Lunch With Sumiko: Ong Ye Kung on new ministers' 'collective ambition' for Singapore

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung says that the competition people expect in Cabinet does not actually happen here.

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The Straits Times Executive Editor Sumiko Tan has lunch with Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and finds out about his tuckshop favourite in school.

It's noisy at White Restaurant, a zi char eatery in Sun Plaza in Sembawang, and Mr Ong Ye Kung is speaking softly.

I strain to hear what he is saying and hope that the two voice recorders I've brought along are working. To be safe, I switch on the recorder in my phone too.

I want to capture him accurately because topping my list of questions is this rather sensitive one: How does he feel about always being described as possible prime minister material?

Will he deflect the question? Laugh it off? Get irritated? Give the Government's standard reply that governing Singapore is more about teamwork than a one-man show?

For our lunch, the Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) and Second Defence Minister has decided to go to his constituency of Sembawang.

I'm unfamiliar with the eatery he has chosen and read on the Internet that White Restaurant is home to "the original Sembawang white beehoon".

The restaurant has its roots in Jalan Tampang in Sembawang where it was known as You Huak Restaurant. A few years ago, it rebranded itself as White Restaurant and now has branches in Punggol Settlement, Sun Plaza and Toa Payoh.

The lunch is set for 1pm. I'm early and meeting me is Mr Ong's press secretary. She has brought along another press officer, and it dawns on me that they will be at the lunch.

The minister is running late and when he arrives, a member of the restaurant staff leads him to our table. In his pink shirt and black trousers, he blends in with the office lunch crowd.

He confers with the waiter in Mandarin and orders the famous white beehoon, salted egg sotong, sambal sweet potato leaves and a meat and seafood roll. The waiter suggests a fish dish. We get lime juice and barley to drink.

That settled, he sits down and apologises for being late.

This is my first interview with Mr Ong. Beyond an introduction some months earlier, I've never spoken to him. Colleagues who have met him describe him as media-savvy and sharp. On this Friday, he comes across as relaxed and confident, with a calm, natural manner.

I explain that the concept of this series is to interview newsmakers in a lunch setting. (The newsmaker picks the venue and The Sunday Times foots the bill.)

His press secretary had told me that he normally doesn't have lunch. I ask him about this and he says he tries to take just two meals a day. I suppose that explains why, at 47, he's still very trim.

We make small talk about the restaurant - its white beehoon is a "very northern thing", he says, referring to the chain's locations. This segues into a question about which part of Singapore he grew up in. He lists them: Bukit Ho Swee with his maternal grandmother, Lorong Chuan where his father reared ornamental fish for sale, Toa Payoh and later Jalan Kayu.

Becoming an MP of Sembawang GRC in 2015 brought him to this still-sleepy northern region.

The dishes come in quick succession. The white beehoon, I discover, looks bland but is delicious with a rich, tasty stock. I love the tangy chilli sauce that goes with it. He asks for sliced green chilli and eats a lot of it throughout the meal, asking for a refill.

Mr Ong says that the work he enjoys most is "change management". He has always had "a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo". "If you ask me to go to an organisation to preserve and maintain the status quo, I think I'll be miserable," he says. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Mr Ong is part of what is termed Singapore's fourth-generation - 4-G - leadership, following the Cabinets led by prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and now Lee Hsien Loong.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong has said he plans to step down as PM some time after the next general election, which must be held by early 2021. It's a favourite pastime of political watchers to guess who the next PM will be.

Besides Mr Ong, the others often cited are Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, labour chief Chan Chun Sing, Education Minister (Schools) Ng Chee Meng, Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

I broach the PM question midway through our meal.

I think you know that you're always among those touted to be possible PM material, I say, and ask how talk like that makes him feel.

He pauses, then says slowly: "We walk into a culture, a Cabinet culture, where all of us work together. There are precedents - when the time is right, the team will select among them a leader."

He adds: "So when the time comes for the team to select a leader, I will support the person who emerges."

Are things in Cabinet really that tranquil, I ask? (Surely, there must be some jostling for power among these high-achieving men, I think to myself. How weird if there isn't.)

"Well," he says, "the competition that people expect, does not actually happen here." He repeats how those who enter Cabinet accept the established "working culture".

He proceeds to explain how things work.

Before Cabinet meetings, there are pre-Cabinet meetings where no civil servant is present. Discussions are "very civil, polite, calm but very robust". New ministers present papers with "some trepidation because the senior ministers in their calm way will scrutinise the proposal, and if it's no good, it will be dismantled. But it's all very objective. Disagreements are not treated as an ego contest", he says.

"New ministers entering this kind of working culture know that while discussions are very robust, we are all in the same team. If there's any ambition, it is a collective ambition for Singapore."

