Interview of Singapore’s first elected president, Ong Teng Cheong, by Asiaweek
It’s now six months since you stepped down. How do you feel about your time as president?
I am satisfied with what I did. I hope it was all for the best. I was elected to do a job. And I had to do that job whether the government — or anyone else — liked it or not.
It seems that often they did not like it, but let’s go back: How did you first get into politics?
In the early 1970s, Lee Kuan Yew asked me for an interview to get me involved to stand for election. I stood in 1972 and I won and became a PAP backbencher. A year later, Lee asked me to take up ministerial office but I turned it down because my younger brother was dying of cancer.
I had to assist him and to settle his affairs after he died at the age of 25. Then Lee Kuan Yew approached me again and this time I agreed to take up office. Lee is very persuasive.
He must have been impressed to make you a minister so quickly — you were a young architect with no experience of politics.
Yes, I was not trained to become a minister or a politician, but you learn on the job. Whenever I went to a new ministry, I always asked myself basic questions: What is this job all about? What am I supposed to do? That’s what I did in 1980, for instance, when I became minister of labor, in addition to being minister for communications.
I went through all the legislation and I decided that the trade unions should not just be designed to organize and finance strikes, but instead should help improve the workers’ social and economic wellbeing.
You became head of the NTUC and also remained a cabinet minister — and Singapore remained strike free.
Yes. But in January 1986 I did sanction a strike, the first for about a decade. It was in the shipping industry where the management was taking advantage of the workers. I did not even tell the cabinet about santioning the strike. And some of them were angry with me about that. The minister for trade and industry was very angry, his officers were very upset.
They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore? — we are non-strike. I said: if I were to inform the cabinet or the government they would probably stop me from going ahead with the strike. It only lasted two days. Then all the issues were settled. It showed that management was just trying to pull a fast one. So I believe what I did was right.
It marked a trend — that you have never been afraid of doing something your ministerial colleagues might disagree with?
No. If they don’t like it, I can always come back here to my architecture firm.
Around this time you were discussing the succession to PM Lee?
Lee Kuan Yew had been discussing this since about 1983. At that time, the second echelon was Tony Tan, S. Dhanabalan, Goh Chok Tong and myself.
Were you a candidate for the top job?
I was considered as a member of the group. At that time, we did not know who would be the successor to Lee. We finally made the decision to pick Goh Chok Tong. He agreed on condition that I agreed to be his number two.
So I was the second DPM; he was the first DPM. In 1988, Lee asked Goh to take over, but he was not ready. He said: two more years. So two years later, he took the job.
Lee did not agree with your decision to pick Goh.
No, he did not disagree. He said he would leave it to us. His own first choice was Tony Tan. Goh Chok Tong was his second choice. I was his third choice because he said my English was not good enough. He said Dhanabalan was not right because Singapore was not ready for an Indian prime minister.
That upset the Indian community. There was quite a bit of adverse reaction to what he said. But he speaks his mind. He is the only one who can get away with it.
Personally, you felt Goh was the right man?
Well, among the four of us, he was the youngest. Tony Tan said no. I said no. And he sort of accepted being pushed into the position, on condition that we stay on to assist him.
Soon after taking over, Goh called a snap election in 1991 — but the PAP’s vote slipped and there was talk he would quit.
Well, we did discuss about that. But he didn’t indicate that he wanted to step down.
At that time, you were no. 2 in the executive after PM Goh.
Yes. Well, no. 2, no. 3, doesn’t matter.
So why run for president?
The elected presidency was Lee Kuan Yew’s initiative. He came out with the idea way back in ’82, ’83. After parliament passed the measure in 1991, I considered it seriously. At that time, after 20 years in politics, I was thinking of a way to ease myself out, to exit the political arena. I wrote to the prime minister twice to say that I’m prepared to go.
You saw the presidency as a way to do that?
Yes, the unionists egged me on. They came to see me a couple of times and they suggested that I take it on. I discussed it with the prime minister, being old friends, and he gave me his support.
The well-known oppositionist J.B. Jeyaretnam wanted to run against you?
Yes, but he was not allowed to because he did not qualify under the stringent criteria. Maybe too stringent.
You were glad Jeyaretnam could not run?
No, it’s okay. I think it would have been more fun.
Some of your colleagues did not think it was much fun when your only opponent, a former accountant-general, Chua Kim Yeoh, got so much support?
Yes, all of them were quite worried. Some ministers even called me to say: Oh, we are worried about the outcome. At first, we were quite confident about getting over 70 per cent of the vote. But there was a swing of support over to my opponent’s side, especially in the educated class — civil servants and the Shenton Way group. The issue was whether they wanted a PAP man as president to check on a PAP government, or whether it would be better to have a neutral independent like Chua.
