Ong Ye Kung: 'Ownself check ownself' is a virtue, shows government functions well

Health Minister Ong Ye Kung addresses the Singapore Perspectives 2022 forum on Thursday, 13 January 2022 (PHOTO: Jacky Ho/Institute of Policy Studies)
Health Minister Ong Ye Kung addresses the Singapore Perspectives 2022 forum on Thursday, 13 January 2022 (PHOTO: Jacky Ho/Institute of Policy Studies)

SINGAPORE — The popular saying "ownself check ownself" coined by Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh has been the subject of countless memes - and it has now been quoted by a contender for Singapore's premiership.

It was first used by Singh at a 2015 general election rally to mock Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's claim that the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) is its own check, and is now used with claims of a lack of accountability in the government.

But on Thursday (13 January), Health Minister Ong Ye Kung turned this on its head at the Singapore Perspectives 2022 conference, organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

"People can say 'ownself check ownself', but I see it always as a virtue — if ownself cannot check ownself, you're in big trouble," said the 52-year-old, who is widely seen as a leading contender to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

Singapore, said Ong, has a "neutral, non-politicised" civil service, starting downwards from the Permanent Secretary. Top civil servants are appointed by the independent Public Service Commission, while organs of state such as the Auditor-General's Office constantly check that the system is clean and functioning well.

The city-state is unlike other countries, where layers of civil servants change once a political party takes over. The rule of law is also upheld by a judicial system that does its work "very seriously".

"And of course, the presence of opposition in parliament that constantly will also raise other point of views that you need to debate, and you need to take it seriously," added Ong.

Two-party system unlikely

The minister was responding to a question from a member of the virtual audience, who asked if the need for a strong state is compatible with having a strong opposition, even possibly a two-party system.

Ong, who also co-chairs the multi-ministry task force on COVID-19, said that such a system is unlikely to arise in Singapore due to its small size. He noted that in a "large polity" like the United States, someone living in Alaska might think very differently from someone in New York.

In this regard, the rise of parties to cater to vastly different views, perspectives and aspirations in different populations segment is a logical outcome.

"Between Jurong and Changi, people worry equally about cost of living, about COVID-19, and in terms of fundamental views, it may differ from person to person, but not between regions," said Ong.

"So as a city-state, if Singaporeans are unhappy with one policy, the government can change it. If the government does a good job and people are happy, it spreads throughout the island as well."

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