Love for world af­fairs en­riches think tank role

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By LOW SHI PING For China Daily

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.

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