Ng Kok Song’s “self-sacrifice”: Genuine intent or strategic play?

On Monday, the live broadcast of the Singapore Presidential Election 2023 by Channel News Asia provided many talking points concerning the three presidential candidates.

One point I found particularly bemusing was Mr Ng Kok Song’s claim that he was making a ‘sacrifice’ to vie for the esteemed office of the President.

His declaration, paired with his well-documented financial and business history, paints an intriguing picture of a man driven to do more for his country. Or is he?

Mr Ng, the former GIC chief investment officer, boasts an impressive financial resume.

After a notable 27-year stint with GIC, he co-founded Avanda Investment Management in 2015. Remarkably, just a year later, the company received a staggering sum of S$4 billion from Temasek.

These figures are far from trivial. They offer insight into the magnitude of operations and the clout Ng holds in the financial sphere.

When such a tycoon asserts his intention to divest all his business interests in Avanda to sidestep potential conflicts of interest, it understandably sparks discussion.

On its face, relinquishing ties to a company that has attracted billions in investment seems like a profound sacrifice.

Yet, context matters.

The presidency promises a hefty annual salary of S$1,540,000.

At age 75, this sum is far from inconsequential for Mr Ng. Coupled with potential earnings from divesting his stake in the company, his ‘sacrifice’ appears less grand.

The media’s part in this election is equally noteworthy. Mr Ng’s campaign which he launched out of nowhere, veered away from the conventional grassroots approach.

Absent were tales of zealous volunteers rallying support or impassioned grassroots movements. Instead, he spent tens of thousands on advertising monies to promote his social media posts.

Rather, his campaign appeared to bask in the limelight afforded by mainstream media, with his appearances and engagements extensively chronicled.

Without such coverage, especially from platforms like Channel News Asia, Straits Times, and Mothership, Mr Ng’s public presence could have been significantly diminished, especially given his lack of presence over the past decades in Singapore.

In an age where information wields power, the media’s leaning is undeniably significant.

Adding another layer to this story is the affiliation between Mr Ng and Madam Ho Ching, the erstwhile CEO of Temasek.

The investment in Ng’s firm during Madam Ho’s tenure underscores a relationship that might be perceived as more profound than mere corporate ties.

In the often murky intersection of politics and finance, such connections always pique the electorate’s interest, who yearn for transparency and uprightness.

The election’s strategic landscape further complicates matters.

Hushed conversations hint that Ng’s bid might be less about personal aspiration and more about a nuanced strategy to bolster Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the People’s Action Party’s favored candidate, and avert a potentially awkward uncontested election given the limited eligibility in Singapore’s private sector.

Indeed, Mr Ng himself hinted at this sentiment when he collected his eligibility form at the election centre last month.

“The people of Singapore do not want another walkover. I am standing so that you can choose your president,” said Mr Ng to the media.

To some, it seems he’s competing merely to ensure the PAP Government isn’t left red-faced with a default presidential victory – just like how the current president for hers, thereby allowing the chosen president to claim the people’s mandate rightfully.

Yet, the unexpected candidacy of Tan Kin Lian introduced an unforeseen challenge with a three-corner fight.

Mr Ng, potentially an ideal supporter for Mr Tharman’s presidential ambitions, might inadvertently sway votes from those disinclined to support Mr Tan Kin Lian, and similarly hesitant to back Tharman.

This dynamic evokes memories of Singaporean voters’ sentiment in 1993 when the pro-establishment voters cast 41.3% for the late Chua Kim Yeow over the esteemed late Ong Teng Cheong, purely to prevent the PAP from holding all the reins in Singapore.

While Mr Ng isn’t as reluctant as Mr Chua was about campaigning during his era, it’s evident he isn’t running primarily to win.

The vigour of his campaign, characterized by numerous attacks on Mr Tharman and declarations of his independence, would seem to be aimed at diverting votes from Mr Tan, who is viewed as the non-establishment candidate in this Presidential election.

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