The one who got away

A year after losing an election, labour leader Ong Ye Kung says he remains active in politics. In fact, as Susan Long discovers, he was key in negotiating a recent pay rise for bus drivers.

Ong Ye Kung speaking at the Young PAP's 25th anniversary celebrations on April 17, 2011. PHOTO: ST FILE

This article was first published in The Straits Times on June 1, 2012

ONE year on, losing Aljunied GRC as part of the People's Action Party's team in the 2011 General Election still stings for Ong Ye Kung. He had described his campaign as "jumping off a cliff into the unknown".

But he's found the bottom.

"One thing you definitely learn is resilience," the 43-year-old says, describing his failed political outing as his biggest professional setback to date. At his bleakest, he drew comfort from everyone from crooner Kelly Clarkson to boxer Muhammad Ali.

He cites the lyrics to Clarkson's What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger and a quote from the former world heavyweight champion which a stranger sent him on Facebook: "Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come out with an extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even."

Looking back, the deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) says: "I don't regret running. It was an experience of a lifetime." The only pity, he says, was that he had to resign from his 18-year Administrative Service career to go into politics.

"But to fight in an election which was in 2011 and in Aljunied - win or lose, it's priceless," he says, from his 12th-floor office at One Marina Boulevard.

Touted to be of ministerial calibre, Mr Ong is often spoken of as "the one who got away" and unfortunate "collateral damage" of GE 2011. People who have worked with him say it is Parliament's loss as he is a natural politician, with his ability to rally people.

The Confucius-quoting unionist is the ultimate cultural interlocutor, at home with English, Mandarin, Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese, and both the dominant and alternative ideologies of his time, because of his family background.

He was born in 1969, the second of two boys, to the late Ong Lian Teng, one of 13 Barisan Sosialis legislative representatives elected in the 1963 General Election, who walked out of Parliament over National Service, then quit politics soon after.

His mother was a Chung Hwa Girl's High student activist who led a cell that boycotted the Government Secondary Four examinations in 1961 to protest against changes in the Chinese secondary education system.

By the time he was born, his father had traded in politics for an ornamental fish business. His mother had become a buttoned- down Chinese teacher. Home was a zinc-roofed house in a Lorong Chuan farm, then a Bukit Ho Swee three-room flat, followed by a Jalan Kayu semi-detached house as his father's business picked up.

From age eight, he worked most weekends, helping to pack fish into plastic bags for export.

For much of his early schooling life at Nanyang Primary, he struggled with English and, as a result, poor self-esteem. "Fewer people talk to you and you've no chance of going after the girls," he quips.

He eventually topped his class and improved his English, but remains painfully conscious of his meagre vocabulary. "Even today, sometimes people will just use certain words and I have to go back and check it up," he confides.

At Maris Stella High, he stuck mostly with Chinese-speaking friends. Values such as "community, friendship, honouring one's word" were all-important.

He had a rude shock enrolling at Raffles Junior College. "In a Chinese school, if we say 'This coming test is stupid, we're not going to study', we don't," he recounts. "At RJC, some Raffles Institution boys said no need to study for the first test of the year. I didn't, but they did. I came in second last."

But today, he is thankful to have learnt Chinese, rather than English, as his first language, saying it has wired his brain differently. "English is very analytical, linear; it's phonics with rules, whereas Chinese is a tapestry. It's not as linear but very holistic, and goes from left, right, top, down, back, forth, past, present," says the Public Service Commission scholar who went on to study at the London School of Economics.

He shot up the ranks of the public service, became deputy chief negotiator of the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA), served as principal private secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong from 2002 to 2004, then went on to helm the Workforce Development Agency at 35.

Wherever he went, he refused to supplant staff belonging to the old regime with his "own people". "That's perhaps a very Asian approach of respecting experienced elders who know the organisation better than I do," he says.

In 2006, he was approached to run on the PAP ticket, forcing his father to confront his painful past.

"It was ironic," he says. "My father had never spoken to us much about his past. I think he tried to shield us from all the struggles he went through.

"I never knew him as someone who is against the system. I knew him as someone with a firm stand on issues like Nanyang University and the teaching of Chinese. I also knew him as someone who wanted to make a difference to the people he served," he says, adding that his father served actively in village associations.

Up till his death in 2009, the elderly man of few words refused to weigh in either way on whether his son should enter politics. But sensing his reservations, Mr Ong sat out the 2006 GE.

But his ailing father finally gave his tacit blessings by presenting Mr Ong's wife of 15 years with a Tang Dynasty poem, Gui Yuan, by Wang Changling. "It is about a wife who lets her husband go into public service and thereafter hardly sees him," he says.

Getting real

After Mr Ong lost in Aljunied GRC, his two daughters, aged 10 and 12, were happy to have got their father and playmate back.

The day after the election, he says, he returned to NTUC and resumed work to improve the lot of workers.

What helps him is how he keeps score - by deliverables, change and action. He has little patience for scholarly pontificating or writing retrospective analyses.

He still recalls the first day of his posting at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, when then Permanent Secretary Khaw Boon Wan told him:

"This job you are taking up can be very big or very small, depending on how big a man you are."

