PM Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of Dr Tony Tan's Autobiography, "Tony Tan Keng Yam: My Political Journey"

PM Lee Hsien Loong | 12 March 2024

Transcript of speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of Dr Tony Tan's autobiography, "Tony Tan Keng Yam: My Political Journey" on 12 March 2024.


I am honoured to be here today with Dr Tony Tan to launch his autobiography, “My Political Journey”.

Dr Tan has led a remarkable life, and spent almost half a century in public service and politics. He started off as an academic in the University of Singapore’s physics department, then launched on a successful banking career, eventually becoming the general manager of OCBC. Mr Hon Sui Sen, who had a sharp eye for ability and character, talent spotted him, and in 1979, Dr Tan answered Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s call to enter politics. He went on to serve for 27 years as a Member of Parliament for Sembawang, where he was well-loved by his residents. For Dr Tan, public service was always front and centre. Over the decades, he has held senior appointments in key national institutions, including the GIC and Singapore Press Holdings. He served in many ministerial posts – in education, trade and industry, finance, health, defence and national security as Coordinating Minister – and became Deputy Prime Minister; and later, he came out of political retirement to become Singapore’s 7th President.

With this memoir, he has done Singaporeans yet another service, sharing reflections from his extensive and illustrious career. I thank Leslie Koh and his team for putting together a readable and insightful biography. Younger readers especially will benefit from an inside view of Singapore’s nation-building journey, by someone who was intimately involved in getting us here, and contributed so much to our success.

I worked closely with Dr Tan for many years, and so am familiar with many of the episodes that he recounts, but I too enjoyed reading his perspective on these significant events. Let me highlight three in particular.

When I entered politics, my first posting was to MTI, to be a Minister of State. Dr Tan was my Minister. He soon assigned me a major project: to chair an Economic Committee to review Singapore’s economic strategy. This was in 1985. The initial aim was to rethink our long-term plans. But the economy unexpectedly dived into a sharp recession, and soon we had to focus also on the urgent crisis. We took many steps to reduce business costs and help companies and workers through the downturn. But there was one move that employers pushed for, and the government strenuously resisted: cutting CPF contribution rates.

At that time, the CPF rate was very high: 50%. Employers and employees each paid one quarter of wages into the CPF. The ministers, including me, argued strongly not to touch the CPF contributions. We pointed out that any CPF cut would be tantamount to cutting workers’ wages, which was true. Most importantly, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then still Prime Minister, was convinced that high rates helped to protect workers’ savings, and said so at the National Day Rally that year. But as the recession continued to deepen, eventually the Economic Committee concluded that we had no choice but to tackle these high CPF rates. As Dr Tan recounts in his book, we tested out our assessment on a visiting US economist, Charles Schultze, who concurred with this view. So we had to move. But how should we navigate this radical change in policy, which was likely to be surprising, controversial and unpopular? It was difficult. Not just because the Government had taken such a strong public stance on the issue. But Dr Tan also felt that it would be awkward for me, as a new MOS, on such an important matter to be the one to publicly contradict the Prime Minister, who was my father. He was very conscious that we had to keep public and personal lines separate. So when it came to the CPF cut, Dr Tan decided to carry the policy change himself, as the Minister for Trade and Industry. He made the case in Cabinet, and convinced Mr Lee and the other Ministers. Publicly, he found an appropriate occasion to make an elegant speech quoting the US historian Barbara Tuchman, on how governments tended to continue pursuing policies that were erroneous, when they should instead be making fundamental changes. By the time the Economic Committee published its report, the ground had been prepared. We still had much work to do, to persuade the unions and workers to accept the bitter medicine. That was hard work, but more straightforward. To me, this episode exemplified Dr Tan’s leadership style – entrusting someone with a task, leaving him to run with it, judging the moment to make a decisive move, and then making a strategic intervention himself to secure the key outcome.

Later, when I became PM, Dr Tan was already thinking of retiring and wanted to step down from the Cabinet.

I asked him to stay on for a while to help see through the transition, and I am grateful that he said “yes”. He told me he was interested in R&D policy, which he thought was important to our economic vibrancy. So I appointed Dr Tan as the first Chairman of the newly set up National Research Foundation (NRF).

