SINGAPORE: Rumours that the ruling party may field Chief of Defence Force (CDF) Melvyn Ong Su Kiat in the next election are swirling on WhatsApp and Telegram chat groups after the Ministry of Defence’s (MINDEF) announced yesterday (22 Feb) that he will step down from his post on 24 March.
MINDEF said that the Lieutenant-General will continue to serve in public service, following his retirement from the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).
While the exact nature of LG Ong’s public service and his post-SAF plans remain unclear, the announcement has triggered questions on whether the 47-year-old is preparing to join politics, in time for the next General Election.
If he does run, LG Ong will not be the first ex-CDF who rode into politics under the People’s Action Party (PAP) banner. His predecessor Ng Chee Meng was fielded as a fresh face in the 2015 general election, which took place less than a month after he retired from the army.
Mr Ng was put in a six-member team under the leadership of then-Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and coasted to victory and into Parliament. He then became one of a rare few in Singapore’s history to be appointed as cabinet minister as soon as he joined Parliament.
As part of the PAP’s fourth-generation (4G) cohort of leaders, Mr Ng was made Minister of Education (Schools) and Second Minister for Transport shortly after the election in 2015. In 2015, he was appointed a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office and was elected Secretary-General of Government-linked labour movement, NTUC.
In his second election, Mr Ng was identified as the leader of the PAP team contesting the newly-carved out Sengkang GRC. In a stunning upset, Mr Ng and his team lost to the Workers’ Party (WP).
Although he was voted out of political office and lost his ministerial position, Mr Ng remains active as a PAP branch chairmen in Sengkang and has discretion over how taxpayer funds are disbursed in the opposition-held ward.
He was also appointed to continue as labour chief, despite losing the election, in a move that was contrary to the norm – a move that signals that he will be part of the PAP’s slate in the next election.
The next election must be held no later than 23 November 2025 but analysts have predicted that it will take place earlier, perhaps as early as June next year. And this time, Mr Ng may have a fellow former CDF as part of his party in the form of the retiring LG-Ong.
Speculation is also rife that in the interim period, between his retirement from the SAF and the next election, LG Ong may find a post for himself within a government-linked entity.
It is noteworthy that every single one out of the nine former CDFs that precede LG Ong had key roles in government ministries, statutory boards, and firms that are known to have close ties to the establishment, after they left the Forces.
CDF role = springboard for success?
Some of the better known ex-CDFs are Ng Yat Chung and Desmond Kuek.
Ng joined Singapore sovereign wealth fund Temasek, after his departure from the army, before he was eventually made CEO of Neptune Orient Lines (NOL). He infamously ran NOL aground and was blamed for his failure to improve the company’s performance during his tenure as chief executive despite earning millions from the top role.
Temasek sold all of its shares in NOL to France’s CMA CGM, which managed to turn the company around and post a $26 million net profit within mere months.
Despite this, Ng was subsequently made chief executive of Singapore Press Holdings – the mainstream media conglomerate that has well-known ties to the Government.
Ng’s direct successor Desmond Quek briefly served as permanent secretary in a Government ministry for a year and a half after he left the Forces. The very next day after he resigned from his post as Permanent Secretary, Kuek started his new job as President and Group CEO of SMRT Corporation Limited.
Kuek’s tenure at SMRT was marked by various controversies – from the deaths of two trainees who were struck by an oncoming train, to the unprecedented flooding of an MRT tunnel and a collision between two trains that injured over 30 individuals, besides countless train service breakdowns.
Kuek was also directly responsible as group CEO for selling SMRT to Temasek on 29 September 2016, almost exactly four years since he took over as chief executive, effectively privatising the corporation.
He stepped down from his post as president and group CEO of SMRT after years of brickbats from the public, and after earning close to 10 million in the five and a half years he led the transport group.
Although SMRT said that it conducted a global search to find the next SMRT head honcho, they eventually ended up giving the job to another CDF – Neo Kian Hong, the very man who had succeeded Kuek as CDF.
This swapping of chairs is not new. The very first CDF Winston Choo joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) after retiring from military service and served as Singapore’s High Commissioner to Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and South Africa.
His last public service role was as Singapore’s Non-Resident Ambassador to Israel – a role he held from 2005 to 2021, when he was succeeded by another ex-CDF Lim Chuan Poh.
Lim served as Permanent Secretary for Education and Chairman of A*STAR, a Government statutory board, prior to his appointment as a diplomat. He is also Chairman of the National Infocomm Security Committee and Chairman of Governing Board of NTU’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.
The last three former CDFs eventually made it to the private sector but not before they bounced around the establishment.
Singapore’s second CDF, the late Ng Jui Peng, was made deputy chairman of the Central Provident Fund Board after he left the SAF. He also held key roles at ST Engineering before he became an entrepreneur.
His successor Bey Soo Khiang was with Singapore’s flag carrier airline Singapore Airlines for more than a decade after leaving the military, before he landed the Vice-Chairman post at Indonesian multinational company Royal Golden Eagle (RGE) in 2011.
LG Ong’s direct predecessor Perry Lim is also a major figure at RGE. He was made managing director of the manufacturing giant after holding roles within the Ministry of Education.
With such a steadfast history of former CDFs going on to play key roles in the establishment, it is no surprise that all eyes are now on LG Ong and how he figures in the PAP’s strategy for the next election.
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