Singapore Window Logo

Ong Teng Cheong is out but not down

President Ong went most unwillingly ASIAWEEK DEC 1999
Ong Teng Cheong: Extended interview ASIAWEEK MAR 2000

ASIAWEEK March 10, 2000.


PUBLIC protests are rare in Singapore. Official ones, rarer yet. But 12 years ago, the then deputy prime minister, Ong Teng Cheong, led a noisy demo against American interference in Singapore's affairs. Some local lawyers had been detained without trial and a US diplomat (later expelled) had suggested other Singaporean lawyers should stand as candidates against the ruling People's Action Party in coming elections.

While PM Lee Kuan Yew and his designated successor Goh Chok Tong spoke out, it was the deceptively unassuming Ong who marshaled 2000 trade unionists to stand in approved areas with anti-Uncle Sam banners. "Don't smile," said the DPM. "This is serious business." Unfortunately, a cameraman caught Ong doing just that.

The incident encapsulates his character: fiercely committed and doggedly law-abiding, but with an irrepressible human streak and a ready chuckle. The anti-US protest was not the first time Ong had made waves. Two years earlier, he had sanctioned a strike without telling his fellow cabinet members - and they were pretty peeved. Before that, he revamped Singapore's then moribund arts and culture scene, only to be scolded for spending too much. But on these and other matters, Ong never backtracked when he believed the interests of Singaporeans were at stake.

This stubborn determination to do right by his country became starkly evident when Ong defeated little-known former accountant-general Chua Kim Yeoh to win the presidency in 1993. Ong was the republic's first elected president (his predecessors had all been appointed). Many thought that the PAP loyalist, who had been inducted into the party by Lee and who was a close friend of Goh, would continue to toe the party line and agree to everything the government sent to him for approval. They thought wrong. He decided from the start that he would be an activist president, not a lackey of anyone. At times, this caused him to be at odds with the government. This less than cordial relationship still generates vigorous debate among Singaporeans, even though Ong's term ended six months ago. Now, speaking for the first time with an international publication since he stepped down, the 64-year-old Ong says: "I had to do [my] job whether the government - or anyone else - liked it or not" (see interview).

 What exactly did the job entail? In 1991, when Goh was already PM and Lee senior minister, the Constitution was amended to allow for an elected president with the power to veto key appointments and to act as guardian of the republic's prodigious financial reserves. The idea was that the president could prevent the reserves being frittered away by a "rogue government" taking over from the PAP. (Lee recently pegged the reserves at "over S$150 billion" - US$87.7 billion.)

 But even within the PAP hierarchy there were divergent views. Goh said the president would act as a check and balance, and that his government was "in fact, clipping its own wings" with this measure. Lee strongly disagreed, saying: "I would not have used those words because 'clipping one's wings' would evoke in my mind the swans we have at the Botanic Gardens. They are there because they cannot fly away." Lee viewed the president's custodial role as excluding the capacity to hobble the government. In a parliamentary session last August to discuss the differences between Ong and the government, Lee stressed that while the president would have "a certain blocking power," he would have no executive authority. Opposition MP J.B. Jeyaretnam growled: "Isn't his decision to say 'no' to the government's proposal to use the reserves not an exercise of executive power?"

Actually, that was the one thing Ong never got to do during his six-year term, so it was never tested.

 What the PAP's leaders were united over was that candidates must meet stringent conditions. Besides being "a person of integrity, good character and reputation," a candidate has to have occupied high public office or headed a company

with paid-up capital of at least S$100 million (about US$58.5 million). The criteria are stringent enough that Ong's successor, S.R. Nathan (a former ambassador and head of the secret service), had a walkover last September when no suitably qualified opponent came forward. This irked Jeyaretnam: "There is a feeling among a great many Singaporeans that they have been completely left out, cheated, of their chance to choose the president."