That’s why they voted against me because I had the PAP government support. I would have been happier without the PAP’s open support. I think I would have been better off with just the unionists’ support and the Chinese-educated heartlanders. Without them I would not have been elected.
But you did win and you had to figure out how to do this new job as Singapore’s first elected president.
Yes. At the first opening of parliament after I was elected, I was given a speech prepared by the government. I read the speech carefully. Besides ceremonial functions, it said that I’m supposed to safeguard the reserves and to help society become more compassionate and gracious.
So I decided that, well, if that is what is said in the speech, then that’s going to be my job. And I am going to do it. That’s what I tried to do. In fact, during the six years I was president, I was very busy.
Well, I got involved in a lot of things. The Istana presidential palace and other places had to be renovated. All this had to be planned and these places got ready one by one, so that ceremonial functions and other business could go on as usual. I had to press the government to finalize the procedures for the protection of the reserves. A lot of the teething problems and misunderstandings were because there was a lack of clear-cut procedures of what to do.
Towards the end of my term, I pressed the prime minister for a White Paper to be tabled in parliament that would set out all the principles and procedures for the elected president. Then I will announce my decision to step down. I want to get the job done.
Initially, he did not want to do that?
It’s not that he did not want to do that, but it had been dragging for a long time. They produced a White Paper eventually, tabled it in parliament last July, and that made the future president’s job easier. We have already tested out many of the procedures during my term, except for asking the president to approve a draw on the past reserves during a deep economic crisis. That was never done. It’s that part of procedure that was not tested. How to do it?
It was this issue that caused the dispute between you and the government?
Yes. But I don’t want to go into details and upset everybody. The thing is that the elected president is supposed to protect the reserves, but he was not told what these are until five years later. From the day the Constitution was amended in 1991 to provide for an elected president, he was supposed to fulfil that role.
My predecessor, Wee Kim Wee, although he was not elected, was supposed to play that role during the last two years of his term. But he did not actively check. So, when I came in in 1993, I asked for all this information about the reserves. It took them three years to give it to me.
The holdup was for administrative reasons?
Either that or they did not think there was any urgency. You see, if you ask me to protect the reserves, then you’ve got to tell me what I’m supposed to protect. So I had to ask.
Why did they not want to tell you?
I do not know. Don’t ask me, because I don’t have the answer. I’ve been asking them. In fact, in 1996, exactly halfway through my term, I wrote prime minister Goh a letter. At that time, everybody was expecting a general election in December or January. After the election, a new government would be sworn in. When that happens, all the reserves, whether past or current, become past reserves and are locked up on the changeover date.
As president, I have to safeguard them and they can only be drawn upon with my permission. So I said to Mr Goh: It’s already halfway through my term, but until today I still don’t know all these figures about the reserves.
So the government had been stonewalling you, the president, for three years?
Yes. What happened actually was, as you know, in accounting, when you talk about reserves, it’s either cash reserves or assets reserves. The cash side is straightforward: investment, how many million dollars here and there, how much comes from the investment boards and so on. That was straightforward — but still we had to ask for it. For the assets, like properties and so on, normally you say it’s worth $30 million or $100 million or whatever.
But they said it would take 56-man years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets. So I discussed this with the accountant-general and the auditor-general and we came to a compromise. The government would not need to give me the dollar-and-cents value, just give me a listing of all the properties that the government owns.
Well, yes, they agreed, but they said there’s not the time for it. It took them a few months to produce the list. But even when they gave me the list, it was not complete.
It seems the Singapore government does not know its own assets?
Yes. It’s complicated. It’s never been done before. And for the assets of land, I can understand why. Every piece of land, even a stretch of road, is probably subdivided into many lots. There are 50,000 to 60,000 lots and every one has a number.
If you want to value them all, it would take a long time. In the past, they have just locked everything up and assumed it is all there. But if I am to protect it, at least I want to know the list.
When they eventually gave you the list — the incomplete list, did you have enough staff to do the checking and other work?
No, I did not. I only had one administrative staffer and two part-timers from the auditor-general’s office. For things like approving the budget of statutory boards, the auditor-general’s office would normally go through that for me. They are very good. They check on everything. And they query and ask for information.
For government financial policy matters that you had a veto over, did you get all the details?
They finally came with an executive summary to say that they had checked through all this, and that this is what they have, this is how much they are going to spend, and that it won’t need any draw from the reserves — or that there’s likely to be a draw. There never was a draw during my time, but there were instances where it was a bit dicey whether the budgets of one or two statutory boards would require a draw. But finally we resolved that.
