Ong Teng Cheong is out but not down

The following is an excerpt from an article first published in Asiaweek in 1999

In choosing Ong as its first candidate back in 1993, the government appeared to have forgotten his independent streak and his activist past. As one of them, they thought there was no need to worry. That was a mistake. As president, Ong promptly set about actively doing the job as it was laid down in the Constitution. Almost immediately there were problems over how much power he should have and how much information he should get. In rapid succession, there were four constitutional amendments to try to plug these holes. Mostly, they entailed grabbing back some of the powers that had been vested in the elected president, like his right to veto both defense spending and laws that curtailed his own authority.

Only regarding the reserves did he continue to hold sole discretionary power; he could decide whether to approve or reject requests to draw on the funds. In order to make such decisions, Ong wanted to know how much the reserves were worth. He hit a roadblock. Those who had the information stalled over okaying its release. There was no urgency since none of the budgets presented to him for approval included a request to draw on the reserves. Still, three years into his presidency, Ong wrote to the government complaining that he had not got the figures. With a general election looming later that year, he felt it was procedurally important that he should know the dollar-and-cents details. Finance Minister Richard Hu says Ong got a response on Aug. 14 – “less than two months later.” Ong says it was “a few months.” The rancor was undisguised and it continued unabated. The government said it would take “56 man-years” to provide the information Ong wanted. The president said tersely: “Never mind. Go ahead.” Later, he agreed to accept just a list of the government’s immovable assets rather than a dollar-and-cents valuation. When he finally got it, he says it was incomplete. He complained that he still learned of vital information from the newspapers, instead of being informed first. And he chafed under the minimal staff he was allotted.

Many of these problems may just have been – as the government has argued – teething pains associated with the civil service dealing with a new, untested institution. But they added up to the unusual image of top officials publicly squabbling, a sight not seen since the 1980s when Lee lambasted the former president and PAP stalwart, Devan Nair.

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