Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Did Lee become PM by one vote?

Sep 5, 2009

THEY were still basking in the euphoria of their electrifying electoral victory on 30 May 1959 when they met in a small room in the law firm of Lee and Lee on Malacca Street sometime in the evening. The 12 central executive committee (CEC) members of the winning party had to grapple with the all-important question: Who should be prime minister of the new PAP government?

Nothing in the party constitution had stipulated how a prime minister should be picked from the governing body. No convention had been set as no PAP government had ever been formed. Certainly, there was no assumption that the secretary-general should automatically be the prime minister.

Two names were proposed: secretary-general Lee Kuan Yew and treasurer Ong Eng Guan. Small slips of white paper were handed to the CEC members to write down their choice in a secret ballot.

When chairman Toh Chin Chye received the votes, he opened and counted them one by one. There was a hushed silence when he declared six for Lee and six for Ong. The deadlock could not have been more dramatic. Then exercising his prerogative as chairman, he used his casting vote to break the tie, and Lee went on to be prime minister and to preside over the miraculous transformation of Singapore for the next 31 years.

This cliff-hanger reconstruction is culled from the reminiscences of Toh and then organising secretary Ong Pang Boon in a series of interviews for this book. It corroborated the account making the rounds in countless publications that there was a CEC vote to decide the premiership.

One oft-quoted source was Thomas J. Bellows' The People's Action Party of Singapore: Emergence of a Dominant Party System in which the American scholar recorded that the CEC met to designate a prime minister after the elections and that party chairman Toh voted twice, first in the original vote and then as the result of a tie, a casting vote.

In 2006, the political science professor recalled that 'the person I interviewed was an individual in whom I had especial confidence and was very courteous to a struggling graduate student'. His dissertation for Yale University was based on extensive interviews with members and supporters of all major political parties in 1964 and 1965.

References to the vote were never refuted publicly. In fact, a column on 12 July 1960 by Gordon Hung in The China Mail, which preceded the South China Morning Post, noted Ong's tremendous popularity saying that 'the only thing that seemed to stop him from becoming Singapore's first prime minister was the formality of a vote by the central executive committee'.

Yak Keow Seng, a former PAP activist and close aide of Ong Eng Guan, remembered the former mayor and minister confiding in him and saying that there was indeed a CEC vote after the elections and that he lost to Lee by one vote.

In what must surely go down as the greatest mystery of the PAP story, Lee said he was completely puzzled by accounts of such a vote. 'I don't remember any such thing. I cannot understand this, that Ong Pang Boon and Toh Chin Chye would say so. If one said so, I can dismiss it, but two said so...

'I led the elections. I crafted the strategy. I made the major campaign speeches. I made the last major broadcast. It was assumed that I would be the leader. I was the man meeting governor William Goode before, during and after the elections, not Ong Eng Guan. I negotiated with him for the release of the detainees, not Ong Eng Guan.'

He referred to an exchange of letters between him and Toh published in the press on 19 July 1961. Following the party defeat in the Anson by-election, Lee had written a letter to the then chairman offering to resign as PM. In his reply, Toh recalled that the CEC was unanimous in choosing Lee as PM and that it had confidence in him to lead the government and party.

As a British-trained lawyer, Lee said that he was aware of the constitutional position that to be prime minister, you have to be voted by the members of the assembly, not by the party's CEC. He noted that Ong Eng Guan could not have commanded the support of the majority of the elected representatives in the house.

On the prime minister's post, he added: 'It's a job nobody wanted. Who wanted the job? Anybody who took the job knew that he was going to meet the communists and have a lot of trouble. So it was not a job that I sought. If I thought Ong Eng Guan could do the job, I would have happily given it to him.'

S. Rajaratnam was certain 'there was no voting as there was no need to do so.' Jek Yeun Thong thought likewise. 'The choice of prime minister was obvious. There was no doubt. If there was ever a vote, it must have been held within the inner circle - Lee, Toh and Ong.'

