Remembering Ong Teng Cheong: An Exemplar of Presidential Leadership

On 8 February 2013, some Singaporeans quietly marked the eleventh anniversary of the passing of the late Ong Teng Cheong, the first elected President of Singapore. I decided to write about the role of the elected president and relate it to the context of today’s Singapore, in the aftermath of the White Paper (yes, I’m not quite done with it yet). I thank Alfian Sa’at for his Facebook post which is the source of inspiration for this post. I may not agree with him on many issues, but on this one, we sing the same song.

In this post, I will first posit that the elected president can and should exercise his moral authority judiciously whenever the existing socio-political climate in Singapore warrants a stabilising intervention. Second, I will argue that the characteristics of closeness and sympathy made the late President Ong an exemplar of presidential leadership and this is what the current President, and indeed successive presidents, ought to exude.  Before the main exposition, a tribute to Mr. Ong is necessary.

Honoring the late President Ong

The late President Ong occupies a special place in their hearts of many Singaporeans for several reasons. He was a gentleman, kind, caring, and always looking out for those who were less-fortunate. He proved this in action as well: the annual President’s Star Charity is a legacy of Ong Teng Cheong, who first initiated it in the early years of his tenure.

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He was also known for being an active minister who dared to challenge the existing order by testing its boundaries and exercising his prerogatives both as a minister and a president. While in Cabinet, he sanctioned a strike in 1986 without informing his colleagues and erstwhile mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, earning him the ire of the then-Minister for Trade and Industry Dr. Tony Tan. As President, he granted a pardon for a death-row inmate, ordered for a report on Singapore’s reserves, and staunchly advocated the construction of the MRT.

Above all, Mr. Ong was remembered for being close to the people and a fatherly figure, always smiling. It is precisely because he had Singapore and Singaporeans at heart that he earned the respect and won the hearts of all who came to know him. In his own words:

“Some people still ask whether my long previous association with the PAP will stop me from acting independently. The answer is no. My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so.”

Not many can utter these words and put them into concrete action. Mr. Ong was one of the rare few who succeeded in matching words with actions.

The President, Moral Authority, and the White Paper

It is abundantly clear that the President of Singapore is an office that is non-partisan and above politics. I argue that precisely because the office of President is an elected one, it is one that is consequently vested with moral authority, and therefore, the angry and frustrating aftermath of the White Paper was a golden opportunity for President Tony Tan to exercise his moral authority and calm the public mood.

Some would first question if President Tony Tan can claim to have moral authority, given that he was voted into office with 35.20% of the ballot. Frankly, it is quite a stretch to say that he had it in the first few months of his tenure. Has President Tony Tan since cultivated his moral authority? That’s an open question.

Arguably, the White Paper (as I have mentioned in my earlier post) is an issue that transcends political stripes because of its massive importance and implications on the future. So, the question here is this: if the President had intervened to assuage public rage, would that have been deemed as wading onto the political scene? That is yet another open question.

Given how politicised (and divisive) the White Paper was, I would summarily conclude that the President would have entered a grey area if he had said something on the White Paper, because he would inevitably be forced to take a side by virtue of the words he chose.

In my view, the uproar over the passage of the White Paper by 77 ayes, 13 nays, and 1 abstention was justification enough for intervention. The purpose of intervention is not stake a political claim or to make a political statement. I see intervention as necessary to prevent the already-heated political climate from combusting into flames. Any statement made by the President would have to address all three actors in the political landscape: the Government, the Opposition, and the people. I believe the weight of the President’s words would have had a calming effect on public sentiment.

The President is supposed to be a unifying figure for all Singaporeans, regardless of political stripes. The visceral results of the White Paper have left Singapore sharply divided but the silver lining lay (and still lies) in the opportunity to unify and heal the rifts that have emerged in Singapore. Indeed, there has never been a more opportune time for unity in this country in recent years.

A President for the People

While heads of states are not deities or higher beings, the way citizens look to their heads of state as a beacon of hope, wisdom, and good counsel in times of trouble parallels how the devout would turn to their faith for strength and sustenance. No one can deny the significance and influence that heads of states, such as Queen Elizabeth II of England and King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, possess in their person and office. The same goes for President of Singapore. I reiterate: it is an office above political divisions and that is why it is an office of unity. Presidential leadership is therefore comprises the elements of unity and moral authority in the person of the president.

In this section, I bring in Dr. Tan Cheng Bock as a comparison to Mr. Ong Teng Cheong. Those familiar with the Presidential Elections of 2011 would know that the runner up, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock, lost by 0.34% (some 7,000 votes) to Dr. Tony Tan in a nail-biting vote count.

What, then, explains the election results? Why was the race so close?

Without going into a thesis-length explanation, I would attribute Dr. Tan Cheng Bock’s appeal to his to personal magnetism, his charisma, and his willingness to stand up for the people according to his conscience. This independent streak was made known when he voted against party lines in the 1980s. Additionally, Dr. Tan Cheng Bock had developed a very strong following in the south-western parts of Singapore because that is where his old fort of Ayer Rajah is located. His old constituents remember him fondly and trusted him, having constantly returned him as the MP for the constituency with vote shares between 70% and 88%.

Here, we find that Dr. Tan Cheng Bock’s track record and personal traits do not differ much from the late Ong Teng Cheong. They both stood up to the party that they were in. They spoke their minds with the interests of the people at heart. Thus, the similarity between Dr. Tan Cheng Bock and Mr. Ong Teng Cheong lies in their courage and willingness to act on their own consciences in the interests of the people, and it is precisely these traits that endear them in the hearts of the people. The electorate wants a President who will safeguard and guarantee the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans, and a President whom they trust wholeheartedly and can rely upon for moral and, indeed, presidential leadership.

Parting Thoughts

I should state in closing that I supported Dr. Tony Tan in the presidential elections only because he proved to be able to represent Singapore at the international level, given his experience as a minister who has travelled abroad. I should also state that I have nothing against Dr. Tan Cheng Bock and I am confident he can discharge the guardian role of the office with distinction, but it is Dr. Tony Tan’s proven international credentials that made him the candidate of choice for me. As for the others, let’s not even mention them.

My personal views aside, what matters here is this: the socio-political climate in Singapore can only become more tense as her people, aided by social media, become more vocal and assertive by challenging the existing social order and desiring more alternative voices in Parliament (if the results of Punggol East are anything to go by). As a result, there is likely to be more friction in society which in turn gives rise to opportunities for the President to exercise his moral authority. After all, a silent president will surely leave behind a muted legacy. It can be said that the late Mr. Ong set very high standards for presidential leadership for his successors. While it is unfair to expect President Tan and other future presidents to be like the late Mr. Ong, I sincerely hope that President Tan and his successors will, in their own ways, leave behind a fruitful and meaningful legacy for Singapore.

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3 thoughts on “Remembering Ong Teng Cheong: An Exemplar of Presidential Leadership

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 13 Feb 2013 | The Singapore Daily

  2. It amazes me that you rooted for Dr Tony Tan purely on his international standing instead of Dr Tan Cheng Bock who you feel will safeguard and guarantee the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans. Isn’t that what the President is for? I am truly dumbfounded!

    • My mistake for not being adequately clear: to me, both Dr. Tans were equally capable of handling and safeguarding the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans. Only international standing differentiates the two.

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