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Should wealth creators or wealth managers lead the future?

17 May 2012

Mr Ngiam sharing his views on wealth creation

Should Singapore be a wealth creator or a wealth manager? NUS Pro-Chancellor Mr Ngiam Tong Dow posed this thought-provoking question to the 250-strong audience at the Institute for Engineering Leadership's (IEL) Distinguished Speaker Series lecture on 16 May.

At the hour-long session titled "Leaders in wealth creation: Jurong vs Shenton Way?", the former top civil servant shared that Singapore has nurtured too many wealth managers and far too few wealth creators for the future.

Describing wealth creators, Mr Ngiam said that their singular strength is the ability to think outside the box, spotting opportunities where others only see obstacles. In the public sector, Dr Goh Keng Swee epitomised this spirit. During his appointment as Defence Minister, Dr Goh set up Sheng-Li Holdings to build Singapore's defence industries. Sheng-Li Holdings, to be renamed Singapore Technologies, was able to compete with international defence companies in the global markets.

To groom wealth creators, students should be taught to think outside the box. However, "I believe that Singaporeans and Asians in general think within the box because of our didactic system of education," opined Mr Ngiam. At NUS, he said that the Faculty of Engineering should be given more resources if wealth creation is to be encouraged.

Following the lecture, a spirited Question and Answer session saw Mr Ngiam sharing his views on issues which included the scholarship system, the distribution of talent throughout society, the nurturing of home-grown talents, and the attitude of competing among the best of the best.

On Singapore's position as a wealth creator vis-à-vis emerging markets especially those in Southeast Asia, Mr Ngiam said the country's economic structure has moved from being labour intensive to skills intensive. The future now lies in being knowledge intensive with unique Singaporean expertise to export such as the public housing system.

With a career in civil service over a period of 40 years, Mr Ngiam has served as Permanent Secretary in the Prime Minister's Office, the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Trade, the Ministry of Communications and the Ministry of National Development. He was also the Chairman of the Singapore Economic Development Board and the Development Bank of Singapore.

Mr Ngiam is currently an independent director of United Overseas Bank, Singapore Press Holdings and Yeo Hiap Seng Ltd.