From the archives: 'I've always done what’s necessary': Tony Tan

Dr Tony Tan takes time to think about things but does not shy away from responsibilities

This article was first published in The Straits Times print edition on Aug 13, 2011.

To set the record straight, it is Brylcreem. Dr Tony Tan, 71, has used that hair product for decades for that trademark swept-back look.

He is aware that it attracts attention and is a source of amusement for many.

"He has always joked about the thick black spectacle frames that he can no longer buy, or the fact that very few shops now sell Brylcreem," says his niece, Ms Chew Gek Khim.

Ms Chew is the granddaughter of OCBC banking icon Tan Sri Tan Chin Tuan, and is deputy chairman and chief executive of Tecity, a group of private investment companies founded by him.

She adds that her serious Uncle Tony is not averse to sharing amusing incidents, like how on an overseas trip as minister, his entire delegation did not get their luggage and "in all their pomp, had to go shopping together to buy underwear".

His understated sense of humour may explain his secret hobby – watching stand-up comic Jay Leno's The Tonight Show.

This lighter side of Dr Tan is rarely seen by the public who know him to be serious, quiet and intensely private, a man more comfortable discussing issues than his private life. He jealously guards his family's privacy, firmly declining to talk about them in detail. 

However, Ms Chew says he is very much a family man, who even as a young politician tried to spend as much time with his family as he could. "He is most relaxed when he is with his children and grandchildren," she says.

He speaks proudly of his family as his "greatest achievement" but, showing just the slightest hint of emotion, also shares that his greatest regret was that his late father, who died in 1962, did not see Singapore "take off", or get to see his son's children and grandchildren.

Dr Tan speaks deliberately and is rarely caught off guard. This careful, measured approach has been both a boon and a bane to him.

Because he keeps his feelings close to his chest while smiling, he has been given nicknames like "Phoney Tony" and "smiling tiger" on the Internet.

But to those who know him well, he is always ready to extend a listening ear and to help them solve their problems. 

Former Bukit Timah MP Wang Kai Yuen says that Dr Tan helped him when he returned from overseas in 1982 penniless and with only a degree to show.

"He knew housing was a problem and my family had no place to live, so he helped me. He has always been a caring person," he says.

Some residents in Sembawang GRC, where he was an MP, and former colleagues and friends say he can come across as aloof and distant to those who do not know him well.

Mr Daniel Teo, a board member of the Singapore Dance Theatre of which Dr Tan is the patron, says jokingly that he and his wife would rack their brains to think of topics related to the economy to engage the intellectual Dr Tan whenever they met. "He is a warm person, but is quite reserved. So you have to prod him to say a bit more."

Professor Cham Tao Soon, a close friend and acting chairman of Singapore Press Holdings, says: "For me, it has never been a problem with him. But people are not comfortable with him and he's not comfortable with people."

The two have known each other since university days. 

Their friendship blossomed later when they spent many years working to grow the Nanyang Technological University – Prof Cham as its founder, and Dr Tan as the minister tasked to help the university become first-rate.

Ms Chew reckons his quietness and reserve come from the way he was brought up as the eldest son of the family by a strict Peranakan mother.

"As with people from his generation he was taught to be respectful to elders, to be dutiful and proper," she says. "He went into academia and chose to do a PhD in Applied Mathematics and then ended up in business and politics. If people realise that he is, at heart, an academic and a mathematician, they would be more understanding of his quiet and private nature."

Dr Teh Kok Peng, Government of Singapore Investment Corporation’s (GIC) chairman of the China Business Group, says Dr Tan's demeanour is more befitting of a president than a minister or grassroots politician.

"He is never shrill. Even if he disagrees, he won’t engage you in a very robust manner. He is similar to a Confucian gentleman, he follows protocol and is almost ritualistic," he adds.

Grassroots leaders say that Dr Tan, in 26 years as a politician, never once engaged in sliming the opposition.

When Insight asked him what he thought of Dr Tan Cheng Bock running against him, Dr Tony Tan declined to comment.

When asked why people find him distant, Dr Tan says: "I do take time to think about things. I think I am quite steady and I think this gives a sense of assurance to people that whatever I do has been thought through."

But he adds: "In Sembawang, I had no difficulty relating to all types of people – hawkers and kampung people, all classes of society. I think they accept me and I’m very comfortable with them. They accept me for what I am."

Sembawang Citizens' Consultative Committee chairman Law Shun Yong, 67, who has served three Members of Parliament since 1967, agrees with that assessment. He says Dr Tan – whom he considers an old friend – was popular among residents.

Friends and colleagues tell Insight that the deliberate manner in which Dr Tan thinks, talks and works has driven him to the top in both the private and public sectors.

As a banker at OCBC, he was conservative and steady, just like the bank was known to be at the time, says one former senior OCBC banker.

His decisiveness caught the attention of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who poached him from the private sector to serve in Cabinet, and picked Dr Tan as his first choice to succeed him as prime minister.

Dr Teh says that at GIC, Dr Tan’s academic background meant that he was able to cut through to the heart of any matter, but still "see the forest and not get lost in the trees".

The presidential candidate also chooses his words with scientific precision.

