On the campaign trail: People's Action Party: Ng Chee Meng

General plunges into electoral battlefield

Mr Ng Chee Meng, who is running in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, visiting Madam Heng Guat Mei, 85, and her son, Mr Hoo Cheow Aik (in blue), 61, at their home in Punggol on Thursday.
Mr Ng Chee Meng, who is running in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, visiting Madam Heng Guat Mei, 85, and her son, Mr Hoo Cheow Aik (in blue), 61, at their home in Punggol on Thursday.ST PHOTO: CAROLINE CHIA

As campaigning kicks into high gear, The Straits Times spotlights some candidates to find out how they interact with residents and what drives them. Today, we talk to former Chief of Defence Force Ng Chee Meng from the PAP and Prof Paul Tambyah of the SDP

It was tough deciding whether to make the switch from three-star general to newbie politician, but once former Chief of Defence Force Ng Chee Meng made up his mind, he was ready to go.

By the time he retired from the Singapore Armed Forces on Aug 18, he had already got 12 long- and short-sleeved shirts tailored specially for his new role.

It was close to midnight when his farewell dinner ended that day and, instead of going home, he headed for Punggol North to meet grassroots leaders and was introduced to the People's Action Party (PAP) activists and volunteers he would be working with from the very next day.

SAF 'A REFLECTION OF SOCIETY'

The military is a regimented organisation but it is not as if I've lived away from society. In the UK, you join at age 18, you retire at 60 in the same regiment, you are isolated from the community. The way we set up the SAF is quite different. We are a reflection of society. We get all the 18-year-old males coming in, so you know this is a slice of society, this is representative and you learn to talk to different groups of people.

MR NG CHEE MENG, on adjusting to working outside the military

"In my imagination, I thought I'd have a break when I retired. I had less than one minute," he said with a laugh during an interview with The Straits Times.

Watching him on the ground in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, it is hard to imagine that he quit the military life barely three weeks ago.

The former fighter pilot does not have the air of having been military top-brass. On the campaign trail, his bearing is erect but not imposing. He is quick to wave and smile at passers-by.

"How are you? I'm the new face, Ng Chee Meng, who is here to serve you," he says, as he extends his hand to residents during house visits.

The highest-ranking military man to enter Singapore politics, he is a PAP new face touted as a potential front-bencher and part of Singapore's fourth-generation leadership.

The spotlight is on him in this general election because former generals Tan Chuan-Jin and Chan Chun Sing, who were elected in the 2011 General Election, became ministers swiftly.

Mr Ng, 47, is a self-avowed man of principle and committed Christian, and says he is still against having casinos in Singapore.

"Can I see the plus sides of the economic value-add, the job creation? Yes. But on the other extreme are the moral positions, and the societal problems that are associated (with casinos). I'm quite principled," he said.

His stand on casinos emerges from his belief that one should do what is right, not what is expedient, while making "pragmatic adjustments" to ensure Singapore continues to progress.

Ultimately, Singaporeans "must see, must feel the success" so they can be united to form the core of the country, said Mr Ng, who also shared this vision on Thursday night in his maiden speech at a PAP rally in Buangkok. He is in the six-member Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC team.

The speech to the rally crowd was unlike those he made in his 29 years in the Singapore Armed Forces - talking policy rather than addressing troops.

On stage in his new role, with the spotlight trained on him, he might have seemed tentative.

But it was a different picture during his interview. He was forthright and direct: "When it came to this call for me to serve in this capacity, it was unthinkable for me personally to step away."

 

In fact, the invitation to enter politics seems to have come as a surprise. He said he had envisaged a post-military life in the administrative service or private sector, or setting up a social enterprise.

Entering politics was a tough decision, he admitted. Tears welled up in his eyes as he recalled how he and his wife, Michelle, with whom he has two daughters, agonised over it.

They were aware it would be "all-consuming" and that the "loss of privacy is complete".

But in the end, both were "convinced that this is a calling, and we are not looking back".

But don't ask him about talk that he might be an office-holder or more after the general election. He laughed and said: "One step at a time."

And don't ask if he has a dream portfolio, either. He has "no clear-cut preferences", and his major ambition was to be a fighter pilot.

For now, he is focused on getting elected.

THE 'PLAYFUL' BROTHER

Mr Ng is known as one of the high-flying Ng brothers. Two of his four brothers, like him, served in the SAF.

Older brother Chee Khern, 50, was air force chief and is now Permanent Secretary (Defence Development), while younger brother Chee Peng, 45, stepped down as navy chief last year and is now chief executive of the CPF Board. Both of them are President's Scholars.

Growing up, Mr Ng was the "most playful" of the lot, he confessed.

His businessman father and housewife mother, who have both died, were "quite laissez faire" about education, said Mr Ng.

"So there wasn't like a tiger mum. You study, you take responsibility, and we were reasonably balanced between play and study."

If he is elected on Sept 11, he wants to look into new policies or refine existing ones to help the sandwiched class, specifically younger families.

Noting that the Government is already addressing the needs of the Pioneer Generation and lower- income groups by reducing the costs of living, he said he wants to ensure Singaporeans "succeed together, take care of each other, leave no man behind".

And what does succeeding in life mean? Mr Ng, who graduated from the prestigious US Air Force Academy and holds a Master of Arts from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said: "There are different levels of success - making sure that people without qualifications, but the skills, can actually get ahead."

Citing how the SAF has upgraded and enabled ITE graduates to take senior positions in the military, he said such a system could be translated to the national level.

At Singapore's current stage of development, people should also change how they view meritocracy, which he feels has become more closely linked to "one's ability to make a good living than actually leading a complete life".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2015, with the headline 'General plunges into electoral battlefield'. Print Edition | Subscribe