When I want to do something, I will do it: Dr Tan Cheng Bock

Dr Tan Cheng Bock on making a second bid for presidency instead of enjoying his retirement years

Although friends have asked Dr Tan why he is seeking office for the second time when he could be gardening, playing his ukulele or singing karaoke, he says he believes Singapore's political system could do with change and improvement.
Although friends have asked Dr Tan why he is seeking office for the second time when he could be gardening, playing his ukulele or singing karaoke, he says he believes Singapore's political system could do with change and improvement.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

When Dr Tan Cheng Bock spoke at a local university forum sometime after his narrow loss in the 2011 Presidential Election (PE), some in the audience said he should have raised bread-and-butter issues during his campaign.

But he said that he could not.

It would have amounted to giving Singaporeans false hope.

Had he done so and won, he would then be accused of failing to deliver on his promises.

"I felt I would not be truthful if I promised people I could do this and that just to get their votes," said the 75-year-old medical doctor, who lost to Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam by 7,382 votes, or 0.35 percentage points, in the four-way contest for the post.


I always have this vision that the president and Parliament should work very closely. None of us should be combative. I shouldn't go into the presidency with the feeling that I'm going to do so many things: I'm going to witch-hunt, check on this, check on that. I will check but there's a limit to what you can check. You cannot just check for the sake of checking. The country will suffer if I go in combative.

DR TAN CHENG BOCK, on the relationship between the president and Parliament.


I went to the PAP rallies but they didn't know how to receive me ... Only old grassroots leaders who saw me came and talked to me. None of the candidates came and shook my hand. At some opposition rallies, they would be shouting my name. I said: 'Hey I'm just here to watch a rally'. But the way they were shouting for me, I was a bit shocked.

DR TAN, on reactions to his presence at rallies during GE2015.

Dr Tan, who announced his intention to make a second bid for the presidency on March 11, told The Sunday Times he would rather stick to his guns and lose honourably.

Parliament and the presidency have very specific roles, said the former People's Action Party (PAP) MP, who served in Ayer Rajah from 1980 to 2006.

He said: "Parliament makes all the laws, the rules and so on. The president is there to make sure he looks after the reserves, and that they are managed by people of integrity and of the highest quality, and that there is transparency."

Asked how he felt about coming within a whisker of winning the highest office in the land in 2011, he said: "To say I was not disappointed is not telling the truth."

The grandfather of six also says he harbours no resentment towards Mr Tan Jee Say and Mr Tan Kin Lian, the other contestants in the 2011 PE. Many pundits believe that they split the votes and cost him the election.

Dr Tan said: "We all did our best and it was a fair fight. Whoever feels that he's capable to run this place, I'm not going to say you shouldn't come... No, it's not my style."

With a grin, he acknowledged he had caused a stir after declaring his decision to contest again.

Many wonder at the timing, especially since a nine-member Constitutional Commission is reviewing the Elected Presidency framework, including the eligibility criteria for candidates. Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong described Dr Tan's announcement as a "calculated political gambit".

Netizens wondered if he was kiasu (Hokkien for scared to lose) for staking a claim when the next PE is not due until August next year.

"It's hard work. When I won one election, I would tell my men how we were going to plan for the next one. So 17 months is really too short for me," Dr Tan said with a laugh.

"Anyway, let them interpret. I will just make my move, step by step. Chok Tong knows that when I fight, I fight. And that when I want to do something, I will do it," he said, referring to his former classmate at Raffles Institution and friend of 55 years.

In past interviews, Dr Tan had said one reason which first prompted him to run for president in 2011 was public resentment against the Government, which he had felt at political rallies during the general election held in May the same year.

It made him want "to heal the divide". So, have his views about wanting to be head of state changed, with the PAP Government winning 83 out of 89 seats and nearly 70 per cent of the votes in last year's general election? On the contrary, he replied.

"I think now it's more important that they should pick somebody who actually checks on the Government. When you're holding such a strong mandate, there's a tendency that you might go overboard in some of the things you have to do," he said. "And a responsible president should be able to tell them, 'Look, let me tell you this is what's happening.'" He admitted he was surprised by PAP's strong mandate.

While he thought the opposition might win a few more seats, he also felt that many of their candidates were not prepared. Dr Tan said: "You cannot just come and say, 'I want to be an MP.' People who want to go into elections and be politicians must make an effort and put in a lot of groundwork."

Many friends have asked him why he is seeking office again when he could be pottering in his garden, playing his ukulele or crooning with friends at karaoke sessions.

He said: "I believe this country is really worth protecting and I believe that our political system could do with change and improvement. I cannot say that our system is the best, but I believe that we will evolve into a very good system.

"So if you believe in something, you must do it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline ''When I want to do something, I will do it''. Subscribe