Just came across this excellent interview with Mr Ngiam Tong Dow, former head of the civil service in 2003. Give that man a Tiger, what an excellent insight!
Two things I wish to highlight from the interview :
Q. So what should this new compact consist of?
A. It should go back to what was originally promised: ‘That you shall be given the best education, whether it be academic or vocational, according to your maximum potential.’ And there will be no judgment whether an engineer is better than a doctor or a chef. My late mother was a great woman. Although illiterate, she single-handedly brought up four boys and a girl. She used to say in Hainanese: ‘If you have one talent which you excel in, you will never starve.’ I think the best legacy to leave is education and equal opportunity for all. When the Hainanese community came to Singapore, they were the latest arrivals and the smallest in number. So they had no choice but to become humble houseboys, waiters and cooks. But they always wanted their sons to have a better life than themselves. The great thing about Singapore was that we could get an education, which gave us mobility, despite coming from the poorest families. Today, the Hainanese, as a dialect group, form proportionately the highest number of professionals in Singapore.
Q. What is the kind of Singapore you hope your grandchildren will inherit?
A. Let’s look at Sparta and Athens, two city states in Greek history. Singapore is like Sparta, where the top students are taken away from their parents as children and educated. Cohort by cohort, they each select their own leadership, ultimately electing their own Philosopher King. When I first read Plato’s Republic, I was totally dazzled by the great logic of this organisational model where the best selects the best. But when I reached the end of the book, it dawned on me that though the starting point was meritocracy, the end result was dictatorship and elitism. In the end, that was how Sparta crumbled. Yet, Athens, a city of philosophers known for its different schools of thought, survived. What does this tell us about out-of-bounds markers? So SM Lee has to think very hard what legacy he wants to leave for Singapore and the type of society he wants to leave behind. Is it to be a Sparta, a well-organised martial society, but in the end, very brittle; or an untidy Athens which survived because of its diversity of thinking? Personally, I believe that Singaporeans are not so kuai (Hokkien for obedient) as to become a Sparta. This is our saving grace. As a young senior citizen, I very much hope that Singapore will survive for a long time, but as an Athens. It is more interesting and worth living and dying for.
I heartily agree with ‘That you shall be given the best education, whether it be academic or vocational, according to your maximum potential.’
And our resemblance to Sparta now is horrifying. I would wish we become Athens as well.
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