Singapore’s leadership crisis: Ong Ye Kung and Chan Chun Sing

This is the second of five in a series on Singapore’s prospective next prime minister. See here for the first, on Heng Swee Keat.

Ong Ye Kung, 51, minister for transport

To his fans, Ong Ye Kung (centre) is precisely the sort of leader Singapore needs in these uncertain times. Somebody who is affable and politically savvy; and who is able to listen to diverse views and then act quickly and decisively, with a conviction steely enough to fend off naysayers.

These qualities apparently helped him push through significant reforms in our education system last year that collectively should help wean Singaporeans off our obsessions with paper grades. These include changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) scoring system; the phasing out of secondary school streaming; and the introduction of aptitude-based admissions at the tertiary level.

Some teachers I know speak highly of him. This is less admiration of the policies per se—the opposition has long suggested some of these very things—than of Ong’s ability to implement.

To his detractors, this confidence and conviction too often tip over into arrogance and hard-headedness. This was best demonstrated by his outrageous decision as minister for education to smear Alfian Sa’at, a leading Singaporean playwright, in parliament. This shameful witch-hunt in 2019 included Ong: selectively quoting Alfian’s poetry out of context; comparing Alfian to Nazis and violent jihadis; and blatantly misrepresenting Alfian’s course to make its design seem more radical than it was.

The performance was all the more incredible given that Ong has publicly admitted that he used to struggle with English and still has difficulty with its vocabulary.

Despite that, Ong was still so confident of his ability to compose a literary critique of an accomplished playwright that he apparently bypassed the usual speechwriter review and fact checks. Not that Singapore lacks examples of scholarly hubris, but this takes some beating.

Fans of the PAP, including many of the professionals and investors who’ve migrated here, make the claim that Singapore’s leadership prizes pragmatism over populism, and is untarnished by the worrying anti-intellectualism and rejection of expert authority spreading around the world, for example with anti-vaxxers.

While generally true of the hard sciences, it is not at all the case for the humanities and social sciences. Here, the PAP has a regrettable record of denigrating experts in the field. 

K Shanmugam’s assault on the research of historian PJ Thum’s is one recent example; Ong Ye Kung’s on playwright Alfian Sa’at is another.

In all this there are shades of a US-style, right-wing attack on liberals and leftists at universities. Put another way, the brand of populism, anti-intellectualism and fear-mongering that the PAP regularly engages in has in its cross-hairs some of Singapore’s finest academics, artists and intellectuals. The party does not simply attack ideas it dislikes but the people behind them. 

All this is crippling public discourse, including on issues pertaining to social cohesion, for instance Singaporeans’ inchoate sense of identity and belonging, which can be fortified with open, honest conversations about our history; but also issues concerning contemporary socio-economic tensions, for instance the rising penetration in society of AI and other technologies associated with the fourth-industrial revolution. (Example: there are precious few, if no, commentaries in Singapore urging the government to delay the rollout of facial recognition and other surveillance technologies.)

All of which is to say that: although Ong Ye Kung styles himself as a supporter of vigorous debate and diverse viewpoints, his willingness to so callously attack Alfian on literature suggests that an Ong-led PAP will prioritise political point-scoring over intellectual openness and progress. (Not a critique I would make, for instance, about Heng Swee Keat.) 

To push this concern to its logical conclusion, one wonders if Ong is a strong-armed autocrat in the making. In 2017 he argued that single-party rule is the best way for a small country like Singapore to succeed. 

Some Singaporeans might agree. Yet faced with an ever more demanding and diverse electorate, any heavy-handedness, real or perceived, could be politically costly for the party, and intellectually damaging for a body politic just finding its voice.

Meanwhile, Ong’s careerism and social-climbing have not endeared him to all, according to sources. Most notable is the two years he spent as director of group strategy at Keppel Corp, from 2013-15. Ong first stood for election in 2011, as part of George Yeo’s losing Aljunied team. Ahead of the election he had been shifted in 2008 from the civil service to NTUC, a recognised holding pen for aspiring politicians.

Following the electoral loss, he continued at NTUC, but then somehow found a way to Keppel Corp. Singaporeans might justifiably wonder how a career civil servant can suddenly land a plum job in a multi-billion dollar private sector conglomerate. “Director of group strategy” was apparently a suitable euphemism for a role with no real responsibilities or team. 

Ong’s seemingly self-interested machinations within the Singapore establishment have irritated many, including colleagues at NTUC and Keppel. Meanwhile his naked ambition in the political arena appears to have worried his 4G peers and other opponents within the party.

One theory has it that in the last cabinet reshuffle Ong was shifted from education to transport as a way of sidelining him, the latter portfolio seen as a poisoned chalice. (Though it may be an opportunity: if he does wonders there, surely he will be on the up.)

