Ong Teng Cheong


Ong Teng Cheong (b. 22 January 1936, Singapore–d. 8 February 2002, Singapore) was the fifth president of Singapore and the first to be elected into office. He was sworn in as president on 1 September 1993. An architect by training, Ong served as a People’s Action Party (PAP) member of parliament (MP) for over two decades, and held at various times the communications, culture and labour portfolios. He became the second deputy prime minister in 1985 and then deputy prime minister in 1990. He was also the secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) from 1983 to 1993. Ong resigned from his political and union positions to stand for the presidential election in 1993.

Early life and education
Much of Ong’s early childhood was spent living with his grandparents. His grandfather taught him to recite passages from a Chinese classical text, The Book of Classical Wisdom (昔日贤文; Xiri xian wen), in Hokkien, thus enabling him to master the dialect.1

During the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), Ong learned the Japanese language at school and also worked in a cast and die factory. After the war, he attended Chong Cheng Primary School and progressed to The Chinese High School, where he topped the school’s final year examination in 1955. Ong then left for Adelaide, Australia, for further studies and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Adelaide in 1961. He received his master’s degree in civic design from the University of Liverpool, United Kingdom, in 1967 under the Colombo Plan scholarship.2

Career as an architect
Ong’s first job when he came back from Adelaide in 1964 was with the architectural firm Alfred Wong Partnership, but left for Liverpool the following year to pursue his master’s degree. He returned to Singapore in 1967 and worked for six months in the Planning Department under the Ministry of National Development before being moved to the State and City Planning project, a collaboration between the United Nations Development Programme and the Singapore government to develop a long-term concept plan for Singapore’s future physical development. He was tasked with planning the land use for Singapore's central region, and the plans he drew up for Telok Blangah were eventually implemented in the mid-1970s. In 1971, he left the civil service to set up his own architectural firm.3

Entry into politics
After moving to Jalan Kayu in the late 1960s, Ong started to get involved in the Seletar Hills Residents’ Association.He subsequently met the then MP of Jalan Kayu, Hwang Soo Jin, and was persuaded by the latter to join politics.5 Meanwhile, Ong was serving as a member in the Citizens Consultative Committee, and conducted meet-the-people sessions for Hwang when the latter was away.6

In early 1972, Ong met the PAP leaders for an interview to stand for election under the banner of their political party, and was fielded as a candidate for the Kim Keat constituency during the general election of September that year. He won the election and became the MP for Kim Keat.7 In 1991, he was elected as one of four MPs in the Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC) after Kim Keat was absorbed as part of the GRC. Altogether, Ong served as an MP for over two decades.8

Ong was approached to take up office as early as 1973, but only agreed to do so in late 1974 after leaving his architectural practice and his ailing younger brother had passed away. Ong was sworn in as the senior minister of state for communications in June 1975.9

Involvement in major transportation projects
In 1975, construction work had just started on the new airport in Changi. Ong was involved in the conceptualisation of a new airport that would cater to passengers’ needs, comfort and convenience. He also contributed to the design of the airport’s control tower, suggesting that the tower be positioned away from the terminal for maximum visual impact. The tower became a Singapore icon after Singapore Changi Airport was opened in 1981.10

One of Ong’s responsibilities in the Ministry of Communications was to develop Singapore’s rapid transit network, which came to be known as the Mass Rapid Transit, or MRT. He lobbied for the development of the train system in Singapore, as he believed that it would offer a better solution for traffic problems in the long run. Due to the hefty cost of building a train network, however, the parliament was divided on whether to go for an all-bus system or a train system. Construction of the MRT was estimated to cost the government some S$5 billion.11

In March 1980, Parliament approved the setting up of the Provisional Mass Rapid Transit Authority to plan and study the establishment of such a system,12 after which a decision was finally made in May 1982 to proceed with the construction of the MRT network.13 On 7 November 1987, Ong took the historic first train ride on the North–South Line, heralding a new era of public transportation in Singapore.14

Secretary-general of NTUC
During his decade with the NTUC as its secretary-general from 1983 to 1993, Ong was seen to pay special attention to low-income, daily-rated workers. He ensured that these workers still received their 13th-month bonuses despite the recession in 1985, which was the most severe economic downturn since Singapore’s independence. He also managed to gain the workers’ support in accepting wage restraints and a cut in employers’ Central Provident Fund contributions during the recession.15

In 1986, Ong, in his capacity as secretary-general, sanctioned a strike involving workers of an American company, Hydril, over the management’s unfair treatment of workers.16 It was the first strike in Singapore in eight years.17

During his term with the NTUC, Ong also reversed the declining union membership through a membership recruitment campaign in 1985 when the NTUC Card was introduced. NTUC’s membership reached a 10-year high of 213,382 in 1991.18 In addition, he oversaw the building of recreational facilities, such as the Orchid Country Club and the NTUC resort at Pasir Ris, for union members to enjoy.19 After he was elected as president, Ong was made a patron of the Singapore Labour Foundation, Orchid Country Club and the NTUC Club.20

