Ong Eng Guan


Ong Eng Guan (b. 1925, Malacca–d. 2008, location unknown) was a trained accountant, politician and former minister. He was the mayor of Singapore from 1957 to 1959 and the minister for national development between 1959 and 1960 while a member of the People’s Action Party (PAP). In 1965, Ong resigned from the Legislative Assembly and retired from politics.

Early life and education
Ong was born in Malacca in 1925.1 However, he lived in Batu Pahat, Johor, for the first 25 years of his life. As a young boy, Ong attended the Batu Pahat Government English School in the morning and a private Chinese school in the afternoon. Ong pursued this dual-track education because his father wanted him to have the advantage of an English education while maintaining his Chinese roots.2

He graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree and a diploma in public administration from the University of Melbourne in Australia. During his time there, Ong was the founding president of the Asian Students Federation of Melbourne and the president of the Australian Overseas Club.3

Entry into politics
After graduation, Ong came to Singapore and started his own accountancy firm.4 In 1954, Ong joined the newly formed PAP and was made treasurer because of his background in accountancy. S. Rajaratnam, one of the party’s founding members who knew Ong through past professional dealings, introduced him to fellow party member Lee Kuan Yew. Ong’s fluency in English, Mandarin,
Hokkien and Malay stood him in good stead within the party because his linguistic skills were needed to help the party gain widespread grassroots support.5

In December 1957, PAP contested 14 of the 32 seats in the first City Council elections and Ong was among the candidates fielded by the party. The PAP won 13 of the 14 seats that it contested, and Ong, then 32 years old, was elected mayor of Singapore.6


Ong as mayor of Singapore
Ong’s tenure as mayor between 1957 and 1959 was marked by chaos and controversy. Arriving at City Hall for the City Council inauguration ceremony on 24 December 1947, Ong was greeted by a group of rowdy supporters who had set off firecrackers. The police intervened, asking the supporters to put out the firecrackers, but Ong stepped in and said he had authorised the use of the pyrotechnics. A melee ensued and Ong was arrested along with 14 PAP supporters and three other PAP councillors – Wee Toon Boon, Chan Chee Seng and Baharuddin bin Mohd Ariff. By the time Ong was released by the police, the inauguration ceremony had to be postponed to the following day.7


At the second attempt to inaugurate the City Council on 25 December, Ong refused to wear the mayoral regalia or to stay at the mayoral mansion. He also ordered the removal of the council mace, a symbol of Singapore’s status as a city by royal charter, as he felt it was a “relic of colonialism”.8

Ong was actively involved in the day-to-day administration of the City Council and sought to reform what he saw as “a cesspool of maladministration, corruption and inefficiency”.9 He set up the Public Complaints Bureau where members of the public could lodge complaints about council staff and services,10 and chaired a weekly meet-the-people session to hear their views.11 Ong started community and gotong royong (meaning “mutual help” in Malay) initiatives in which council staff worked with the people to build roads, clear drains and sweep the streets.12 One of the projects, Pantai Chantek (meaning “beautiful beach” in Malay), was a mass clean-up of Changi Beach that involved some 14,000 volunteers.13

Ong pushed hard for the Malayanisation of the City Council, replacing many expatriate staff with locals. His brusque manners and way of doing things alienated many council staff, especially the expatriates, resulting in many resignations.14

Matters came to a head in March 1959 when Dato Abdul Hamid bin Jumat, then the minister for local government, lands and housing, relieved Ong of many of his duties on the back of the accumulated complaints.15 Dato Abdul Hamid also ordered the formation of a commission of inquiry to look into the workings of the City Council.16 The commission, chaired by district judge J. F. McWilliam, later adjourned the inquiry indefinitely because it was becoming a farce of allegations and counter-allegations against the individuals under investigation.17

Ong as cabinet minister
In April 1959, Ong and 13 other PAP councillors quit the City Council.18 Later that year, Ong contested in the 1959
general election on the PAP ticket. He stood for Hong Lim and won the constituency with 77 percent of the votes – the largest victory margin in that election.19

Following the PAP’s victory in the general election, Ong was appointed as the minister for national development. His two main tasks were to solve Singapore’s housing problem and streamline the state administration. In June 1959, Ong was made chairman of the Singapore Improvement Trust and assigned to oversee its transition to the new Housing and Development Board (HDB).20

He was also one of the Singapore representatives on the Internal Security Council alongside Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Minister for Home Affairs Ong Pang Boon.21

Split with PAP
By 1960, Ong was beginning to fall out of favour within the party. He sat on the task of integrating the City Council functions and services with the other ministries despite repeated reminders. He also placed friends in positions at the SIT and City Council that they were not qualified to hold.22 To worsen matters, Ong did not consult his cabinet colleagues when he announced in September 1959 a five-year plan to build public housing in Singapore at a cost of $415 million.23 He did not submit any detailed plans about how the money was to be spent or how the plan was to be achieved.24

Ong’s portfolio was gradually removed from him. The prime minister took over his city council responsibilities25 and Lim Kim San was appointed chairman of the newly established HDB.26

In June 1960, Ong made an open challenge for party leadership at a PAP conference, where he presented 16 resolutions on behalf of the PAP Hong Lim branch. The resolutions implied that the PAP had deviated from its party manifesto and anticolonial objective, and that there was a lack of democracy within the party. Ong was suspended as minister for national development27 and eventually expelled from the party for his actions.28

A by-election at Hong Lim was called in 1961 following Ong’s expulsion from the PAP and resignation from the Legislative Assembly. Ong contested as an independent candidate and defeated Jek Yeun Thong of the PAP with a 4,927-vote majority.29 After his by-election victory, Ong formed the United People’s Party (UPP).30

