Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Here is the relevant portion of Asiaweek's interview with Ong (issue dated 10 March 2000)

It was this issue that caused the dispute between you and the government?

Yes. But I don't want to go into details and upset everybody. The thing is that the elected president is supposed to protect the reserves, but he was not told what these are until five years later. From the day the Constitution was amended in 1991 to provide for an elected president, he was supposed to fulfil that role. My predecessor, Wee Kim Wee, although he was not elected, was supposed to play that role during the last two years of his term. But he did not actively check. So, when I came in in 1993, I asked for all this information about the reserves. It took them three years to give it to me.

The holdup was for administrative reasons?

Either that or they did not think there was any urgency. You see, if you ask me to protect the reserves, then you've got to tell me what I'm supposed to protect. So I had to ask.

Why did they not want to tell you?

I do not know. Don't ask me, because I don't have the answer. I've been asking them. In fact, in 1996, exactly halfway through my term, I wrote prime minister Goh a letter. At that time, everybody was expecting a general election in December or January. After the election, a new government would be sworn in. When that happens, all the reserves, whether past or current, become past reserves and are locked up on the changeover date. As president, I have to safeguard them and they can only be drawn upon with my permission. So I said to Mr Goh It's already halfway through my term, but until today I still don't know all these figures about the reserves.

So the government had been stonewalling you, the president, for three years?

Yes. What happened actually was, as you know, in accounting, when you talk about reserves, it's either cash reserves or assets reserves. The cash side is straightforward investment, how many million dollars here and there, how much comes from the investment boards and so on. That was straightforward -- but still we had to ask for it. For the assets, like properties and so on, normally you say it's worth $30 million or $100 million or whatever. But they said it would take 56-man years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets. So I discussed this with the accountant-general and the auditor-general and we came to a compromise. The government would not need to give me the dollar-and-cents value, just give me a listing of all the properties that the government owns.

They agreed?

Well, yes, they agreed, but they said there's not the time for it. It took them a few months to produce the list. But even when they gave me the list, it was not complete.

It seems the Singapore government does not know its own assets?

Yes. It's complicated. It's never been done before. And for the assets of land, I can understand why. Every piece of land, even a stretch of road, is probably subdivided into many lots. There are 50,000 to 60,000 lots and every one has a number. If you want to value them all, it would take a long time. In the past, they have just locked everything up and assumed it is all there. But if I am to protect it, at least I want to know the list.

When they eventually gave you the list -- the incomplete list, did you have enough staff to do the checking and other work?

No, I did not. I only had one administrative staffer and two part-timers from the auditor-general's office.

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