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Goh Chok Tong: Standing tall – or selling Singapore history short?

Sense And Nonsense by Tan Bah Bah

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In the second part of his two-volume memoirs, former PM spoke about two persons close to him whose political careers had been a fascinating part of Singapore’s political history. His attempts to bring some light to some questions surrounding Ong Teng Cheong and Dr Tan Cheng Bock are hardly satisfactory. His memoirs – Tall Order and Standing Tall (the second volume just out) – represented the best opportunity for him to speak his mind on what happened, now that he is out of office for so long and in the twilight of his years. His words would have helped clear some of the toxic cobweb surrounding the fates of Ong and Dr Tan. But, regrettably, he either ducked the issues or, for lack of a better word, whitewashed them.

Let’s refresh our memory on what happened to Ong Teng Cheong and Dr Tan Cheng Bock. Ong was President from 1993 to 1999. He decided not to stand for re-election for a second term because his wife died of colon cancer and he himself had been battling with lymphoma to which he succumbed in 2002. Ill health apart, we knew he was unhappy about his presidency when he called a press conference to voice his frustration at what he perceived to be stonewalling by the establishment when he was asking questions about the national reserves.

Wikipedia: “Soon after his election to the presidency in 1993, Ong was tangled in a dispute over the access of information regarding Singapore’s financial reserves. The government said it would take 56-man-years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets. Ong discussed this with the Accountant-General and the Auditor-General and eventually conceded that the government could easily declare all of its properties, a list that took a few months to produce. Even then, the list was not complete; it took the government a total of three years to produce the information that Ong requested.

“In an interview with Asiaweek six months after stepping down from the presidency, Ong indicated that he had asked for the audit based on the principle that as an elected president, he was bound to protect the national reserves, and the only way of doing so would be to know what reserves (both liquid cash and assets) the government owned.”

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Goh said that Ong was probably deeply into too many details. Was he? Even so, was Ong out of line? Did Singapore’s second PM miss the chance to dwell a bit more on what the government had learned from the episode? If our presidency is indeed a work in progress, what steps were triggered by the Ong episode to ensure it became a more respected and stronger institution in its role as a second key to the national reserves?

According to Singapore Infopedia: “One of Ong’s legacies as President was refining the constitutional powers and workings of the elected presidency, particularly pertaining to its custodial role in safeguarding the national reserves. Until 1991 when the elected presidency was established, the President was primarily a ceremonial figure. The white paper, “The Principles for Determining and Safeguarding the Accumulated Reserves of the Government and the Fifth Schedule Statutory Boards and Government Companies”, published at the end of his term in 1999, sought to clarify the procedures taken by the President together with the government in safeguarding the national reserves.”

The Ministry of Finance: “The President has full information about the size of the reserves (including a listing of physical assets like land) and the performance of the investment entities. Each year, the Accountant-General prepares and submits the Government’s financial statements to the President. These statements are independently audited by the Auditor-General.”

In short, Ong Teng Cheong was not asking for too many details. He was carrying out his presidential duties without fear or favour. Thanks to him, today, President Halimah Yacob has full knowledge of the exact amount of the reserves because such knowledge was obviously needed for her to approve the Covid-19 budgets of 2020/21.

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But, at the same time, no thanks to President Halimah, Singaporeans were deprived of a chance to elect Dr Tan Cheng Bock into the Istana.

Her predecessor, Dr Tony Tan, was elected as President in 2011, after S R Nathan’s two terms, almost by default. Dr Tan Cheng Bock lost narrowly and could have won if one of the other two non-government candidates had stood down. His second chance did not materialise because the government decided to make the last presidential race a reserved one. Halimah won uncontested in 2017.

Goh said Halimah would have lost in a straight fight against Dr Tan Cheng Bock if it had been a normal PE. I believe so too. The reserved PE 2017 had two other possible self-declared candidates, businessmen Salleh Marican and Farid Khan. But they were adjudged ineligible as their companies did not have at least $500m in shareholders’ equity under the new rules. Similarly, Goh said Dr Tan would not have been eligible in 2017.

Many people were, in fact, of the view that the two other Malay candidates were part of an elaborate wayang staged by the establishment to avoid having to reject a candidate so obviously popular with Singaporeans in the eligibility assessing stage. Not to talk about ring-fencing the presidency from Dr Tan altogether.

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Goh again missed the historic opportunity, as an elder statesman standing tall above the partisan political fray, to say something more useful and meaningful about the impact of a PAP stalwart like Dr Tan helping to shape the direction of non-toxic politics beyond the People’s Action Party.

Was he selling Singapore history short?

 

Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing world.Follow us on Social Media

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