisation journey and helped attract investors to the country.7 In 1964, Ngiam became one of the first public officers to be sent to Harvard University in the United States to complete a master’s degree in public administration.8

In 1970, Ngiam became permanent secretary of the Ministry of Communications (1970–72), playing a key role in the building of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system.9 At the time, a handful of heavyweights in the government, including Goh Keng Swee, were against the idea of an MRT system. They argued that it was too expensive to build a rail system to transport the working crowd in and out of the city. But Ngiam and others convinced the government that the rail system would not only improve the liveability of the city, but also raise property values. This would in turn lead to higher property tax revenue, enabling the capital cost of the project to be recovered.10

Ngiam then went on to serve as permanent secretary for a string of key government agencies including the Ministry of Finance (1972–79), the Ministry of Trade and Industry (1979–86), the Ministry of National Development (1987–89), and Prime Minister’s Office (1979–94).11

Concurrently, Ngiam was also appointed chairman of many statutory boards and government-linked firms. As the EDB chairman (1975–81), he was involved in the transformation of Singapore’s economy when it moved into capital-intensive industries and repositioned itself as a regional business hub.12 When he was chairman of the Development Bank of Singapore (1990–98), he contributed to the company’s growth overseas and the expansion of its revenue streams to include more financial activities. While serving as chairman of the Housing Development Board (HDB; 1998–2003), Ngiam was involved in introducing key lasting housing schemes, such as the build-to-order system and the lift upgrading programme. He was also chairman of Singapore Telephone Board (1971–73), the Telecommunications Authority of Singapore (1972–74), Sentosa Development Corporation (1972–74), Sheng-Li Holding Company Pte Ltd (today’s Singapore Technologies (ST) Holdings) (1981–91), and Central Provident Fund (CPF) (1998–2001).13

Ngiam was also deputy chairman of the Board of Commissioners of Currency (1989–99) and sat on the boards of directors of the Port of Singapore Authority (1970–86), Singapore Airlines (1972–96), the Petrochemical Corporation of Singapore (1977–87), SMRT Corporation (1987–91), Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) (1989–91), the Health Corporation of Singapore (1990–96), Singapore International Foundation (1991–98) and the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (1992–97).14

Career after Singapore Public Service
After formally retiring from public service in 1999, Ngiam retained his roles as chairman of the CPF and HDB until 2001.15 Thereafter, he was made chairman of HDB Corporation Ltd (today’s Surbana Corporation) (2003–2008). During this period, he was also on the boards of many companies, including Singapore Press Holdings, Yeo Hiap Seng and United Overseas Bank. He also taught at the School of Humanities and Arts at Nanyang Technological University.16

In 1999, Ngiam returned to his alma mater to serve as NUS Pro-Chancellor until 2019. During this period at the NUS, he also taught at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy as an adjunct professor (2005–17) and was chairman of the NUS Centennial Campaign Advisory Board in 2003.17 Ngiam established the Mr and Mrs Ngiam Fook Quee Scholarship at the university in 2006, in honour of his parents, to give students from less privileged backgrounds an equal opportunity to pursue their studies.18

Ngiam wrote A Mandarin and the Making of Public Policy: Reflections by Ngiam Tong Dow 
(2006), to provide a personal perspective on how the founding generation of political leaders laid the economic foundation of Singapore. He then wrote Dynamics of the Singapore Success Story: Insights by Ngiam Tong Dow (2011) to explain Singapore's path to success.19

Ngiam was outspoken on issues such as the high concentration of well-educated Singaporeans in the civil service, and the impact of high ministerial pay on the dedication of political officeholders.20 He later retracted his statements on these issues.21

In recognition of his contributions to Singapore, Ngiam was conferred public service awards, including the Public Administration Medal (Gold) in 1971, Meritorious Service Medal in 1978, and Distinguished Service Order in 1999.22

Lim Tin Seng

1. Grace Ho, “PM Lee, Friends Pay Tribute to Ngiam Tong Dow,” Straits Times, 22 August 2020, B6. (From Newslink via NLB’s eResources website)

2. Ngiam Tong Dow, A Mandarin and the Making of Public Policy: Reflections by Ngiam Tong Dow (Singapore: NUS Press, 2006), 31, 32, 67, 68. (Call no. RSING 959.5705 NGI)
3. Ngiam, A Mandarin, 69–73.
4. Ngiam, A Mandarin, 31–32, 67, 69–73.
5. Goh S. H., “First Class Honours for Roommates,” Straits Times, 29 April 1959, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
6. Ngiam, A Mandarin, 21
7. Ho, “PM Lee, Friends Pay Tribute to Ngiam Tong Dow.”
8. Ngiam, A Mandarin, 32–33.
9. Halimah Yacob, “Condolence Letter from President Halimah Yacob on the Passing of Mr Ngiam Tong Dow,” Istana, 21 August 2020; Ngiam, A Mandarin, 150.  
10. Ngiam, A Mandarin, 150–51, 203.
11. Low Kar Tiang, ed., Who’s Who in Singapore 2006 (Singapore: Who's Who Pub., 2006), 373. (Call no. RSING 920.05957 WHO)
12. Ho, “PM Lee, Friends Pay Tribute to Ngiam Tong Dow.”  
13. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore 2006, 373.
14. Low, Who’s Who in Singapore 2006, 373.  
15. “Ngiam Tong Dow's Legacy ‘Will Live On’,” ChannelnewsAsia, last modified 21 August 2020,  
16. Ngiam, A Mandarin, 5; Grace Ho, “Former Top Civil Servant Ngiam Tong Dow Dies, Aged 83,” Straits Times, 20 August 2020, B4 (From Newslink via NLB’s eResources website); Halimah Yacob, “Condolence Letter.”
17. “NUS Honours 21 Talented and Outstanding Alumni for Contributions to Alma Mater and Society,” NUSnews, 27 November 2019. (From NLB's Web Archive Singapore)
18. Halimah Yacob, “Condolence Letter”; NUSnews, “NUS Honours 21 Talented and Outstanding Alumni.”
19. Ngiam Tong Dow, Dynamics of the Singapore Success Story: Insights by Ngiam Tong Dow (Singapore: Cengage Learning Asia, 2011) (Call no. RSING 959.57 NIG); Ngiam, A Mandarin.
20. Natasha Meah, “Ngiam Tong Dow, Former Top Civil Servant Turned Outspoken Critic, Dies Aged 83,” Today, 21 August 2020.
21. Robin Chan, “Ngiam Tong Dow Clarifies Remarks; PM Welcomes It,” Straits Times, 12 October 2013, A8. (From Newslink via NLB’s eResources website)
22. “A Deep Loss for Country and University: In Memory of Mr Ngiam Tong Dow,” NUSnews 21 August 2020.

The information in this article is valid as of September 2021 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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