Ong Ye Kung: Sincerely speaking

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Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung shares his thoughts with Wong Sher Maine about engaging the ground

Ong Ye Kung

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) & Second Minister for Defence; MP for Sembawang GRC

Age: 47

Family: Homemaker wife and two daughters aged 14 and 16

Hobby: Star Wars, football, rock music, nature


As a newly-minted politician, Mr Ong Ye Kung says one of the hardest things he has had to learn in the past year is how to communicate effectively to his residents and through the media.

But he is clearly adept. Mr Ong, who was promoted to become Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) and Second Minister for Defence on Nov 1, 2016, speaks comfortably, sincerely and directly to Petir at Block 408, Yishun Avenue 6, where his meet-the-people (MPS) sessions are held.

Rather than focus on his ministerial portfolio of higher education, the Sembawang GRC MP talked about work at his branch which he felt will be more relevant to party activists.

Because there was no branch before, he had to "scramble" to assemble the men and women who would hold the fort for what he calls the 88th PAP division, the Gambas division, named after Gambas Road which runs through Woodlands, Sembawang and Yishun. He said: "Recruitment of activists was of utmost urgency. I had to dig deep and go back to old trusted friends and activists I used to work with back in Aljunied. I also looked around the North to look for old friends who live around the area and could help out."

He now has about 100 volunteers but hopes to muster a group of Super 10, activists who he says "will be with you all the way from MPS to social media to setting up programmes and organising activities." He added: "If you have 10 super activists, you'll be very lucky. Right now, I have about four or five."

He spends time enjoying light suppers with his team after MPS, and in mid-November sat through a football match with them after a BBQ. The blemish to an otherwise very enjoyable gathering was that the Manchester United fan saw his team draw with its arch rival, Arsenal.

Mr Wong Hao, a 38-year-old activist who has been a grassroots volunteer since he was aged 11, sat in at the interview at Mr Ong's behest. He laughs when Mr Ong jokes that working with a MP like himself is "很惨的" (very miserable).

Far from it, says Mr Wong. He said: "Mr Ong is quite different from the MPs I have worked with before. He is more open to ideas, and if you need to make changes, he can make it very fast."

Mr Ong had turned down an offer from the People's Association to build a community centre (CC). He feels that there are CCs nearby which residents have been using and are familiar with. Further, with three coffee shops in the area, all within walking distance of each other, is the best collective CC there can be. In lieu of a CC auditorium or hall, he is also thinking of ways to create natural gathering spots, like tearing down planter boxes and walls around a pavilion to create an unintimidating, sheltered junction between the coffee shops.

He sees himself preserving the greenery and rustic nature of his ward. He said: "If we address all of the residents' requests, the inevitable path would be to build more facilities and the greenery will be flattened.

We'd become a concrete jungle. But we explained to the residents the vision and they welcomed it."

Learning path

Aside from communication, he has also found groundwork challenging. "Building this team, engaging and understanding the ground, serving the residents, there are so many aspects," he said.

In some ways, he finds it more challenging than his higher education and defence portfolios, because it is outside his comfort zone. He is more comfortable with the portfolios because it involves policy work which he dealt with for 18 years as a civil servant.

What stands him in good stead today is his diverse working background.

From his years as the Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Workforce Development Agency and the Principal Private Secretary to Singapore's Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, he appreciated the importance of preserving institutions.

"The holy grail of civil service is to maintain consistency and institutional strength. That's why the heads are called Permanent Secretaries," he pointed out. He cited an example in Parliament of how this thinking came to the fore when he debated with Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang, who proposed setting up a Senate to keep watch over Singapore's reserves instead of the elected President. "You don't just throw away the system and change to a Senate, you must improve the institution."

From the NTUC where he was deputy secretary-general, "it's all about relationships and networking," he said.

And from his only stint in the private sector, at Keppel, he has to deploy a mix of both.

Thoughtful change

Now, as a politician, he sees his role as to improve things and change the status quo if need be. "But change is difficult. You can make promises during campaigning, but governing is quite different.

"As an office-holder, there are things I want to change, from pushing SkillsFuture to evolving the university scene, to pushing earn-and-learn as a new modality of education, and rolling back the over-emphasis on academic grades. Communicating these changes, determining the policy steps we have to take and in what sequence, requires a lot of thinking by the Minister," he pointed out.

He has also had to learn how to remain a devoted family man. In fact, when asked what was the hardest thing he has to adapt to in the past year, the father of two girls, aged 14 and 16, focused on the personal: "Trying to be a father is really tough. What tops that is learning to be a good husband."

He quipped: "DPM Teo (Chee Hean) said once: Spend 50 per cent of your time on ministry work, 50 per cent on ground and constituency work, 50 per cent on party work and the remainder is for your family and yourself."

His wife, who baked a coconut cake for his 47th birthday in mid-November, has taken to blocking time slots through his personal assistant.

"She realises she cannot just wait for when I'm home because it doesn't happen. My calendar in 2017 has several slots booked by Mrs Ong." In response to friends who Whatsapp him to ask - "Free for a drink?" - he has to respond, "Sorry. I'm booked for the next two months."

A global lesson

In Mr Ong Ye Kung's opinion, Singapore had its Brexit moment in 2011.

Repercussions from the wave of anti-global sentiment in Singapore, however, "wasn't as dramatic for us."

Replying to a question on whether there were lessons for Singapore from Brexit and the Donald Trump victory in the United States, Mr Ong, who was Deputy Chief Negotiator for the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement signed in 2003, said: "Discomfort over globalisation is not irrational. People wonder if life is getting better with globalisation. If not, you will see an electoral upset."

He likened Singapore to the small Andaman Island, which the deadly 2004 tsunami "whizzed pass" with severe damage to the island, but not as catastrophic as when the waves really built up as it approached larger and masses.

"Fortunately, we (PAP) had a deep reservoir of goodwill," said Mr Ong. "We paid a price in 2011 but not a tremendous one.

That encouraged us to do much more in the five years after 2011, building up infrastructure, putting in place a robust housing programme, introducing the Pioneer Generation Package, so that by 2015, Singaporeans felt there was a change for the better."

This article was first published in the December 2016 issue of Petir magazine.

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Published by and at the directions of People's Action Party
PAP HQ, Block 57B New Upper Changi Road, #01-1402 Singapore 463057

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