Eventually then, with the list of properties and the executive summaries, you were kept informed?
I wouldn’t be able to say that. Even in my last year as president, I was still not being informed about some ministerial procedures. For example, in April last year, the government said it would allow the sale of the Post Office Savings Bank POSB to DBS Bank. In the past, when there was no elected president, they could just proceed with this kind of thing.
But when there is an elected president you cannot, because the POSB is a statutory board whose reserves are to be protected by the president. You cannot just announce this without informing him. But I came to know of it from the newspaper. That is not quite right. Not only that, but they were even going to submit a bill to parliament for this sale and to dissolve the POSB without first informing me.
What did you do?
My office went to tell them that this was the wrong procedure. You’ve got to do this first, do that first, before you can do this. It was question of principle and procedure. We had to bring all this to their attention. That they cannot forget us.
It’s not that we are busybodies, but under the Constitution we have a role to play and a responsibility. Sometimes in the newspaper I came to know of things that I am responsible for, but if it had not been reported in the newspaper I would not know about it.
You must have been pretty angry that this was still happening in your last year as president?
Yes, I was a bit grumpy. And maybe not to the liking of the civil service. They did not like what I said. But I have to be a watchdog all the time, you see. So this is where they are supposed to help me to protect the reserves. And not for me to go and watch out when they do right or wrong.
Under the Constitution, you have the right to all the information available to the cabinet.
Yes. That’s right. And I sourced much information from the cabinet papers. But they are not used to it. So I said: I understand, it’s something new, and I know you don’t like my interference and busybody checking up and so on. But under the Constitution it is my job to do that.
Despite all this, it was widely believed that you wanted to run again for a second six-year term as president?
No, I’d been telling my friends since late 1998 that my inclination was not to stand for re-election. But of course, life is unpredictable. In March last year, I went to Stanford and my American doctor confirmed that my cancer was in complete remission. He is very experienced, a world authority on my sickness.
So I was fine after my treatment. I gave a complete report to the prime minister and we discussed it. I told him that my inclination was not to stand, but that I’d make the announcement later on. Then the cabinet met and they decided that if I were to stand again, they would not support me.
You had been given a clean bill of health, yet your former colleagues would not support you. Did that annoy you?
I told the prime minister over lunch: Well, I don’t need your cabinet support. If I want to stand, whether I do or not, it will be my personal decision. And I’ll make that decision nearer the date of the presidential election — because I have another checkup in June, July, and I want to know my latest position.
Also my wife was sick with cancer and we knew that if she died, it would be difficult for me to stand without a first lady. She felt very apologetic and that was another reason why my inclination was not to stand. I hoped that if I stepped down I would have more time to be with my wife, because her prognosis was not very good.
By waiting until July to announce your decision, were you ruffling the government for the way they had treated you?
Maybe so. Maybe it was my miscalculation that my stated inclination not to stand again had not been good enough for them. But I had been telling that to all my friends. And I did not want to tell people my wife was dying, either.
But the government worried that you might suddenly decide to run again.
No, I made it very clear and I called a press conference in July to tell everybody. But I believe some people were still afraid that I might turn up on nomination day. Even friends asked me if I might do that. How could they? I had given my word that I would not stand.
A straw poll apparently indicated you would beat the government’s candidate, S.R. Nathan, if you had stood.
Yes. But I gave my word that I would not run. And I don’t think it’s right. I’m a very old-fashioned man. Also, my wife passed away in September. And I became more sceptical about all these medical reports. Well, not sceptical, but certainly I find life more unpredictable than I thought. Full of uncertainties.
In the end you were happy to stand down?
Yes, I’d been preparing for that psychologically since late 1998. I was quite happy when the decision was made, happy to return to private life to do the work that I enjoy.
How are your relations with PM Goh these days?
They are okay. I just had lunch with him last week. I can’t invite him now, so he invited me. When I was president, we took turns to invite each other for lunch in the Istana.
Did Senior Minister Lee join you?
No, we did that separately.
Lee spoke out against you last year. How are your relations with him now?
We’ve never quarreled.
It’s said that your recalcitrance upset him and your former colleagues, leaving you estranged and bitter?
I would not call it recalcitrant. I mentioned some of the problems — or many of the problems — that I faced. If they regard that as an attack on the government and on the civil service, then that is for them to interpret. The prime minister and I spoke at my farewell reception.
We agreed that we would say what we have to say. I think it came out well. He said that my statements, and his rebuttal in parliament, were probably a good thing. They showed the transparency of the system. I stand by what I said.
– Published in Asiaweek 2000