Ong Teng Cheong

Wayback Machine People's Action Party President of Singapore

Ong Teng Cheong
Ong's official portrait
5th President of Singapore
In office
1 September 1993 – 31 August 1999
Prime MinisterGoh Chok Tong
Preceded byWee Kim Wee
Succeeded byS. R. Nathan
Chairman of the People's Action Party
In office
5 January 1981 – 16 August 1993
LeaderGoh Chok Tong
Preceded byToh Chin Chye
Succeeded byTony Tan
Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore
In office
2 January 1985 – 16 August 1993
Serving with Goh Chok Tong
PresidentDevan Nair
Wee Kim Wee
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Goh Chok Tong
Preceded byS. Rajaratnam
Succeeded byTony Tan Keng Yam
Lee Hsien Loong
ConstituencyToa Payoh GRC
/ Kim Keat SMC (absorbed into Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC)
Secretary-General of National Trades Union Congress
In office
May 1983 – 1 September 1993
Preceded byLim Chee Onn
Succeeded byLim Boon Heng
Minister for Labour
In office
5 January 1981 – 9 May 1983
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byOng Pang Boon
Succeeded byE W Barker
Minister for Communications
In office
1 July 1978 – 9 May 1983
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byLim Kim San
Succeeded byOng Pang Boon
Member of the Singapore Parliament
for Toa Payoh GRC
In office
21 August 1991 – August 1993
Preceded byConstituency created
Succeeded byConstituency abolished
Member of the Singapore Parliament
for Kim Keat
In office
2 September 1972 – 14 August 1991
Preceded byConstituency created
Succeeded byConstituency abolished
Personal details
Ong Teng Cheong

(1936-01-22)22 January 1936
Singapore, Straits Settlements
Died8 February 2002(2002-02-08) (aged 66)
Singapore General Hospital, Singapore
Cause of deathLymphoma
Resting placeMandai Crematorium
Political partyIndependent
(1993 - 1999)
Other political
People's Action Party (1972 - 1993)
Ling Siew May
(m. 1963; died 1999)
Alma materUniversity of Liverpool
University of Adelaide
The Chinese High School
Military service
CommandsCommander-in-Chief of the Singapore Armed Forces

Ong Teng Cheong (Chinese: 王鼎昌; pinyin: Wáng Dǐngchāng; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Ông Tíng-chhiong; 22 January 1936 – 8 February 2002) was a Singaporean politician and architect who was the fifth president of Singapore & the commander-in-chief of the Singapore Armed Forces from 1993 to 1999 when former president Wee Kim Wee stepped down from the position. Ong was Singapore's first president elected by popular vote, serving a six-year term from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999 after winning the 1993 Singaporean presidential election with 58.69% of the valid votes cast while Chua Kim Yeow garnered 41.31% of the votes. Ong was sworn in as president on 1 September 1993 and was named as People's President among Singaporeans. Ong decided not to run for a second term as president in 1999 partially because of the death of his wife. [1]

Previously a member of the governing People's Action Party (PAP), Ong was the 4th Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore from 2 January 1985 till 1 September 1993 when former deputy prime minister S. Rajaratnam stepped down from position. Ong served as deputy prime minister with former prime minister Goh Chok Tong.

Ong was the Chairman of the People's Action Party from 5 January 1981 to 1 September 1993, after Toh Chin Chye stepped down from the position, and a member of parliament for Kim Keat Single Member Constituency (SMC) from 1991 to 1993. He was the Ministry of Manpower (Singapore) from 1981 to 1983 and the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts from 1978 to 1981 before he resigned to participate in the 1993 Singaporean presidential election which he won.

Early life and education

Born on 22 January 1936, Ong was the second of five children from a middle-class Singaporean family. His English-educated father Ong Keng Wee (Chinese: 王竟惠; pinyin: Wáng Jìnghuì) felt that the Chinese language was important if one wanted to become successful in business at the time and thus sent all of his children to Chinese-medium schools. Ong graduated with distinctions from The Chinese High School (now the High School Section of Hwa Chong Institution) in 1955. Having received a Chinese-language education, Ong saw little opportunity for advancing his studies in the University of Malaya, as English was the university's language medium.

In 1956, with the help of his father's friends, Ong ventured abroad. Those years were to shape both his beliefs and passions. Ong studied architecture at the University of Adelaide along with his childhood sweetheart and future spouse, Ling Siew May (Chinese: 林秀梅; pinyin: Lín Xiùméi).[2] Both Ong and Ling met each other during a Christmas party while they were still studying in secondary school.[3]

Career, marriage, and further study

After graduation, Ong worked as an architect in Adelaide, Australia, and married Ling in 1963.[4] Ong and his wife occasionally recite Chinese poetry and verses they learnt during their younger days.[5]

In 1965, Ong received a Colombo Plan scholarship to pursue a master's degree in urban planning at the University of Liverpool and graduated in 1967. In the same year, he joined the Ministry of National Development as a town planner. After four years of civil service, Ong resigned from his government profession and started his own architectural firm, Ong & Ong Architects, with his wife.[6]

Political career

Ong's political career spanned 21 years. He was a member of parliament (MP), Cabinet Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, before he resigned to become the first elected President of Singapore in 1993.

