He had once contemplated becoming a clerk, but is now vying for the role of Singapore's next President. CNA speaks to former GIC chief investment officer Ng Kok Song on how it was his “mum’s tears” that motivated him to succeed in life and why his bid for presidency has nothing to do with power or glory.
SINGAPORE: When he was growing up, the only ambition that Mr Ng Kok Song had was to find a job and earn enough money to lift his family out of poverty.
Life in the fishing village of Kangkar – where Sengkang is today – was a constant financial struggle, with his father’s income as a fish auctioneer hardly enough to feed the big family of 11 children living in a mud-floored attap house. His mother, a housewife, sometimes had to borrow from neighbours.
One moment etched in his memory was when his mother returned home in tears one day and told him that no one could lend them any money to buy his schoolbooks. Mr Ng was 12.
“Then and there I resolved and said, I do not want to see my mother cry again. I will try to study hard, to get a good job so that … we don’t have to borrow money again,” Mr Ng, now 75, told CNA in an interview earlier this month.
His idea of a good job back then was to become a clerk. He was doing reasonably well in school but as a “precaution”, he decided to take up typing and shorthand classes.
“That was what I thought I had to do in order to get a white-collar job (and) earn money,” he said with a chuckle.
But Mr Ng did not get to put his typing and shorthand skills to use.
He received the Public Service Commission scholarship to study physics at the University of Singapore.
Upon graduation, he joined the public service and embarked on a 45-year-long career in managing public funds – from the Finance Ministry and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to sovereign wealth fund GIC, where he played a key role in the investment of Singapore’s foreign reserves as chief investment officer.
After retirement in 2013, Mr Ng started his own investment firm.
Now he has a new identity – a candidate in Singapore’s upcoming Presidential Election.
GIFTS FROM HIS PAST
Mr Ng first declared his intention to run for President on Jul 19. Since then, he has wasted no time in working the ground – visiting wet markets, hawker centres and clan associations, while taking on media interviews and meeting with social media influencers.
This daily slew of activities is essential given how he, in his own words, was relatively unknown with his work in the public service being “low-key”.
But even as his schedule has filled up with election activities, Mr Ng is still finding time to meditate – a practice he picked up more than three decades ago and which he thinks is a valuable life skill for everyone. One of the rare times that he made the news previously was when it was revealed that he taught former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew how to meditate.
As an advocate of the practice, Mr Ng meditates every day, for 25 minutes each in the morning and evening. The morning that he spoke to CNA, he said he had gone for a long walk before meditating.
“To prepare myself for this interview,” he said with a smile.
While he was previously someone who shunned the limelight, Mr Ng seems at ease during his walkabouts, cheerfully stopping for short conversations and selfies. During interviews, he is articulate on topics such as the reserves, and is also comfortable with revealing a softer side when the conversation with CNA turns to his mother and late wife.
He has shared stories about his late wife Patricia, whom he married in 1972. One of them involved an old Seiko watch, which he would pawn and redeem repeatedly at a shop along Selegie Road to pay for movie and dinner dates.
He recalled negotiating with the pawnbroker for a better offer and sometimes, he got S$40 instead of S$30. After receiving his pay as a tutor, he would redeem the watch by paying the principal amount and accrued interest which could come up to S$10.
That taught him the meaning of interest rates, he remarked, before adding: “It also taught me that even though we don’t have money, we can still be happy. I was very happy when I was courting my wife.”
The other important woman in his life is his mother.
“It was mum’s tears that motivated me,” he said, describing her as his hero who sacrificed her own welfare to bring up 11 children single-handedly.
“She was devoted to us and from that, you learn the meaning of perseverance and love.”
His father also gave him many long-lasting “gifts” that shaped him as a person; one of which is a sense of responsibility. When his father lost his job, Mr Ng knew he had to step up so he gave tuition during his university days, teaching up to eight students at one time.
“It was quite a struggle because I would rush to give tuition then rush back to the university for my classes. But that was my responsibility … towards my mother, my father, my brothers and sisters,” said Mr Ng, who was the second of 11 children.
His father also often reminded him the importance of humility.
“He will say, Kok Song, do not talk about your achievements. Do not boast about how much you have done. It’s better for other people to speak about what you’ve done than for you to boast about it,” he said.
“And that might be the reason why I’m relatively unknown in Singapore even though … I was given many opportunities to contribute to the welfare of our country.”
For his contributions to Singapore, Mr Ng received the Meritorious Service Medal in 2012.
“I DON’T NEED GLORY”
Nearly a month after announcing his bid for presidency, Mr Ng received his certificate of eligibility last week and was on Tuesday (Aug 22) officially nominated as a candidate. Joining him in the presidential race are former Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam and former NTUC Income chief Tan Kin Lian.
Asked if he had ever imagined himself running for President one day, Mr Ng replied: “Not at all”.
On whether this might be the biggest risk he is taking in life and how the seasoned investor in him would weigh his presidential bid, Mr Ng described investments as “calculated risk-taking” given how one would weigh the upsides and downsides before coming to a decision.
However, he saw no downsides in stepping forward to run for the office.
