At the Meritorious Service Medal award ceremony held in Institute of Technical Education (ITE) College Central yesterday (28 Oct), President Halimah Yacob presented the the Order of Temasek (First Class) to former President Tony Tan – “for his lifetime dedication to public service and his stellar service to his people and country”. Tan became the 9th Singaporean to receive the Singapore’s highest civilian honour.
Tan, a former People’s Action Party minister, is said to have helped transform Singapore’s education system, armed forces, reserve management, and research and development efforts. “The breadth and sweep of his service have been equalled by few,” his citation reads.
He left his job as OCBC Bank’s general manager in 1979 to enter politics and went on to helm five ministries. He has been credited with revamping the school system as education minister, championing the development of higher education, as well as laying the basis for Singapore’s universities to raise their international standing. He was elected Singapore’s seventh president, serving from 2011 to last year.
However, his service to the public is not without controversies.
Union disputes and conflict with Ong Teng Cheong
In 1986, there was a labour strike in the shipping industry, sanctioned by fellow cabinet member Ong Teng Cheong, NTUC secretary-general, who felt that the workers were unfairly treated by the employer and thought that the strike was necessary to send a message to the employer.
However, Tan vehemently opposed the strike and argued with Ong Teng Cheong in the Cabinet. As Minister for Trade and Industry, Tan was concerned about investors’ reactions to a perceived deterioration of labour relations and the impact on foreign direct investment.
In his analysis, historian Michael Barr explains that older union leaders bore increasing disquiet at their exclusion from consultation in NTUC’s policies, which were effectively managed by “technocrats” in the government. Unlike the previous NTUC secretary-general Lim Chee Onn, Lee Kuan Yew’s protégé Ong Teng Cheong in 1983 had an “implicit pact” with the trade unions — involving grassroots leaders in top decisions and “working actively and forcefully” in the interests of the unions “in a way Lim had never seen to do” — in exchange for the unions’ continued “cooperation on the government’s core industrial relations strategies”.
Although striking was prohibited and trade unions were barred from negotiating such matters as promotion, transfer, employment, dismissal, retrenchment, and reinstatement, issues that “accounted for most earlier labour disputes”, the government provided measures for workers’ safety and welfare, and serious union disputes with employers were almost always handled through the Industrial Arbitration Court, which had powers of both binding arbitration and voluntary mediation.
However, Ong felt these measures did not prevent “management [from] taking advantage of the workers”, recalling in a 2000 interview in Asiaweek, “Some of them were angry with me about that… the minister for trade and industry [Tan] was very angry, his officers were upset. They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore?” However the fact that the strike only lasted two days before “all the issues were settled” was cited by Ong in a 2000 interview with Asiaweek as proof that “management was just trying to pull a fast one”.
Foolish to build MRT
Tan also disputed on the issue of building the MRT when it was raised by Ong in 1981.
Following a debate on whether a bus-only system would be more cost-effective, then Ong, as Minister for Communications, came to the conclusion that an all-bus system would be inadequate, as it would have to compete for road space in a land-scarce country.
At the time, Tan thought that the construction industry was overheating and said that if Singapore were to be foolish enough to go ahead with the building of MRT system, Singapore will find itself in trouble.
The Cabinet finally gave the go-ahead and the Mass Rapid Transit Corporation was established in 1983 to manage the construction of the MRT system. The first train started running in 1987.
Patrick Tan controversy
In 2011, Tan responded to online allegations that his son Patrick Tan had received preferential treatment during NS. He said, “My sons all completed their National Service obligations fully and I have never intervened in their postings.”
“Most of my career has been spent in public service. I am acutely aware of the scrutiny to which public figures are subjected. Responsibility and integrity governed my choice to serve Singapore for over three decades, motivated me to run for President, and are values I have lived by and instilled in my family,” he added.
“I am deeply disappointed by the false rumours currently circulating. I am confident that Singaporeans are savvy enough to see through these distractions and will make up their minds based on solid facts and focus on the real issues at hand.”
He also responded to a netizen who asked him to clarify if his son was doing research work at the National Cancer Center (NCC) during his NS. Tan’s office replied that the research work at NCC was actually the work for Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute, which comes under MINDEF:
In 2016, Tay Eng Soon’s brother, Tay Kheng Soon said at a public forum that Tan was not supportive of increased funding for polytechnics and Institutes of Technical Education (ITEs).
Tay recalled, “As you all know my brother, the late Tay Eng Soon, was the Minister of State for Education, he fought for ten years within the cabinet to increase the funding for the ITEs and Polytechnics, and his career prospect within the party was actually truncated by it. The reason was – he never told me what actually happened, loyalty to the party, right? After he died, his wife told me the real story. All the time, Tony Tan, that’s why I have no respect for Tony Tan at all. Tony Tan said to him all the time, all through the ten years, ‘Why do you want to throw good money after bad rubbish?’ I cannot stand this. This is the inherent elitism. You have to break that.”
Tan then responded through ST, “I did not make any such remarks. The claim is very hurtful because when I was a Cabinet Minister, the education of children was very close to my heart.”
“For that reason, when I was Education Minister, I increased support for the education of all students, with a particular focus on children in polytechnics and ITEs, or what was then the VITB,” he added. “It is therefore very sad that such a thing should be said about me.”
Altogether, 518 people, many who are grassroots members, received their award from Halimah yesterday.