He points out to Insight that he recently warned about a "perfect storm of problems" for the world economy, but did not say there would be a "crisis". "You have to be quite precise. A problem is not a crisis. I’m not saying that we will get into a crisis. I did say that problems can turn into a crisis very quickly if the policymakers do not make the right decisions," he says.

Few question his ability. At one point he held three portfolios – Education, Finance and Health. He was integral to the growth of Nanyang Technological University and he also took a personal interest in research and development, heading the National Research Foundation.

But there was always the sense that he never took to public life well, being the private man he is. 

In 1991, after Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister, Dr Tan and Mr S. Dhanabalan asked to step down from Cabinet. He wanted to return to OCBC to fulfil his father's wish of him becoming chairman of OCBC like his uncle, Tan Sri Tan Chin Tuan, much to the ire of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

But after both of Mr Goh's No. 2s took ill, the men were asked to return. In 1995, Dr Tan returned to the Cabinet as deputy prime minister and served till 2005.

Joo Chiat Member of Parliament Charles Chong says: "I knew that even when he was a politician, he was a reluctant politician. But knowing his character, even if he did not want it, he would do his best."

His close ties to the party and affinity for privacy have also raised questions about whether Dr Tan is running voluntarily or because he was asked by the Government to do so.

He ponders the question, again choosing each word carefully.

"I've always done what is necessary," he says cryptically. "When the country needs it and I see that I have a duty and a job to do, and I think that I’m the best person for the job, I’ve always done my duty. Not only now but even previously. And I think it has caused me a great deal of satisfaction.

"I decided that as much as I would prefer to continue with GIC and SPH, I really have no choice. When the national interest is there, one has to put aside one’s personal comfort and do what is necessary. It is a risk for me, but I think that I have to try and at least give people a choice."

He appears unperturbed when asked about the shadow cast on his campaign even before it began: the controversy over his son’s national service stint. 

Dr Patrick Tan deferred his NS for 12 years for a PhD before serving it out in the Defence Medical and Environmental Research Institute researching a soil disease.

Netizens have levelled charges of favouritism against him as Dr Tan was defence minister when his son returned from his studies in the United States.

Both father and son have denied those allegations.

Asked if he is worried it will cost him votes in the election, Dr Tan – who has four children and five grandchildren – says: "I've never intervened with my sons' postings. They all served out their NS. I’m confident that Singaporeans will not waste their votes on these baseless allegations but on my record."

Having wielded influence in the party for many years, and having run the GIC as deputy chairman for six years, his biggest hurdle could well be questions over his independence and ability to be above politics in the role of President.

But Dr Tan, who has gone against the Government on integrated resorts and scholarship bonds, and overturned the controversial graduate mothers priority scheme when he was education minister, is adamant he is his own man.

"I don't think I've ever had any difficulty or any hesitation to be able to exercise my own mind and I expect to do so if I'm elected President."

Adding that he has quit the PAP, he says: "The President has to be fair to all parties, he cannot take the side of any party. He has to hold the ring together and allow the parties to contest."

Critics question if there is a conflict of interest for Dr Tan to go from GIC, which manages a part of the reserves, to the President's office, a custodian of the reserves. 

But he denies any conflict of interest and instead argues that there are few who understand the reserves like he does.

"Because of my work in GIC, I probably know as much about the reserves as anyone else in Government. So if I have to protect the reserves, make sure it is well managed, that we don't fritter it away, and don't draw on it unless absolutely necessary, I think I would have a better bank of background experience and knowledge because of my work in GIC on this subject.

"I think this will help me actually to make possibly better decisions than other people without the same (background) because these are very difficult issues."

Dr Teh says that his former boss "is a conservative, he doesn't believe in big changes". Yet, he is prepared to change when needed.

During the depths of the global financial crisis in 2009, Dr Tan pondered the drastic move of freezing the activities of GIC's private equity arm because it was performing so badly. 

It shocked many on the GIC team, as Dr Tan was a former chairman of that unit known as GIC Special Investments.

Dr Teh, who was president of that unit at the time, says: "He was thinking of freezing it... but then he realised if you freeze it, you lose people, and the relationships you have established would be hard to recover."

Dr Tan deliberated, and spoke to people within the company and also those outside, including experts from consulting firm McKinsey and Company. In the end, he decided to wait, and Special Investments recovered strongly.

"When occasions become drastic, he is prepared to contemplate drastic things. If things had continued to go down in that asset class, he would have done what, to me, would have been the unthinkable. Fortunately it didn't happen that way," Dr Teh says.

He adds that the episode also showed that Dr Tan was able to put the needs of GIC and its shareholder – the Government – above the team that he had worked closely with. 

He says: "He is a person who has respect for the office, so he will take that job description (of President) quite seriously."

Ms Chew lets on that Dr Tan has faced challenges through every course of his work. When he went from academia as a university lecturer to OCBC, he had to deal with allegations of favouritism, even though he got there on his own merit, she says.

"When he left OCBC to join the PAP, it was again a new job that he had to learn. By showing that he could do the job... he earned the grudging respect of his many naysayers in business and politics."

In his presidential campaign, he will again face many critics. But if he can prove them wrong, then his famous combed-back hair and Brylcreem might soon be a permanent fixture at the Istana.

chanckr@sph.com.sg