Ong Teng Cheong was the fifth president of the Republic of Singapore and the first to be popularly elected by the people in the 1993 presidential election. An architect by training, Ong had been in the public service for more than 20 years before he became president. Ong served as a People’s Action Party (PAP) member of parliament for the Kim Keat constituency from 1972 to 1991 and for the Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency (GRC) from 1991 to 1993. He was appointed Acting Minister for Culture on 25 September 1977, and became Minister for Communications in July 1978. In January 1981, Ong relinquished his post as Acting Minister for Culture and took over the Labour portfolio while continuing as Communications minister.
In 1983, Ong was appointed Minister without Portfolio after he joined the labour movement as the elected secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). By then, Ong was already the chairman of the PAP Central Executive Committee, having been elected to this post in 1981. While serving as the secretary-general of NTUC, Ong was appointed Second Deputy Prime Minister in 1985. He held this post until November 1990 when he became Deputy Prime Minister. In August 1993, Ong resigned from his posts in the cabinet, the PAP and the NTUC to contest the 1993 presidential election.
The public, particularly unionists and grassroots leaders, reacted positively to Ong’s candidacy for president. They praised him for his approachable and friendly personality as well as his contributions to Singapore, including the slew of changes he had implemented in the labour movement such as expanding the role of NTUC from being a watchdog for collective bargaining to a broad-based worker welfare organisation. Ong’s past achievements in the public service also helped to secure PAP’s support for his presidential campaign. In fact, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had remarked that the party considered Ong “eminently qualified” to serve as the first elected president of Singapore.
Contesting against Ong for the post of president was retired top civil servant and banker Chua Kim Yeow. Chua, who was also the first local accountant-general and recipient of multiple public service awards, including the Public Administration Gold Medal, was persuaded by former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee and Finance Minister Richard Hu to stand as a non-political candidate. Singapore’s first presidential election was held on 28 August 1993, in which Ong was elected after taking 58.7 percent or 952,513 of the 1.62 million valid votes cast. He was sworn in on 1 September 1993 for a six-year term. Ong remained as president until 1999 when he announced on 16 July that he would not be running for a second term as president. He was succeeded by S. R. Nathan who was elected the sixth president of Singapore on 18 August 1999 and sworn in on 1 September the following month.
The legacy of Ong’s presidency was marked by his determination to test the custodial powers of the elected presidency. In 1994, he questioned the government’s interpretation of the constitution when the latter introduced a bill to revise the veto powers of the president. This was followed by another incident in 1997 when he refused to approve the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Board’s budget until he was satisfied that it would not draw down on the nation’s reserves. The events resulted in two major institutional developments. The first was the creation of a tribunal of judges for constitutional disputes, and the second was a White Paper, which placed on public record the working principles agreed between the government and the president on protecting the nation’s reserves.
Ong was popular and well-liked by Singaporeans as they saw him as a “people’s person”. As president, Ong also actively promoted the arts. Besides initiating an annual series of charity arts shows and concerts featuring young Singapore talents in 1995, Ong occasionally played the piano in public events and even conducted the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Ong’s popularity was evident from the outpouring of condolences during the wake of his wife, Ling Siew May, in 1999, as well as his passing on 8 February 2002.
1. President’s Office. (2013, January 25). Mr Ong Teng Cheong. Retrieved February 21, 2014, from the Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/content/istana/thepresident/formerpresidents/otc.html
2. Chiang, Y. P. (1993, August 16). ‘So long and thanks, Kim Keat’. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; The Istana. (2013, January 25). Mr Ong Teng Cheong. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from The Istana website: http://www.istana.gov.sg/the-president/former-presidents/mr-ong-teng-cheong
3. Fong, L. (1975, June 3). Cabinet surprise. The Straits Times, p. 1; 4 second echelon leaders get key party jobs. (1979, February 6). The Straits Times, p. 1; Minister of State moves up. (1978, July 1). The Business Times, p. 12. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Archives Online. (1977, September 25). Statement from the Prime Minister's Office. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from National Archives of Singapore website: http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/pdfdoc/lky19770925.pdf
4. Fong, L. (1981, January 6). Toh not in new cabinet. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. President’s Office, 25 January 2013, Mr Ong Teng Cheong.
6. Chiang, Y. P. (1993, August 4). DPM Ong wins praise all round for his rapport with the people. The Straits Times, p. 27. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. PAP ‘will support his election actively’. (1993, August 14). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
8. Henson, B. (1993, August 7). Confirmed: Ex-banker to contest. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Tan, S. (1993, August 29). Voters choose Teng Cheong. The Straits Times, p. 1; Tan, S. (1993, September 2). How I will do my job: President Ong. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, July 17). President Ong will not run for second term. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Zuraidah Ibrahim. (1999, August 19). Nathan elected president. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Custodial president: Testing the system. (1999, August 29). The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. The Straits Times, 29 Aug 1999, p. 22.
14. Wong, K. (2002, February 10). He loved the people, and they loved him. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Leong, W. K. (2002, February 11). Architect and politician with many artistic talents. The Straits Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Leow, J, & Lim, L. (1999, August 1). A day of remembrance. The Straits Times, p. 2; Teo, L. (2002, February 10). They waited hours just to say goodbye. The Straits Times, p.1; Ex-president Ong dies. (2002, February 9). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG .
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 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.