Presidential hopeful Ng Kok Song on the time he said no to Lee Kuan Yew

During his 27 years with sovereign wealth fund GIC, presidential hopeful Ng Kok Song worked closely with the three prime ministers.

And during those years, there were a number of times when he had to "convince" the incumbent prime minister — who chairs the GIC board — and other senior ministers about his point of view about decisions regarding the management of the country's reserves.

In an hour-long interview with AsiaOne at East Coast Park on Monday (July 24), Ng vividly recalled one particular episode when he had to say no to the late Lee Kuan Yew, a firebrand well known for his steadfast convictions. 

This encounter, Ng recalled, took place right in the middle of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997.

Lee, who was Senior Minister, and then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had asked him for advice regarding requests by regional countries for financial assistance.

"I was in the office, and Mr Lee sent me an email," the 75-year-old said.

"I exchanged emails with him throughout the day, and we disagreed on what would be the right approach to take. He was getting quite frustrated with me." 

Lee then called him to go to his office over at the Istana to sort things out. While the meeting took longer than expected, Lee ended up modifying his approach after taking in Ng's suggestions, the latter said. 

"As I drove home that night, I felt so happy. I felt so proud to be able to work with and for a person like Mr Lee. My views mattered to him, so much so that he was prepared to listen to me.

"And that is the reason why I spent 45 years in public service, because of the inspiration from Mr Lee." 

'I was never a member of the PAP'

Although he's rubbed shoulders with several officeholders, Ng maintained that he is not part of the establishment. And people often conflate the former with the government, he said.

"You see, people make the mistake of thinking that the establishment is the ruling party... because since we became independent in 1965, we have had only one ruling party.

"I've served 45 years in the public service, and I'm very proud of it, but I was never a member of the PAP (People's Action Party). I was never a member of any political party. So I'm politically neutral. 

"I think we must help people in Singapore to make a distinction between the establishment and the ruling party." 

Eligible to run?

Political leanings aside, Ng also addressed questions regarding his own eligibility to run for president. 

Ng intends to submit himself for consideration under the requirements of the public sector deliberative track, based on his tenure at GIC. 

While he was never the CEO of GIC, Ng feels that he qualifies as the work he did was "equivalent to that of the CEO". 

He also mentioned that he led GIC through several difficult periods over the years — including the October 1987 market crash, the September 11 attacks [in 2001], and the 2008 financial crisis. 

"Working 45 years in [GIC] investing Singapore's reserves was the dream job for me. It is the best job that I can have. It benefits the present generation and future generations.

"That's why I'm standing for president — because I helped build up our reserves... I don't want our reserves to be squandered. It's something very personal to me," he said with conviction in his voice.

In an interview with The Straits Times, Ng also rubbished rumours that he was put up by the Government to split the votes

“No one put me up to this. I put myself up to this because I’m the one who’s going to be most involved, and who has the most to sacrifice," he said. 

Thoughts on his opponents

As the third person to announce his intention to join the presidential race, Ng also gave AsiaOne his take on his potential competitors. 

"It's too early to say who will qualify... [but] Tharman will automatically qualify since he was Finance Minister and Senior Minister."

Having worked together with the former Senior Minister at GIC, Ng said he has "tremendous respect" for him.

Referring to fellow independent presidential hopeful George Goh, Ng said it was "very good" that he chose to come forward.

"The more good people we have coming forward, the better it is for the future of Singapore," he said. 

Singapore's 'social treasure' 

And should Ng become the country's next head of state, the country's reserves aren't the only thing he hopes to safeguard. 

He told AsiaOne that he's also concerned about what he dubs Singapore's "social treasure": racial and religious harmony. 

Ng, a Catholic, believes that a "common ground" exists between the different races and religions. 

To illustrate his point, he gently raised his palm and explained that if his five fingers represent different religions, his palm is the "common ground" that unites everyone together. 

"As president, I want to do more to enhance this social treasure, which is so important. Because we have people of different races and religions in Singapore, there's a certain richness in our diversity. But the differences should not become divisions in our society.

"I feel that the president has got this role to play, to share with people about the importance of interracial and inter-religious friendship." 

Another issue that Ng feels strongly about is mental health, which he said we should regard as a "challenge" rather than a "problem".

"We can convert this challenge into an opportunity," he said.

He believes that mental issues are caused by one's perception of life.

"So we have to find ways to help people realise that there is a place of peace and harmony within themselves because quite often, we are trying to conform to society's [expectations]." 

Meditation to overcome his struggles

Using his own mental health journey as an example, Ng shared that meditation has helped him during tough times. 

"Meditation helps me go to a place of peace and harmony within myself. And it helps me to come to clarity of thought."

He picked up meditation at the age of 40, and has been meditating twice a day for 25 minutes each time. 

Besides finding peace and harmony within himself, meditation has also helped Ng learn the art of detachment, a skill he credits for allowing him to lead his team at GIC with "poise and clarity". 

"[Detachment] means, whenever we do work, we do it to the best of our ability. [For example] when I have to make investment decisions, I make the best decision I can, but sometimes the outcome is beyond [my] control.

"[Meditation] has helped me become a better leader and a better investment professional," he mused.

His other form of 'therapy' is his two beloved pets — a Japanese Spitz named Cotton, and a British Shorthair, Max. 

A smile crept onto Ng's face as he shared that he and his fiancee, Sybil Lau, have an ongoing 'competition' for Max's attention. 

"Sybil wins most of the time, because she pampers him. But l like to stroke him and talk to him.

"I find that keeping pets is very therapeutic because they give us attention and you feel loved by them." 

Public scrutiny of his relationship

While Ng feels that he has the chops to manage Singapore's reserves should he become head of state, there has been much chatter about his fiancee, who is 30 years his junior. 

Lau made her first public appearance when she accompanied Ng to the Elections Department on July 19. A former financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, Lau has been managing her family's wealth since 2009. 

When asked about whether his relationship with her would affect his chances in the presidential race, Ng disagreed and added that he is prepared to face public scrutiny since deciding to throw his name into the ring. 

"I think having a young person like Sybil will help me to understand young people better, their hopes, aspirations and challenges in life. [In fact] I hope it will enhance my chances, provided people are prepared to listen to our story and not make judgements."

Ng's first wife, Patricia Chee, died in 2005 from stomach cancer. They have three children together, who are aged 33 to 50. 

He met Lau in 2019 through a mutual friend, and later "fell in love with her". The pair got engaged in 2020 and are expected to tie the knot next year. 

Giving us a snippet of how the couple spend time together, Ng said they spend a lot of time discussing their investments, and doing Chinese calligraphy. 

"We don't go out a lot, we prefer to stay at home just to read, discuss things and spend time with Max and Cotton."

"So we feel we have to tell our story, and we think that the people of Singapore will understand." 

READ ALSO: 5 things to know about presidential hopeful Ng Kok Song

claudiatan@asiaone.com

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