Tony Tan: A president defined by his integrity

Singaporeans say Dr Tan was a down-to-earth leader who brought dignity to the office in his six-year term

Above: President Tony Tan (back to camera) at a staff meeting with aides-de-camp and members of his staff (clockwise from his left) - Superintendent Dennis Lim, Major Valerie Chia, Ms Joanne Yan, ME6 Wong Kah Mun, Ms Seraphim Cheong, Ms Lai Choon Yen
Dr Tan in his office. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
Above: President Tony Tan (back to camera) at a staff meeting with aides-de-camp and members of his staff (clockwise from his left) - Superintendent Dennis Lim, Major Valerie Chia, Ms Joanne Yan, ME6 Wong Kah Mun, Ms Seraphim Cheong, Ms Lai Choon Yen
President Tony Tan (back to camera) at a staff meeting with aides-de-camp and members of his staff (clockwise from his left) - Superintendent Dennis Lim, Major Valerie Chia, Ms Joanne Yan, ME6 Wong Kah Mun, Ms Seraphim Cheong, Ms Lai Choon Yen, Ms Chua Hwee Cher, Ms Anuradha Kabilar, Ms Jaclyn Wong and Mr Sunny Seah. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Just before the presidential election in 2011, former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan met Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam at a National Day reception.

He recalls Dr Tan's sober statement on his chances: "He told me he didn't expect a big majority. He knew the mood and the confusion being sown on the ground.

"The other candidates were promising all kinds of things which were not constitutional. And people were buying into the confusion.

"But he did not descend to that level. He was very measured. He believed in not promising anything you can't deliver. He has integrity."

This, for Mr Dhanabalan, defined Dr Tan's presidency: his integrity.

Never mind that his insistence on abiding by the constitutional role of the presidency may have cost him votes, Mr Dhanabalan says.

Dr Tan received 35.2 per cent of votes, a lead of 0.35 points over the runner-up. He became Singapore's seventh president on Sept 1, 2011, and finishes his six-year term today.

As his term draws to a close, Mr Dhanabalan and other Singaporeans share with The Straits Times their memories, views and impressions of President Tan.


Mr J.Y. Pillay, 83, chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), describes the President's term as dignified.

For Mr Dhanabalan, 81, also a member of the CPA, the President manifests "gravitas" - both because of his personality and the experience he brought to the office.

Dr Tan, who was deputy prime minister, defence minister and finance minister, is a man of few words, Mr Dhanabalan says. "But when he speaks, people listen."

This ability to command attention and respect stood him in good stead when playing the president's custodial and diplomatic roles.

Political analyst Lam Peng Er, 58, adds: "Because of his experience, he was comfortable interacting with his foreign counterparts. He carried himself well in terms of diplomatic protocol."

Mr Dhanabalan said the President's gravitas projected to foreign dignitaries "the image of us being serious people, thoughtful people, not hail-fellow-well-met kind of chaps".

Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, 80, noted that Dr Tan made four to six overseas state visits a year, and was the first president to visit Latin America and the Vatican.

"On all such occasions, President Tan was well informed, friendly and engaging," he says, adding: "He has done a very good job for Singapore as our chief diplomat."

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President Tony Tan says that witnessing Singapore's first Olympic gold win is one of the highlights of his presidency.

Former Istana media and communications head Saleh Ali, 66, adds that the work rate of the President, who is 77, amazed him. "He often had very tight schedules, with events that would end late at night, especially during overseas trips."


In the president's custodial role, he holds a second key to past reserves and on key public appointments.

With Dr Tan's heft of experience, he invariably knew better than many what he was scrutinising.

Mr Pillay recounts how the CPA would think it had exhausted all "salient facets" of an issue at a government briefing, only for Dr Tan to find "key aspects that we had overlooked" when he joined in later. "It was an educational experience," Mr Pillay says, calling Dr Tan "cerebral" and "very intellectually intense".

Observers say his depth of knowledge and experience also gave him stature and an independence of mind. Law don Walter Woon, 60, says: "The reason I voted for Dr Tony Tan was that I felt that of the four candidates, if there were any shenanigans in high places, he's the only one who had the stature to put a stop to it, because he had been deputy prime minister, and he was not beholden to the current Government - he had been senior to them."

Mr Dhanabalan adds: "He's known as a serious person who looks at details and makes up his own mind. He established himself very clearly that he was not there just to rubber-stamp what the Government wanted."

There was no occasion to exercise his second key on past reserves, as the Government did not ask to draw down on them. A request was last made in 2009, when then President S R Nathan assented to a withdrawal of $4.9 billion to help Singapore ride out the recession.

But Dr Tan had to give his assent to key public service appointments.

Dr Lam says the terms of Dr Tan and the late Mr Nathan would be remembered for the harmonious relationship between the elected president and the Government of the day.

Prof Woon views it as "fortuitous" that Singapore chose Dr Tan. If one of his three rivals had won, there might have been "constant friction" with the Government, but for the wrong reasons.

"We might have had a grandstanding president who made pronouncements on policy. That's bad friction. It's not the president's job."


Singaporeans who have met him say that while his public image is that of a shy, reserved man, not naturally at ease with people, it is different when they interact with him.

Hwa Chong Institution students Penny Shi, 18, and Harris Song, 17, say they appreciated his "warmth and hospitality" when he hosted them and others at the Istana.

Mr Benny Se Teo, 57, recalls a visit by Dr Tan to the restaurant he founded, Eighteen Chefs, a social enterprise that hires former offenders and troubled youth.

The President's staff had visited earlier to check the dining area. But when the President came, he startled his staff by walking unannounced into the kitchen.

"He was not supposed to go there. A kitchen is never a safe place. But he wanted to talk to my boys, who were preparing food."

Artist Brian Gothong Tan, 37, was multimedia director for National Day Parade 2016. When the idea of filming the President in his car on the way to the parade was raised, the parade commanders were jittery, but Dr Tan agreed immediately.

"We did two takes. He was very game and accommodating, and asked us if we were satisfied with the video," he recalls.

Mr Tan Yishu, 25, a final-year engineering student at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, presented his team's invention - a motorcycle helmet that overcomes blind spots - to the President this year. He encouraged them to bring their invention to market to help motorcyclists. "I found him to be very humble," Mr Tan says.

Ms Lisa Dass, 39, general manager of Roses Only, took part in a charity sale at the Istana. The President and his wife Mary thanked each and every vendor, she says.

Mrs Tan, 76, is often said to complement her husband. She has helped the President to engage people and put them at ease, says Prof Koh. "She has been a great asset to her husband and to the nation."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2017, with the headline Tony Tan: A president defined by his integrity. Subscribe