Ong Teng Cheong passed away 16 years ago today, but still people’s president

He still holds a special place in many Singaporeans' hearts.

By Belmont Lay | February 8, 2018

Ong Teng Cheong was the fifth president of the Republic of Singapore.

He was popularly elected after winning the mandate of the people. A total of 952,513 voters cast their vote for him in the 1993 presidential election.

Status has solidified

However, events in the past year in the lead-up to the 2017 reserved presidential election has made Ong’s status as the people’s president more pronounced than ever.

This is especially so since there is greater clarity now that Ong is officially not Singapore’s first elected president, even though he was the first to win at the polls.

This technicality stems from the fact that President Wee Kim Wee before him was able to exercise the powers of the Elected President, due to changes in the constitution while he held office.

But with Feb. 8, 2018 marking the 16th anniversary of Ong’s passing, this technicality will continue to be overlooked as Singaporeans still fondly remember Ong as the leader they voted for and one of the country’s most beloved statesmen.

Connected with people

Ong was involved in grassroots activities in his early 30s in the late 1960s when he was staying in Seletar Hills.

He was an architect by training.

It was Ong’s commitment, mannerisms and intelligence that got him noticed by the People’s Action Party.

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once remarked that Ong “had shown a special knack, the ability to get on with ordinary people, and empathise with them.”

Illustrious career

Photo from NAS

Prior to being fielded in the 1972 election, Ong worked with the Ministry of National Development as a town planner from 1967 to 1971.

From 1972 to 1991, Ong served as a People’s Action Party (PAP) MP for the Kim Keat constituency.

His first political appointment came barely three years after being elected, when he was made Senior Minister of State for Communications.

In 1977, he was appointed Acting Minister for Culture, and became Minister for Communications in 1978.

Later, during his tenure as the Minister of National Development, he was an advocate for the development of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, the largest construction project in Singapore’s history

In 1983, Ong was made Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

Two years later, he became the Second Deputy Prime Minister, and held this post till November 1990, when he was promoted again to Deputy Prime Minister.

From 1991 to 1993, he served in the Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

In August that year, Ong resigned from his posts in the Cabinet, the PAP and the NTUC to contest the presidential election.

Sanctioned a strike

Ong’s affable qualities were further refined as he spent more than 20 years in the public service and labour movement, before becoming president.

As a union activist in NTUC, Ong was ferocious in working actively and forcefully in the interests of the unions in a way that his predecessor had never been seen to do, and stretched union activism to the limits that would be tolerated by the government.

For example, in January 1986, Ong sanctioned a strike in the shipping industry, the first in Singapore in about a decade.

Not only did he approve of the strike, he did not inform the Cabinet beforehand, out of fear that they would prevent him from going ahead with it.

In a subsequent Asiaweek interview in year 2000 after his tenure as president ended, Ong revealed:

“Some of them were angry with me about that… the minister for trade and industry was very angry, his officers were upset. They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore?”

One of those who vigorously opposed Ong’s decision to sanction the strike is none other than the former president, Tony Tan, who was then the minister for trade and industry.

Tan was concerned with investors’ reactions to a perceived deterioration of labour relations or an impact on foreign direct investment needed for job creation.

However, Ong viewed the strike as a success:

“I had the job to do… [the strike] only lasted two days. All the issues were settled. It showed the management was just trying to pull a fast one.”

He believed it was necessary as “[the] management were taking advantage of the workers”.

He was able to — for the lack of a better word — strike a delicate balance because he had the trust of the government and his colleagues, as well as the people and workers he represented.

As President of Singapore

Photo from NAS

As the fifth president of Singapore, Ong served a six-year term from Sept. 1, 1993 to Aug. 31, 1999.

It was in office that the legacy of Ong’s presidency took shape.

In 1994, he questioned the government’s interpretation of the constitution when the latter introduced a bill to revise the veto powers of the president.

He then asked for the matter to be referred to a special High Court Tribunal, chaired by the Chief Justice.

When the Tribunal ruled in favour of the government, Ong graciously accepted the decision.

In 1997, he refused to approve the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board’s budget until he was satisfied that it would not draw down on the nation’s reserves.

The events resulted in two major institutional developments: The first was the creation of a tribunal of judges for constitutional disputes, and the second was a White Paper, which placed on public record the working principles agreed between the government and the president on protecting the nation’s reserves.

Ong’s presidency was also marked by the initiation of many charitable projects, the largest of which is the annual President’s Star Charity, which was launched the year he was elected President and has since gone on to raise millions of dollars for local charities.

An accomplished musician, Ong would also lend a hand to various welfare causes.

He occasionally played the piano in public events and even conducted the Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

Even as the Acting Minister for Culture in the late 1970s, he was determined to transform Singapore from a perceived cultural desert to a city of the arts.

He left his mark on the Singapore arts scene, as his efforts led to the first Singapore Festival of the Arts.

Public dispute with the government

Ong also took his role as the guardian of Singapore’s reserves seriously by questioning the type and quantity of assets the government owned. This episode played out as a public dispute between him and the government over the access of information regarding Singapore’s financial reserves.

Ong’s stand was that he could not carry out his duties if he was unaware of how much reserves Singapore has. He said in the Asiaweek interview in 2000 that he had a job to do, whether the government liked it or not.

In his later years, he also opposed the sale of POSB (Post Office Savings Bank) to DBS (The Development Bank of Singapore) in 1998 during his last year in office. He felt that the sale was procedurally inappropriate and did not regard the president’s significance as the guardian of the reserves. This was due to the fact that POSB at that time was a government statutory board whose reserves came under the president’s protection.

Ong’s popularity was by the end of his presidential term evident.

After his wife, Ling Siew May, passed away weeks before he stepped down as president, there was an outpouring of condolences from the public.

Before his death in February 2002 at the age of 66 from lymphoma, he had asked to be cremated and for his ashes to be placed at Mandai Columbarium with those of ordinary citizens instead of Kranji State Cemetery, where late dignitaries are usually buried.

Singapore flags flew at half mast on the government buildings, including the Istana, to pay him his last respects. It was the first time in Singapore’s history this was ever done.

However, Ong’s standing as the people’s president was celebrated only after his passing, as his status and achievements have been lionised mostly after his death.

This is perhaps due to the perception that he is the first popularly-elected, and possibly the only president so far, who exercised his powers boldly and fully.

It should also be noted that as president, Ong said:

“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 it will always remain so.”

About Belmont Lay

Belmont can pronounce "tchotchke".

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