About the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong (1936 – 2002) (www.ongtengcheong.com) Ong Teng Cheong Education Background:Mr Ong Teng Cheong was born on 22 January 1936. He was the second eldest of five children, with one elder sister, one younger brother and two younger sisters. Mr Ong Teng Cheong completed his primary education at Zhong Zheng Primary School (1949) and graduated from Chinese High School in 1955. In 1961, Mr Ong Teng Cheong graduated from the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Architecture degree. He was offered a Colombo Master’s Scholarship in 1965 and he went to the University of Liverpool to pursue his post-graduate degree of Master of Civic Design (Town Planning). Mr Ong Teng Cheong obtained the Master’s degree in 1967. In July 1998, Mr Ong Teng Cheong was awarded the Honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Liverpool.
Ong Teng Cheong Family:Mr Ong Teng Cheong met Madam Ling Siew May (in 1953) while they were schooling at Chinese High School and Nanyang Girls’ High School respectively. The couple married in 1963. Their first child, Tze Guan, was born in 1966 in Liverpool, where Mr Ong Teng Cheong was pursuing his Master’s Degree in Civic Design (Town Planning). The couple’s second child, Tze Boon, was born in 1968 in Singapore.
Ong Teng Cheong Career as an Architect:Mr Ong Teng Cheong started his career as an architect and had worked in Adelaide. When he returned to Singapore from Liverpool (after obtaining the Master’s Degree in Civic Design) in 1967, he joined the Ministry of National Development as a Town Planner. He was also seconded to the UNDP (Special Fund) Assistance in Urban Renewal and Development Project and headed a local team in the comprehensive transportation and land-use planning of Singapore’s central area. 4 years later, Mr Ong Teng Cheong left the civil service and started his own practice. A year later, he established Ong & Ong Architects and Town Planner, with him and his wife as the founding partners. When Mr Ong Teng Cheong stepped down from the Presidency in 1999, he went back to the firm as an advisor.
Ong Teng Cheong role in the grassroots:Mr Ong Teng Cheong began his involvement in grassroots activities in the late 1960s when he was staying in Seletar Hills. He was appointed the Chairman of the Resident’s Association. His committment, mannerism and intelligence was seen by the-then Member-of-Parliament for Jalan Kayu, Mr Hwang Soo Jin. Mr Hwang later introduced Mr Ong Teng Cheong to the then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Ong Teng Cheong beginning in politics (as an MP):Mr Ong Teng Cheong was first fielded as a PAP candidate in the 1972 General Election in the ward of Kim Keat. He won the election on 2 Sep and was sworn in as the MP for the ward. He emerged victorious in the same ward in the following 4 elections – 1976, 1980 (walkover), 1984 (walkover) and 1988. In 1991, the team led by Mr Ong Teng Cheong (Toa Payoh GRC), won when no opposition team made a challenge. In August 1993, Mr Ong Teng Cheong resigned from the post of an MP to contest in the country’s first Elected Presidency.
Ong Teng Cheong promotion to the Cabinet (as a Minister):Mr Ong Teng Cheong was first asked by the Government to take up ministerial office in 1973. Mr Ong had declined to do so as his younger brother was dying of cancer. In 1975, Mr Ong Teng Cheong was appointed as Senior Minister of State for Communications. Two years later, Mr Ong Teng Cheong was appointed as Acting Minister of Culture. In 1978, he took up the portfolio of Minister for Communications and in 1981, he was appointed as Minister of Labour. In 1983, Mr Ong Teng Cheong was appointed as Minister without Portfolio after taking over as the Secretary-General of the National Trade Union Congress.
Mr Ong Teng Cheong was appointed as Second Deputy Prime Minister in January 1985 and in November 1990, he was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister. He had served as Deputy Prime Minister for more than 8 years until August 1993, when he contested in the Elected Presidency.
Ong Teng Cheong key contributions as Chairmen of three committees:During the years Mr Ong Teng Cheong was a minister, he was the Chairman of 3 crucial review committees. They are the Moral Education Committee (1979), Advisory Council on Art and Culture (1989) and the Chinese Language Review Committee (1992). The reports and recommendations of the 3 committees resulted in the changes in the various aspects of the issues being examined (such as the formation of the National Arts Council, the construction of the Esplanade and the revised syllabus for the teaching of Chinese language in schools). Mr Ong Teng Cheong’s appointments as the Chairmen of these committees are fitting, given his deep passion for the arts, and his excellent standing with much support and respect from the Chinese community.
