this excerpt was an interview with the late OTC. reading it now brings on a new insight of our prataman's comparison.....
RELATED: President Ong went most unwillingly ASIAWEEK DEC 1999
ASIAWEEK March 10, 2000.
'I Had a Job to Do' Whether the government liked it or not, says ex-president Ong
ONG Teng Cheong will go down in history as Singapore's first elected president. But for twenty years before that, the Chinese-educated, foreign-trained architect was a stalwart of the nation's People's Action Party government led by its first PM Lee Kuan Yew. Ong, now 64, was minister of communications, of culture, and of labor; he was also deputy PM, secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, and chairman of Lee's PAP. By common consent, he was the man who kept the Chinese ground loyal to the party; indeed, his command of the language was such that Lee always asked Ong to accompany him whenever he visited China. In the 1980s, Ong was one of the party's four senior 'second echelon' leaders who were considered as possible successors to Lee. It was Ong's longtime friend, Goh Chok Tong, who got the nod for the job. Ong, who was diagnosed as suffering from lymphatic cancer in 1992, chose instead to run in the first elections for the presidency the following year.
He won -- and soon became embroiled in a six-year long festering dispute with his former colleagues in government over how much information he should have in order to fulfil his role in safeguarding Singapore's prodigious financial reserves. The altercation came to a head last year when Ong and his mentor Lee and friend Goh clashed publicly and rancorously in a rare display of disunity among PAP heavyweights. He decided not to run for re-election as president -- but not before he had spooked Goh's men by leaving the announcement until the last moment. He has now returned to the private architecture firm he set up with his late wife, Ling Siew May, and which is now run by one of his two sons. His doctors have given him a clean bill of health after a debilitating bout with lymphatic cancer -- though he still wears a cap to cover the baldness caused by chemotherapy treatment. Last week, he gave his first in-depth interview about his presidency to senior correspondent Roger Mitton in a nearly two-hour long talk. Extended Excerpts:
It's now six months since you stepped down. How do you feel about your time as president?
I am satisfied with what I did. I hope it was all for the best. I was elected to do a job. And I had to do that job whether the government -- or anyone else -- liked it or not.
It seems that often they did not like it, but let's go back: How did you first get into politics?
In the early 1970s, Lee Kuan Yew asked me for an interview to get me involved to stand for election. I stood in 1972 and I won and became a PAP backbencher. A year later, Lee asked me to take up ministerial office but I turned it down because my younger brother was dying of cancer. I had to assist him and to settle his affairs after he died at the age of 25. Then Lee Kuan Yew approached me again and this time I agreed to take up office. Lee is very persuasive.
He must have been impressed to make you a minister so quickly -- you were a young architect with no experience of politics.
Yes, I was not trained to become a minister or a politician, but you learn on the job. Whenever I went to a new ministry, I always asked myself basic questions: What is this job all about? What am I supposed to do? That's what I did in 1980, for instance, when I became minister of labor, in addition to being minister for communications. I went through all the legislation and I decided that the trade unions should not just be designed to organize and finance strikes, but instead should help improve the workers' social and economic wellbeing.
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 santioning 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.
It marked a trend -- that you have never been afraid of doing something your ministerial colleagues might disagree with?
No. If they don't like it, I can always come back here to my architecture firm.
Around this time you were discussing the succession to PM Lee?
Lee Kuan Yew had been discussing this since about 1983. At that time, the second echelon was Tony Tan, S. Dhanabalan, Goh Chok Tong and myself.
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.
Lee 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.
Personally, you felt Goh was the right man?
Well, among the four of us, he was the youngest. Tony Tan said no. I said no. And he sort of accepted being pushed into the position, on condition that we stay on to assist him.
Soon after taking over, Goh called a snap election in 1991 -- but the PAP's vote slipped and there was talk he would quit.
Well, we did discuss about that. But he didn't indicate that he wanted to step down.
At that time, you were no. 2 in the executive after PM Goh.
Yes. Well, no. 2, no. 3, doesn't matter.
So why run for president?
The elected presidency was Lee Kuan Yew's initiative. He came out with the idea way back in '82, '83. After parliament passed the measure in 1991, I considered it seriously. At that time, after 20 years in politics, I was thinking of a way to ease myself out, to exit the political arena. I wrote to the prime minister twice to say that I'm prepared to go.
You saw the presidency as a way to do that?
Yes, the unionists egged me on. They came to see me a couple of times and they suggested that I take it on. I discussed it with the prime minister, being old friends, and he gave me his support.