Ling Siew May



Ling Siew May (b. 1937, Shanghai, China – d. 30 July 1999, Singapore) was the wife of the late former President Ong Teng Cheong, and principal partner at Ong & Ong Architects.1 She took over the company in 1993 and continued to work even after Ong was elected as president.Her notable architectural achievements include the preservation and restoration of Chijmes.3

Early life
The fourth of six children,4 Ling’s father had been posted to a British firm in Singapore where he worked as a clerk in 1942.5 She arrived as an 11-year-old “owning little more than the clothes on her back”.6 During World War II, the Japanese occupied Singapore and Ling’s father lost touch with the family. During this time, Ling was sent to an orphanage in Shanghai7 where she lived for five years.8 Two of her brothers died during the war.9 However, by 1948, Ling’s father managed to find his family and brought them to Singapore10 where Ling was enrolled at an English and Chinese school concurrently, enabling her to master both languages.11


Ling met Ong Teng Cheong at a Christmas party in 195212 when she was 15 and he, 16.13 They shared a common love for Chinese poetry and theatre.14 They later studied architecture together at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Ling graduated in 196315 and married Ong that same year.16

Education & Career
Between 1951 and 1956, Ling studied at Nanyang Girls’ High School where she excelled as an essayist, mathematician and calligrapher.17 In 1963, Ling obtained her Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Adelaide, Australia — the first Asian woman to do so.18 In 1972, she set up Ong & Ong Architects with her husband, where she was the principal partner.19 She continued to work even after Ong was elected as president, making her Singapore’s only working first lady.20 Even when her health deteriorated, she completed the new campus for her alma mater Nanyang Girls’ High School at Linden Drive, which was also her last project.21

Social Contribution
Ling was a patron of at least five charities and associations, such as the Girl Guides,22 but had a soft spot for Nanyang Girls’ High School, where she served on the board of directors23 and to which she had donated more than half a million dollars of her own money.24 In recognition of her contributions to her alma mater, the school started the Ling Siew May Scholarship, which is worth $1,000, to be awarded to the top Secondary 4 student “who embodies the three tenets of the Integrated Programme, being reflective, responsive and responsible”.25


Illness
As a child, she was struck by rheumatic fever, leaving a heart valve permanently damaged.26 She was diagnosed with colon cancer in  January 1997 and by July 1999, it was in an advanced stage.27 Her last public appearance was at the President’s Charity Ball on 9 July at which President Ong performed a piano recital for an audience of 650 people.28 She died at 11.25 am on 30 July 1999 at the National University Hospital.29

At her cortege, girls from the Nanyang Girls’ High Choir tearfully sang Zhu Guang Li De Ma Ma (Mother in the Candlelight).30



Author
Bonny Tan



References
1. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first lady. The Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. Teo, A. (1999, July 31). First Lady’s work was a passion. The Business Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Goodbye Siew May. (1999. August 4). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, August 4). Dignified farewell for the first lady. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, August 4). Dignified farewell for the first lady. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
19. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Ministry of Information and the Arts. (1999, August 3). Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s condolence message in Parliament on 3 August 1999 [Press release]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
22. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, July 31). First lady dies at 62The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, July 31). First lady dies at 62The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
24. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Nanyang Girls’ High School. (2016). Financial matters. Retrieved August 8, 2017, from Nanyang Girls’ High School website: https://www.nygh.edu.sg/financial_matters
26. Goodbye Siew May. (1999. August 4). The Straits Times, p. 24. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
27. Ministry of Information and the Arts. (1999, August 3). Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s condolence message in Parliament on 3 August 1999 [Press release]. Retrieved from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/
28. Leow, J. (1999, July 31). A working first ladyThe Straits Times, p. 50. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, July 31). First lady dies at 62The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
30. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, July 31). First lady dies at 62The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.



The information in this article is valid as of August 2017 and correct as far as we are able to 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
Presidents' spouses--Singapore--Biography
Women architects--Singapore--Biography
Personalities>>Biographies>>Community Leaders
Ling, Siew May, 1937-1999
Community leaders
Business, finance and industry>>Business organization>>Business enterprises