Tony Tan Keng Yam



Tony Tan Keng Yam (Dr) (b. 7 February 1940, Singapore–) was the seventh president of Singapore (2011–17).After a career in banking, he entered into politics in 1979 and served as a minister in the cabinet, holding at various times the portfolios of education, defence, finance, health, and trade and industry. Tan was the deputy prime minister when he retired from politics in 2005. He then became executive director and deputy chairman of the Government Investment Corporation (GIC), before resigning to contest the 2011 presidential election.2

Education and early years
Tan was educated at St Patrick’s School and St Joseph’s Institution. At St Patrick’s, he was the head prefect and a scout, and participated in table tennis, football, cricket and athletics. In 1957, The Straits Times newspaper dubbed Tan the “brightest schoolboy in Singapore” after he received grades of six A1s and two A2s in the Cambridge School Certificate Examination.3 Two years later, Tan became one of the first three students to be awarded the Singapore State Scholarship, which replaced the colonial-era Queen’s Scholarship. The scholarship provided $2,500 per annum for a degree course at the University of Singapore, and Tan was admitted to the second-year course in the university’s science faculty.4

Tan graduated from the University of Singapore with a first-class honours degree in physics in 1962. With a scholarship from the Asia Foundation, he then obtained a Master of Science degree (with a specialisation in operations research) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964.5

After lecturing for a year in the physics department at the University of Singapore, Tan received a research scholarship from the University of Adelaide and studied for his doctorate in applied mathematics there. He obtained his doctorate in 1967 and returned to work as a lecturer in the mathematics department at the University of Singapore.6

Corporate career

In 1969, Tan joined the Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) founded by his uncle Tan Chin Tuan as a sub-manager.7 He became manager before being promoted to assistant general manager of the investment division of the bank in 1973.8 In 1978, Tan became the division’s general manager.Besides the managerial posts, he headed an executive committee overseeing the daily operations of the International Bank of Singapore (a joint venture by OCBC and three other major local banks) when it opened in 1975, and was president of the Institute of Bankers (Singapore Centre), chairman of the Association of Banks in Singapore and chairman of the ASEAN Banking Council.10 He was also a director in a number of OCBC’s subsidiary companies, including OCBC Finance, Forward Oversea Credit and Computer Systems Advisers.11

Entry into politics
In April 1978, the government appointed Tan as chairman of the Singapore Bus Service (SBS).12 At SBS, Tan dealt with service, labour and infrastructure issues and the appointment was seen to be a measure of his suitability for a political career.13 He joined the People’s Action Party (PAP) after joining SBS, and was named in January 1979 as one of its candidates for the by-elections that year.14 He stood in the constituency of Sembawang after then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew had asked the incumbent member of parliament (MP), Teong Eng Siong, to step down.15

In February, Tan defeated Harbans Singh of the United People’s Party with 76.73 percent of the vote to become the MP for Sembawang.16 Before the election, Lee had offered Tan a minister of state position in either the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Finance if he was elected. Tan chose to work with the then minister for education, Goh Keng Swee, and was appointed as senior minister of state for education in February 1979.17 In April 1980, Tan was entrusted to oversee the merger between the University of Singapore and Nanyang University, which formed the National University of Singapore (NUS), and was appointed the vice-chancellor of NUS in July 1980.18

Minister for education
Tan became the minister for education in June 1980, and went on to serve in the post over two periods: from June 1980 to May 1981, and from January 1985 to December 1991.19 Over the two terms, Tan sought to align the education system to Singapore’s economic requirements, as he believed that “education and economic performance are indivisible”.20

Tan initiated a number of reviews of Singapore’s education system. One of these was to ensure that all students had at least 10 years of schooling before moving on to tertiary or vocational education.21 This resulted in a revamp of the primary and secondary school education system in 1992.22

He also modified policies related to the streaming system, such as making it more flexible for students to move between streams and giving parents the right to choose their child’s stream in primary school.23 In 1985, Tan scrapped the policy that gave graduate mothers priority for their children’s school admissions.24

Other significant policies made during Tan’s terms included the establishment of independent schools, increasing intake of foreign students in higher education, and increasing the emphasis on English and mathematics in the syllabus.25 He also made improvements to higher education through a number of initiatives such as establishing the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in 1991 and increased funding for existing education institutions like NUS and the polytechnics.26 

Economic and other portfolios
In June 1981, Tan wasappointed the minister for trade and industry. He also held this portfolio for two separate periods: June 1981 to January 1985, and May 1985 to February 1986. Tan was concurrently the minister for finance between October 1983 and December 1985.27


In 1985, Singapore entered its first recession in two decades and Tan announced setting up a ministerial-level economic review committee, which recommended a number of economic stimulus measures.28 The measures – such as corporate and personal tax cuts, interest rate cuts and wage freezes – were subsequently adopted by the government.29 In December 1985, Tan called for a temporary reduction in the rate of Central Provident Fund (CPF) contributions by employers in order to reduce costs for businesses.30 The government eventually cut the rate of employers’ CPF contributions from 25 percent to 10 percent, among other stimulus measures. The economy returned to growth in 1986.31

Departure and return to Cabinet

In 1988, Lee revealed that Tan ranked first in his personal assessment of potential successors, but added that Tan did not want the job of prime minister.32