During the debates on the 1961 budget, Ong made allegations of nepotism against Lee and his minister for labour and law, K. M. Byrne. A commission of inquiry formed on 31 December 1960 and headed by Justice F. A. Chua found the allegations “groundless and recklessly made” and that “there [was] no justification in making any of them”.31

Ong’s UPP fielded 46 candidates to contest the September 1963 snap election, but he was the only one elected. This time around, he garnered only 37.5 percent of the votes compared with over 70 percent of votes he received in the 1959 and 1961 elections.32

Resignation and retirement
On 16 June 1965, Ong resigned from the Legislative Assembly33 and subsequently kept a low profile. He was neither involved in politics nor did he grant any media interviews.34


Little was known about Ong’s life after he left politics. It was reported in 2012 that Ong had died in 2008 at the age of 83.35



Author

Jaime Koh



References
1. People’s Action Party [Microfilm no.: NL 9312]. (1957). Petir, 1.1(11), 5.
2. Yap, S., Lim, R., & Leong, W. K. (2009). Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings Limited, p 136. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP)
3. People’s Action Party [Microfilm no.: NL 9312]. (1957). Petir, 1.1(11), 5.
4. 柯木林 (主编) [Ke, M. L. (Ed.)]. (2012). 《世界福建名人录. 新加坡篇》 [Prominent figures of Fujian communities in the world]. 新加坡: 新加坡福建会馆, p. 21. (Call no.: RSING Chinese 920.05957 PRO)
5. People’s Action Party [Microfilm no.: NL 9312]. (1957). Petir, 1.1(11), 5; Yap, S., Lim, R., & Leong, W. K. (2009). Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings Limited, p. 136. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP)
6. PAP conquers the city. (1957, December 22). The Straits Times, p. 1; PAP pact with UMNO. (1957, December 23). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Mayor elect arrested. (1957, December 24). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. ‘May God protect Singapore’. (1957, December 25). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Ong, E. G. (1958). City Council Work. In People’s Action Party 4th Anniversary Celebration Souvenir [Microfilm no.: NL 16648]. Singapore: National Library, pp. 24–26.
10. Anti-corruption bureau to be established this week. (1958, January 12). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yap, S., Lim, R., & Leong, W. K. (2009). Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings Limited, p. 138. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP)
11. Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings Limited, p. 140. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP)
12. Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings Limited, p. 140. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP); Sunday work for 10,000. (1959, August 2). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Yap, S., Lim, R., & Leong, W. K. (2009). Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings Limited, p. 140. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP); 10,000 for big clean-up operation at Changi Beach. (1959, October 13). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Yap, S., Lim, R., & Leong, W. K. (2009). Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings Limited, pp. 139–140. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP); Ong wants 8 top posts Malayanised. (1958, April 21). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. The big switch how it took place. (1959, March 28). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. City council probe opens: Discussion on procedure. (1959, May 11). The Singapore Free Press, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Council probe adjourned: Atmosphere deteriorated, says the commissioner. (1959, May 22) The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. PAP quits council. (1959, April 19) The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Singapore Elections Department. (2015, November 2). 1959 parliamentary election results. Retrieved from Singapore Elections Department website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_parliamentary1959.html
20. Development minister is named SIT chief. (1959, June 12). The Straits Times, p. 9. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Bellows, T. J. (1970). The People’s Action Party of Singapore: Emergence of a dominant party system. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, p. 37. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 BEL); Security big 7. (1959, June 16). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Party lists Mr Ong’s blunders. (1960, June 24). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Yap, S., Lim, R., & Leong, W. K. (2009). Men in white: The untold story of Singapore’s ruling political party. Singapore: Singapore Press Holdings Limited, p. 188. (Call no.: RSING 324.25957 YAP)
24. Lee, K. Y. (1998 ). The Singapore story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore: Times Editions Pte Ltd, p. 336. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 LEE-[HIS])
25. Premier to head the planning authority. (1960, February 2). The Straits Times, p. 7. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Banker heads Housing, Development Board. (1960, February 16). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Ong: The full story. (1960, June 21) The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
28. Ong: PAP’s final act. (1960, July 29) The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Singapore Elections Department. (2016, July 22). 1961 legislative assembly by-election result. Retrieved from Singapore Elections Department website: http://www.eld.gov.sg/elections_past_by1961b.html
30. New party now registered. (1961, July 22). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Singapore. (1961). Report of the inquiry commission into certain allegations made by Mr Ong Eng Guan in the Legislative Assembly on the 10th and 12th December, 1960 (Cmd. 7 of 1961). [Microfilm no.: NL 12103]. Singapore. Legislative Assembly, p. 12.
32. Fong, S. C. (1980). The PAP Story – the pioneering years. Singapore: Times Periodicals, pp. 203, 207, 209. (Call no.: RSING 329.95957 FON)
33. Mr Ong quits the assembly. (1965, June 17). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. 柯木林 (主编) [Ke, M. L. (Ed.)]. (2012). 《世界福建名人录. 新加坡篇》 [Prominent figures of Fujian communities in the world]. 新加坡: 新加坡福建会馆, p. 22. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 920.05957 PRO)
35.
Leong, W. K. (2012, November 22). First S’pore mayor ‘died in 2008’.The Straits Times, p. 6. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; 柯木林 (主编) [Ke, M. L. (Ed.)]. (2012). 《世界福建名人录. 新加坡篇》 [Prominent figures of Fujian communities in the world]. 新加坡: 新加坡福建会馆, p. 21. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 920.05957 PRO)



Further resources
Ong Eng Guan shock. (1960, June 20). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Toh: Inquiry proved that Ong grossly abused his privilege. (1961, March 2). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as at 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
Pioneers
Cabinet officials
Accountants
Biographies
Ong, Eng Guan, 1925-2008
Singapore. Housing and Development Board
Mayors