Tony Tan

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Tony Tan Keng Yam

Tony Tan Keng Yam cropp.jpg
7th President of Singapore
In office
1 September 2011 – 31 August 2017
Prime MinisterLee Hsien Loong
Preceded byS. R. Nathan
Succeeded byHalimah Yacob
Coordinating Minister for Security and Defence
In office
1 August 2003 – 1 September 2005
Prime MinisterLee Hsien Loong
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byS. Jayakumar (National Security)
Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
In office
1 August 1995 – 1 September 2005
Prime MinisterGoh Chok Tong
Lee Hsien Loong
Preceded byOng Teng Cheong
Succeeded byWong Kan Seng
Minister for Defence
In office
1 August 1995 – 1 August 2003
Prime MinisterGoh Chok Tong
Preceded byLee Boon Yang
Succeeded byTeo Chee Hean
Minister for Education
In office
1 January 1985 – 29 December 1991
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Goh Chok Tong
Preceded byGoh Keng Swee
Succeeded byLee Yock Suan
Minister for Finance
In office
24 October 1983 – 1 January 1985
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byHon Sui Sen
Succeeded byRichard Hu
Member of the Singapore Parliament
for Sembawang GRC
In office
4 September 1988 – 6 May 2006
Preceded byConstituency established
Succeeded byKhaw Boon Wan
Member of the Singapore Parliament
for Sembawang SMC
In office
11 February 1979 – 3 September 1988
Preceded byTeong Eng Siong
Succeeded byConstituency abolished
Personal details
Tony Tan Keng Yam

(1940-02-07) 7 February 1940 (age 79)
Singapore, Straits Settlements
Political party
Children3 sons
1 daughter
RelativesTan Chin Tuan (Uncle)
Alma materNational University of Singapore
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
University of Adelaide

Tony Tan Keng Yam DUT (First Class) GCB (born February 7, 1940) is a Singaporean politician who was the seventh President of Singapore holding office from 2011 to 2017 after winning the 2011 Singaporean presidential election with 35.20% of the votes, winning by a narrow 0.34% margin over Tan Cheng Bock. Tan was sworn in as President on 1 September 2011[1] and held office until 31 August 2017,[2] he is the only living former president of Singapore.

Education and early career[edit]

Tan was educated at St Patrick's School and St Joseph's Institution; as a recipient of a government scholarship, he graduated with first class honours in physics from the University of Singapore (now the National University of Singapore), topping his class.[3] As an Asia Foundation scholar, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he completed a Master of Science in operations research, he later earned a Doctor of Philosophy in applied mathematics at the University of Adelaide, and went on to lecture mathematics in the University of Singapore.[4] [5]

In 1969, Tan left the University of Singapore to begin a career in banking with Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC), where he rose to become General Manager, before leaving the bank to pursue a career in politics in 1979.

A member of the People's Action Party (PAP) until June 2011, Tan became a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1979, he was appointed as a Senior Minister of State in the Ministry of Education in 1979.

Minister for Education (1980–81 & 1985–91)[edit]

He joined the Cabinet in 1980, serving as Minister for Education (MOE).

As the Minister for Education, Tan scrapped a policy that favoured children of more well-educated mothers ahead of children of less-educated mothers in primary school placement in response to popular discontent and public criticism of the policy which saw PAP receiving the lowest votes since independence during the 1984 general election,[6][7] he also introduced the independent schools system, allowing established educational institutions in Singapore to charge its own fees and have control over their governance and teaching staff, though this was criticised by parents as being "elitist" and made top-ranked schools increasingly out of reach to poorer families due to subsequent fee hikes.[8][9]

Minister for Trade & Industry (1981–86)[edit]

Tan took on the role of Minister for Trade & Industry from 1981 to 1986, he was also appointed Minister for Finance (1983–85), and Minister for Health (1985–86).[3]

Tan espoused a cut in the Central Provident Fund (CPF) in the 1980s, which Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had said would not be allowed except "in an economic crisis".[10]

Union disputes and conflict with Ong Teng Cheong[edit]

Tan was also known to have opposed the shipping industry strike in January 1986, the first for about a decade in Singapore, which was sanctioned by fellow cabinet member Ong Teng Cheong, the secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), who felt the strike was necessary.

As Minister for Trade and Industry, Tan was concerned about investors' reactions to a perceived deterioration of labour relations and the impact on foreign direct investment.