Arts, culture and education
Ong, a pianist himself, was passionate about culture and the arts.21 In his capacity as acting minister for culture (1977–81),22 Ong initiated numerous arts policies. For instance, he launched the Singapore Cultural Foundation in 1978 to support the arts23 and started the Cultural Medallion awards in 1979 to recognise individuals who excelled in the fields of visual arts, dance, music, drama and literature.24

In 1988, Ong was appointed as chairman of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts. The council’s report released in April the following year was a landmark in Singapore’s development of the arts. It led to the constitution of the National Arts Council as a statutory board and the establishment of the performing arts centre, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay,25 which Ong first mooted in the 1970s.26 He was later also involved in the design of the Esplanade.27

Ong was tasked with heading the Moral Education Committee, formed in 1978, to develop a school syllabus on moral education.28 The committee’s report published the following year eventually led to the implementation of “Good Citizen” lessons in primary schools and “Being and Becoming” classes for the secondary level in 1981.29 Ong believed in the importance of moral education for developing high moral standards and hence better character among Singaporeans to match the country’s rapid economic development.30

In 1979, Ong also served as chairman of the first National Courtesy Campaign committee.31

President of Singapore
After resigning from the PAP, as well as his positions in the cabinet and the NTUC, Ong stood as a candidate in Singapore’s first presidential election in 1993. He won with 58.7 percent of the votes against Accountant-General Chua Kim Yeow, and thus became Singapore fifth president and the first to be elected.32

One of Ong’s legacies as president was refining the constitutional powers and workings of the elected presidency, particularly pertaining to its custodial role in safeguarding the national reserves. Until 1991 when the elected presidency was established, the president was primarily a ceremonial figure. The white paper, “The Principles for Determining and Safeguarding the Accumulated Reserves of the Government and the Fifth Schedule Statutory Boards and Government Companies”, published at the end of his term in 1999, sought to clarify the procedures taken by the president together with the government in safeguarding the national reserves.33

During his tenure, Ong also initiated a number of charities such as the President’s Star Charity, which financially benefitted at least 160 organisations during his six years as president.34

Retirement and death
Ong was diagnosed with low-grade malignant lymphoma in 1992 and suffered a relapse in 1998.35 On 16 July 1999, Ong announced that he would not stand as a candidate in the upcoming presidential election. He officially stepped down on 31 August 1999 and was succeeded by S. R. Nathan.36 He then returned to work at his architecture practice.37 Ong succumbed to his illness on 8 February 2002, leaving behind two sons.38

In March 2002, the Singapore Institute of Labour Studies was renamed Ong Teng Cheong Institute of Labour Studies (now known as the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute) in his honour. Ong oversaw the establishment of the institute in 1990.39

Family40
Wife: Ling Siew May (m. 1963–30 July 1999, her death), whom Ong met when they were in secondary school. She died from colon cancer on 30 July 1999. 
Children: Two sons, Tze Guan and Tze Boon

Timeline
22 Jan 1936: Born as eldest son to Ong Keng Wee and Chung Lai Heng.41
1961: Attains bachelor’s degree in architecture, University of Adelaide, Australia.
1962–1964: Works for McMichael and Harris, Adelaide.42
1964–1965: Works for Alfred Wong Partnership, Singapore.
1965: Awarded the Colombo Plan scholarship and leaves for Liverpool.
1967: Attains master’s degree in civic design (town planning), University of Liverpool, United Kingdom.
1967–1971: Joins the Planning Department of the Ministry of National Development as an architect-planner in 1967, and seconded to the State and City Planning project six months later.43
1971: Sets up own architectural firm, Design and Planning Services (renamed Ong & Ong Architects and Town Planners in 1972).44
Sep 1972–Aug 1993: MP for Kim Keat constituency and then for Toa Payoh GRC.45
Jun 1975–Jun 1978: Senior minister of state for communications.46
Sep 1977–Jan 1981: Acting minister for culture.47
Jul 1978–May 1983: Minister for communications.48
Jan 1981–May 1983: Minister for labour (concurrently communications minister).49
Jan 1981–Aug 1993: Chairman of the PAP’s Central Executive Committee.50
May 1983–Aug 1993: Secretary-general of NTUC.51
May 1983–Jan 1985: Minister without portfolio.52
1985: Chairman, Singapore Labour Foundation.53
Jan 1985–Nov 1990: Second deputy prime minister.54
Nov 1990–Aug 1993: Deputy prime minister.55
1992: Diagnosed with regressive low-grade lymphoma.56
1 Sep 1993–31 Aug 1999: President of Singapore.57
1993–1999: Chancellor, National University of Singapore.58
8 Feb 2002: Dies of malignant lymphoma.59