The date of the CEC meeting had eluded Ong Pang Boon but he was quite sure that it must have been held sometime before June 1 when governor William Goode summoned Lee and asked him to form a new government.

On 31 May, the day after the polls, a special cadre members' conference was held at the Hokkien Huay Kuan on Telok Ayer Street to elect the sixth CEC. But Ong believed that it was the fifth CEC elected on 20 October 1957 which met to 'settle the premiership'. This CEC, he pointed out, included three former city councillors close to the former mayor and one or two members sympathetic to him.

Of the 12 members of the fifth CEC, seven have died - Goh Chew Chua, S.V. Lingam, Chan Choy Siong, Tann Wee Tiong, Ismail Rahim, Haron Kassim and Ahmad Ibrahim. The remaining five were Lee, Toh, Ong Eng Guan, Ho Puay Choo and Wee Toon Boon. The latter two claimed they had no recollection.

Ong Pang Boon was not swayed by all the accounts to the contrary and insisted that there was a vote. 'If there were no vote, how did Lee become prime minister?' he asked rhetorically. He was emphatic that he was present at the meeting although he could not vote as he was not a CEC member but a paid party official.

If the event was etched deeply in his mind, he said, it was because he thought it rather odd for two candidates vying for the top post to vote for themselves. 'I always thought that you don't vote for yourself in meetings but I guess if you want to be a leader you have to cast your vote too.'

What reinforced his memory further, he said, was that after the CEC meeting he was persuaded to be the minister for home affairs. Also playing on his mind then was his acute awareness of Lee's suspicions of the CEC members who might have voted for Ong Eng Guan. One was his wife-to-be Chan Choy Siong.

Toh was just as unequivocal about what he did at the fateful meeting.

'I voted for Lee Kuan Yew because Ong Eng Guan was unstable and I counted the votes in front of everyone. I read up the rules about chairing meetings. So I used my casting vote and that's how Lee became prime minister. I used the chairman's vote.'

Lending another intriguing note was an anecdote related by Low Por Tuck who joined Goh Keng Swee in the finance ministry after the elections. At one meeting with the parliamentary secretaries, Lee told them that Ong Eng Guan wanted to be prime minister after the election results were known and showed them a note written by Ong. Low said: 'I don't remember reading the note, but according to Lee, it indicated Ong's desire to be prime minister.'

Press coverage of the day made no reference to any CEC vote but suggested that the secretary-general was not the natural choice to be the prime minister. A Straits Times report a day after the May 30 polls quoted Toh as saying: 'We cannot let you know at the moment who is going to be the prime minister or who will hold office, as the CEC has not made any firm decision.'

A Straits Times report on June 1 noted that '24 hours after the PAP's landslide election victory, Singapore still does not know who will be its first prime minister'. The next day the newspaper proclaimed Lee as Singapore's first prime minister with no mention of how he was selected.

But talk of a vote persisted as typified in this remark by then Progressive Party secretary-general Chan Kum Chee: 'I understand when the prime minister was being chosen, Ong lost by only one vote.'

FROM TODAY'S PERSPECTIVE, it would seem inconceivable that anyone would dare to challenge Lee for the supreme job when his leadership of the party was virtually unquestioned from its Oxley Road days in the early 1950s.

After all, PAP was incubated in the bosom of his home. Lee saw through its gestation and was the principal convenor at its birth in 1954. He shot to prominence empowering the powerless and defending the defenceless. Painstakingly he cultivated a web of trade unions and grassroots organisations which provided critical political support for the fledgling party. Who else could top this sterling track record?

Some of his fellow founding members were older and more senior in work experience but they deferred to Lee's leadership from the start.

Samad Ismail's comment was reflective: 'Harry stood out from the rest. He had the personality, the energy and the intelligence.'

Others said that his legal mind gave him the commanding edge as issues of law and order were intertwined with the politics of the day.

Toh rued that he was just an academic with no mass base whereas Lee was a lawyer who brought in the support of the labour movement and was thus the natural choice to head the party. Having observed Lee in action in industrial disputes, Goh commended his legal ability to spot weaknesses in opposing arguments and latch onto issues that put the other side in an untenable position.

