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Presidential Candidate: Tan Cheng Bock

By Janna Chua

Profile. Tan Cheng Bock is a medical doctor, corporate chairman, and former MP. He studied in Radin Mas Primary School and Raffles Institution. For full details, please go to .

Family Background and a Heart for People. According to an article in Singapore Medical Association’s newsletter, “Dr Tan came from a humble background. His father was a Harbour Board employee earning a small salary to support a family of seven. They lived in two-room quarters. Dr Tan is the second son. Life was a struggle. He often told his close friends that during the worst times, when he was given two eggs, he knew it was his birthday. On looking back, these were not real disadvantages, in fact they were the ingredients for later successes in life and more importantly I think his early life experiences have contributed to his empathy for the underdogs and the underprivileged.”1 From a story on how he treated a poor farmer’s son many times without expecting pay, Dr Tan Cheng Bock came across as a doctor with a heart for people, a character necessary in a good President. 2

Character: Family relationship priority. As a former Member of Parliament for Ayer Rajah Constituency, running under the People’s Action Party, he championed a few causes with determination and conviction. One was free parking in public car parks on Sundays which he did “to foster and promote social interaction and quality family time”. 3

Character: meaningful cause, determination, and thorough thinking. Another meaningful cause was letting CPF fund children’s tertiary education. At first, the then-Minister of Labour Lee Yock Suan countered it, worried that doing so might dilute the CPF for old age. But after the CPF was allowed to be used for investing in gold and stocks, Dr Tan asserted that it was not right if it was not allowed to pay for tertiary education. Hence, he and his Government Parliamentary Committee (GPC) members presented a nine-page position paper to Parliament. With much careful thought, they put in many safe-guards, such as, using it to cover only tertiary tuition expenses of your own children and none other expenses. 4

Character: boldly standing for equality. In another incident, when Dr Goh Keng Swee, the then-Minister of Education, tried to revise the curriculum and stream all students, Dr Tan saw it as the start of class division in Singapore, stratification of our society, and division of the nation. Dr Goh was outraged and chided Dr Tan, his junior, for trying to “teach him how to run his ministry.” He challenged Dr Tan to find a classless society. Not knowing how to respond, Dr Tan remained quiet while he scolded; but the second day, Dr Tan felt he must pursue the subject if he believed in it. He read his daughter’s Primary 3 science text on “Vegetative Propagation” with about 40 terms to the ministers in Parliament. He said, “I think in the teaching of science, you must not only teach people to comprehend, but you must also teach people to appreciate, and also understand the significance of what you are doing.” He then asked how many of them (ministers) actually understood all the terms, and yet that was what the curriculum was expecting children to do. 5

Character: Conviction at a cost. Just this year, Dr Tan Cheng Bock was strongly against renaming Jurong General Hospital to Ng Teng Fong Hospital just because Mr. Ng Teng Fong donated a large sum of money. He thought that since this was a public hospital, it should reflect a suitable public figure, for example, one who made very big contributions to this country with some historical element, not just money. He also believed that the level of appreciation must take into account not only the money aspect but also that person’s contribution to this country. His fear is that if someone becomes a citizen in Singapore and he is very rich. Then one day if he wants to name, let’s say, one of our new hospitals and gives you half a billion dollars, and you name it after him. Then later, when he is discovered that there is something not very good about him, you will be very embarrassed. That is why Dr Tan thinks “we have to be very careful about that.”6 Because of his strong feeling about this, Dr Tan resigned from Jurong General Hospital’s board. He said, “You must have that independence to speak up if you feel that something is wrong. Or if you can, make it right.” 7

Character: Conviction despite criticism. When Dr Tan opposed the foreign talent policy in 1999, the then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew rebuked him. But he decided that Singaporeans must come first. Because of his stand on this subject, he received a lot of criticism.8

Character: Foresight. Dr Tan Cheng Bock also opposed the Nominated Minister of Parliament system. He foresaw the NMP scheme leading to sectarian representations: Doctors, lawyers, clans etc. may not be happy if not represented, causing divisions. He said that NMP has no accountability and challenged the need for non-elected NMP when there are already several unionists NMPs, “Are these unionist MPs not capable enough to represent the workers?” 9

Character questioned: Never compromise? Although all these incidents tie in well with Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s promise, “I will never compromise,” some people question whether he will carry it through because he supported the preventive detention of the alleged Marxist conspirators in 1987. He explained his actions in an interview saying, “I believed the information that was given to me from the government at that time. I saw that the people believed that they were conspirators as well. As Feedback Unit Chief, I could not let my own feelings dilute the general consensus, which I presented in Parliament.” When asked whether he still feels the ‘Marxist conspirators’ are guilty, Dr Tan says with a tone of sincerity, “I really feel they are innocent. They are all social workers and they meant well but unfortunately… (trails off)”. He added, “I saw the ex-detainees and I really do feel for them. But at that time I believed the information that was given to me.”10 If he really has the boldness and the determination as he claims, Dr Tan will be a good President, because if a President doesn’t dare to veto, he can’t really do anything else.

Opinion of running for President. Dr Tan Cheng Bock wants to run for President in order to have a contest. He thinks that “only through a contest that you feel you are legitimately there because you have the support of the people.” 11

Plan: Unification. He wants to be President to be the “unifying figure” for all Singaporeans after seeing the big split during this year’s general election. He thinks he has that independent streak, “You must have checks and balances. If not, Singaporeans will be very unhappy. One thing I see is a hunger for fairness. I can give an assurance that there will be more transparency in government. I refuse to compromise. I won’t compromise on things I don’t believe in.” 12

How to unify: Opinion of Presidential race. Dr Tan Cheng Bock might be able to unify because he was a PAP party member but has also been known for opposing them. While being on “both sides” may prove advantageous, some radical PAP supporters dislike him as he opposes the party; some radical opposition supporters dislike him as he was from PAP. He claims, however, that his relationship with PAP party members is “cordial”. Setting this aside, he believes that “the Presidential race is not a political race. It is about principles, independence, common sense and the ability to ask the right questions and do the right things, without fear or favour. It is about which candidate can do a better job.” 13

Plan as President. As a President, he wants to rigorously scrutinize the appointing of the top-echelon leaders, and work with the government of the day to protect Singapore’s reserves. 14

In All. In 28 July, 1992, The Business Times sums him up as, “Despite being a member of the party’s Central Executive Committee and a close and long-standing friend of the Prime Minister (they became good chums during their student days at Raffles Institution), the MP for Ayer Rajah preferred to ally himself with the compelling ethic that friendship and loyalty should not come in between a man and the strength of his convictions. A true practitioner of noblesse oblige (rank carries with it generous and honourable conduct). Dr Tan Cheng Bock’s fair-mindedness and ability to view party loyalty as important but not absolute has made him highly regarded both inside and outside the House. He is considered by some to be the outward manifestation of the PAP’s Conscience.” 15

This is Dr Tan Cheng Bock, a candidate for the 2011 Singapore Presidential Election.

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