Remembering Ong Teng Cheong (1936-2002), the People’s President

Ong Teng Cheong (1936-2002) was Singapore’s first elected President. He was also the nation’s fifth President, holding office between 1993 and 1999. In his political career that spanned over 25 years, Ong Teng Cheong had also served as a Member of Parliament (MP), Minister for Communications, Minister for Labour and Deputy Prime Minister.

Fluent in English, Mandarin and Hokkien, Ong Teng Cheong was born in 1936 to a middle class family. The second of five children in the Ong family, he attended The Chinese High School after the Second World War, graduating as their top student in the mid-fifties. After obtaining an architecture degree in Australia, Ong Teng Cheong began his career as an architect in a local firm, before leaving for England to pursue a master’s degree in civil design.

ong-teng-cheong-student-australia-1950

Upon his return to Singapore in 1967, Ong Teng Cheong was hired by the Ministry of National Development (MND) where he led a team in planning the development of Singapore’s central region. In the early seventies, Ong Teng Cheong briefly left the civil sector to continue his architectural practice, and would return a few years later to take up office in the government.

ong-teng-cheong-ling-siew-may-wedding-1963

In the 1972 General Election, Ong Teng Cheong contested as a People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate at the Kim Keat constituency. In his debut, he was elected as a MP, after a convincing 74% victory against his opponents. He would then serve as the MP for Kim Keat, and later Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC), for the next two decades.

In 1975, Ong Teng Cheong was appointed as the Minister of State for Communications. One of his contributions was his firm support and push for the development of a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) in Singapore. It was a debate that the parliament had for many years, before coming to a decision in 1982 to embark on the massive MRT project. Between 1977 and 1983, Ong Teng Cheong also served a number of other posts, including the acting Minister for Culture and Minister for Labour.

ong-teng-cheong-minister-without-portfolio-visited-ama-keng-1984

After 1983, Ong Teng Cheong started his decade-long tenure with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). As the secretary-general of NTUC, he paid particular attention to the lower income workers and their benefits, especially during the recession in 1985. He also straightened out the differences between the government and unions, which had become increasingly strained.

An organised strike by workers over unfair treatment by their company Hydril in 1986 was sanctioned by Ong Teng Cheong. Six workers from the American company, which specialised in oil-field equipment, were dismissed over allegations of being anti-unions. It was the first strike in Singapore since the late seventies. Ong Teng Cheong did not inform the Cabinet beforehand, drawing a strong reaction from the Trade and Industry Ministry. The 61-employee strike proceeded and lasted for two days. Eventually the management of Hydril gave in, reinstating one worker and compensating the other five over unfair dismissal.

ong-teng-cheong-second-deputy-prime-minister-officated-opening-mrt-north-south-line-1987

In 1993, Ong Teng Cheong, after resigning from his positions in NTUC, Cabinet and PAP, contested in Singapore’s first ever presidential election. He became the nation’s first elected president with a 58.7% victory over his opponent Chua Kim Yeow. Earlier in 1991, the Constitution has been amended to empower a directly-elected President the veto in the use of past reserves and appointment of key officials in the public service. Hence, one of the major roles of an elected Singapore’s President is the safeguarding of the national reserves.

Ong Teng Cheong in 1996 requested from the Accountant-General an inventory of the physical assets owned by the government, such as lands, buildings, roads, reservoirs and others, so that he could understand what the reserves consisted of. The President later revealed in a press conference that he was informed it would take 56 man-years to produce the complete valuation of all physical assets. The Ministry of Finance clarified that it was a misunderstanding, as 56 man-years referred to the amount of work to be done, and not of the time it would take to do (eg it could mean 56 men working for a year, or 28 men working for two years).

ong-teng-cheong-swearing-in-ceremony-president-1993

In addition, Ong Teng Cheong also expressed his disappointment in the government’s definition of the Net Investment Income (NII) as current or past reserves, the sale of the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB), a government statutory board with reserves under the President’s safeguarding, to the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS), and the withholding of information by civil servants in the ministries.

Through the media, the differences between the President and the government were put into the spotlight, attracting mixed reactions from the public. This prompted then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Finance Minister Dr Richard Hu Tsu Tau to make their clarifications and statements in the parliament in August 1999.

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Ong Teng Cheong was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1992. In July 1999, Ong Teng Cheong announced he would not contest in the upcoming presidential election due to his health and also to take care of his sick wife Ling Siew May. They had knew each other since their secondary school days, and were married in 1963. Ling Siew May passed away on 30 July 1999 due to colon cancer. A motion was moved in the parliament in early August 1999, expressing sympathies to Ong Teng Cheong and his family.

