Tributes pour in for late civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow

SINGAPORE – Friends and colleagues paid tribute to former top civil servant Mr Ngiam Tong Dow who died on Thursday (Aug 20), with Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong describing him as Singapore’s economic czar.

In a Facebook post, Mr Goh called Mr Ngiam “a friend, colleague and highly-respected civil servant”, saying: “When I was Prime Minister, I invited him for lunch occasionally as I found it worthwhile to listen to his views on Singapore’s economy.”

Mr Ngiam had spent 40 years in the apex Singapore Administrative Service where at age 35, he became the youngest permanent secretary.

He developed a wide range of policies on the economy, defence technology, transport, savings and retirement, as well as housing; and worked closely with founding leaders such as prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, former deputy prime minister Goh Keng Swee, and former finance minister Hon Sui Sen.

Along the way, he won top accolades like the Distinguished Service Order in 1999.

In a Facebook post on Friday, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing said Mr Ngiam displayed “tenacity and professionalism” in managing many complex issues and challenges.

As the ministry’s first permanent secretary from 1979 to 1986, he was instrumental in shaping and implementing economic policies that catalysed Singapore’s transformation from Third World to First – from investment promotion, economic and manpower planning, to industrial estate planning, said Mr Chan.

“Even after his retirement from public service, Mr Ngiam always cared deeply about Singapore and wanted to see his beloved country continue to grow and progress.

“Mr Ngiam has set high standards and left a lasting legacy. We will continue to uphold his spirit of innovation and resilience as we chart our new path forward together.”

In a condolence letter addressed to Mrs Ngiam on Friday, President Halimah Yacob said that Mr Ngiam’s contributions continue to have an enduring impact on the lives of Singaporeans, even today.

She cited the example of the MRT system, which he played a key role in operationalising when he was permanent secretary at the then-Ministry of Communications.

“He was also a strong advocate for our local enterprises, which paved the way for the vibrant small- and medium-enterprise (SME) landscape we see today in Singapore.”

Mdm Halimah added that Mr Ngiam believed in the contestation of ideas within the public service so that Singaporeans would be served in the best possible way, and that he was “a shining example of a gentleman who led by example and served his nation to the best of his abilities”. 

Mr Ngiam, who is survived by his wife Jeanette Gan Choon Neo, daughter Selina, son Kelvin, and three grandchildren, was also known for being outspoken on issues such as the high concentration of scholars in the civil service, and high ministerial pay.

Veteran diplomat Tommy Koh, a close friend who studied with Mr Ngiam at Harvard University in 1963, called him a “loving critic of Singapore”. He was also extremely thrifty, said Prof Koh. 

“When he was the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Finance, I went to see him to beg for more funding for the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. He said no, until I reminded him that it was established by his mentor, Dr Goh Keng Swee, and that there is no leading city of the world without a resident orchestra.

“The nation owes Tong Dow a big debt of gratitude for his outstanding service to the country. The fact that he was a loving critic of Singapore should be appreciated. He did it out of love for his country.”

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

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