I ask what he brings to the Cabinet table. He pauses again. This time, he remains quiet for so long that I begin to wonder if he will answer the question. "Everyone brings something different," he says finally. "I hope given my experiences and what I've gone through, I bring something unique."

Are the 4-G leadership friends besides being Cabinet colleagues? He says that because Singapore is so small, most of the younger ministers have links through either school or career.

For example, he, Mr Chan and Mr Tan were at Raffles Junior College (RJC) at the same time.

"Ever since I've known Mr Chan in JC, he's been very humble and considerate, that's why I am not surprised at all that he is now very comfortable overseeing the People's Association and unions," he says.

He and Mr Tan got to know each other at the London School of Economics (LSE). They played soccer on Sundays at Regent's Park and went backpacking in Egypt.

Mr Tan was commander of the Singapore Armed Forces' humanitarian aid task force in Meulaboh following the 2004 tsunami. "The experience - witnessing death, saving lives - has obviously shaped him as a person," he says of his old friend.

Mr Heng was his supervisor when they were both in the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI). "He was a very good boss and an economic czar," he says.

Mr Wong succeeded him as principal private secretary to Mr Lee Hsien Loong, and is "very sharp, sound and insightful" in his policy analysis.

Mr Ong took over Trade and Industry (Industry) Minister S. Iswaran's office when he joined MTI , and describes him as "an easy-going long-time colleague whom you will enjoy having a drink with".

He got to know fellow Education Minister Mr Ng much later, when they both sat on the board of Spring Singapore. "He is what you would call a guy's guy. Someone you can trust your life with."

He got to know Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli more recently too, and says "it's really interesting to speak with him, to learn about issues faced by the Malay community, and his experience in the commercial world before he joined politics".

It all sounds very cordial and collegial but - and I wonder aloud - is there a danger of an echo chamber, given how you are all from similar backgrounds?

Without missing a beat, he says he can understand such a view. But he points out: "We were all friends and colleagues before, but we do have different experiences, and our growing-up environments are totally different. More importantly, our paths have crossed and now we are all in this together. I think there is a lot of strength... in knowing each other personally for many years."

I decide to let him eat.

If there's something unique that Mr Ong brings to the Cabinet table, it is that he has tasted political defeat - and bounced back.

In 2011, he was fielded in the People's Action Party's Aljunied GRC team. He had done well in various ministries before moving to the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), and was said to be a potential minister. But his team lost to the Workers' Party.

He stayed at NTUC for about a year, then left for Keppel Corporation where he was director of group strategy. In 2015, he stood and won in Sembawang GRC.

The 2011 loss was difficult but one "good thing" was that he got to spend more time with his family while his two daughters were still young. His wife Diana Kuik - they were in JC together but didn't date till later - works for her family business. The loss - and growing older - mellowed him, he says. He is less impatient.

I ask what his working style is like. He turns to the two press officers, who have been sitting silently, and laughs: "You should ask them." Teasingly, he adds: "Some say I am cordial, understanding, nurturing. Some say I am tough, assertive, impatient." More seriously, he says: "Some things that you want to change take a generation. What's the point of shouting now?"

He says he left NTUC for Keppel because he was getting too comfortable and wanted to "learn to swim a different stroke". It was also for this reason he left Keppel to return to politics.

This desire to take himself out of his comfort zone has been a pattern in his life.

Up to his O levels, he studied in a Chinese environment, at Nanyang Primary and Maris Stella. His father, former Barisan Sosialis MP Ong Lian Teng, was Chinese-educated, as was his mother. But he opted to go to RJC, a largely English-educated world.

After A levels, he got a government scholarship and chose LSE although he had never been to Europe. "I was not very exposed to the world. I didn't know Buckingham Palace or the Tower Bridge. My schoolmates asked if I wanted to catch Les Miserables, but I had no idea what it was," he says, chuckling.

He points out that change makes you realise what your niche is and what skills you have that can cut across different sectors - "you begin to understand yourself".

And what has he learnt?

"Wherever I go, the work I enjoy most is change management. I always have a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo. If you ask me to go to an organisation to preserve and maintain the status quo, I think I'll be miserable."

But he's not knocking those who maintain the status quo because "some people do that really well and we need them because their role is to maintain the strengths of institutions. The strength of a team lies in having people with different inclinations, instincts and skills".

Does he foresee more challenges that will take him out of his comfort zone? He doesn't take the bait. "The day you take on a new role, is the day you will have to adapt again," is his placid reply.

We've come to the end of lunch and do a short video trailer for the interview. The photographer then leads him to a corner for the photo shoot. He gamely does as asked, and doesn't flinch when the photographer pats down a tuft of hair that's sticking out. But when it is suggested that he sit astride the chair, he laughs and declines. "Too erotic," he jokes.

We shake hands and he's off with his security man, down the escalator, merging into the crowd.

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