On 08 February 2002, Ong Teng Cheong succumbed to his long battle with lymphoma. He passed away, at age 66, at the Singapore General Hospital (SGH), leaving behind two sons. He was accorded a state-assisted funeral, with Singapore flags lowered at half-mast at the government buildings. This, however, gave rise to speculations from the public on why Singapore’s first elected President was not accorded a state funeral like his predecessors.

Ong Teng Cheong, according to his last wishes, was cremated and his ashes placed, together with those of the commoners, at the Mandai Columbarium. Till this day, he remained well-remembered by many Singaporeans as the People’s President of Singapore.

Some people still ask whether my long previous association (with the PAP) will stop me from acting independently. The answer is no. My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so” – Ong Teng Cheong, August 1993

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Published: 20 November 2016

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6 Responses to Remembering Ong Teng Cheong (1936-2002), the People’s President

  1. oldpoet56 says:

    I did not know of him but it does appear that he was a very good human being, it is good that your people had such a good leader.

  2. istel says:

    Salute to Mr Ong Teng Cheong, may he RIP.

  3. Did he also not initiated the President’s Star Charity? Ape vaguely recall he played a piece on piano to raise funds.

  4. If there is a television series or a movie made on the late President Ong, I think actor Romeo Tan would fit the bill in portraying President Ong. He bears a striking resemblance to him especially with glasses !

  5. A mountain named after Ong Teng Cheong

    24 August 2017
    The Straits Times

    In the middle of a remote Tien Shan range that extends along the border between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China, a soaring mountain bears a name familiar to Singaporeans: Ong Teng Cheong peak.

    The 4,743m-tall mountain, named after Singapore’s first elected president, was formally recognised by the Mountaineering and Sport Climbing Federation of Kazakhstan on June 28 this year.

    It is believed to be the first mountain in the world named after a Singaporean.

    The peak was thus named because it was first conquered by a team from Singapore, on July 29, 2005.

    Kazakhstan gives a person the privilege of naming a mountain if he was the first to scale it, and has submitted documents such as a report of its exact geographical location and the climbing route for approval.

    Mr Kazbek Valiyev, secretary-general of the federation, told The Straits Times: “Mr Ong Teng Cheong has done a lot for Singapore and should be recognised.”

    “The information submitted from the climbers is also especially important for those who are climbing in the region for the first time.”

    The mountain, which is located in south-eastern Kazakhstan, was first ascended by mountaineers David Lim, Wilfred Tok, Mohd Rozani Maarof and Shani Tan.

    They named it after Mr Ong, who was the patron of Singapore’s first Everest expedition in 1995 when he was president.

    Mr Lim, 53, who was also the leader of the first Singapore team that successfully scaled Mount Everest in May 1998, said: “He believed in us. He worked behind the scenes to tie us up with major sponsors so that we could raise funds for training, equipment, airfare and the expedition itself. The peak was thus named in honour of him.”

    But the team was unable to get the name formalised because the federation appeared to have overlooked their application, said Mr Lim. Their GPS coordinates were also off, and they “never got round to approximating them with Google Earth”, he added.

    It was only 11 years later, in August last year, when Mr Ong Tze Boon, the younger son of the late president, attempted to climb the mountain that the data was obtained and coordinated with Mr Lim’s.

    The records were then sent to the Kazakhstan federation.

    After many months of cajoling and paperwork, the mountain was eventually recognised this year.

    The younger Ong, 48, explained: “Ong Teng Cheong was not known to the people of Kazakhstan. I explained to the federation who he was in the context of Singapore history.” Given that he was the first elected president, “they were gracious to acknowledge and name it after him”, he added.

    And now, the Ong Teng Cheong peak may have a companion.

    On Aug 22 last year, the late president’s two sons Tze Boon and Tze Guan, along with Mr Lim Kim Boon and Mr Leow Kah Shin, scaled an adjacent virgin peak of 4,451m.

    They named it “Ong Siew May peak”, in memory of Mr Ong Teng Cheong’s wife. The couple had met at a Christmas party when she was 15 and he, 16.

    Mr Ong, who was president from 1993 to 1998, died in 2002, while Mrs Ong, an architect, died in 1999.

    The Ong Siew May peak is currently pending formal approval from the Kazakhstan federation.

    Having two mountains named after his parents is, said Mr Ong Tze Boon, “an honour in their memory”.

    He added: “I am thrilled to complete their love story.”

    http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/a-mountain-named-after-ong-teng-cheong

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