Rajaratnam noted that the 'inner group' which included Toh, Goh and him had always accepted Lee as their leader and expected him to be prime minister when the party won the 1959 elections. Mrs Lee made a similar observation: 'By some chemistry or something, they accepted his leadership without any question.'

If you speak to former leftists, they were just as unqualified in their support for Lee then. PAP founding member and convenor Fong Swee Suan said that Lee was picked unanimously by the CEC as the secretary (before it was changed to secretary-general) because 'he was sharp, outspoken and forceful with strong convictions and one who got things done very effectively'. S. Woodhull agreed that Lee was 'the acknowledged leader of all' as he initiated the formation of the party.

It was true that a band of radical leftists launched a coup in the August 1957 party election to capture the CEC but their aim was to keep Lee at the helm to provide legitimate cover. Their plot backfired when Lee refused to hold office. They were dismissed as 'maverick adventurers' who strayed from the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) line.

Former MCP secretary-general Chin Peng disclosed in his memoirs that the underground supported Lee. Fang Chuang Pi, who led MCP operations in Singapore, confirmed that he was instructed to back Lee as part of the anti-colonial united front.

Wildly speculative as it might be, the irresistible question that cropped up now and then was: Did it ever cross the mind of any PAP leader to dislodge Lee from the top? Was there no one with a shred of ambition to be primus inter pares?

As far as it could be ascertained, certainly not Goh who had confessed that he disliked politicking and public speaking, and said he lacked the charisma to be the leader. Not Toh either who had received Lee's letter of resignation on two occasions and could have accepted it and taken on the job himself. Instead he had ruled himself out, as he told our writers, because he believed in the principle of collective leadership and that 'in politics, you need a legal mind'.

What about the reserved and enigmatic Ong Pang Boon who was once placed on the cover of an international magazine and touted as the next prime minister of Singapore? He had been described as immensely popular with the Chinese-educated cadres and there were frequent references to him receiving more support than Lee in party conferences.

But former activists said Ong lacked the ambition and the fire and was completely loyal to Lee.

ONG ENG GUAN was the third member of the nine-man cabinet to be sworn in as the minister for national development at City Hall on 5 June 1959. As treasurer, he ranked No. 3 in the party after secretary-general Lee and chairman Toh. Together, they were dubbed the Big Three by pressmen and pundits.

At 34 years, two years younger than Lee, Ong was flying high. His stridently anti-colonial stewardship of the city council had captured the imagination of the neglected masses. He was lauded for his role in propelling PAP to a landslide victory. His ministerial portfolio commanded the biggest budget as it covered low-cost public housing, the centrepiece of the party's manifesto.

Yet one is hard-pressed to find anyone in Singapore's history who had soared into the political firmament more rapidly and then plummeted into a black hole so abysmally. What really happened? Why did the most popular politician of the day risk it all by challenging Lee? Was he indeed the much-maligned megalomaniac that he had been made out to be in PAP literature?

Ong had disappeared from public view since his exit from politics in 1965. He never spoke to the press again and never gave an oral history interview to the National Archives. All the much-documented allegations about his lust for power and his character defects have gone unrebutted by him.

Former politicians who used to know Ong well often expressed amazement that even in a small place like Singapore they had not crossed paths with him for decades. Ong Pang Boon, who was his deputy mayor, said he had yet to run into him since they parted company in the 1960s.

Lee Khoon Choy's last sighting of Ong was sometime in the mid-1970s in Jakarta when he was Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia. He said that Ong had turned up at his embassy to seek some investment advice.

Chen Say Jame, a former leftist trade unionist, caught up with him in 1989 when they went on a two-week holiday in China. During their trip, Ong had asked Chen why the leftists in the PAP voted him out of the CEC in the August 1957 party elections. 'I told him I was not involved in the ousting but I said I would have agreed to remove him anyway. I told him that I warned Lee about his ambition,' said Chen.

