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A scrutiny of Ng Kok Song’s self-professed independence in the upcoming presidential race

The announcement of 75-year-old Ng Kok Song’s candidacy has stirred up the upcoming Presidential election.

Ng, best known for his role as Chief Investment Officer at the Singaporean sovereign wealth fund, GIC, has been a somewhat unknown figure to the wider public.

His sudden emergence in politics has triggered waves of questions and speculation among Singaporeans who had little knowledge of him until recently.

Ng claims that his bid is inspired by a desire to prevent an election walkover, which, on the surface, seems plausible.

However, when considering Singapore’s political history, this begins to hint at a more intricate strategy in play.

The last presidential election in 2017 saw the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) candidate, Madam Halimah Yacob, win unopposed in the first reserved election after two potential candidates were disqualified under the stringent private candidate criteria of S$500 million shareholders equity. This caused a significant public backlash.

Ng’s bid could potentially be a strategic move aimed at avoiding a repeat of such controversy amid the recent blows to PAP’s public image due to exposed and emerging scandals in Singapore.

Adding intrigue to this puzzle is a Facebook post by Madam Ho Ching, former CEO of Temasek Holdings and spouse of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

In her post, she lauded both Ng and the PAP’s favoured candidate, former Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, but conspicuously omitted George Goh, another contender who had announced his candidacy before Ng.

Mdm Ho’s calculated silence on Goh, combined with Ng’s declaration that he is “standing so that you can choose your president,” seems to lend weight to the theory that Ng’s run is more of a tactical move rather than a sincere bid.

When asked by the media about his independence, Ng replied, “I believe we are who we are. Our present is intrinsically linked to our past, and we cannot easily separate the two.”

Ng has continually emphasized his lack of political affiliations, asserting that Singapore needs a president who is “independent of any political party to safeguard the integrity of our institutions.”

Despite Ng having never been involved directly in politics, he has been close to the PAP politicians for 27 years in GIC.

A deep dive into his professional history also reveals significant overlaps with Tharman’s career. Specifically, Tharman’s 12-year tenure as Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) from 1 May 2011 to 7 July 2023 is noteworthy. MAS is an entity that owns GIC, where Ng served extensively before his retirement in 2013.

Moreover, given that Ng’s Avanda Investment Management received a staggering US$3 billion (S$4.05 billion) from Temasek Holdings — overseen by Mdm Ho as CEO at that time — in 2016, Ng’s claims of independence can certainly be called into question.

While Ng’s company may not meet the criteria, just like Goh’s, the role of the Presidential Election Committee (PEC) could be crucial.

Similar to the 2011 Presidential Election, in which the PEC permitted Tan Jee Say to run despite his not meeting all eligibility criteria outright—thus enabling a four-cornered contest and allowing PAP’s Tony Tan to edge out Tan Cheng Bock by just 0.35 per cent—the PEC may exercise its discretionary power to qualify Ng, while simultaneously disqualifying Goh. This could pave the way for a straight fight between Ng and Tharman.

The suspected orchestration behind Ng’s sudden bid for the presidency gains credibility when considering the series of events leading up to Madam Halimah’s presidency.

Mdm Halimah’s intention to run for the 2017 Presidential Election was announced only on 6 August 2017, well after Minister Chan Chun Sing referred to the former Speaker of Parliament as “Mdm President” twice during a parliamentary debate on 6 February 2017.

As Tharman had recently done, she resigned from PAP to stand for the presidential election just before the writ of election was issued.

This sequence of events suggests a predetermined strategy to ensure a specific outcome.

Perhaps the reason PAP is so apprehensive about a genuine contest for the presidency between two candidates is rooted in the result of the first presidential election. Despite competing against a reluctant candidate, the late Chua Kim Yeow, who neither conducted any walkabouts nor held news conferences or rallies, the late Ong Teng Cheong only secured a 58% victory.

Late J. B. Jeyaretnam, who intended to run, was disqualified owing to a conviction for falsifying his former political party’s funds. It’s also worth noting that Tharman, despite contesting a lesser charge of negligence, was nonetheless convicted alongside others in March 1994. This, however, will likely not pose an issue for the PEC to issue him a certificate of eligibility.

In conclusion, Ng Kok Song’s presidential bid may not be the selfless act of service it is presented as. The timing and details hint at it being part of a carefully crafted strategy to ensure a smooth path for PAP’s preferred candidate.

However, as the PAP has experienced over the past few months, things may not always turn out as planned – much like its intended strategy to hold an early general election this year.

A thought that voters should perhaps bear in mind is what Chua said in his second televised speech, “In Singapore, as you know, the PAP dominates the government and dominates the legislature…Do you want the PAP to dominate the presidency as well?”

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