SINGAPORE — Few Singaporeans would know that the Housing and Development Board's (HDB) first chief executive Howe Yoon Chong turned down an offer of a pay raise of almost 70 per cent from a private sector company.
HDB, which was set up in 1960, built 21,000 public housing units in the first three years of its formation – nearly the same number as its predecessor the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT) did over three decades. And by 1970, Howe had steered HDB to build sufficient housing for Singaporeans.
It was a spectacularly successful public housing programme, which saw Singapore go from slums to skyscrapers within one generation.
Such was the monumental work of Singapore's top pioneer civil servants like Howe, who toiled away from the public glare in a unique period of the country's history, faced with the enormous task of laying the sturdy foundations of a better future for Singaporeans.
A new book, The Last Fools: The Eight Immortals Of Lee Kuan Yew, sheds light on how Howe and seven other top pioneer civil servants – George Edwin Bogaars, Andrew Chew, Hon Sui Sen, Lee Ek Tieng, Ngiam Tong Dow, J. Y. Pillay and Sim Kee Boon – helped transform Singapore from "marsh into marvel".
In doing so, book editor Peh Shing Huei and seven other journalists help fill a gap in Singapore's history by acknowledging the massive contributions of these Immortals.
As Peh writes in the book's preface, "They were the true frontliners behind Singapore's astounding developments in health, defence, environment, housing, transport, aviation, maritime, and especially finance, trade and industry."
Five of the eight men became the head of the civil service, and the position was rotated among them between 1968 and 1999.
A unique period in Singapore's history
The Last Fools shows how these civil servants charged ahead as they tackled the monumental challenge of ensuring Singapore's survival.
For instance, after the Bukit Ho Swee fire razed the squatter colony, Howe marched into the area the next morning and ordered that it be bulldozed before any recovery plans were even made. In just 11 months, blocks of one-room flats had been completed and victims of the fire could move back into the area.
In a similar do-first attitude, Chew revamped the emergency ambulance service by drawing up catchment areas and telling the Fire Brigade to run the service by region so that patients were conveyed to the nearest hospital capable of treating them. But he did not put up Cabinet papers first, and thereby left ministers in the dark about the plan.
The chapter on Pillai revealed how he regularly walked along the aisles of Singapore Airlines planes as chairman of the airline to get a sense of what passengers were doing and their mood, and how they were being served.
Meanwhile, Sim as permanent secretary at the communications ministry tasked with constructing and opening Changi Airport, and later chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, would peer into toilet cubicles at overseas airports to check out the competition. He also zoomed in on details such as the texture of trolley handles.
These Immortals were able to achieve much partly due to the tremendous trust that they enjoyed from political office holders. Some knew the politicians from school days and both groups saw each other as intellectual equals. The lines were blurred between politicians and civil servants, and between the public and private sectors.
And they had "impressive parallel careers" as entrepreneurs behind government-linked corporations such as the Jurong, Sembawang and Keppel shipyards; the National Iron and Steel Mills; Neptune Orient Lines; and SIA.
As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said of Sim in 2007, and which would apply to the Eight Immortals, "There was a certain cut of people who were of that generation. They grew up, they saw the country change, they made the change happen."
The Last Fools is published by The Nutgraf Books and available online and at major bookstores. It is currently on The Sunday Times' non-fiction bestseller list.
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