Ong Ye Kung says he was 'wordless' when told of move to MOH

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung with presenters Angelique Nicolette Teo and Glenn Ong yesterday during an interview at the One FM 91.3 studio. Among the topics covered in the interview were the minister's experiences in the Education and Transport min
Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung with presenters Angelique Nicolette Teo and Glenn Ong yesterday during an interview at the One FM 91.3 studio. Among the topics covered in the interview were the minister's experiences in the Education and Transport ministries.ST PHOTO: STEPHANIE YEOW

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung was left "wordless" when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told him in a phone call that he would be moved to helm the Health Ministry in last week's Cabinet reshuffle.

"When he told me, I was wordless," Mr Ong said in a radio interview with One FM 91.3 yesterday.

"At most you can hear, 'Huh?' in my brain, because nobody expects to be moved after like eight months, nine months, (in) Transport. I was all ready to stay five years, the whole term," he said.

Mr Ong and Education Minister Lawrence Wong were both appointed to new posts in the reshuffle announced on April 23, about nine months after they took up their current portfolios following the general election last July.

The latest reshuffle will see Mr Ong helm the Ministry of Health (MOH) from May 15, with Mr Wong moving to head the Finance Ministry, and Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing replacing Mr Wong at the Ministry of Education (MOE), among other changes.

On his new role, Mr Ong quipped: "At least I didn't learn about it from the press release. The Prime Minister was really nice, he called up every single one of us, I was No. 3 or No. 4, and then he told us about our postings, he explained what he expects of us, we spent 45 minutes or so chatting."

During the 30-minute radio interview on topics ranging from his favourite songs and bands to how he relaxes after work, he also spoke about his time in the Education and Transport ministries.

As Education Minister, Mr Ong said, he made "one of the toughest decisions in my life" - keeping schools open when the coronavirus hit Singapore's shores.

Describing the situation in the early days of the pandemic as "panic stations", he recalled that no one knew how the coronavirus outbreak would play out.

"In most countries, the education minister said 'better just close school', because if there's an outbreak in school, his job is on the line, they probably have to resign," he said.

"But I just felt that if we closed schools, we're going to have a whole generation of kids missing out. I don't mean those who are graduating, but those in primary school, in secondary school, maybe they come from fairly vulnerable families. So you're going to keep schools open to give them that environment to learn, if not you may have a lost generation."

On transport, he explained why he gave the green light for the North East Line (NEL) to close early on certain days to speed up the replacement of insulators along the line. A faulty insulator on the NEL's overhead catenary system had caused a disruption on March 28.

Describing the rail maintenance teams as "fantastic", Mr Ong said: "One of the things I thought at the very least as minister I can do for them, is that when they need more time, you appeal to commuters to say, 'Can we close the MRT earlier on certain days or open later on certain days?'"

The replacement of insulators along the NEL was completed earlier this week, five months ahead of schedule.

Asked how he unwinds at the end of the day, he said he used to put on vinyl records to listen to music while writing his speeches and clearing his e-mail messages, then turned to reading books.

"Reading puts me to sleep straight away," he quipped.

These days, he prefers to just read his e-mails and write his speeches in bed next to his wife, as she reads e-books through the National Library Board app. "It's a bit mushy... that's how I unwind, spending time next to her," he said.

Asked about comments from netizens about his unfinished work as Transport Minister, Mr Ong said: "I suppose you can never complete your work."

He said he had hoped to remain in the Education Ministry for a longer time before he was appointed Transport Minister.

"I really didn't want to leave because I felt things were happening halfway. But now I'm in Transport, I look at the announcements that MOE is making - these were the things that we worked on, you know, and I think even after I leave Transport, there'll be things that we worked on in the last nine months that are going to come out," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2021, with the headline 'Ong Ye Kung says he was 'wordless' when told of move to MOH'. Subscribe