Only the Prime Minister & Cabinet knows why Ong Teng Cheong didn't have a state funeral in 2002

The issue was formally addressed in May 2005. Sort of.

Belmont Lay | August 24, 2016, 08:06 PM

Former president S R Nathan has been accorded a state funeral following his passing on Aug. 22, 2016.

In Singapore's history, only two ex-presidents out of six did not have a state funeral: Devan Nair, who died in Canada, and Ong Teng Cheong.

The honour was extended to Yusof Ishak, Benjamin Sheares, Wee Kim Wee, and now, S R Nathan.

The last state funeral was for the late Lee Kuan Yew in March 2015.

Others who have been accorded State Funeral honours include former deputy Prime Ministers, S. Rajaratnam and Goh Keng Swee.

The opportunity to raise the issue as to why Singapore's first popularly elected president Ong did not have a state funeral occurred when former president Wee passed away in May 2005.

One Singaporean, Leong Sze Hian, wrote a letter to Today on May 10, 2005, questioning the rationale.

At that time when this issue was raised, it had been more than three years since Ong had passed away on Feb. 8, 2002, aged 66.

The reply to Leong was by the Prime Minister's press secretary who said that there was no fixed formula to decide which individuals are accorded state funerals.

Moreover, the practice is evolving and the decision to hold one is made by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

This was Leong's letter in full where he noted that state funerals were accorded to President Wee and all previous presidents:

I refer to media reports that the honour of state funerals was accorded in the past to former presidents Yusof Ishak and Benjamin Sheares.

I would like to ask whether a state funeral was accorded to the late former President Ong Teng Cheong when he died in 2002.

If not, why is it that he is the only president who was not given a state funeral?

As Singapore’s first elected president, I think many Singaporeans may feel that he deserved a state funeral.

The late President Ong Teng Cheong dedicated 27 years of his working life to public service, as President for six years, Deputy Prime Minister for three years, Second Deputy Prime Minister for five years, Secretary-General of NTUC for 11 years, chairman of the People’s Action Party for 12 years, Minister for Communications, and Member of Parliament for 21 years.

Who decides whether a former president is to be given a state funeral? Is there some criteria for deciding on a state funeral?

I suggest that a state funeral be accorded to all former presidents who die in the future.

Leong Sze Hian

His letter received a reply from the Prime Minister’s press secretary a few days later on May 13, 2005:

Honour rites still evolving; No formula for state funeral entitlement

Mr Leong Sze Hian (Today, May 10) and Mr Goh Choon Kang (Lianhe Zaobao, May 12) have asked why the funeral arrangements for Mr Ong Teng Cheong and Dr Wee Kim Wee, both former presidents, were not the same.

Mr Ong Teng Cheong received a state-assisted funeral, while Dr Wee Kim Wee received a state funeral. Mr Goh Choon Kang suggested that we should have definite rules on who is entitled to a state funeral.

When Singaporeans who have made major contributions to the country pass away, it is right and fitting that they be honoured and mourned by the nation. They may or may not be former Presidents. The appropriate way to do so will vary with each individual.

It is not feasible to have a set formula as to who should receive a state funeral, based simply on the person’s rank or the appointment that he or she had held. It depends on the person’s services to the nation, as well as other special circumstances.

Persons who have made truly exceptional contributions will receive a state funeral. The decision to hold one is made by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

If they decide to offer a state funeral, they will of course consult the family members and take into account their wishes.

Singapore is still a young country. Our practices and customs for public ceremonies and observances are still evolving.

As the years pass, we will gradually establish norms and traditions that will reflect the Singapore way of honouring our best sons and daughters who have passed away, that is dignified, restrained and expresses the gratitude and sense of loss of the nation.

Chen Hwai Liang

Press Secretary to Prime Minister


Related articles:

Trying to explain why the establishment adores S R Nathan and why some Singaporeans don’t

In memory: Ong Teng Cheong, S’pore’s only people’s president, passed away 14 years ago

90s kids might be the age group most saddened by S R Nathan’s passing

Straits Times, CNA got it wrong: S R Nathan was never S’pore’s first elected president


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