"He did not say how capable a man you are but how big. I think I knew what he meant. To accomplish something, we can't be narrow-minded and small-hearted," he says.

He likes to think he's carried that pep talk to every ministry. "I find things to improve. I like to push the rules to the boundaries. I want to be real, everywhere I go. To be real means today I'm sitting here pushing paper, what difference is it making this week, this month, this year?

"Sure, it's a bureaucracy but within the bureaucracy, there are parameters within which you can make a difference. But to make changes, you've got to know the existing system and rules inside out, to know what needs refreshing and what's stopping you. Then use whatever influence you have to change the rules.

"I think civil servants must preserve that entrepreneurial streak. It cannot just be blind administration of rules, that's meaningless."

At the Workforce Development Agency, he was known for "democratising" training, by channelling training funds away from employers to workers and the jobless.

Singapore's Ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee, who worked with Mr Ong for four years from 2000 negotiating the US-Singapore FTA, came away "impressed with his sharp mind, his strategic assessment, his willingness to work hard".

One sticking point was Singapore's ban on the import of chewing gum, which it viewed as a sovereignty issue. But the US, backed by the commercial interests of chewing gum giant Wrigley, feared that larger markets such as China would imitate Singapore's precedent. She credits him for resolving the potential deal breaker, with his "ingenuity" and creativity in persuading the politicians here to allow in medicinal chewing gum, a move which appeased the US.

Low-wage solutions

Today, Mr Ong finds his stride in union work. As the executive secretary of the National Transport Workers' Union, he says the natural working language and dialect during meetings is Mandarin and Hokkien. "I realised that I felt very at home. It's like talking to my father and uncles," he says.

He has spent the past few months negotiating for a pay hike for bus drivers and making sure the Transport Ministry's funding to public transport operators got passed down to drivers. Wage ceilings, which were not raised for 13 years, inched up from $1,560 to $1,700.

"That says a lot about his negotiation skills," says bus driver Ong Leong Chin, 58, who is SBS Transit east district branch chairman. "He is someone who treats the workers as equals and respects their views. He goes down to a bus interchange coffee shop at least once a month to have lunch and chat with them."

His co-workers say he has the right mix of "mercantilist and socialist" and "hard headedness and a good heart" to help the rank- and-file.

So what are his solutions to uplift the lot of low-wage workers?

He says the recent increase in bus driver pay, which celebrates "advancing with skills", sums up his beliefs. With the latest changes in SBS Transit, he says that a bus driver, who is promoted to the grade of chief bus driver, will earn over $3,000, more than what some graduate managers get, and be a mentor and leader to other bus drivers.

"The bus driver would have achieved this not by attending university and getting an academic qualification, but being very good at his craft, acquired by honing his skills through practice and on-the-job training," he says.

This is not a new concept, he says. In hotels, the general manager is often someone who started out as a waiter, chef or concierge before he worked, studied and progressed up. "In soccer, the winger or striker carries with him a status and pay no less than the manager. In maritime, the captain needs leadership qualities and is trained in seafaring and gains his experience working on board," he adds. He hopes "this major breakthrough in management thinking" in the transport sector will catch on in retail, health-care, childcare and security sectors too.

Change activist

Because of all the changes he has been able to make within the the system, he is a believer in "change from within". He believes there is time for the party to change - in time for the next GE. "Absolutely," he says. "No system is by definition fossilised."

He cites Apple as a powerhouse of relentless change, all the while with the same man, the late former chief executive Steve Jobs, driving it. "Steve Jobs was there, left, came back. He obviously believed in that institution, that the institution could change. He was ousted but came back with new ideas to re-energise and reform Apple.

"Now you have a new Apple, same organisation which probably retains the same DNA as before, but applied differently with different products and services. So I think all organisations have that potential to refresh and reform themselves."

The free-thinker remains a card-carrying cadre of the PAP, and is still involved in grassroots activities in Kaki Bukit, the ward he was assigned during the last GE.

He says he still shows up for community events almost every weekend. Recently, he also spent eight weeks heading internal investigations into the SMRT breakdowns.

The avid footballer also collects vinyls, strums ballads on his collection of three guitars and follows major football tournaments on TV.

There was talk in the last year that he wanted to leave NTUC and give up on politics. There were also rumours online before last week's Hougang by-election that PM Lee would call a by-election in Ang Mo Kio GRC to retire an older MP and bring Mr Ong into Parliament. That did not materialise.

The million-dollar question now is: Will he or won't he run in the next GE? Or is he once bitten, twice shy?

"I am certainly maintaining an active interest in politics. I was not successful when I stood for election. That is part and parcel of democracy and the electoral process. I will learn from it and remain committed to serving Singaporeans."

He demurs a little. "I can't be presumptuous," he adds. "I believe in serving, and have done so my whole career. If asked to serve again, whether in politics or other roles, I am definitely still open to it."

Then he adds archly: "Having said that, you can serve and make a difference without being in politics, and being in politics does not necessarily mean you are making a difference."

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.