Smart, savvy and purposeful? Or scheming and selfish? Perhaps a bit of everything. Ong is certainly the favoured pick—of the available, non-Tharman candidates—of many people I speak to across the political divide.

“If you hear him make a speech at a rally, you will hear the fire in him,” Lee Hsieng Loong once said of Ong. One can only hope that Ong burns sacred cows and not his fellow Singaporeans.


Chan Chun Sing, 51, minister for trade and industry

Events and comments in the months since I published my article on “Our Beng”, one of my most widely-read this year, have served to buttress my original argument. 

Chan (right), many people feel, is analytically smart and down to earth in person though with a smarmy condescension bred partly from survivorship bias (I made it; the system works; all you other punks are lazy idiots). 

Worse, he is prone to the most horrible public gaffes. Ahead of the election he suggested that cotton comes from sheep, reflecting, some believe, the fact that he is simply not that well read, and is lacking in worldliness and perspective. Chan seems destined to be a sort of Dan Quayle character, who will effortlessly fill blooper reels for years.

His star has lost lustre rapidly. Friends of mine who used to be loyal supporters now concede that, unlike Heng and Ong, Chan just does not have what it takes to represent Singapore at the highest stage, except maybe in China. 

There is certainly a sense that Chan is looked down on by some elites across society because, as we say in Singapore, his “England not that powderful”. (Among Singapore’s Chinese elite, of course, the English-speaking versus Chinese-speaking tension is one with a rich history.)

Nevertheless, the fact that Chan is still seemingly in contention for the top job is testament to his powerful backers.

Read my original article on “Our Beng” for more.

Ultimately what makes the elevation of “Our Beng” all the more galling is the fact that in the leadership hierarchy he has moved above somebody who is just so much more brilliant, who is just so shut-up-and-take-my-vote.

For Singaporeans, it is a never-ending, living nightmare to consider the fact that Chan Chun Sing is closer to the throne than the subject of my next piece: Tharman Shanmugaratnam. (Read here.)

Top image: Photo from Ong Ye Kung’s Facebook page

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Article extras

On Ong Ye Kung’s brashness. At the recent election Ong broke election rules by publishing a video of himself selling the PAP line to a hapless primary school student. (“…political parties should refrain from inappropriate use of young children who will not fully understand what they may be promoting or subjecting themselves to.”) After a few hours Ong pulled down the video, issuing an apology.

On Ong Ye Kung’s parents. The great irony of Ong’s autocratic leanings is that his late father, Ong Lian Teng, was a Barisan Sosialis MP with a firm believer in parliamentary democracy. The elder Ong boycotted Singapore’s first parliamentary session in 1966 over the alleged usurping of democracy by Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP.

Ong’s mother, Ng Soo Lung, was equally boisterous. In 1961, as a Secondary 4 student at Chung Hwa Girl’s High, she led a group that boycotted government exams to protest changes in the Chinese secondary education system. She later worked as a Chinese teacher.

On Singapore and single-party rule. Not that Ong did it here, but you will often find Singapore’s power-hungry autocrats making the case for single-party rule based on our small size; and then in the very next breath they will make an argument for single-party rule in China based on its large size. Autocrats have a delightful way of repurposing any analytical framework to serve their hegemonic goals. 

Somebody really should tell Singapore’s autocrats about countries such as Israel, Switzerland and Taiwan. In sharp contradiction to what Ong said in 2017, multi-party democracy has never been a hindrance to political consensus in those countries, for instance with their national security policies.

On appointments of politicians to Singaporean institutions. Keppel Corp is a government-linked company (GLC) whose majority shareholder is Temasek, i.e. the people of Singapore. It has been embroiled in scandals over the past few years and its stock has been performing horribly (less than half what it was when Ong joined). It would be extremely troubling if Ong’s appointment there was not based purely on merit. I would love to see, among other things, the decision-making behind Ong’s appointment, the slate of other candidates interviewed, and the performance review of Ong.

People like Ho Ching are always telling Singaporeans that we need to buck up and compete with the world’s best for jobs in Singapore. OK, dear Ho. I do hope that you and Ong have been doing the same. Is Ho Ching the best investment manager Singapore can attract? Is Ong Ye Kung the best director of group strategy Keppel can attract? I certainly hope so. And, make no mistake, as effective minority shareholders in these companies, it is our right to know.

5 thoughts on “Singapore’s leadership crisis: Ong Ye Kung and Chan Chun Sing

  1. Chan Chun Sing was at least well-regarded at MSF and his analytical clarity was helpful there – third sources though. His gaffes aside and other than the “cotton on sheep” comment, why has his star lost lustre? Difficult to see immediately from your comments from friends too.

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