We are gathered here to mark the completion of President Tony Tan’s term of office, and to thank the President and Mrs Mary Tan for their services and contributions to Singapore.
Mr President, you came to office in a hard-fought presidential election. It was just a few months after the 2011 General Election and public sentiments were still affected by that intense earlier contest. You were acutely aware that the presidential candidates would come under close public scrutiny, especially a candidate like yourself, who had a long association with the Government.
Yet, you came forward to offer yourself as a candidate. You felt that the country needed a unifying figure, a steady, experienced hand; someone who understood the role of the president, and would do right by the people and by Singapore while staying above the political fray. Fortunately, you were elected, and Singapore has benefited greatly from your calm and dignified presence, wealth of knowledge, and steady judgment.
The president is the head of state. He sits at the apex of our political system and our country. Domestically, he has to be a unifying figure to all citizens. Externally, he represents Singapore to other nations.
He is also the custodian of our reserves and of the integrity of the public service.
Mr President, you have worked tirelessly to fulfil these important responsibilities.
You have brought people closer together. You broadened the President’s Challenge beyond philanthropy, launching the President's Challenge Volunteer Drive and the President's Challenge Social Enterprise Award. You continued the President's Challenge Charity Briyani, and supported community efforts such as the Inter Racial and Inter Religious Harmony Nite to promote a cohesive and inclusive society.
You gave support and recognition to volunteer groups doing good work, and to professions like nurses and teachers, who serve quietly, day in and day out, making a difference to the lives of others. You took a keen interest in the development and progress of our national athletes.
You lent patronage to promising Singapore artists. You also initiated the Istana Heritage Gallery to familiarise Singaporeans with the history of the Istana and the institution of the presidency.
When we celebrated SG50, you hosted many commemorative events and receptions, both in Singapore and when you were abroad, to deepen Singaporeans' sense of unity and attachment to the country, and show our appreciation to the pioneer generation.
Mr President, you have also enhanced our international relations, and widened our circle of friendly countries. You hosted many foreign leaders in Singapore, and made numerous state and official visits - more than 30 in all.
You visited our Asean partners, as well as many other countries, including several which had not previously been visited by a Singapore president. You brought along business delegations on your visits, opened doors for Singapore companies, and strengthened our network of trade and investments.
Your visits were also occasions to promote cultural, scientific and technological collaborations, fields in which you have a special interest. Your efforts have strengthened ties with our friends and highlighted opportunities to do more together.
You have also been a prudent and conscientious custodian. You ensured that our national reserves continue to be well-protected, and used only for good cause; and that only well-qualified, suitable people are appointed to key public offices.
We were able to operate these presidential safeguards effectively and smoothly because your office and the Government have had a close and constructive working relationship, based on mutual trust and respect. I personally have enjoyed working with you.
We met regularly, often over lunch. I would update you on significant developments and plans. We would discuss impending appointments, the financial outlook, and many other matters beyond the president's custodial responsibilities.
These informal interactions helped us to understand each other's thinking, and enabled the formal mechanisms of the elected presidency to function properly.
For example, last year, the Government had to seek your consent to make one commitment: to give a guarantee for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail project.
This was to safeguard Singapore's interests in the bilateral agreement with Malaysia to build the High-Speed Rail, matching a similar guarantee by the Malaysian government. We briefed you and the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA). You studied the issue carefully, giving us your views from the perspective of safeguarding our reserves.
Happily, we were able to take your views fully into account in the final agreement, which we signed with your concurrence.
Separately, the Government discussed with you and the CPA the major infrastructure projects in the pipeline, such as Changi Airport Terminal 5 and the Cross Island MRT Line, and how the Government can fund them over the next two decades. No funding decisions need to be made yet. But these are huge long-term investments. They will take many years to complete, and their benefits will be felt over many decades.
It is therefore necessary to begin thinking about possible funding approaches early. You gave us your reactions, based on your extensive experience in the public and private sectors. Your views will be valuable as we continue to study this issue with your successor.
GRACE AND WARMTH
Mr President, during your term, we also reviewed and strengthened the institution of the presidency. The elected president was created more than 25 years ago. The institution needs to be kept up to date, to stay effective and relevant. Only then can the president continue to fulfil both his ceremonial and custodial roles.
We amended the Constitution last year to tighten the qualifying criteria to be president, to strengthen the CPA, and to ensure that Singapore regularly has presidents from the minority communities.
Constitutionally, this amendment was the prerogative of the Government and Parliament. But the Government sought your views on this important change affecting the President’s custodial powers, and it was proper and valuable that you gave us your views publicly and supported the changes.
Under the new arrangements, the next presidential election will be reserved for Malay candidates. If all goes well, Singapore will have a Malay president, whom all Singaporeans, regardless of race or religion, will look up to with pride, as representing them and the nation. A president who will bring as much honour and distinction to the Office as you and your predecessors have.
Mr President, I must also thank your wife, Mrs Mary Tan, for her contributions. She has supported and encouraged you through the milestones of your life and career, including the presidency. She was always by your side as you carried out your duties, be it engaging foreign dignitaries, or meeting Singaporeans from all walks of life.
She would put everyone at ease with a friendly word, and a gentle smile. Some of us may have seen the video showing President and Mrs Tan riding a buggy at this year's Chingay Parade. Confetti was falling everywhere, and Mrs Tan leaned forward to dust off some confetti that had landed on the buggy driver's hair.
It was such a spontaneous and characteristic gesture. Singaporeans will remember her fondly for her grace, empathy and warmth.
Mr President, as you complete your term of office today, you can look back on a long and illustrious public service career. It has been my privilege to work with you for more than 30 years. When I first entered politics, you were my minister at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. You mentored and guided me, and helped me to find my footing in government.
Later, we were for many years Cabinet colleagues, working together in various roles. Like many others, I have always admired your clarity of focus, imperturbable demeanour, and sense of duty. It was the same these last six years that you have been president. I am grateful that we have had a long, productive and happy working relationship, and I hope that you will look back on it as warmly as I do.
On behalf of the Government, my Cabinet colleagues, and all Singaporeans, I thank you once again for your dedication, and distinguished service to the nation. We wish you and Mrs Tan all the best in your future endeavours. I am sure you will continue to contribute to the country in many ways in the years to come.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2017, with the headline 'Thank you, President Tan, for doing right by S'pore'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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