In his analysis, historian Michael Barr explains that older [grassroots] union leaders" bore "increasing disquiet" at their exclusion from consultation in NTUC's policies, which were effectively managed by "technocrats" in the government. Unlike the previous NTUC secretary-general Lim Chee Onn, Lee Kuan Yew's protégé Ong Teng Cheong in 1983 had an "implicit pact" with the trade unions—involving grassroots leaders in top decisions and "working actively and forcefully" in the interests of the unions "in a way Lim had never seen to do"—in exchange for the unions' continued "cooperation on the government's core industrial relations strategies". (In 1969 the NTUC had adopted "a cooperative, rather than a confrontational policy towards employers".)[11]

Although striking was prohibited and trade unions were barred from negotiating such matters as promotion, transfer, employment, dismissal, retrenchment, and reinstatement, issues that "accounted for most earlier labour disputes", the government provided measures for workers' safety and welfare, and serious union disputes with employers were almost always handled through the Industrial Arbitration Court, which had powers of both binding arbitration and voluntary mediation.[12] However, Ong felt these measures did not prevent "management [from] taking advantage of the workers", recalling in a 2000 interview in Asiaweek: "Some of them were angry with me about that... the minister for trade and industry [Tan] was very angry, his officers were upset. They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore?"[13] However the fact that the strike only lasted two days before "all the issues were settled" was cited by Ong in a 2000 interview with Asiaweek as proof that "management was just trying to pull a fast one".

Separately, Tan initially opposed the timing of building the Mass Rapid Transit in 1981 when it was raised by Ong. Tan held the view that the local construction industry was overheated at the time, and public housing should take priority.[14]

Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (1992–1995)[edit]

In December 1991, Tan stepped down from the Cabinet to return to the private sector, and rejoined the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) as the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer from 1992 to 1995, while retaining his seat in Parliament as a representative for the Sembawang Group Representation Constituency.

Deputy Prime Minister (1995–2005)[edit]

After Ong Teng Cheong and Lee Hsien Loong were diagnosed with cancer in 1992,[15] and 1993[16] Tan was asked[17] to return to Cabinet in August 1995 as Deputy Prime Minister (1995–2005) and Minister for Defence (1995–2003), it was reported that he declined an offer of make-up pay, which compensated ministers for a loss in salary when they leave the private sector.[18] Tan declared that "the interests of Singapore must take precedence over that of a bank and my own personal considerations".[19]

In August 2003, he relinquished the defence portfolio and became the Co-ordinating Minister for Security and Defence, while retaining the post of Deputy Prime Minister,[3] he later persuaded the Minister for National Development Mah Bow Tan to abandon plans to demolish an old mosque in his constituency of Sembawang.[20] Dubbed the "Last Kampung Mosque in Singapore", it was later designated a heritage site.[21]

Tan joined other dissenting colleagues in opposing the implementation of "integrated resorts" with their attached casinos to Singapore. Commenting on an MCYS survey of gambling habits, Tan had said he was "appalled" that a newspaper headline dismissed the number of likely problem gamblers (55,000) as insignificant: "I don't think it's insignificant; every Singaporean is important. Every Singaporean that gets into trouble means one family that is destroyed, it cannot be a matter of small concern to the Government."[22][23]

Tan stepped down as Deputy Prime Minister and Co-ordinating Minister for Security and Defence on 1 September 2005.

Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (2005–2011)[edit]

Tan was appointed the Executive Director of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) following his retirement from Cabinet in 2005.[24]

Tan's tenure at the GIC coincided with moves towards "greater disclosure in the investment fund's activities amid mounting concerns about the secretive fund's influence after high-profile investments in UBS and Citigroup."[25]

In September 2008 GIC issued the first of a series of annual reports on GIC's portfolio management, governance, and people.[26] In 2008 during the global financial crisis, GIC experienced a significant drop in its real rate of return which recovered[27] subsequently.

2011 presidential election[edit]

Tan's poster for the 2011 presidential election in English
Tan's presidential campaign logo, a pair of spectacles

On 22 December 2010, Tan announced that he would step down from his government-linked positions at GIC and SPH to run for the office of President of Singapore.[28] Tan's campaign stressed his independence and his divergent views from the PAP government in specific policies, citing a remark made by East Coast GRC MP Tan Soo Khoon in 2005: "It is probably the first time that I have heard Cabinet Ministers, starting with no less than the Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Tony Tan, expressing divergent views [on the Integrated Resorts question]."[29][30] However, competing presidential election candidates and former PAP members Tan Kin Lian and Tan Cheng Bock questioned Tan's independence from the party.[31] On 7 July 2011, Tony Tan submitted his presidential eligibility forms.[32] Tan won 35.2% of the votes cast.

