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Ho Ching: No need to know full sum of Singapore’s reserves to safeguard it

SINGAPORE – Madam Ho Ching, former CEO of Temasek Holdings and spouse of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has once again chimed in with her thoughts on the role and scope of the Elected Presidency in Singapore on a Facebook post

The election, scheduled to take place before 13 September, marks the end of the six-year term of Madam Halimah Yacob, Singapore’s current president.

Ho’s post on 24 June 2023, lengthy in nature with about 2,500 words, somewhat blurs the line between an opinion piece and a passionate rant.

Ho’s detailed exposition primarily centred around the duty to protect Singapore’s past reserves – an issue of paramount significance as the presidential election approaches.

“The question we need to consider is, ‘How should we do our duty to protect our past reserves as a duty to save and conserve a rainy day fund, and to protect as a national inheritance to be passed from generation to generation?’” Ho asked in her Facebook post.

She went on to elaborate on the various forms of past reserves and the need to conserve these reserves for future generations.

Throughout her lengthy Facebook missive, she emphasised the distinction between various forms of reserves, with the land of Singapore being a significant one.

She highlighted the finite nature of Singapore’s land and the importance of conserving it for future generations, drawing attention to the difference between conservation and preservation.

“We cannot just sell the land and then spend the proceeds,” she wrote, “So land is part of our past reserves, and an inheritance to conserve and protect for our future generations.”

In her post, Ho also offered a unique perspective on safeguarding Singapore’s reserves.

She drew a parallel between protecting the nation’s reserves and securing the contents of a safe.

As she explained, there is no need to know the exact size or cash value of the reserves to ensure their protection.

Ho illustrated this point by saying, “Can we protect the past reserves without knowing the size or cash value of the reserves? Yup! We can! How? Just think! How can we protect the contents of a safe without knowing what is in the safe?”

She further clarified her point by stating that the role of the custodian of the reserves is analogous to holding the ‘2nd key’ to the safe.

This metaphorical ‘2nd key’ plays a critical role whenever the reserves need to be accessed. Ho noted, “We simply jaga whenever something needs to be taken out, because we hold a 2nd key. Whenever you want to open the safe to take out something, that is when the 2nd key custodian can take a look to ask for what purpose and judge if it is needed or if it is reckless spending.”

She suggests that the essence of safeguarding the reserves lies in the rigorous decision-making process that occurs whenever there is a need to access them, rather than in the full awareness of their monetary value.

In her long piece, Ho also used metaphors to explain the management of reserves, relating it to transactions between different asset classes, and later tied it into the wider narrative of the upcoming presidential elections.

“So no lah! We can jaga (guard) the house without going into the house to touch the bed or inspect the bathroom, right?” she wrote, using local vernacular to emphasize her point.

Reflecting on her unique perspective as former CEO of Temasek Holdings, she drew upon her past experience to discuss the reserves’ significance, reinforcing the importance of the Elected Presidency in safeguarding these resources.

She reminded Singaporeans about the Presidential role, stating, “The EP is not intended to be a partisan or divisive figure” and urged her fellow citizens to vote responsibly, keeping in mind the long-term interests of Singapore and future generations.

Struggle to determine the full value of Singapore’s reserves by Ong Teng Cheong

Ho’s point about knowing the value of the reserves seems to be referencing the controversy regarding the late Ong Teng Cheong’s call for the value of the Singapore reserve during his term as the Singapore president.

In a 2000 interview with Asiaweek, the former and first elected President of Singapore expressed his frustrations over his attempts to determine the full value of Singapore’s reserves.

Ong remarked that despite his role as elected president, which included safeguarding the reserves, he was not provided with comprehensive information about them until five years into his term.

Before the end of his term, Ong held a press conference announcing that he would not run for a second term. During this conference, he voiced concerns over the difficulties he had faced when trying to obtain the value of Singapore’s reserves from the authorities.

Ong told Asiaweek that he first requested this information in 1993, but it took three years for the government to respond. He also sent a letter to then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1996, halfway through his presidential term, expressing his continued lack of knowledge about the reserves’ full extent.

Ong explained that while the cash reserves were relatively straightforward to account for, putting a dollar value on immovable assets like properties proved challenging. He said the government claimed it would take “56-man years” to assign a monetary value to all assets, prompting Ong to compromise and request just a list of all government-owned properties.

However, even this request was met with delays and incomplete information.

Ong expressed his surprise that the government seemed unaware of its own assets, and stated that he wished to at least have a comprehensive list of these assets if he were to be responsible for their protection.

Ong had held a press conference before the end of his term, announcing that he will not run for a second term and voiced concerns over the difficulties he faced trying to get the value of the Singapore reserves from the authorities.

During Ong’s term, the ruling party introduced amendments to the constitution that allowed the Parliament to overrule certain decisions of the elected president.

After Ong, no other elected presidents voiced publicly about issues of the Singapore reserves, giving an impression that everything was fine and dandy.

“Independent” candidates for the upcoming presidential election

Thus far, two presidential hopefuls, George Goh and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, have declared their intentions to run in the upcoming election.

Tharman, a seasoned politician from the People’s Action Party, announced his intention to run for president, and will be stepping down from his current positions as Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, effective 7 July 2023.

“On football, I’m not on the same team as the Government once I’m president, be very clear about that,” he said at one of the events he attended recently.

While Tharman has repeatedly asserted that he will maintain independence from the PAP if elected president, his promises have met with scepticism.

Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Secretary General of the Reform Party, has voiced concerns about potential conflicts of interest due to Tharman’s extensive roles in the Government, particularly as Finance Minister, Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and Deputy Chairman of Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC.

“Ownself Check Ownself,” Jeyaretnam quipped in a recent blog post, critiquing the idea of Tharman auditing the management of state’s reserves – a responsibility he previously held as a key figure in the Government.

On the other hand, entrepreneur and businessman George Goh is running a campaign built on assurances that, if elected as an “independent president,” he would prioritize the public interest over all other considerations.

Despite this, Goh has informed the media that the new president must cooperate with the government for the nation’s benefit.

He clarified that the President’s role is not to serve as a check on the Government, echoing a sentiment previously expressed by Ho Ching on 12 June. This has led to doubts about his professed independence among certain segments of the Singaporean population.

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