Love for world affairs enriches think tank role
Ong Keng Yong is best known as the former secretaryof the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Singapore’s ambassador to various countries. But when asked to recall the most satisfying part of his career, his reply is unrelated to any of that diplomatic experience.
Instead, he said, it was the period of his life between 1998 and 2002. This was when he was temporarily transferred out of Singapore’s foreign service to become press secretary to former prime minister Goh Chok Tong and, concurrently, chief executive director of the People’s Association, a government-linked organization that encourages social cohesion through setting up community-related programs in the city-state.
“It was a unique time and not like anything I had done in the past 20 years as a diplomat,” said the 62-year-old, who is currently the executive deputy chairman of the Singaporebased S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
The People’s Association had a more than 2,000-strong workforce and Ong took it upon himself to “make sure everyone recognized me and vice versa”. To achieve this, he visited every grassroots organization under its auspices, including the many community centers it manages.
“This brought me to every nook and cranny of Singapore, from the kampongs, or Malay villages of Pulau Ubin to the enclaves of Pasir Ris and Lim Chu Kang, allowing me to see how Singaporeans from all walks of life work and live. It was also a rare chance to glimpse government policy at work at the grassroots level.”
Then in 2002, his career took a very different path. It was Singapore’s turn to provide the secretary-general for ASEAN, and the government put Ong forward for consideration by leaders of the 10-member bloc.
“I was quite surprised by my nomination. Mr Goh said that I had worked with him for more than four years and it was time for me to do another national service. Basically, the decision was made and I didn’t have a chance to say no.”
Ong admitted that he took the position “without much knowledge of the processes and ways of doing things in ASEAN”. Unfazed, he plunged in at the deep end and quickly found his way.
“There were hundreds of ASEAN meetings covering a wide spectrum of issues across more than 30 sectors and in different locations around Southeast Asia and beyond. There was not much time to ponder or pontificate on extraneous matters. I learned on the job as my professional staff carried me through from one meeting or subject to another,” he said.
Ong headed the secretariat between 2003 and 2008, and in retrospect, he jokes that his role emphasized “secretary” more than “general”. He saw himself as a facilitator of the search for solutions rather than the one making the decisions.
To equip himself, he would read every report submitted to the secretariat to gain knowledge on a range of issues. This would allow him, when necessary, to borrow ideas from different sectors to put forward as possible solutions.
Ong is also a big advocate of not wasting time.
“If we did not come to meetings prepared with alternative solutions for the member states, then we needed to go back and think about how to move forward, then decide at the next meeting, usually a few months later. Every meeting we conducted had to have an outcome.”
Ong prides himself on the fact that during his term the secretariat pushed through many decisions. One example was the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers in 2007.
“For a long time, there was no conclusion on how one should deal with this,” he said.
The solution: His team listed all the conditions that ASEAN members had to adhere to, splitting them into either labor importing or exporting countries.
Another highlight, according to Ong, was the delivery of the ASEAN Charter, the bloc’s legal and institutional framework, which was signed in 2007 and took effect the following year. The process started with his team gathering models of charters from around the world.
Then started the negotiation process to ensure that all 10 member states would benefit from it.
“We were careful not to impose ideas but to provide information to make the right decisions. It was all about give and take.”
At the end of the day, Ong is a diplomat at heart. Toward the conclusion of his term as ASEAN’s secretary-general, he found himself “pining” for the work he used to do at Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which he joined in 1979.
“I never thought of leaving the foreign ministry. I’m the kind of person that takes the job and sticks to it dead,” he said.
“Work at the foreign ministry is very lively. You deal with it every day, you read about it in the newspaper, and it is very much in your face. It is always present. There is no need to dig up a history book to understand it.”
Ong joined the ministry as a foreign service officer fresh out of university. A keen interest in international affairs and law led him to study both.
He later pursued a master’s degree in Arab studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, where he also learned to speak Arabic. This paved the way for him to become charge d’affaires of the Singapore embassy in Saudi Arabia, which required him to live in Jeddah and Riyadh from 1984 to 1988.
Looking back, Ong describes those years as “romantic” and “exotic”.
“The culture and way of life in the Middle East, as well as the allure of the desert, camels and nomadic lifestyle, make it different from what we are used to.”
After Saudi Arabia, Ong took on deputy chief positions in Malaysia and then the United States, before becoming the high commissioner to India. Following that, in 1998, he began his decadelong tenure away from the foreign service.
In 2008, Ong chose to return to the foreign ministry and became the nonresident ambassador to Iran.
“I needed to go back to get used to the jargon and all till I drop the latest concerns,” he said. Three years later, he became high commissioner to Malaysia, serving until 2014.
Ong remains an ambassador-at-large, as well as nonresident high commissioner to Pakistan and nonresident ambassador to Iran.
But nowadays, the primary occupier of his time is his position at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Although at first glance the job may seem quite different from what he was used to, it actually is not.
“The most appealing part of the job is its involvement with policy development and international relations, both of which I have a keen interest in, together with current affairs.
“In a typical day, I can be talking about the ASEAN policy on infrastructure development, the relations between Singapore and another country in areas such as the spread of communicable diseases, and preparing for natural disasters.”
He enjoys the rigor that the job offers, saying that no two consecutive hours are the same. And his years of experience in the field allow him to mix academic pursuits with the practical and the ideal.
Ong is quick to debunk any perception that his role is a retirement perch.
“I see it not just as a school, but a generator of ideas, innovation and networks,” he said. “I can travel abroad to attend conferences and workshops, and I can sustain my interest in international relations and current affairs.”
Ong Keng Yong, former secretary-general of ASEAN, says he enjoys his current job at a think tank because of its involvement with policy development and international relations.