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 probablysubdivided 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.
When they eventually gave you the list -- the incomplete list, did you have enough staff to do the checking and other work?
No, I did not. I only had one administrative staffer and two part-timers from the auditor-general's office. For things like approving the budget of statutory boards, the auditor-general's office would normally go through that for me. They are very good. They check on everything. And they query and ask for information.
For government financial policy matters that you had a veto over, did you get all the details?
They finally came with an executive summary to say that they had checked through all this, and that this is what they have, this is how much they are going to spend, and that it won't need any draw from the reserves -- or that there's likely to be a draw. There never was a draw during my time, but there were instances where it was a bit dicey whether the budgets of one or two statutory boards would require a draw. But finally we resolved that.
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.
You must have been pretty angry that this was still happening in your last year as president?
Yes, I was a bit grumpy. And maybe not to the liking of the civil service. They did not like what I said. But I have to be a watchdog all the time, you see. So this is where they are supposed to help me to protect the reserves. And not for me to go and watch out when they do right or wrong.
Under the Constitution, you have the right to all the information available to the cabinet.
Yes. That's right. And I sourced much information from the cabinet papers. But they are not used to it. So I said: I understand, it's something new, and I know you don't like my interference and busybody checking up and so on. But under the Constitution it is my job to do that.
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.
You had been given a clean bill of health, yet your former colleagues would not support you. Did that annoy you?
I told the prime minister over lunch: Well, I don't need your cabinet support. If I want to stand, whether I do or not, it will be my personal decision. And I'll make that decision nearer the date of the presidential election -- because I have another checkup in June, July, and I want to know my latest position. Also my wife was sick with cancer and we knew that if she died, it would be difficult for me to stand without a first lady. She felt very apologetic and that was another reason why my inclination was not to stand. I hoped that if I stepped down I would have more time to be with my wife, because her prognosis was not very good.
By waiting until July to announce your decision, were you ruffling the government for the way they had treated you?
Maybe so. Maybe it was my miscalculation that my stated inclination not to stand again had not been good enough for them. But I had been telling that to all my friends. And I did not want to tell people my wife was dying, either.
But the government worried that you might suddenly decide to run again.
No, I made it very clear and I called a press conference in July to tell everybody. But I believe some people were still afraid that I might turn up on nomination day. Even friends asked me if I might do that. How could they? I had given my word that I would not stand.
A straw poll apparently indicated you would beat the government's candidate, S.R. Nathan, if you had stood.
Yes. But I gave my word that I would not run. And I don't think it's right. I'm a very old-fashioned man. Also, my wife passed away in September. And I became more sceptical about all these medical reports. Well, not sceptical, but certainly I find life more unpredictable than I thought. Full of uncertainties.
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.
Did Senior Minister Lee join you?
No, we did that separately.
Lee spoke out against you last year. How are your relations with him now?
We've never quarrelled.
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.
Published in the ASIAWEEK March 10, 2000.