In choosing Ong as its first candidate back in 1993, the government appeared to have forgotten his independent streak and his activist past. As one of them, they thought there was no need to worry. That was a mistake. As president, Ong promptly set about actively doing the job as it was laid down in the Constitution. Almost immediately there were problems over how much power he should have and how much information he should get. In rapid succession, there were four constitutional amendments to try to plug these holes. Mostly, they entailed grabbing back some of the powers that had been vested in the elected president, like his right to veto both defense spending and laws that curtailed his own authority.

 Only regarding the reserves did he continue to hold sole discretionary power; he could decide whether to approve or reject requests to draw on the funds. In order to make such decisions, Ong wanted to know how much the reserves were worth. He hit a roadblock. Those who had the information stalled over okaying its release. There was no urgency since none of the budgets presented to him for approval included a request to draw on the reserves. Still, three years into his presidency, Ong wrote to the government complaining that he had not got the figures. With a general election looming later that year, he felt it was procedurally important that he should know the dollar-and-cents details. Finance Minister Richard Hu says Ong got a response on Aug. 14 - "less than two months later." Ong says it was "a few months." The rancor was undisguised and it continued unabated. The government said it would take "56 man-years" to provide the information Ong wanted. The president said tersely: "Never mind. Go ahead." Later, he agreed to accept just a list of the government's immovable assets rather than a dollar-and-cents valuation. When he finally got it, he says it was incomplete. He complained that he still learned of vital information from the newspapers, instead of being informed first. And he chafed under the minimal staff he was allotted.  

Many of these problems may just have been - as the government has argued - teething pains associated with the civil service dealing with a new, untested institution. But they added up to the unusual image of top officials publicly squabbling, a sight not seen since the 1980s when Lee lambasted the former president and PAP stalwart, Devan Nair.

Later, personal problems intervened for Ong. His wife had colon cancer and died in July, and his own lymphoma had flared into a high-grade form in 1998. Given all this, he says he told Goh he was disinclined to stand for re-election. But the PM recalls it differently, telling Parliament that Ong told him last February that he was thinking of standing again. Ong insists: "I have not told anybody that I wanted to stand again."

Whatever, Goh says he advised Ong to get a medical report first. In March, Ong went to the US to see the world authority on lymphoma, Stanford University's Dr. Saul Rosenberg. Ong recalls: "He checked that I was in complete remission. So I was fine after my treatment." His Singapore physician, Dr. John Wong, concurred with Rosenberg, but apparently harbored enough reservations that when the cabinet considered this matter, they decided not to support Ong if he decided to run again. Said Goh: "The cabinet concluded that there was a strong likelihood that the president's health would affect the discharge of his official duties in the next few years."

Goh said Ong was ruled out solely on health grounds. Not everyone bought that. Says Jeyaretnam: "Because he was being a bit of a difficult boy they decided they wouldn't have him for a second term." Ong was hurt. When he next met the PM, he told Goh that if he wanted to run for president again it would be his own decision. The response caught Goh's men by surprise. They knew that if Ong ran, he would almost certainly trounce Nathan, which would be hugely embarrassing. A month before the polls Ong finally told Goh that he would not stand. But he had one last bite: when he made the announcement, he also revealed all the problems he had endured over the past six years.

Many Singaporeans feel the ex-president's experiences confirm their perception of a bureaucracy that is more often curt than not. "Civil servants aren't supposed to talk to you," says nominated MP and constitutional lawyer Simon Tay, "and that really has to change." The Ong episode also suggests that the precise role of the elected president remains unclear. Even PAP men defend the new institution with less than wholehearted conviction. Admits Lee: "It is an open secret that some of my colleagues think I am attempting something which is futile." As to the disputes at the top, there are those who see these in a positive light. "The issue here is not a lack of debate, but the robustness of the debate," says Industry & Trade Minister George Yeo. "When Ong Teng Cheong took the job he knew he was testing new ground. The PM knew it, [Ong] knew it, there would have to be tension. [Otherwise], the problems would not surface. It was a necessary tension for it to work." But did it?