Ong Teng Cheong, GCMG (Template:Zh; 22 January 1936–8 February 2002), was the fifth President of Singapore and the first directly elected. He served a six-year term from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999.[1]

Early life and educationEdit

Born in 1936, Ong was the second of five children from a middle-class Singaporean family. His English-educated father felt that the Chinese language was important if one wanted to become successful in business at the time and thus sent all of his children to Chinese-medium schools. Ong graduated with distinctions from The Chinese High School (now the High School Section of Hwa Chong Institution) in 1955. Having received a Chinese-language education, Ong saw little opportunity for advancing his studies in the University of Malaya, as English was the university's language medium.

In 1956, with the help of his father's friends, Ong ventured abroad. Those years were to shape both his beliefs and passions. Ong studied architecture at the University of Adelaide along with his childhood sweetheart and future spouse, Ling Siew May.[2] Both Ong and Ling met each other during a Christmas party while they were still studying in secondary school.

Career, marriage, and further studyEdit

After graduation, Ong worked as an architect in Adelaide, Australia, and married Ling in 1963.[3] Ong and his wife occasionally recite Chinese poetry and verses they learnt during their younger days.[4]

In 1965, Ong received an Colombo Plan scholarship to pursue a master's degree in urban planning at the University of Liverpool and graduated in 1967. In the same year, he joined the Ministry of National Development as a town planner. After four years of civil service, Ong resigned from his government profession and started his own architectural firm, Ong & Ong Architects, with his wife.[5]

Political careerEdit

Ong's political career spanned 21 years. He was a Member of Parliament (MP), Cabinet Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, before he resigned to become the first elected President of Singapore in 1993.

Ong began his political career through his involvement in grassroots activities in Seletar. He was then introduced to Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The People's Action Party (PAP) soon fielded him as a candidate in Kim Keat in the 1972 General Election. His first political appointment came just three years later when he was made Senior Minister of State for Communications. At that time, Ong pushed for the development of the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRT), the largest construction project in Singapore's history. During his tenure as the Minister of National Development, Ong was a proponent and advocate of the Mass Rapid Transit system. He later became the Second Deputy Prime Minister in 1985.


Secretary general of the NTUCEdit

Replacing Lim Chee OnnEdit

In 1983, Ong replaced Lim Chee Onn as secretary general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Historically, the non-communist trade unions, led by the NTUC, have had a "uniquely cozy relationship" with the Singaporean government and the PAP in "a tripartite system", and were key political allies to the PAP's securing of power in the 1960s. Though in 1982, Lim Chee Onn, still secretary general, had "proclaimed effusive[ly]" that the "PAP and the NTUC came from the same mother — the struggle with the communists and the colonialists," the relations between the unions and the government had become more strained by the 1980s.

Older grassroots union leaders had been excluded from decisions in the top NTUC leadership, a leadership, which, by the analysis of Michael Barr, had come to be dominated by de facto appointed PAP technocrats foreign to the grassroots labour movement. Lee Kuan Yew felt that Lim, although his "protégé", was not "progressing well" in the "process of meshing in the [elite] scholars and the professionals with the rank-and-file union leaders" in NTUC, causing "increasing disquiet" among the grassroots union leaders. Lim himself had been preceded by Devan Nair (who was Singapore's third president), founder of the NTUC and a popular member of the PAP democratic socialist old guard, and Phey Yew Kok, a powerful union leader who was instrumental in convincing Chinese unions to join the NTUC during the 1970s, but had been forced to resign in 1980 and fled the country in a corruption scandal.

However, the leadership style of Lim and other newer top NTUC leaders had increasingly alienated elements of the union grassroots. The United Workers of Petroleum Industry (UWPI) and NTUC Triennal Delegates' Conference publicly opposed the government's attempts to make house unions the norm, to the political chagrin of Lee Kuan Yew.[6]

In an open letter, Lee Kuan Yew informed Lim that he would leave the NTUC to "take charge of a Government ministry" and that "Ong Teng Cheong [will] take over from you as secretary general".[7]

According to Barr, though the position of secretary general is "routinely occupied by members of Cabinet", Ong "stood out": Ong was a former Minister for Labor, chairman of the PAP and "regarded as a potential successor to Lee Kuan Yew".[6]

Implicit pact with unionsEdit

Ong made many grounds in repairing the strained relationship between the unions and the government where Lim had failed. After a few months as secretary general, "he confronted the rebellious leadership of UWPI" where "they quickly reversed their opposition to house unions", and in 1985 the Triennial Delegates Conference endorsed the government's push for house unions. Barr writes that "Ong had a mastery of institutional power".

