It was exactly 10 years ago that the late President Ong Teng Cheong called a press conference at the Istana on 16 July 1999 – six weeks before his term was due to end.
While the main headlines in the newspapers the following day centred on President Ong’s decision not to stand for a second term, the issues he highlighted at the press conference certainly raised a few eyebrows.
But why did President Ong raise such issues – including the difficulties he had faced in fulfilling his role as the Elected President?
In my humble view, there’s only one reason – to educate Singaporeans and help them gain a better understanding of the Elected Presidency (EP) concept.
As President Ong had then acknowledged, the EP concept was relatively new, and as the first official Elected President, he had to test the system which was, after all, devised to protect the nation’s reserves should we be unfortunate to elect a rogue government one day. Hence President Ong saw it fitting to educate Singaporeans, who had elected him to the office, on how the concept had evolved during his six-year term. In his view, Singaporeans certainly had the right to understand how the EP should work, and how it could be better fine-tuned to better serve its objectives.
Sadly, 10 years since that press conference, have we seen more attempts to test the system? In what ways has the EP concept been fine-tuned to better empower the Elected President, the rightful custodian of Singapore’s reserves, over the past decade?What happened to the 1999 White Paper on principles for determining and safeguarding the accumulated reserves of the Government which Mr Ong had pushed for?
I am not ashamed to state categorically that President Ong will always remain the politician I respect and admire most. But I am not writing to entrench President Ong’s legacy: I am in no position to do so, and there’s simply no such need since Singaporeans can best judge for themselves the contributions made by our beloved leader.
Rather, I am writing to offer my take on why many Singaporeans still miss the late President Ong even though it has been almost 7½ years since he passed away.
The Elected Presidency (as mentioned above) is just a case in point. Truth be told, it is not what President Ong had done that made us appreciate and love him; rather, it is the set of qualities he had displayed consistently from the day he entered politics in 1972.
Allow me to share two of these qualities.
One such quality is his genuine passion in serving Singaporeans and in wanting to improve their lives.
In an interview with AsiaWeek six months after he stepped down as President, Mr Ong was asked about his time as President. His reply was simple and yet sincere: “I was elected to do a job. And I had to do that job whether the government – or anyone else – liked it or not.”
Ask yourself this question: How many politicians today, regardless of their political affiliation, would act as independently as President Ong did? Have we not seen or experienced for ourselves how some politicians today seem to act or talk in such a manner as if they are beholden to certain leaders?
At this point, let us not confine President Ong’s contributions and perseverance merely to his six-year presidential term. Think of the MRT debate in the early 1980s, think of the strike he had ‘endorsed’ as our labour chief in 1986. Why did he do all these when it would perhaps have made his life easier by going with the majority?
Let’s also not forget that Mr Ong left a higher-paying career as the founder of an architecture firm to join politics in 1972. Did he join politics for fame, power or financial remuneration? No. When he was asked by the then-PM Lee Kuan Yew to take up ministerial office in 1973, Mr Ong declined because his younger brother was dying of cancer. With all due respect, how many politicians today would pass over such a golden opportunity? Moreover, you do not need to be a rocket scientist to figure out which career – architect vs politician – was more financially rewarding in the 1970s!
The second quality which Mr Ong had, and which I hope our politicians today would also possess, is confidence. Mr Ong was never a politician afraid to relinquish his post as an office holder. He knew that life would continue as per normal even if he had to leave politics.
Asked in the same interview with AsiaWeek why he had “never been afraid of doing something (his) ministerial colleagues might disagree with”, he replied: “If they don't like it, I can always come back here to my architecture firm.”
How many office holders today can honestly claim to feel the same way?
In my humble view, it is only with such a sense of confidence can an office holder then be bold and independent and make his own stand in the political arena today, instead of ‘going with the flow’.
That President Ong was mentioned in several media reports and Internet postings over the past six months on two issues – the government’s decision to dip into the reserves and on whether one should resign from political party membership prior to seeking a non-partisan post – is testament of the high regard in which he is still held by many Singaporeans.
President Ong has undoubtedly set the benchmark on the qualities a genuine politician should possess. Sadly, I have little confidence that we will have the privilege to witness another leader exuding such qualities.
President Ong was in office from 2 September 1993 to 31 August 1999.