Tan stepped down from the cabinet in December 1991 and became the chairman and chief executive officer of OCBC. Tan, however, remained as MP for Sembawang and took on an advisory role in the Ministry of Education as chairman of the University Grants Committee, which advised the government on funding matters to universities. Tan also promised Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong that he would return to the government if needed.33 In August 1995, he returned to the cabinet and was appointed minister for defence and deputy prime minister overseeing education.34 

Tan addressed the shortfall in university graduates by calling for universities to adjust their curriculums, admission policies and course fees to increase local and foreign student intakes. He also encouraged them to develop world-class institutes in areas such as advanced engineering, molecular biology and East Asian studies, and NUS to strengthen its arts and science faculties.35 In 2000, Tan was appointed to head the Life Sciences Ministerial Committee which played a major role in Singapore’s push into the biomedical sciences sector.36

In August 2003, Tan relinquished the defence portfolio and became the coordinating minister for security and defence, while remaining as deputy prime minister.37 

Retirement from cabinet

In August 2005, Tan retired from his ministerial posts and was appointed executive director and deputy chairman of GIC, and joined the board of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), where he later became chairman.38 He also chaired the National Research Foundation and was deputy chairman of the Research, Innovation and Enterprise Council.39 In these two roles, Tan initiated strategic research programmes in environmental and water technologies, interactive digital media and biomedical sciences.40

Presidency

In June 2011, Tan announced his intention to run in the presidential election and resigned from his posts in GIC and SPH, as well as his membership in the PAP. Standing against fellow candidates Tan Cheng Bock, Tan Jee Say and Tan Kin Lian, Tan won the election with 35.2 percent of the total votes.41 He was sworn in as president at the Istana on 1 September 2011. He stepped down on 31 August 2017 after serving for one term.42

Career
1964: Lecturer, physics department, University of Singapore 

1967–1969: Lecturer, mathematics department, University of Singapore 
1969–1979: Managerial posts in OCBC43
Feb 1979–Mar 2006: Member of Parliament for Sembawang44
Feb 1979–May 1980: Senior minister of state for education45
1979–1985: Chairman, National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Investment and Co-operatives Committee.46
Jun 1980–May 1981: Minister for education.47
Dec 1980–Jun 1991: Chairman, board of trustees, NTUC Income.48
1980–1981: Vice-chancellor, NUS.49
Jun 1981–Jan 1985: Minister for trade and industry.50
1981–1983: Minister-in-charge for NUS and Nanyang Technological Institute.51
Oct 1983–May 1985: Minister for finance52
Jan 1985–May 1985: Minister for health53
May 1985–Feb 1986: Minister for trade and industry54
Jan 1985–Dec 1991: Minister for education55
1990–1999: Chairman, PAP Community Foundation Management Council56
Jan 1992–Jul 1995: Chairman and chief executive officer, OCBC57
Aug 1993–Dec 2004: Chairman, PAP Central Executive Committee58
Aug 1995–Sept 2005: Deputy prime minister59
Aug 1995–July 2003: Minister for defence60
1995: Appointed chairman, Singapore-US Business Council61
2000–2007: Chairman, International Advisory Council, Economic Development Board62
Aug 2003–Sept 2005: Coordinating minister for security and Defence 
Sep 2005–Jul 2011: Executive director and deputy chairman, Government Investment Corporation
Sep 2005–Jul 2011: Chairman, National Research Foundation 
Sep 2005–Jul 2011: Deputy chairman, National Research Innovation and Enterprise Council 
Dec 2005–Jul 2011: Chairman, Singapore Press Holdings63
Sep 2011–Aug 2017: President of Singapore, and concurrently chancellor, NUS64

Awards
1988: Medal of Honour, NTUC65
1992: Distinguished Services Award, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Club of Singapore66
1992: Education Award, Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry Singapore Foundation67
1994: Honorary Doctor of Science, Loughborough University
1995: Honorary Doctor of Laws, Murdoch University
1998: Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Sheffield
2005: Eminent Alumni Award, National University of Singapore
2006: Honorary Fellowship, Singapore Academy of Medicine68
2008: President’s medal, Australian Chamber of Commerce69
2010: Distinguished Australian Alumnus Award, Australian Alumni Singapore70
2011: New York Foreign Policy Association Medal
2013: Great Gold Medal, Comenius University
2014: Honorary Doctor of Philosophy, University of Adelaide
2014: King Charles ll Medal, Royal Society of United Kingdom71

Family
Father: Tan Seng Hwee

Mother: Jessie Lim Neo Swee72
Wife: Mary Chee Bee Kiang73
Daughter: Patricia74
Sons: Philip, Patrick and Peter75



Author
Alvin Chua




References
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71. President’s Office. (2017, September 1). Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam. Retrieved 2017, October 3 from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/the-president/former-presidents/dr-tony-tan-keng-yam
72. Mother was ‘always cheerful’. (1999, April 14). The Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
73. President’s Office. (2017, September 1). Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam. Retrieved 2017, October 3 from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/the-president/former-presidents/dr-tony-tan-keng-yam
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The information in this article is valid as at 3 October 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Tan, Tony Keng Yam, 1940-
Law and government>>Political process>>Leadership
Presidents--Singapore--Biography
Politicians--Singapore--Biography
Politicians
Personalities>>Biographies>>Political Leaders