There's a gravitas of sorts to presidential candidate Ng Kok Song.
After all, he was a civil servant who counts among his acquaintances members of Singapore's old guard, most notably the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
He even taught meditation — one of his life's passions — to Lee in his old age, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong mentioned in his eulogy to his father.
In fact, the late Lee was his "best student", Ng said.
"Why do I say that? Because Mr Lee was serious," he explained.
For instance, he would ask for recordings of the lessons to be transcribed, so he could study the notes later on.
"And when he's got some questions, he would send the questions to me and say, 'Kok Song, can you please clarify this?'"
Ng also related the story of his final encounter with Lee, not long before his death.
"On that day, as I was leaving, he was sitting in his chair. He asked me to come forward and shook my hand. And he said, 'Kok Song, thank you for coming to help me with my meditation.'
"I broke down. I said, 'Mr Lee, you do not know what a great honour it is for me to be able to come here, sit down with you, and meditate with you'.
And he smiled at me."
Outside of meditation, Ng has spent most of his career working in reserve management.
The 75-year-old began his career at the Ministry for Finance under then-Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee. There, he worked as an investment analyst, giving him his first piece of insight into Singapore's reserves.
Ng later joined the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) — also working in reserve management — and then the GIC, where he eventually rose to become chief investment officer.
This experience, Ng argues, uniquely qualifies him to take on the role of President. "I have the competence to do the job of the President, in terms of safeguarding our reserves," he told Mothership in a Jul. 24 interview.
"Because I spent 45 years of my life investing our reserves, and building up our reserves."
The underdog candidate
It's not just his experience with money, though.
Ng pointed out that his 45-year-long tenure as a civil servant qualifies him to uphold the integrity of the public service — another one of the President's key roles.
There's also his lack of political affiliation, something which he has previously highlighted.
And of course, his humble beginnings — his father was a fish auctioneer, and his mother a housewife — that fit perfectly with the Singaporean dream.
Still, Ng is keenly aware of his disadvantages.
For one, he's not that well-known locally, as compared to his rivals (although he's quick to clarify that he's still pretty well-known internationally, due to his work at GIC).
"But that cannot be helped," Ng said.
"Because when I was working in the public service, I stayed away from the limelight. I concentrate on my work, I was not a politician."
"So I start with a disadvantage. You might call me an underdog.
But [being the] underdog is not a bad place to be, because the underdog can only win."
In it to win it
And, Ng clarifies, he is in it to win.
"I think I stand a pretty good chance," he said, "if I can explain to the people of Singapore what are my reasons for standing as president, and what I hope to do as President."
He added that he believes that his "candidacy is important for Singapore".
The first point: to help secure Singapore's future.
"A lot of our young people, they are concerned about the future. What's going to happen to Singapore? Will they get good jobs? Will they be able to make a good living to support their family?" he asked.
In addition, Singapore is "in a political crisis, of confidence and trust," he said, referring to the recent slew of scandals involving Singapore politicians.
"So I feel I can make a little contribution by coming forward," he explained.
And the second point: to ensure an election is held at all.
"If it's a walkover...it's not good. People will not be happy, and the President will not be credible," he said.
He added that while there are already two other candidates, each hopeful must first meet the stringent criteria to be deemed eligible.
While ex-Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam will qualify automatically due to his ministerial experience, both Ng and George Goh would apply for candidacy under the deliberative track — which is far more uncertain.
To be clear, Ng does believe that he meets the criteria.
But he also recognises that "it is something which the Presidential Elections Commission [must] decide".
Finally, in response to allegations that he joined the race just to dilute the votes between non-establishment candidates, he replied: "Dilute? No, I'm a concentrate."
"A concentrate means I'm the real stuff, and I want to win.
Not just dilute somebody's votes."
The Sybil quandary
Finally, I asked Ng about the elephant in the room: his fiancée, Sybil Lau.
"Did I expect that my fiancée would be the most interesting story?" he mused. "We expected that. She's 45, I'm 75. There's a 30-year age difference."
"So when I informed Sybil about my intention to stand for the presidency, she thought long and hard about it.. And she said, 'Kok Song, there will be a big intrusion into my private life.'
"'But if you feel strongly that you want to do this, for the people of Singapore, I will support you.'"
Visibly emotional, he related the story of how he met her, after 14 years alone following the passing of his late wife, Patricia.
"I didn't have a partner. I didn't think I would have a partner again, because I was quite happy with my family life, I was doing my work...and I had many friends, so I wasn't lonely," he shared.
"And then unexpectedly, I met Sybil. I fell in love with her. And to my great delight and happiness, I realised that she liked me too."
Unfortunately, Lau's mother passed about two years ago. The couple decided to observe the customary three-year mourning period, according to Chinese tradition, before pursuing marriage.
"So that is why I'm introducing her as my fiancée," he explained.
"But once this election is over, and once the three-year mark has passed...we're gonna get married."
Top photo by Andrew Koay