Ong Ye Kung left ‘wordless’ when told by PM Lee of move to MOH

Transport Minister Ong Ye Kung was left "wordless" when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told him during a phone call that he would be moved to helm the Health Ministry (MOH) in last week's Cabinet reshuffle.

"When he told me, I was wordless," Mr Ong said in a radio interview with ONE FM 91.3 yesterday.

"At most you could hear, 'Huh?' in my brain, because nobody expects to be moved after like eight months, nine months (in) Transport. I was all ready to stay five years, the whole term," he said.

Mr Ong and Education Minister Lawrence Wong were both appointed to new posts in the reshuffle announced last Friday, about nine months after they took up their current portfolios following the general election last July.

The latest reshuffle will see Mr Ong helm the Health Ministry from May 15, with Mr Wong moving to head the Finance Ministry, and Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing replacing Mr Wong at the Education Ministry, among other changes.

On his new role, Mr Ong quipped: "At least I didn't learn about it from the press release. The Prime Minister was really nice, he called up every single one of us, I was No. 3 or No. 4, and then he told us about our posting. He explained what he expects of us (and) we spent 45 minutes or so chatting."

During yesterday's 30-minute interview on topics ranging from his favourite songs and bands to how he relaxes after work, Mr Ong also spoke about his time at the Education and Transport ministries.

As Education Minister, he said he made "one of the toughest decisions in my life" - keeping schools open when the coronavirus hit Singapore's shores.

Describing the situation in the early days of the pandemic as "panic stations", he recalled that no one knew how the coronavirus outbreak would play out.

"In most countries, the education minister said 'better just close school', because if there's an outbreak in school, his job is on the line, they probably have to resign," he said.

"But I just felt that if we closed schools, we're going to have a whole generation of kids missing out. I don't mean those who are graduating, but those in primary school, in secondary school, maybe they come from fairly vulnerable families. So you're going to keep schools open to give them that environment to learn, if not, you may have a lost generation."

Asked how he unwinds at the end of the day, Mr Ong said he used to put on vinyl records while writing his speeches and clearing his e-mails - then he turned to reading books.

"Reading puts me to sleep straight away," he quipped.

These days, he prefers to just read e-mails and write his speeches in bed next to his wife, as she reads e-books through the National Library Board app.

"It's a bit mushy... that's how I unwind, spending time next to her."

Asked about comments from netizens about his unfinished work as Transport Minister, Mr Ong said: "I suppose you can never (really) complete your work."

This article first appeared in The Straits Times.

Singapore Politics