Nov 14, 2007
The pioneer mandarins
BETWEEN 1967 and 1970, a small group of no more than five would meet every Sunday with Dr Goh Keng Swee. The group included Mr Sim Kee Boon, the former head of the Civil Service, who died last week. They would discuss the price of gold, forecast market movements over the coming week, check their forecasts of the previous week against reality and decide what to do next. Group members have told this newspaper that these Sunday gatherings were training sessions for the day when they would have to conduct central bank operations. The Monetary Authority of Singapore was established only in January 1971. Prior to that, the monetary functions of a central bank were performed by various government departments, monitored by this group. They learned on the job; they instructed themselves; they were present at the creation - of Singapore.
This vignette illustrates the extraordinary creativity of Singapore's pioneer mandarins. Some have departed - among them Mr Hon Sui Sen and Mr Howe Yoon Chong, who later became ministers, as well as Mr George Boggars and Mr Sim. Some are still serving in various capacities - among them Messrs SR Nathan, J.Y. Pillai, Ngiam Tong Dow and Philip Yeo, the youngest in the group. So much of what Singaporeans now take for granted would not have existed without them. EDB and MAS, SAF and HDB, PSA and Changi Airport, to mention a few, were the products not only of determined political leadership but also of entrepreneurial civil servants. That much soiled word, 'entrepreneurial', is not used lightly, for this generation also built up many now famous businesses - among them Singapore Airlines, Singapore Technologies, Sembawang and Keppel. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put it in paying tribute to Mr Sim, there was a certain special cut about the pioneer generation. They were present at the creation; they created.
Is the current generation of civil servants the equal of its predecessors? The current is better trained and has more scholars. It is also supported by a deep system, something the pioneers did not have. The whole being greater than the sum of its parts, that system can magnify individual talent and contain shortcomings. All these advantages, however, will not suffice if the current generation lacks foresight and derring-do. The pioneers had them because they lived with uncertainty and survived by their wits. They are qualities that cannot be trained for directly, only developed in response to challenges. It is not possible to recreate the challenges that produced a Mr Sim, but there are other challenges, many acute. A civil service that remains nimble and conscious of challenges will produce more Mr Sims.