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How did Singapore grow?

Civil servants like my grand-uncle made Singapore great when there was genuine meritocracy




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Call it a series of coincidences but my maternal granduncle passed away. While the timing was not something he planned, his death took place a day or two after Singapore Press Holding’s (SPH) CEO, Mr Ng Yat Chung, gave his now infamous “Umbrage” press conference when he was asked about editorial integrity in the newly restructured company.

I never had a chance to know my maternal grand-uncle. We met for all of five minutes when he showed up at my grandmother’s wake in 2006 and my mother pointed out that had her father lived, he would have looked like his younger brother, my grand-uncle. So, I will leave the personal tribute to my granduncle’s granddaughter, which can be found at:


While I may not have known my grand-uncle on a personal level, I knew of the family legend. I also got to know him through his son and his granddaughter. My grand-uncle was by all accounts a highly intelligent and energetic man. Like his brother, my grandfather, he entered the civil service and climbed the ranks on the strength of his intelligence. However, he probably didn’t get as far as he could have, due to a rebellious streak. The man was exceedingly energetic and had a very curious mind that didn’t slow with age. His old-age hobby was building violins and taking apart and fixing up computers.

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This energy was passed onto my uncle, who in his own words, had the “meanest mouth in the Singapore Armed Forces.” My uncle had no fear of rank. He takes pride in telling us of his disagreements with superiors, who would always point out, “I am your superior”, to which the classic reply was inevitably “But you’re still wrong.” My cousin also has something of the old man’s flair. She’s written countless articles and has incurred the wrath of none other than the “Fawning Follower” aka the Critical Spectator (angering someone who thinks keeping people in cages is a social service).

I like to think that it was civil servants like my grand-uncle who made Singapore great. He belonged to an era when there was a genuine belief in meritocracy. Intelligent people were allowed to make their views known and people at the ground level were respected. People were allowed to point out mistakes made by superiors. The key to success was getting the job done rather than preserving a myth.

I look back to the eulogy that the late delivered at the funeral of S Rajaratnam. The most shocking moment came when Lee talked about the “furious” debates that they used to have in the cabinet. This is evidence that  Lee’s real genius was in allowing intelligent people to get on with the job. He took care of the politics and allowed the likes of Goh Keng Swee to get on with the work.

Back when the Singapore was run by a group of intelligent people, Photo: Youtube screengrab/ AP Archive

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It was in this environment that my grand-uncle and grandfather succeeded in the civil service. Neither was known for being an easy character but they were recognised for their ability and brains. It seems that there was genuine respect for talent in the public service and talent was well managed.

I can’t tell when things changed. A generation later, there was my uncle who would always need to be reminded that the other fellow was his superior. How did a public service, which allowed people to have “furious” debates, reach a stage where a “superior” would need to say, “I am your superior”, in a disagreement? Surely, one would imagine that in a society as “educated” as ours, the system would recognise the fact that the only way to be superior is to have demonstrably better ideas rather than having to state that you are superior.

We have reached a stage where the boss of a news organization “takes umbrage” at a question in a press conference. What does it say about our system when a basic question is treated like a personal insult and the response to the said insult only confirms negative perceptions that people have about the organization that you lead? One should be terrified that someone like Mr Ng Yat Chung was put in charge of troops, whom he was expected to lead into life-or-death situations. The inability to listen to the guy on the ground in such situations is a disaster.

This article first appeared at https://beautifullyincoherent.blogspot.com/

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