The well-known oppositionist J.B. Jeyaretnam wanted to run against you?
Yes, but he was not allowed to because he did not qualify under the stringent criteria. Maybe too stringent.
You were glad Jeyaretnam could not run?
No, it's okay. I think it would have been more fun.
Some of your colleagues did not think it was much fun when your only opponent, a former accountant-general, Chua Kim Yeoh, got so much support?
Yes, all of them were quite worried. Some ministers even called me to say: Oh, we are worried about the outcome. At first, we were quite confident about getting over 70 percent of the vote. But there was a swing of support over to my opponent's side, especially in the educated class -- civil servants and the Shenton Way group. The issue was whether they wanted a PAP man as president to check on a PAP government, or whether it would be better to have a neutral independent like Chua. That's why they voted against me because I had the PAP government support. I would have been happier without the PAP's open support. I think I would have been better off with just the unionists' support and the Chinese-educated heartlanders. Without them I would not have been elected.
But you did win and you had to figure out how to do this new job as Singapore's first elected president.
Yes. At the first opening of parliament after I was elected, I was given a speech prepared by the government. I read the speech carefully. Besides ceremonial functions, it said that I'm supposed to safeguard the reserves and to help society become more compassionate and gracious. So I decided that, well, if that is what is said in the speech, then that's going to be my job. And I am going to do it. That's what I tried to do. In fact, during the six years I was president, I was very busy.
Well, I got involved in a lot of things. The Istana presidential palace and other places had to be renovated. All this had to be planned and these places got ready one by one, so that ceremonial functions and other business could go on as usual. I had to press the government to finalize the procedures for the protection of the reserves. A lot of the teething problems and misunderstandings were because there was a lack of clearcut procedures of what to do. Towards the end of my term, I pressed the prime minister for a White Paper to be tabled in parliament that would set out all the principles and procedures for the elected president. Then I will announce my decision to step down. I want to get the job done.
Initially, he did not want to do that?
It's not that he did not want to do that, but it had been dragging for a long time. They produced a White Paper eventually, tabled it in parliament last July, and that made the future president's job easier. We have already tested out many of the procedures during my term, except for asking the president to approve a draw on the past reserves during a deep economic crisis. That was never done. It's that part of procedure that was not tested. How to do it?
It was this issue that caused the dispute between you and the government?
Yes. But I don't want to go into details and upset everybody. The thing is that the elected president is supposed to protect the reserves, but he was not told what these are until five years later. From the day the Constitution was amended in 1991 to provide for an elected president, he was supposed to fulfil that role. My predecessor, Wee Kim Wee, although he was not elected, was supposed to play that role during the last two years of his term. But he did not actively check. So, when I came in in 1993, I asked for all this information about the reserves. It took them three years to give it to me.
The holdup was for administrative reasons?
Either that or they did not think there was any urgency. You see, if you ask me to protect the reserves, then you've got to tell me what I'm supposed to protect. So I had to ask.
Why did they not want to tell you?
I do not know. Don't ask me, because I don't have the answer. I've been asking them. In fact, in 1996, exactly halfway through my term, I wrote prime minister Goh a letter. At that time, everybody was expecting a general election in December or January. After the election, a new government would be sworn in. When that happens, all the reserves, whether past or current, become past reserves and are locked up on the changeover date. As president, I have to safeguard them and they can only be drawn upon with my permission. So I said to Mr Goh: It's already halfway through my term, but until today I still don't know all these figures about the reserves.
So the government had been stonewalling you, the president, for three years?
Yes. What happened actually was, as you know, in accounting, when you talk about reserves, it's either cash reserves or assets reserves. The cash side is straightforward: investment, how many million dollars here and there, how much comes from the investment boards and so on. That was straightforward -- but still we had to ask for it. For the assets, like properties and so on, normally you say it's worth $30 million or $100 million or whatever. But they said it would take 56-man years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets. So I discussed this with the accountant-general and the auditor-general and we came to a compromise. The government would not need to give me the dollar-and-cents value, just give me a listing of all the properties that the government owns.
Well, yes, they agreed, but they said there's not the time for it. It took them a few months to produce the list. But even when they gave me the list, it was not complete.