Several attempts to interview Ong in his accountancy firm, Ong Eng Guan and Company, at Ubi Tech Park in Ubi Crescent, failed. On the last occasion in 2003, his accountant wife Claire Chan, whom he married in 1955, said that Ong visited his office only once in a while and that he would call back if he agreed to give an interview. He never did. When his wife died in November 2004, no obituary was placed in the press. His close friends said he had cut off contact with them.

Sadly, Ong's deafening silence will continue to be a glaring omission in the PAP story. To make up for his missing voice, let's listen to the people who knew him and worked with him in the 1950s and 1960s.

A woman friend of Ong and a former PAP member who requested anonymity defended Ong strenuously, saying that he was a much-misunderstood man who only wanted to set things right for the party.

'When he resigned his seat to contest in Hong Lim, he wanted to prove that the people - trishaw riders, hawkers, samsui women and so on - were behind him. Ong was very close to the ordinary folks and that made Lee very uneasy.'

In her view, Ong was 'neither anti-leftist nor an extreme rightist. He was simply an extreme anti-colonial fighter. In Ong's eyes, Lee was half-hearted in fighting the colonialists.'

Like her, Yak Keow Seng believed that both leaders fell out because they could not see eye-to-eye on many issues. For example, he said, Ong was against the continuing employment of senior British civil servants such as George Thomson, A.E. Blades and P.H. Meadows. He felt that they were agents of the colonial government but Lee disagreed.

Many former PAP stalwarts and leftists believed Ong felt sorely disappointed at being passed over for a bigger post after the 1959 elections. Given the people's adulation, his mayoral record and key role in the polls, he thought he was entitled to no less than the premiership or at the least the deputy premiership, they said.

They had no doubt about his ambition, noting that he was building a power base in the party and his ministry. Fong Sip Chee said that Ong sat on the panel which hand-picked cadres and was able to pack his own people at the party conference on 31 May 1959 to elect the new CEC.

Rajaratnam observed that he was filling his ministry with his own political supporters. Ong Chang Sam said that Ong's followers were employed in government departments irrespective of their capabilities.

According to Chen Say Jame, Lee was warned repeatedly about Ong's quest for power. When he asked Lee to remove Ong from the CEC, the prime minister replied that he was his right-hand man. Chen recalled that he wanted to invoke an ancient Chinese fable to convey the danger posed by Ong. But because the prime minister was English-educated, he resorted to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar to make his point. 'Caesar died at the hands of his good friend Brutus, didn't he? I told him that Ong would be Brutus in future, the Brutus within PAP.'

Lee and company soon found that a style of governance that worked in an anti-colonial city council was very disruptive in an administration running a self-governing state on the road to independence. Ong's mayoral strengths turned into ministerial weaknesses. As mayor, Rajaratnam said, Ong could afford to be destructive by downing the British and civil servants but as minister, he had to be constructive by performing and producing results.

The way Ong ran his ministry began to grate on the nerves of his cabinet colleagues. Then finance minister Goh recounted how Ong described his permanent secretary, Hon Sui Sen, as someone who could only write minutes and reports and could not get anything done. Ong told Goh that the way to administer was by pressing people from the top and from the bottom, 'then they jump and get things done'.

Lee remarked that Ong would not give any written instructions. 'In fact, he told me once that a good administrator, a good leader, never writes minutes on file. He just brings the file, calls the officer up and tells the man, 'do this' or 'do that'.'

When Ong announced a $415 million five-year plan to build 84,000 flats in September 1959, then labour and law minister K.M. Byrne complained that was the first time the cabinet knew about it. Goh refused to give him any money saying that his submissions lacked financial logic.

To outmanoeuvre Ong, Lee and Goh installed their trusted friend Lim Kim San as chairman of the newly constituted Housing and Development Board (HDB) on 12 February 1960.

Lim's appointment effectively cut Ong off from the most important job of his ministry. His wings had been clipped, his powers stripped.

Could the ambitious populist take this lying down?

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