Patrick Tan controversy[edit]

On 29 July 2011, Tan responded to online allegations[33] that his son Patrick Tan had received preferential treatment during compulsory military service, officially known as National Service (NS) in Singapore. "My sons all completed their National Service obligations fully and I have never intervened in their postings," he said.[34][35] Tan also noted that he had served as Defence Minister from 1995 to 2003, while Patrick Tan said that it was in 1988 that he been permitted by Singapore's Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to disrupt his NS for premedical studies in Harvard University[36] and an MD-PhD program in Stanford University under a President's Scholarship and Loke Cheng Kim Scholarship.[37] MINDEF clarified that, prior to 1992, disruptions were allowed for overseas medical studies, and longer periods of disruption were granted for those admitted to universities in the United States, where medicine is a graduate course. American medical students are required to complete a "pre-medical component for a general undergraduate degree" before applying to medical school.[38] In response to a question in Parliament on the subject of deferments, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen stated on 20 October 2011 that Patrick Tan had not been given any special treatment.[39]

Campaign platform[edit]

Describing himself as "Tested, Trusted, True", Tan said his past experiences will help him steer Singapore through the financial uncertainty lying ahead.[40]

On Nomination Day (17 August 2011), Tan unveiled his election symbol – a pair of black glasses which resembles the trademark spectacles he has steadfastly worn for years, his campaign materials, which included caps, postcards and fridge magnets also carried the symbol. About 9,400 posters and 200 banners were printed.[41]

Campaign endorsements[edit]

Tan's presidential bid was endorsed by the 10,000-strong Federation of Tan Clan Associations on 7 August 2011.[42] By 13 August 2011, the leaders of 19 NTUC-affiliated unions (which have 128,000 members) had endorsed his bid.[43][44] On 14 August, the leadership of the Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations (SFCCA) and the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCCI) also endorsed his bid;[45][46] the leadership of another four unions from the construction and real estate sector, which represent more than 50,000 members, endorsed Tan's bid on 16 August. Nine Teochew clan associations also supported Tan.[47] Union leaders in three sectors – Transport and Logistics, Marine and Machinery-engineering, and Infocomm and Media – endorsed Tan on 17 August, they together represent 112,000 workers.[48] Tan received The Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SMCCI) endorsed Tan's presidential candidacy on 18 August 2011, it is also was the first[49] Malay organisation to do so.

Campaign proceedings[edit]

After a closed door meeting with the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry on 11 August 2011, Tan remarked that it is "not too early" for the government to have contingency plans in case an economic crisis hits Singapore, noting that "with his background and knowledge", he added that he was in a position to provide "a steady hand".[50]

Speaking to reporters after a dialogue with the Singapore Manufacturers' Federation the following day, Tan remarked that it would be a "grave mistake" to phase out manufacturing in Singapore, which has been transitioning to a service economy and an information economy since the 1980s, he then went on to describe manufacturing as a "key pillar of Singapore's economy". Without the sector, he feels Singapore's economy will be "less resilient, less diversified" and there will be "fewer options for our young people and Singapore will lose."[51]

On 15 August 2011, following the National Day Rally speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Tan said that one point he found particularly interesting in Lee's address was whether Singapore would remain pragmatic in its policy making, or if it would turn populist, he added that the temptation to make populist decisions was affecting the presidential election, "with some candidates appealing to the public in ways that could go beyond the parameters of the Singapore's Constitution".[52][53]

On 17 August 2011, crowds booed[54] at Tan and his son as he delivered his two-minute Nomination Day speech. According to The Straits Times, the jeers came from a vocal group of people who mostly supported another presidential candidate Tan Jee Say.[55] At a press conference later that day, Tony Tan said that while different points of view were to be expected in a campaign, it was disappointing to have people who would not even listen, and hoped that Singaporeans would listen to the views of all the candidates, he said, "I don't think that jeering or heckling is the right way to go about the campaign, particularly in a campaign for the president, which has to be conducted with decorum and dignity."[56]

On the first presidential candidate broadcast on 18 August 2011, while other candidates made promises in their first presidential candidate broadcasts on Thursday night, Tan refrained[57] from making promises during the broadcast and focused on the role of the President instead. Speaking in English, Chinese and Malay, Tan said,[58] "Some people argue that the President must take a public stand on current issues. I hear and share the concerns of Singaporeans, but policies are debated in Parliament and implemented by the Government. Others have said that the President must oppose the Government; that is a job for the Opposition. People interested in such roles should run for Parliament in the next General Election."