He shared that he had questioned himself about his motivations, which he distilled down to three reasons.
One of which is to ensure that people have a chance to exercise their right to vote.
Given how Mr Tharman would automatically qualify as a presidential candidate with his ministerial background and the stringent criteria in place to determine the eligibility of other hopefuls, he was worried about a walkover which would "make a mockery of the elected presidency”.
“I felt that I have the credentials to qualify … and therefore if I stand for election, there will be an election,” Mr Ng said.
He also sees the need to safeguard the reserves and set an example to encourage younger Singaporeans to step forward for the country. The latter will be critical in ensuring the quality of leadership, be it in the government, opposition or public service, he said.
“I have to cross examine myself, ‘Kok Song, why are you doing this? Are you doing this for power? Are you doing this for glory? Are you doing this for money?’
“I don't need more power at the age of 75. I don’t need glory,” he said. “Money? In fact, if I win, there will be a huge financial penalty for me because I have to give up all my business interests.”
This understanding that he is throwing his hat into the ring “not for gold or glory” has given him “a lot of peace”, Mr Ng said. Even if he loses, he will not have any regret – a principle that he has lived his life by.
“Supposing I do not win, I would have done my part. I’d have facilitated, you might say, an election to take place so that the people of Singapore (can) exercise their right to choose,” he said.
“I don’t want to live my life with regret. Let’s say in six years’ time, something happens in Singapore and I look back and say, ‘Kok Song, you could have done something about it. You didn’t’,” he told CNA.
While there are no downsides, Mr Ng understands that his presidential bid will result in an “intrusion into (the) privacy” of his relationship with his fiancee Sybil Lau, whom he met four years ago.
Ms Lau, 45, is also well-aware of that and unless they make “special” attempts to tell their story, people will “speculate based on wrong information”, said Mr Ng.
So, he shared that Ms Lau is a Singapore citizen and has been living in Singapore for 18 years. She is also his “equal partner”, given her career background. Ms Lau had worked as a financial analyst at Goldman Sachs, among other jobs, and now manages her family’s wealth.
“I didn’t expect to fall in love again,” Mr Ng said, adding that the couple intend to get married but have put that on hold for now out of respect for Ms Lau’s mother who passed away two and a half years ago.
Mr Ng noted that negative comments are to be expected including about their age gap. On this, he quipped: “The fact of the matter is that she’s 45 years old; 45 years old is younger than me but not young.”
That said, he noted that Singaporeans have largely been “very understanding” and positive comments have thus far “considerably outweighed” the negative ones.
“We find that as we put out our story, there’s a better acceptance and understanding. The so-called suffering that I spoke about, has been much less than I had feared.”
“I’M POLITICALLY INDEPENDENT”
Another area that Mr Ng has had to reiterate is his independence and lack of ties to any political party. Despite that, there remains chatter about how he was put up by the government to split votes.
Asked how he feels about that, he said that with Singapore having only one political party in government since independence, public service has come to be seen as intertwined with political service in people’s eyes.
Meanwhile, it was only natural that he came into contact with ministers, and even the Prime Minister after having spent 45 years in the public service at a senior level.
“People should make a clear distinction between public service and political service,” he told CNA.
“The public service works with the government for the people of Singapore. Their loyalty is to the state, to the people of Singapore. So, we mustn’t muddle the two to say that public service is political service.
“I've worked 45 years at the MAS, at the GIC, but I never belonged to any political party. So in that sense, I'm politically independent.”
Asked if he thinks there will be a segment of the population that he might never be able to convince, he said: “It’s an educational process. If people refuse to change their mind, there’s nothing you can do about it … But I'm not going to deny that I spent 45 years in public service. I am who I am.”
Mr Ng has also pointed to his time at MAS and GIC being relevant to the President’s role of safeguarding the country’s reserves.
The President holds the second “key” to the reserves, meaning that his or her approval is needed if the government wants to draw on past reserves. Given his experience, he said he would be able to ask the “right questions” such as whether the proposed amount is reasonable and how critical the situation is.
If he does not get the right answers to his questions, would he say no?
“Of course, I have to say no,” Mr Ng replied without hesitation. “The danger here is that if you say yes to free-spending policies, the reserves will be drawn down. You keep on doing this, in no time the reserves will be gone.”
While his father would have told him not to boast about his achievements, Mr Ng said he would like to have had the opportunity to be able to tell his late mother that her son is now running to be the country’s next President.
“I want to see (my mother) cry again. This time not tears of sadness but tears of joy because her son is standing for President,” he said. “I don't think she would have expected that.”
With his eyes visibly red, Mr Ng said he could not help but turn emotional each time he mentions his mother. “Like even now, whenever I’m speaking about my mom, I cry because it’s so deep within me.”
And there is “nothing wrong” with a man being sentimental, he said.
“It's a bit awkward for men to cry but why not? We are human beings.”
This is the first in CNA's series of interviews with each of the candidates running in Singapore's Presidential Election. The interview with Tharman Shanmugaratnam will be published on Aug 24 and the interview with Tan Kin Lian on Aug 25.