Although striking was prohibited and trade unions were barred from negotiating such matters as promotion, transfer, employment, dismissal, retrenchment, and reinstatement, issues that "accounted for most earlier labour disputes", the government generally provided measures for workers' safety and welfare since the 1960s and serious union disputes with employers were almost always handled through the Industrial Arbitration Court, which had powers of both binding arbitration and voluntary mediation.[8] However, the grassroots leaders in the unions had become increasingly worried about their marginalisation in Singaporean politics. Peter Vincent, President of the NTUC from 1980 to 1984, stated that PAP technocrats should "remain in advisory positions [in the NTUC] until they have gained the respect of the union movement". In response, Ong "increased the levels of consultation with his colleagues in the NTUC" and "reversed the trend of excluding grassroots leaders from the upper reaches of the NTUC".

Ong was also a ferocious union activist, "working actively and forcefully in the interests of the unions in a way that Lim had never seen to do" and "stretch[ing] union activism to the very limits of that which would be tolerated by the government"; Barr argues that this activism would have been impossible to tolerate had anyone else less trusted than Ong had been charge of the NTUC. In this implicit pact, the unions would, in return, cooperate with the "government's core industrial relations strategies".[6]

In January 1986, Ong sanctioned a strike in the shipping industry, the first for about a decade in Singapore, believing it necessary as "[the] management were taking advantage of the workers". However, he did not inform the Cabinet beforehand, out of fear that the Cabinet would prevent him from going ahead with the strike. Ong recalled in a 2000 interview in Asiaweek: "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?" [9] Tony Tan, the minister for trade and industry, vigorously opposed Ong Teng Cheong's decision to sanction the strike, being concerned with investors' reactions to a perceived deterioration of labour relations or an impact on foreign direct investment needed for jobs creation. Ong Teng Cheong 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."

According to Barr, Ong justified his commitment "in Confucian terms" in a "notion akin to noblesse oblige".[6]

Protest against the United States embassyEdit

As Secretary General of the NTUC, Ong also organised a 4,000 man strong protest against the United States First Secretary E. Mason Hendrikson's involvement in the local arrest of lawyers.[10]


Ong was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphatic system in 1992. He became Singapore's first elected President a year later, and it was a presidency marked by many charitable projects (the largest of which is the President's Star Charity, an annual event initiated by Ong). Ong stepped down as President at the age of 63.[3] Ong ran for the presidency under the PAP's endorsement. He ran against a reluctant Chua Kim Yeow, a former accountant general, for the post. A total of 1,756,517 votes were polled. Ong received 952,513 votes while Chua had 670,358 votes, despite the former having a higher public exposure and a much more active campaign than Chua.

However, soon after his election to the presidency in 1993, Ong was tangled in a dispute over the access of information regarding Singapore's financial reserves. The government said it would take 56 man-years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets. Ong discussed this with the accountant general and the auditor general and eventually conceded that the government only had to declare all of its properties, a list which took a few months to produce. Even then, the list was not complete; it took the government a total of three years to produce the information that Ong requested.[11]

In an interview with Asiaweek six months after stepping down from presidency,[12] Ong indicated that he had asked for this audit based on the principle that as an elected president, he was bound to protect the national reserves, and the only way of doing so would be to know what reserves (both liquid cash and assets) the government owned.

In the last year of his presidency (1998) Ong found out through the newspapers that the government aimed to submit a bill to Parliament to sell the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) to The Development Bank of Singapore. The POSB was, at that time, a government statutory board whose reserves were under the president's protection; this move according to Ong, was procedurally inappropriate and did not regard Ong's significance as the guardian of the reserves; he had to call and inform the government of this oversight. In spite of this, the sale proceeded and the Development Bank Of Singapore owns POSBank and its name to this present day.[12]

Ong received an honorary appointment of Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) from Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom in 1998.[13]

Ong decided not to run for a second term as president in 1999 partially due to the passing of his wife. He was succeeded by the late S.R. Nathan.


Ong's wife, Ling Siew May, died on 9 August 1999 after a cancer relapse.

Ong died in his sleep later on February 8, 2002, at the age of 66, from lymphoma in his home at about 8:14 pm SST after he had been discharged from hospital a few days earlier and he was survived by his 2 sons, Tze Guan and Tze Boon. His death even coincided with the opening of Changi Airport MRT Station.

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

Ong's family decided not to give him a state funeral in 2002 because it was close to Chinese New Year by then. But for the first time in history, the Singapore flags flew at half mast on the government buildings, like the Istana to pay his last respects.


External linksEdit

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