The 8th of February is the anniversary of ex President Ong’s passing. We thought this (shortened) interview between Ong Teng Cheong and Asiaweek on the 10th of March 2000 would shed light on how the powers of Government, the President and even the Labour Movement is managed. And how under appreciated this separation of powers is in Singapore. It really is more robust than we think it is.
(Here he shares a little about whether or not an NTUC chief can also be promoted to Prime Minister or President later on. Also, it answers the question of whether or not NTUC can call on a strike)
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 sanctioning 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.
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.
(On how the position of Prime Minister was selected)
Lee (Kuan Yew) 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.
(On how he configured the new position of elected President)
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 clearcut procedures ofwhat 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?
(On how he was going to safeguard the reserves of the country in this new position of elected President)
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.
(The reserves are not a straightforward calculation. It is not easy even for the GIC, nor the Government itself is able to tabulate clear data. This was the days before the position of the elected President. Here he explains why)
They (the government) agreed?
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.
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.
(He explains of how his wive’s cancer and his own health made him want to step down from politics)
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.
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.
(All in all, President Ong is happy with his job. The new position created powers to keep the Government in check)
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.
President Ong passed away on the 8th of February 2002 at the age of 66 from lymphoma. The President’s family decided not to hold a state funeral because it was too close to Chinese New Year. Before his death, he had asked to be cremated and for his ashes to be placed at Mandai Columbarium – together with ordinary citizens instead of Kranji State Cemetery, where late dignitaries are usually buried. For the first time in history, the Singapore flags flew at half-mast on Government buildings, including the Istana.*
The NTUC’s Ong Teng Cheong Labour Institute was named after him in his honour.
*Although state flags did fly at half mast for the late President Yusof Ishak, this was only observed at City Hall and some government buildings. It was only when President Ong passed did flags flay half mast across all government buildings.