Author

Ang Seow Leng



References
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7. Lee, E. B. (1987, June 19). Oral history interview with Ong Teng Cheong [Transcript of cassette recording no. 000794/05/02, pp. 14–18]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline
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18. Government of Singapore. (1991, November 15). Speech by Mr Ong Teng Cheong, deputy prime minister, on the occasion of the membership recruitment awards presentation ceremony at the NTUC Club Union Hall on Friday, 15 November 1991 at 4.30 pm. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline; Ng, T. (2005).  Ong Teng Cheong: Planner, politician, president. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with Singapore Heritage Society, p. 69. (Call no.: RSING q959.5705092 NG-[HIS])
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20. ‘He cared so much for the workers’. (2002, February 9). The Straits Times, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Ong Teng Cheong. (1998, September 25). President Ong Teng Cheong giving a piano performance during the President’s Star Charity show accompanied by Mediacorps artistes Kym Ng (left) and Evelyn Tan [Photograph accession no. OTC1452]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline; Tan, L. (2004, June 24). Interviews for ‘Ong Teng Cheong Planner Politician President’ coffee table book [MP3 recording no. E000003/02/01, p. 6]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline
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23. Body set up to finance cultural progress. (1978, December 12). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Finalising the medallion awards. (1980, January 12). The Straits Times, p. 15. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; National Arts Council. (2015, October 19). Cultural Medallion. Retrieved from the National Arts Council Singapore website: https://www.nac.gov.sg/talent-development/cultural-leadership/cultural-medallion
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29. Mahbubani, G. (1981, September 18). Awareness of the self and the worldThe Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Lee, K. C. (1983, January 24). Need for higher moral standardsThe Straits Times, p. 1;.High moral character comes first: Teng Cheong. (1983, May 27). The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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32. Tan, S. (1993, August 29).  Voters choose Teng CheongThe Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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35. President Ong receives therapy for cancer. (1998, July 25). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
36. The Istana. (1999, July 16). President Ong Teng Cheong announced his decision not to stand as a candidate at the next presidential elections [Press release]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonlinePresident Ong says ‘thank you’. (1999, September 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; SR Nathan sworn in as president. (1999, September 2). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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38. Ex-President Ong dies. (2002, February 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39. Ex-president’s legacy lives on as NTUC renames institute. (2002, February 9). Today, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Labour movement aims to keep job losses below 29,000 this year. (2009, January 29). Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved from Factiva.
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41. Ng, T. (2005).  Ong Teng Cheong: Planner, politician, president. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with Singapore Heritage Society, p. 11. (Call no.: RSING q959.5705092 NG-[HIS])
42. Ng, T. (2005).  Ong Teng Cheong: Planner, politician, president. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with Singapore Heritage Society, p. 146. (Call no.: RSING q959.5705092 NG-[HIS])
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50. Ngoo, I. (1981, January 11). Turning point for the PAPThe Straits Times, p. 1; Ong Teng Cheong tenders resignation as PAP chairman. (1993, August 6). The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
51. Ng, T. (2005).  Ong Teng Cheong: Planner, politician, president. Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with Singapore Heritage Society, p. 146. (Call no.: RSING q959.5705092 NG-[HIS]); Teo, A. (1993, August 31). Teng Cheong resigns as NTUC chief, Lim Boon Heng invited to take his placeThe Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
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55. President’s Office. (2013, January 25). Mr Ong Teng Cheong. Retrieved from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/the-president/former-presidents/mr-ong-teng-cheong
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57. President Ong says ‘thank you’. (1999, September 1). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; President’s Office. (2013, January 25). Mr Ong Teng Cheong. Retrieved from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/the-president/former-presidents/mr-ong-teng-cheong
58. NUS Libraries. (n.d.). Our chancellors: Biographical sketch – Ong Teng Cheong (1993–1999). Retrieved from NUS Libraries website: http://www.lib.nus.edu.sg/nusbiodata/bioongtc.htm
59. Ex-President Ong dies. (2002, February 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



Further resources

Government of Singapore. (1999, August 30). Speech by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the farewell reception for President Ong Teng Cheong on Monday, 30 August 1999, at the Istana at 6.30 pm. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline

The Istana. (1999, August 30). Speech by President Ong Teng Cheong at the farewell reception hosted by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in his honour on Monday, 30 August 1999, at the Istana at 6.30 pm. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline



The information in this article is valid as at 15 February 2016 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Politics and Government
Presidents--Singapore--Biography
Personalities
Personalities>>Biographies>>Political Leaders
Law and government>>Public administration>>Cabinet (Government Councils)
Politicians--Singapore--Biography
Law and government>>Political process>>Leadership
Ong, Teng Cheong, 1936-2002

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