Straits Times’ Long Interview with ‘The One Who Got Away’

I read the Straits Times‘ Long Interview with Ong Ye Kung in today’s issue and immediately

Firstly, THAT headline.

ONG YE KUNG – ‘The one who got away’

A few paragraphs into the article, the context of that quote becomes clearer:

Touted to be of ministerial calibre, Mr Ong is often spoken of as ‘the one who got away’ and unfortunate ‘collateral damage’ of GE 2011. People who have worked with him say it is Parliament’s loss as he is a natural politician, with his ability to rally people.

“The one that got away”? Not “the one that wasn’t voted in”? Or, as someone else pointed out, “the one that lost”?

It seems that when the PAP loses – in what it likes to tell us are democratic elections – it is an absolute crying shame, a great grave loss.

When the opposition loses? Well done, Singaporeans! Stay sensible!

The phrase “unfortunate collateral damage” makes the voting choices of Aljunied residents in GE 2011 seem like a stroke of bad luck – thereby requiring little examination of why many voters actually chose to vote against the PAP to send the Workers’ Party’s candidates to Parliament. 

Here are more choice excerpts from the article:

ONE year on, losing Aljunied GRC as part of the People’s Action Party’s team in the 2011 General Election still stings for Ong Ye Kung. He had described his campaign as ‘jumping off a cliff into the unknown’. 

But he’s found the bottom.


Looking back, the deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) says: ‘I don’t regret running. It was an experience of a lifetime.’ The only pity, he says, was that he had to resign from his 18-year Administrative Service career to go into politics.

I have no doubt that losing an election stings. But “jumping off a cliff”?

Ong may have lost the election but he is currently (according to Wikipedia):

  • Deputy Secretary General of the National Trades Union Congress
  • Chairman of the Employment and Employability Institute
  • Executive Secretary of the National Transport Workers’ Union
  • Executive Secretary of the Singapore Manual Mercantile Workers’ Union
  • Board member of the SMRT Corporation
  • Board member of SPRING Singapore
  • Board member of NTUC Learning Hub
  • Board member of the Jurong Town Corporation
  • Council Member of Ngee Ann Polytechnic

According to the Straits Times, Ong is still “a card-carrying cadre of the PAP” and remains “involved in grassroots activities in Kaki Bukit, the ward he was assigned during the last GE”. In fact, he “still shows up for community events almost every weekend”. Not only that, “he also spent eight weeks heading internal investigations into the SMRT breakdowns”.

(Seriously, with the amount of work a PAP non-MP does around here, why bother electing them in?)

If this is considered taking a leap into the unknown, how would they describe the incredible risks and terrible costs borne by opposition politicians? Politicians who have faced long years of imprisonment, exile from their country and loved ones, as well as bankruptcy, to name just a few consequences?

When PAP candidates speak of risk and hardship in entering politics, it trivializes the courage and suffering borne by others who have literally “jumped” into the known battlefield that is opposition politics in Singapore.

Far from leaping into the unknown, PAP politicians can generally enter elections with the assurance that, win or lose, they will continue to be actively involved in their ward’s grassroots activities and policy-making.

Surely that is a fact worth scrutinizing more closely?

One thing you definitely learn is resilience,’ the 43-year-old says, describing his failed political outing as his biggest professional setback to date. At his bleakest, he drew comfort from everyone from crooner Kelly Clarkson to boxer Muhammad Ali. He cites the lyrics to Clarkson’s What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger and a quote from the former world heavyweight champion which a stranger sent him on Facebook: ‘Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come out with an extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.’

Actually, this match was far from even. Ong was in a GRC helmed by a very popular minister but despite how very uneven the odds were (stacked in THEIR favour, that is), they still lost.

What helps him is how he keeps score – by deliverables, change and action. He has little patience for scholarly pontificating or writing retrospective analyses. The day after the election, he says, he returned to NTUC and resumed work to improve the lot of workers.

These sort of statements make non-PAP politicians who lose elections appear, in contrast, lazy, impotent and whiny. But opposition politicians are simply not able to “jump back” into work the same way, or continue attending grassroots events and “take action” – they do not have the power or resources to do so.

He has spent the past few months negotiating for a pay hike for bus drivers and making sure the Transport Ministry’s funding to public transport operators got passed down to drivers. Wage ceilings, which were not raised for 13 years, inched up from $1,560 to $1,700. ‘That says a lot about his negotiation skills,’ says bus driver Ong Leong Chin, 58, who is SBS Transit east district branch chairman. ‘He is someone who treats the workers as equals and respects their views. He goes down to a bus interchange coffee shop at least once a month to have lunch and chat with them.’

Sigh, Straits Times, you had a Long Interview with this man after a controversial “negotiation”, one that resulted in SMRT bus drivers sending an email to the media to state their displeasure, and you did not even address the bus drivers’ concerns? Instead you give Ong credit for the pay rise and do not even mention that these negotiations – which did not involve the bus drivers – involved an extra day’s work.

Can you blame us for wondering if this is yet another NTUC advertorial?

And finally:

I am certainly maintaining an active interest in politics. I was not successful when I stood for election. That is part and parcel of democracy and the electoral process. I will learn from it and remain committed to serving Singaporeans.

Our electoral process is far from democratic. Ong’s loss, in fact, was shocking because the odds of an opposition party winning a GRC are stacked against the latter. Ong’s loss (and the Workers’ Party’s win) is not a testament to democracy – it is a resolute show of disgust at the lack of it.  

*It may seem hard to believe, but I do not dislike this man. I just really really abhor the political system that produces these sorts of attitudes and outcomes, and a mainstream media that panders to it.


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