August 28, 2023
SINGAPORE – Presidential candidates Ng Kok Song and Tharman Shanmugaratnam answered six questions from young Singaporeans in The Straits Times’ Ask The Next President Anything show.
In this quick-fire question-and-answer show, which premiered on The Straits Times’ YouTube channel on Sunday at 8pm, the presidential candidates answered questions on video sent in by young Singaporeans. Ask The Next President can also be watched here on The Straits Times’ app and website, and on ST’s Facebook page.
Mr Ng and Mr Tharman took turns to answer questions such as how they would act as president, and how they would handle corruption cases involving politicians. The two men gave their answers in alternating order.
Former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian, 75, who is also running in the presidential election, declined ST’s invitation to participate.
Each candidate had 90 seconds to answer each question. Here is the interview, filmed on Friday, in full.
Danni Jay Luke Danis, 34: President Halimah Yacob and President S R Nathan had different personalities and leadership styles. If you were elected as the next president of Singapore, what can we Singaporeans expect from you, our ninth president of the nation?
Mr Ng: I want to be known as a compassionate president. I want to be known as the meditating president because meditation has helped me become peaceful, more energetic, more sympathetic to the interests of all Singaporeans, especially the younger generation and low-income Singaporeans. So I feel that as president, I would like the people of Singapore to know I will be their friend, a friend at the Istana. I would be able to protect our financial reserves, I would be able to uphold the integrity of our public service. Most importantly, I would be a unifying figure for all the people of Singapore because I’m a non-partisan president. I would do Singapore proud, especially at home but also internationally.
Mr Tharman: My life is an open book. People know me. They know how I feel for people. I feel very strongly about how we should all feel for each other. I will be a president who actively promotes a culture of respect for every Singaporean. I will be a president who flies the Singapore flag high internationally. We must be taken seriously internationally, and never be regarded as a small country. Of course, I’ll be a president who makes sure that the reserves are governed wisely, in the interest not just of today’s generation, but future generations. I’m a president who, because of my experience, would never be fooled on any matter to do with the reserves or on governance. I can never be fooled on the matter. Finally, I’ll be a president with a heart for every disadvantaged group – respect everyone, never look down on anyone.
Clara Loh, 33: Some people say that the president is just a figurehead – what are your views on that?
Mr Tharman: The whole system is designed so that the president has executive powers on some issues. In other words, the president can decide on some issues, and the president has to follow the advice of the Cabinet on other issues. The president has to represent Singapore in ways that don’t just reflect his or her own views, but reflect the interests of Singapore. On some issues, the president does have his own decision-making powers. On those issues, they are not minor powers: They are major powers to do with the reserves, to do with the appointment of key public officials. The president has to consult the Council of Presidential Advisers, but the president has a say, which will be taken very seriously. Of course, it helps if the president knows his stuff and has the experience and expertise to be able to make independent judgments. It isn’t simply reading a brief by the Council of Presidential Advisers. It helps greatly if the president has independence of mind, has the knowledge, and the ability to stand his ground. Those are three very important requirements: independence of mind; knowledge and expertise; and being able to stand your ground. It’s critical.
Mr Ng: The elected president of Singapore is more than just a figurehead. Of course, the president has ceremonial roles just like the Queen of England – the King of England now – and the president also has the role of unifying the people of Singapore, such as what the King of England has. But the elected president in Singapore is very special because of two key responsibilities as the president. First, to protect our hard-earned financial reserves. Make sure that the reserves that we have accumulated over a long period of time are not misspent or squandered. I don’t think any other president or head of state in other countries have got this responsibility. The second important and unusual role of the elected president in Singapore is to uphold the integrity of the public service. This is also a very unique responsibility of our president. The elected president is not just a figurehead.
Benjamin Choo, 21: How have your experiences in your youth helped shape you into the leader you are today?
Mr Ng: I grew up as a very poor boy in a family of five brothers and five sisters. I know what it was like to be poor. When I was 18, my father lost his job and I had to work part-time when I was studying in university to support my family. So from a very young age, I learnt responsibility. And leadership is about taking responsibility, it is not just an exercise of power. We have a responsibility, as I had to my family, and when I started working I realised that I had a responsibility for the people that I serve, the people who work with me. So leadership is not just about myself, it is about others. So I feel that those life experiences, in childhood and during my time when I was working, have prepared me to take on the responsibility of being the president of Singapore.
Mr Tharman: I was actually made by my experiences in youth. I was made for life by my experiences in youth. And sports, more than anything else, made me for life. I played sports virtually every day of the year, sometimes two sports a day – a practice and a competitive match – and it really shaped the way I thought, the way I related to other people, and the way I treated the realities of life. When you take knocks, you keep falling down, and you’ve got to bring yourself up. Most importantly, sports taught me how to respect every member of the team. Some people are good at some things, some people are good at some other things. Some are wonderful on the wings, some are wonderful in defence, but you’ve got to respect everyone. And respect the reserves who are waiting on the sidelines, hoping they’ll have a chance to play. And because I was often a captain, I’d always make sure our reserves had a chance to take part in competitive matches. I learnt to respect my opponents through sports, because you never keep winning. You never keep winning. You can train the entire year, you reach the finals, and you lose. And you must know how to lose graciously, and you must know how to win graciously. So sports taught me so much of what has lasted through my life. I’ll never give it away for anything, and I’m still, at heart, a sportsman in my mind.
