The mess that is our presidency
Yawning Bread, May 2005
Wee Kim Wee (President of Singapore, 1985 – 1993) died recently and was given a state funeral. Many citizens had a collective cry. He was a genuinely well-liked man; his personal humility impressed thousands. He lived up to the role of a non-political head of state, as symbol and unifier, yet with a common touch. In his passing, he filled that role one last time: his state funeral gave people reason to feel Singaporean regardless of race, creed and political affiliation.
Once it was over, a tiny little question was asked and a huge can of worms opened.
Why, a reader wrote to the Straits Times to ask, was Ong Teng Cheong (President of Singapore 1993 – 1999) not likewise given a state funeral when he died in February 2002?
The government's reply was an empty one (see the excerpt from the Straits Times on the right). Basically it said that the policy on state funerals was "still evolving" and is decided on a case-by-case basis by the Prime Minister and the cabinet. You'd notice that it completely failed to address the key question: WHY didn't Ong get a state funeral?
Two former presidents have passed away before. Yusof Ishak and Benjamin Sheares, the first and second presidents of Singapore respectively, both died in office and were given state funerals.
Thus, of the 4 former presidents who have passed away, only one, Ong Teng Cheong, didn't get a state funeral.
Most Singaporeans think they know the reason: Ong had taken his office too seriously and challenged Goh Chok Tong's government on a number of issues, particularly that relating to the value of the reserves. Worse yet, upon leaving office, he made his grievances public. It was nearly scandalous, coming from someone who had once been a Deputy Prime Minister and a People's Action Party (PAP) stalwart.
To understand what happened, we need to go back to the early 1990s.
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In the general election of August 1991, about a year after Goh Chok Tong took over from Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister, the PAP lost an unprecedented 4 seats out of 81, compared to the outgoing Parliament that had only 1 opposition member. Their share of the vote (in the constituencies that were contested, and many were not) slipped to 61%.
Soon after, (although Ong himself said the idea had been bruited by Lee Kuan Yew as far back as 1982) the government began to speak of the need for a president with some "executive" powers. What they meant was a president with some blocking or veto powers. The fear, as expressed, was that of an "irresponsible" opposition party winning votes through profligate populism, promising tax cuts and subsidies at the same time. Singapore would be ruined, the government said.
So a constitutional amendment was passed (it's easy when you have 77 seats out of 81 in parliament) in order to establish a new rule. Under this new requirement, when a government leaves office, the state assets are sequestered. The incoming government can spend what revenue it acquires through its taxation or other policies, but it cannot spend the "nest-egg" built up by the previous government without the consent of the president.
The idea is that no new government (meaning the opposition) can raid the bank so carefully built up by the previous thrifty government (the PAP) in order to "buy" votes to keep themselves in power.
Goh foresaw that in the event of a showdown between a government that wanted to spend the reserves and a president that wanted to be more prudent, it would be necessary for the president to have a stronger mandate from the people. Thus, at the same time as the veto powers were enshrined in the constitution, provision was also made for direct elections (i.e. by citizens) to fill the office of President. Previously, when the presidency was just a ceremonial position, it was Parliament who voted the candidate into office.
Furthermore, to ensure that only candidates who were financially trustworthy could every make it to the newly empowered presidency, the constitution was changed to stipulate that only those who met these criteria were eligible to stand for election: they had to be at least 45 years old, and have had at least three years' experience as ministers, heads of statutory boards or key government agencies, or have headed a company whose minimum paid-up capital was $100 million, or had equivalent experience.
These conditions make it virtually impossible for the opposition parties to field any candidate for the foreseeable future, which is hardly a surprise since the whole idea of veto powers is to put a safe person in place in order to deny any non-PAP government freedom of manoeuvre with the finances.
However, while all this was very neat in theory, in practice, it's been unraveling ever since.
Ong Teng Cheong was elected to the presidency in 1993. One of his first moves was to ask the civil service for a list of assets that the government had started off with. Six years later, one of his complaints at the end of his term of office in 1999, was that he never quite got a full accounting. Another of his complaints was that he was never given enough staff to check the numbers given to him.
Here is the relevant portion of Asiaweek's interview with Ong (issue dated 10 March 2000)
It was this issue that caused the dispute between you and the government?
Yes. But I don't want to go into details and upset everybody. The thing is that the elected president is supposed to protect the reserves, but he was not told what these are until five years later. From the day the Constitution was amended in 1991 to provide for an elected president, he was supposed to fulfil that role. My predecessor, Wee Kim Wee, although he was not elected, was supposed to play that role during the last two years of his term. But he did not actively check. So, when I came in in 1993, I asked for all this information about the reserves. It took them three years to give it to me.
