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

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

Bonny Tan

1. Jason Leow, “A Working First Lady,” Straits Times, 31 July 1999, 50. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
3. Anna Teo, “First Lady’s Work was a Passion,” Business Times, 31 July 1999, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
5. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
6. “Goodbye Siew May,” Straits Times, 4 August 1999, 24. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “Dignified Farewell for the First Lady,” Straits Times, 4 August 1999, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Leow, "Working First Lady.” 
9. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
10. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
11. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
12. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
13. Zuraidah, “Dignified Farewell for the First Lady.”
14. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
15. Leow, Working First Lady.” 
16. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
17. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
18. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
19. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
20. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
21. Goh Chok Tong, “Condolence Message to President Ong Teng Cheong,” speech, Parliament, 3 August 1999, transcript, Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 1999080302)
22. Zuraidah Ibrahim, “First Lady Dies at 62,” Straits Times, 31 July 1999, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
23. Zuraidah, “First Lady Dies at 62.” 
24. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
25. “Financial Matters,” Nanyang Girls’ High School, accessed on 8 August 2017.
26. “Goodbye Siew May.”
27. Goh, “Condolence Message to President Ong Teng Cheong.”
28. Leow, “Working First Lady.” 
29. Zuraidah, “First Lady Dies at 62.” 
30. Zuraidah, “First Lady Dies at 62.” 

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.


Women architects--Singapore--Biography
Ling, Siew May, 1937-1999
Presidents' spouses--Singapore--Biography
Community leaders