Presidency (2011–2017)[edit]

Tan opening the "International Evening" at the 2012 Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

Tan sought to distinguish his presidency by promoting a more active civil society, believing that Singapore needed to build up its "social reserves" to complement the substantial financial reserves the city state had accumulated over time.[59] An example of this, he said, was the way that he had expanded Singapore's President's Challenge charity event to go beyond fund-raising to promote volunteerism and social entrepreneurship.[60]

On 8 November 2016, Tan announced that he would not be standing in 2017 presidential election, which was reserved for Malay candidates after a constituitional amendment on 9 November 2016.[61][62] Tan left office on 31 August 2017,[63] he was succeeded by Halimah Yacob who became President after a walkover of the presidential elections, as no other candidates were deemed eligible.[64]

Other appointments[edit]

From 1980 to 1981, Tan was the first Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Singapore (NUS).[3]

Tan at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland (30 January 2009)

After his retirement from the Cabinet in 2005, Tan became the chairman of the National Research Foundation and deputy chairman of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council, he was also Chairman of Singapore Press Holdings Limited (SPH).

Tan has served as patron of many organisations, including the Singapore Dance Theatre,[65] the Singapore Computer Society,[66] SJI International,[67] the Duke-NUS Medical School,[68] and the MIT Club of Singapore.[69] Most recently, in May 2011, he was named as the first patron of Dover Park Hospice.[70]

On 21 November 2017, GIC Private Limited, one of Singapore's sovereign wealth funds,[71] announced that Tan was to be appointed director and special advisor from 1 January 2018.

Personal life[edit]

Tony Tan with his wife, Mary Tan

Tan's paternal grandfather was Tan Cheng Siong, the former general manager of The Oversea Chinese Bank, his uncle was former OCBC chairman Tan Chin Tuan.[72] Through his maternal grandmother Annie Tan Sun Neo, he is also a great-great-great grandson of philanthropist Tan Kim Seng.[73] Tony Tan married Mary Chee Bee Kiang in 1964, they have four children: three sons and one daughter.


In 2005, Tan was presented the NUS Eminent Alumni Award in recognition of his role as a visionary architect of Singapore's university sector.[3]

In 2010, he was presented the inaugural Distinguished Australian Alumnus Award by the Australian Alumni Singapore (AAS) at its 55th anniversary dinner in recognition of his distinguished career, and his significant contribution to society and to the Australian alumni community.[74][75]

Tan was awarded a medal from the Foreign Policy Association in 2011 for "outstanding leadership and service".[76]

In 2014, Tan was conferred an honorary doctorate by his Alma mater University of Adelaide for his "long record of outstanding achievements both as a leader in the Singapore government and in the business sectors,[77] he was also made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath.[78]

In 2018, Tan received the top honour of the Order of Temasek (First Class) during Singapore's National Day Awards.[79]


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Parliament of Singapore
Preceded by
Teong Eng Siong
Member of Parliament
for Sembawang SMC

Constituency abolished
New constituency Member of Parliament
for Sembawang GRC

Succeeded by
Khaw Boon Wan
Academic offices
Preceded by
Toh Chin Chye
Vice Chancellor of the National University of Singapore
Succeeded by
Lim Pin
Political offices
Preceded by
Hon Sui Sen
Minister for Finance
Succeeded by
Richard Hu
Preceded by
Goh Keng Swee
Minister for Education
Succeeded by
Lee Yock Suan
Preceded by
Ong Teng Cheong
Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
Succeeded by
Wong Kan Seng
Preceded by
Lee Boon Yang
Minister for Defence
Succeeded by
Teo Chee Hean
New office Coordinating Minister for Security and Defence
Succeeded by
Shunmugam Jayakumar
as Coordinating Minister for National Security
Preceded by
S. R. Nathan
President of Singapore
Succeeded by
Halimah Yacob