Under his chairmanship, NRF decided to make a strong push in biotech. It was a big, long-term bet, not at all certain to pay off but today we can see the returns on that investment. The biotech sector now employs 25,000 workers and contributes almost a fifth of our manufacturing GDP. Homegrown scientists are doing cutting-edge R&D. Pharmaceutical industry leaders like Pfizer and Novartis have set up global manufacturing hubs in Singapore, creating good jobs for Singaporeans.

But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that really showed the value of this far-sighted, long-term strategy. Our scientists and researchers could participate in global scientific discussions on the virus. We helped maintain the international GISAID database, which facilitated sharing of COVID-19 genomic data worldwide. We were able to develop our own rapid testing kits, understand the science behind the vaccines being developed, place informed bets, and tap on industry networks to secure vaccines and therapeutics early. That was how we were able to protect our people and come through the pandemic relatively lightly. All these were by no means a given – it was the end result of vision, perseverance, and patient investments over the long-term. And Dr Tan played a big role as Chairman of NRF.

In 2011, many years after he had left political life, Dr Tan stood as a candidate to be President. Many people who put themselves forward for public office say they do so reluctantly. But in Dr Tan’s case, when he said that it had been a difficult decision for him to stand for election, it was beyond any doubt. As he writes in his book, he is by nature an introvert. Having already held top leadership positions in both the public and private sectors, there was nothing more he needed to prove. He had no personal reason to expose himself once again to the hurly burly of an election campaign and the intense scrutiny of those who are in public life, especially with sentiments still raw from the recent hotly contested general election. But he felt he had something to contribute that the nation required at that moment. He knew what was needed of a President – to be a respected and unifying figure that stood above the fray of politics, represented the whole nation, and provided a steady fulcrum for our political system. So, personal preferences notwithstanding, he put himself forward. It was a fiercely fought Presidential Election, which thankfully for Singapore, Dr Tan won. But it came at a high personal cost to him – the discourse and engagement were harsher than he or anyone had anticipated. And the cost was to the family too. But Dr Tan did not let this deflect him. He worked hard to be a President for all Singaporeans. He carried the high office with dignity and gravitas. He strongly believed that besides our financial reserves, it was also important to grow our “social reserves” – our unity and cohesion, which would see Singapore through tough times. Thus he paid particular attention to spurring volunteerism. He also supported our national athletes, and lent patronage to Singaporean artists. Working with Dr Tan as Prime Minister, whether on decisions where he exercised custodial powers, or on issues where he acted on the government’s advice, I always valued his views, and took them very seriously.

Beside him walking his journey all the way was Mrs Mary Tan. Mary has been a key pillar of support to him. She added much empathy and warmth to his Presidency. Dr Tan would be the first to tell you that he could not have done all that he did without Mary. The passages in the book where he writes about her are the most personal and heartwarming to read.

MTI, NRF, and the Presidency – these are just three occasions where I had the privilege to work with Dr Tan. I am very grateful for our long and productive relationship over four decades. From his guidance and mentorship when I first entered politics. To our years as Cabinet colleagues, where he continued to offer sound advice and steadfast support. And later, when he was President and I was Prime Minister, working together to take Singapore forward.

Ladies and gentlemen, there can be no doubt about Dr Tan’s immense contributions to Singapore. But what if he had not answered the call to serve? He writes that back in 1979, he had been determined to stay in the banking sector and turn down Mr Lee’s call to join politics. But one sentence from Mr Lee changed everything: “If good people don’t go into politics, bad people will”. We are fortunate that Dr Tan eventually chose to serve. Not just that first time, but on the many subsequent occasions: When he agreed to Mr Goh Chok Tong’s request to leave the private sector and return to the Cabinet in 1995. When instead of retiring, he agreed to my request to stay on a while longer, and volunteered to take charge of R&D policy in 2005. And most significantly, when he decided to stand as a candidate for President in 2011.

As Dr Tan wrote in the book, joining politics has involved many challenges and sacrifices. But there is also the sense of deep fulfilment and satisfaction that comes along with improving peoples’ lives, and building a better Singapore.

Tony, I hope that your book will inspire more to follow in your footsteps, to come forward and lead Singapore into a better future. Thank you for your lifetime of distinguished service to Singapore. I wish you good health and every success, and congratulations on the launch of your book!

Thank you.