Ong Ye Kung appears to be a man in a hurry.
Early this month (May 4), Ong was the minister flying the Singapore flag high at the annual high-profile St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland.
At the Symposium, the Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) impressed a number of non-Singaporean young leaders with his remarks about the important role politics play in a disrupted world, quipping that "politicians today must have a sense of humour”, to laughter and applause in the audience.
And by the time he met us, Ong had already been through a whirlwind day of meetings, dialogues and panel sessions that started before 7am (Switzerland time).
His first meeting at St Gallen University, bright and early: with Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann, one of the seven "Presidents" of Switzerland. For this, Ong made sure he arrived there even earlier than the notoriously-punctual Swiss.
From there, he fronted the Symposium's first hour-long panel session with two ministers from Denmark and Switzerland.
He was the centre of gravity in no less than four other subsequent symposium-related dialogue sessions, followed by a meeting with Singapore exchange students at the university and Swiss exchange students who lived in Singapore.
Even lunch for him that day couldn't be wasted on just eating — and in fairness, he did eat, even though he previously said he doesn't have lunch. He economised that time as well, joining Economic Development Board officials in marketing Singapore to a group of Swiss businessmen.
We know all this because in a rare allowance of access, Ong let us tail him throughout almost all of that rather undoubtedly-draining day.
It was also quite amusing, therefore, on hindsight, how we arrived together and collapsed, kind of exhausted, into chairs at the lobby of Hotel Oberwaid, the hotel Ong was staying at around 6pm for our interview.
But perhaps our
stalking physical accompaniment was what helped him relax — Ong looked pretty relieved to be able to loosen his striking pink and red necktie, almost a metaphor for the grip his jam-packed official schedule had on his time.
And the first question in our chat did not come from me.
"Should I take off my suit?" he asked, before agreeing with me that the suit will keep him warm in the cold Swiss summer (which hovers at under 10oC) at St Gallen.
A homecoming of sorts
Switzerland is not an unfamiliar place to Ong.
As a young up-and-coming civil servant, Ong pursued his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from the Institute of Management Development in Lausanne, the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
It must have been a nice opportunity for Ong to revisit his past, therefore, when he did a stopover in Lausanne to visit educational institutions there before arriving in St Gallen:
"Early in the morning I did take a walk to look at the tiny apartment block where my wife and I used to stay. First time I’ve been back (in) 18 years. Seems like a lifetime ago."
This choice he made is notably unlike his cabinet colleagues (only three others have MBAs), many of whom did degrees in Public Administration from Ivy league schools. As a civil servant, he was also a strange creature — most typically do Masters degrees in fields like Public Policy.
Earlier that day, he said to a group of Singaporean exchange students at a dialogue session,
"Most people would do a Masters program in public policy, which is a one-year program in the Kennedy School in Boston. I decided I want to do an MBA because I like to know more about business...I decided to pick IMD in Switzerland.
I was also thinking that business shouldn't be about hiring and firing -- very Anglo-Saxon, value-add kind of approach. I wanted to be exposed to the European approach. In Switzerland, it's quite a unique model, where Mittelstand (small and medium-sized enterprises in German-speaking countries like Germany and Switzerland) — they don't call it Mittelstand here, they call it KMU — SMEs are the bedrock of the society and the economy. Innovation, family businesses, employment, all happen within the KMUs. It is a philosophy of management that is quite different — that everyone is family, everyone is in it together to share the fruits."
That tricky question of Singapore's 4th PM
But of course, this interview can't possibly centre on Ong's educational path. It also isn't about his discussed-to-death comments on universities and SkillsFuture, which he received online flak for recently, especially regarding his comments on university places.
It's here that we address the elephant in the room whenever Ong's name comes up, an idea that's — quite awkwardly for him — existed for a few years now.
Because "this man in a hurry" is not only one of the fastest-rising ministers in recent history (it took him just 13 months to be promoted to full Minister), he is also among the most prominent (read: front-runners) among the fourth-generation (4G) leaders — the other two being slightly-more-senior-in-cabinet Ministers Chan Chun Sing and Heng Swee Keat.
Certainly, Ong is one of the 4G leaders who will not feel awkward at the Istana, having worked as Principal Private Secretary (PPS) to PM Lee from 2003-2005.
In a previous interview with The Straits Times in January, he stayed pretty vague on the selection of the next PM, saying only that "when the time comes for the team to select a leader, I will support the person who emerges".
We weren't happy with this, and so I gave it another shot — does Ong think the time to select the next PM is approaching soon?
According to PAP folklore (see Men in White, Chapter 24, page 420), a meeting was held by current President Tony Tan to get the 2G leaders in his Cabinet to select the second-generation PM.
It was worth the follow-up — if asked, will he be organising something similar to help in the selection of the next PM?
"Of course every day that passes is a day closer but I don’t think we are at that stage yet.
We are at the stage of working together and we already know each other but really to get to know each other much better by working together and sometimes even clashing a little bit, argue a bit, I think it’s a natural process.
It is really through such a process of working closely together that I think in our individual minds, we have a sense of who can be our leader.
It’s a new generation — we will find our own format, not necessarily at a lunch or a dinner, to select our leader."
He also hopes we will all try to hold off on speculation, which we reckon he nonetheless has all but come to accept will remain rife until a clear candidate has emerged:
"With Swee Keat, Lawrence, Chun Sing, Iswaran, we work in the CFE together so that was quite an intense experience, exercise working together. With Chee Meng, we are constantly in deliberation. So I hope probably in the next coming months, years, we can deepen that working relationship.
That is an important step, there is no shortcut to that. Without that, we can’t move on to the next stage."
Education, Passion and Gordon Ramsay
It will be nearly two years since Ong was elected as an MP, and then straightaway brought into cabinet, in 2015.
As the Minister for Higher Education and Skills during this period, we asked if he is proud of any one policy he has introduced thus far.
"I wouldn’t say it’s one policy per se, but it’s championing the whole idea that educational journey must be driven by what we feel to be meaningful — what interests us and what we are good at — our passions and aptitudes," Ong says.
But maybe, just maybe, there is one that is the "teacher's pet"?
"The one policy I am rather pleased with is that ITE will soon run its own ITE Technical Diploma courses", he says.
He added that the new ITE diploma and its selection criteria will be based on one's portfolios, or the employers’ recommendation based on his/her work performance during industry attachment and "aspects that go beyond academics, and plays to the strength of what an ITE education should be".