Lim Jeng Yeu, 22: With the rising mental health issues among the youth, what can the future president do to address those issues?
Mr Tharman: Well, this is in fact a serious issue. It’s a serious issue, by the way, all over the world, and it’s a serious issue in Singapore. I think the first thing we have to do, both for parents and kids, is don’t be so stressed when the kids are young. Don’t stress the kids out. Give them time to play, give them free time. Don’t spend so much time on preparing for examinations. The whole system has to help. The Government is making changes in the education system to destress the system. I think parents and kids have to realise that life is a long game. You may not be No. 1 or even No. 5 in school, but life is a long game – you can keep learning and keep improving. So when we are young, we’ve got to broaden ourselves, have a range of enjoyable experiences, make friends, and don’t let stress build up in our system. I believe that’s very important. Enjoy ourselves when we are young. Life is meant to be carefree when we are young, and we’ve got to be able to unwind our system so that we go back to those days when life was carefree. We’d be much better off in life, if that was the case.
Mr Ng: Mental health issues arise when our youth feel that they have to conform, they have to comply, they have to perform to the expectations of their parents, their teachers and their peers. And so, I think social media has a lot of advantages but it also has the downside of requiring our youth to look good, to appear good in the eyes of their peers. So I feel that one good way for our children to be themselves is to practise meditation, mindfulness, because I have discovered from my own experience that it has helped me be myself, to let go of images that I would like to portray to other people, or even images that I create for myself. So it’s very important for all our children and our youth to have confidence in themselves. So I think meditation is perhaps the best way that I have learnt for addressing mental health issues.
Haja, 37: How would you handle a situation like corruption by our politicians?
Mr Ng: The elected president was specially designed to deal with the problem of possible corruption among our politicians. The spending of our reserves, the squandering of our reserves by a corrupt prime minister – such as what we have seen in other countries – the corruption of our public service by the appointment of friends, or favoured businessmen – that is corruption, that is violating the integrity of the public service. It was precisely to prevent corruption in our political system that the elected president was set up. So if I come across a situation where I suspect corruption in the spending of our reserves, when I suspect corruption in appointing untrustworthy people to key public service positions, I would object. I would exercise my veto.
Mr Tharman: Corruption is like cancer: It starts off very small, might appear to be small indiscretions, but it can only grow if you don’t tackle it early. And the whole Singapore system, starting with what Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues put in place in the old days, is still absolutely critical to our future. We must be a different country, we must be a special country, where zero corruption is the order of the day. And that involves the prime minister, and it involves the president. If the prime minister does not allow a corruption investigation to proceed, the president has to be there to tell the director of the CPIB (Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau): Go ahead, regardless. Politicians, in particular, stand for the entire system. If a politician is corrupt, in small ways or big, it corrupts the whole system. So the president has to be especially sensitive to any indiscretion that involves personal gain by politicians. The system has worked quite well so far. No prime minister has ever denied a request by the director of CPIB for an investigation, but you never know in future. The president is always there.
Aisha, 22: If you become president, how would you celebrate?
Mr Tharman: Well, first, of course, I make no assumptions as to whether I’m going to win this contest. Never let over-optimistic assumptions get to your head. We’ve got one week left in this contest, I take that one week very seriously, and I hope every Singaporean will vote for me. If I do win, if I’m lucky enough to win, I will basically celebrate the way I’ve always done: Just meet up with every volunteer and friend who’s been helpful in some way. Have a good laugh, talk about all the stumbles we made, talk about all the things that we did well, and just talk about ourselves. Friendship and love for each other is what keeps us going through life, through the ups and downs. I’ve been through downs before; I’ve been through major downs. But it’s the friendship of close friends, associates, that kept me going. And when I do well, I return it. We are all together, and that’s the way to celebrate – celebrate with each other, the goodness in each other. Never mind how great you feel at that moment, it’s the goodness in each other.
Mr Ng: If I become the president with the help of the people of Singapore, the first thing I would celebrate is that we have had an election for the elected presidency. We should celebrate that we have been able to honour the office of the president by not having a walkover. And whether it’s Mr Tharman or myself who has the fortune of being elected president, we would have been elected president with a mandate of the people. That is cause for celebration. I would also celebrate by thanking everyone, all the people of Singapore, for making me so happy in the last seven days, and in the days to come, because I can feel that my effort to come forward has been appreciated. And I will celebrate by kneeling down and thinking of my mother – my mother who cried when I was a 12-year-old boy with no money to buy school books. I would like to celebrate by remembering my mother, and say: “Mum, your son has become the president of Singapore.”