Three of his key attributes
a) Vision – Mr Ong Teng Cheong’s firm belief in the MRT system clearly demonstrated his vision in that the system would be a new dimension in urban mobility. It has to be noted that there have been tough resistance to the MRT system due to the large capital involved. And the existing cheaper mode of transport (via the bus system) was strongly proposed as an alternative to the MRT system.
b) Conviction – Despite facing opposition from his Cabinet colleagues, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, as Communications Minister persevered and sought to convince his colleagues of the advantages of having a MRT system. Mr Ong Teng Cheong was indeed a man of conviction with his beliefs held firmly.
c) Courage – In light of the ruling party’s drop in their percentage of votes won in the 1991 election, then-DPM Ong said that one of the groups who had voted against the PAP comprised of those ‘Chinese-educated who feel that they have been neglected by the Government… They had kept their grievances to themselves and had become the neglected silent majority’. DPM Ong chose to address this problem openly which showed his courage in tackling the problem in a transparent manner. After he had highlighted this concern, the Government emphasized on the need to refocus on this group of ‘silent majority’.
Ong Teng Cheong role as the Secretary-General of NTUC:In January 1986, Mr Ong Teng Cheong sanctioned a strike when the management in the shipping industry was taking advantage of the workers. Mr Ong Teng Cheong did not inform the Cabinet about sanctioning the strike, as he believed that ‘they would otherwise probably stop him from doing so’. The strike only lasted two days and all the issues were settled by then. It was shown that the management was just trying to pull a fast one.
As then Secretary-General of NTUC, Mr Ong Teng Cheong was concerned with the notion of golf becoming a “game for executives only”. He thus mooted the idea of developing a golf and country club for workers so that they would be allowed “a fair share of the fruits of Singapore’s economic progress” in recognition of their contribution. As a result of his vision, the Orchid Country Club (believed to be the first country club for workers in the world) was completed in 1994. Mr Ong Teng Cheong also oversaw the construction of Pasir Ris Resort. Under Mr Ong Teng Cheong’s leadership, the union membership increased from 190,000 to 230,000.
Ong Teng Cheong role as Singapore’s first elected President:On 28 August 1993, close to 60% of voters chose Mr Ong Teng Cheong as the country’s first Elected President. In his pre-election speech, he 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 will always remain so”. Mr Ong Teng Cheong indeed fulfilled this electoral promise of being pro-Singapore as can be seen in these examples:
a) In 1994, Mr Ong Teng Cheong, as President, had disagreed with the Government’s interpretation of the Constitution, regarding the powers of the Presidential Office. Mr Ong Teng Cheong referred the issue to a special High Court tribunal, which was chaired by the Chief Justice. When the final decision was ruled in favour of the government, Mr Ong Teng Cheong graciously accepted it.
b) On 16 July 1999, at a press conference to indicate that he would not be contesting a second term, President Ong Teng Cheong mentioned some problems he had faced during his term as President. His points drew a swift response from the government but it was evident that President had been accountable to Singaporeans while performing his duties as President.
President Ong Teng Cheong had tested several issues during his 6-year term, and it was noteworthy that he had pushed for the publication of the ‘White Paper on the Determination and Safeguarding of the Protection of the reserves of the government’.
During his 6-term, President Ong Teng Cheong had also met visiting leaders of other nations, including People’s Republic of China Premier Li Peng (Aug 97), Japan Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto (Jan 97), Australia Prime Minister John Howard (Mar 97), Republic of South Africa President Nelson Mandela (Mar 97), Argentina President Carlos Saul Menem (Feb 97) and Thailand Prime Minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh (Mar 97). President Ong Teng Cheong’s diplomacy was also extended to many other visiting heads of governments including those from Republic of Zambia, Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Republic of Mazambique, Luxembourg, Republic of Fiji Islands, Republic of Yemen, Republic of Namibia, Chile, United Mexican States, Arab Republic of Eygpt, Maritius, Swaziland and many others.
As the President, Mr Ong Teng Cheong was also concerned with the less fortunate in society as well as the promotion of arts and culture. He initiated several events such as the President’s Star Charity and the President’s Charity Art Exhibition and Concert.