The holdup was for administrative reasons?
Either that or they did not think there was any urgency. You see, if you ask me to protect the reserves, then you've got to tell me what I'm supposed to protect. So I had to ask.
Why did they not want to tell you?
I do not know. Don't ask me, because I don't have the answer. I've been asking them. In fact, in 1996, exactly halfway through my term, I wrote prime minister Goh a letter. At that time, everybody was expecting a general election in December or January. After the election, a new government would be sworn in. When that happens, all the reserves, whether past or current, become past reserves and are locked up on the changeover date. As president, I have to safeguard them and they can only be drawn upon with my permission. So I said to Mr Goh It's already halfway through my term, but until today I still don't know all these figures about the reserves.
So the government had been stonewalling you, the president, for three years?
Yes. What happened actually was, as you know, in accounting, when you talk about reserves, it's either cash reserves or assets reserves. The cash side is straightforward investment, how many million dollars here and there, how much comes from the investment boards and so on. That was straightforward -- but still we had to ask for it. For the assets, like properties and so on, normally you say it's worth $30 million or $100 million or whatever. But they said it would take 56-man years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets. So I discussed this with the accountant-general and the auditor-general and we came to a compromise. The government would not need to give me the dollar-and-cents value, just give me a listing of all the properties that the government owns.
Well, yes, they agreed, but they said there's not the time for it. It took them a few months to produce the list. But even when they gave me the list, it was not complete.
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 probably subdivided 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.
You can see the Asiaweek article at
The government took exception to many of the points Ong made in this interview. You can see their response at
As you can sense from the tone of Ong's words, there was some acrimony. We can deduce two things from these remarks Firstly, Ong obviously felt very strongly about living up to his job, and secondly, the government was either embarrassed they couldn't give an accounting, or too injured in their pride to co-operate ("He had the temerity to ask! Who does he think he is? The President?")
To make things worse, Ong contemplated standing for reelection again in 1999. The government, citing his lymphoma, refused to support his proposed candidacy, and instead arranged to put up S R Nathan as their preferred candidate. Even then, Ong still considered contesting and if he did, observers felt, he would likely have trounced the government's Nathan. Ong had the benefit of wide respect, name-recognition, incumbency and belonging to the majority race. Moreover, he had the fierce loyalty of many Chinese-speaking Chinese, being one of them, unlike Prime Minister Goh. Nathan, on the other hand, was unknown, and of Indian descent.
Although it didn't come out into the public till later, it was a moment of crisis. It risked splitting the PAP down the middle, and making Goh's government look like a loser.
Fortunately for the PAP, Ong changed his mind and retired. Nathan's name was submitted on Nomination Day... and no one else's. So it was a walkover. There was no contest. President Nathan, the elected president -- the one who was supposed to have a strong mandate to stand up to the government of the day if necessary, remember ? -- came to office without being elected.
Nathan's term is expiring in August this year. He has said he does not wish to stand for election again. Regardless, most people don't even think there will be a contest. Whoever the government nominates is expected to be a shoo-in.
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Take a step back and survey the damage done.
In fear of an opposition party winning control of Parliament and forming a new government, the PAP skewed the constitution to tie the hands of any new government. The office of President was invested with new blocking powers, which till now, no one is sure whether they are workable. If accounting for reserves is open to such dispute, deciding whether the new government has spent previously accumulated reserves will be well-nigh impossible. Instead, experience has shown that the president can be stonewalled by whichever government is in power.
And what about the moral authority of the President that comes from getting a direct mandate from the people? Well, that fine hope is holding up as well a raw egg splattered on the floor. If we routinely have Presidents hustled in on walkovers, they have even less of a mandate than before 1991 when at least they were voted into office by Members of Parliament!
The PAP keeps talking about strengthening our institutions through the changes they make. So far in this story, I haven't seen much strengthening, have you?
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Now let's come back to funerals. The government's refusal to offer a state funeral to Ong Teng Cheong appears churlish and spiteful. The non-answer, when asked why, tells you everything you need to know.
But there is one big message that people either haven't noticed, or if they have, won't mention. It is that the PAP is mortal. This steamroller of a political party is quite capable of fratricidal bust-ups and unrelenting grudges. And we can well wonder what surprises may be uncovered once the old authoritarian, Lee Kuan Yew, passes on.
© Yawning Bread
More about Ong Teng Cheong.