Ong began his political career through his involvement in grassroots activities in Seletar. He was then introduced to Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The People's Action Party (PAP) soon fielded him as a candidate in Kim Keat in the 1972 General Election. His first political appointment came just three years later when he was made Senior Minister of State for Communications. At that time, Ong pushed for the development of the Mass Rapid Transit System (MRT), the largest construction project in Singapore's history. During his tenure as the Minister of National Development, Ong was a proponent and advocate of the Mass Rapid Transit system. He later became the Second Deputy Prime Minister in 1985.

Secretary general of the NTUC

Replacing Lim Chee Onn

In 1983, Ong replaced Lim Chee Onn as Secretary General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC). Historically, the noncommunist trade unions, led by the NTUC, have had a "uniquely cozy relationship" with the Singaporean government and the PAP in "a tripartite system" and were key political allies to the PAP's securing of power in the 1960s. Though in 1982, Lim Chee Onn, still secretary general, had "proclaimed effusive[ly]" that the "PAP and the NTUC came from the same mother – the struggle with the communists and the colonialists," the relations between the unions and the government had become more strained by the 1980s.

Older grassroots union leaders had been excluded from decisions in the top NTUC leadership, which, by the analysis of Michael Barr, had come to be dominated by de facto appointed PAP technocrats foreign to the grassroots labour movement. Lee Kuan Yew felt that Lim, although his "protégé", was not "progressing well" in the "process of meshing in the [elite] scholars and the professionals with the rank-and-file union leaders" in NTUC, causing "increasing disquiet" among the grassroots union leaders. Lim himself had been preceded by Devan Nair (who was Singapore's third president), founder of the NTUC and a popular member of the PAP democratic socialist old guard, and Phey Yew Kok,[7] a powerful union leader who was instrumental in convincing Chinese unions to join the NTUC during the 1970s.but had been forced to resign in 1980 and fled the country in a corruption scandal.

However, the leadership style of Lim and other newer top NTUC leaders had increasingly alienated elements of the union grassroots. The United Workers of Petroleum Industry (UWPI) and NTUC Triennal Delegates' Conference publicly opposed the government's attempts to make house unions the norm, to the political chagrin of Lee Kuan Yew.[8]

In an open letter, Lee Kuan Yew informed Lim that he would leave the NTUC to "take charge of a Government ministry" and that "Ong Teng Cheong [will] take over from you as secretary general".[9]

According to Barr, though the position of secretary general is "routinely occupied by members of Cabinet", Ong "stood out": Ong was a former Minister for Labor, chairman of the PAP and "regarded as a potential successor to Lee Kuan Yew".[8]

Implicit pact with unions

Ong made many grounds in repairing the strained relationship between the unions and the government where Lim had failed. After a few months as secretary general, "he confronted the rebellious leadership of UWPI" where "they quickly reversed their opposition to house unions", and in 1985 the Triennial Delegates Conference endorsed the government's push for house unions. Barr writes, "Ong had a mastery of institutional power".

Although striking was prohibited and trade unions were barred from negotiating such matters as promotion, transfer, employment, dismissal, retrenchment, and reinstatement, issues that "accounted for most earlier labour disputes", the government generally provided measures for workers' safety and welfare since the 1960s and serious union disputes, with employers were almost always handled through the Industrial Arbitration Court, which had powers of both binding arbitration and voluntary mediation.[10] However, the grassroots leaders in the unions had become increasingly worried about their marginalisation in Singaporean politics. Peter Vincent, President of the NTUC from 1980 to 1984, stated that PAP technocrats should "remain in advisory positions [in the NTUC] until they have gained the respect of the union movement". In response, Ong "increased the levels of consultation with his colleagues in the NTUC" and "reversed the trend of excluding grassroots leaders from the upper reaches of the NTUC".

Ong was also a ferocious union activist, "working actively and forcefully in the interests of the unions in a way that Lim had never seen to do" and "stretch[ing] union activism to the very limits of that which would be tolerated by the government"; Barr argues that this activism would have been impossible to tolerate had anyone else less trusted than Ong had been charge of the NTUC. In the implicit pact, the unions would, in return, co-operate with the "government's core industrial relations strategies".[8]

In January 1986, Ong sanctioned a strike in the shipping industry, the first for about a decade in Singapore, believing it necessary as "[the] management were taking advantage of the workers". However, he did not inform the Cabinet beforehand out of fear that the Cabinet would prevent him from going ahead with the strike. Ong recalled in a 2000 interview in Asiaweek: "Some of them were angry with me about that... the minister for trade and industry was very angry, his officers were upset. They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore?"[11] Tony Tan, the minister for trade and industry, vigorously opposed Ong Teng Cheong's decision to sanction the strike, being concerned with investors' reactions to a perceived deterioration of labour relations or an impact on foreign direct investment needed for jobs creation. Ong Teng Cheong viewed the strike as a success: "I had the job to do..[the strike] only lasted two days. All the issues were settled. It showed the management was just trying to pull a fast one."

According to Barr, Ong justified his commitment "in Confucian terms" in a "notion akin to noblesse oblige".[8]

Demonstration at the United States Embassy

As Secretary General of the NTUC, Ong also organised a 4,000-strong demonstration at the United States Embassy in protest against the United States First Secretary E. Mason Hendrikson's encouragement of dissident lawyers to stand for election against the PAP.[12]


Ong was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphatic system in 1992. He became Singapore's first elected President a year later and also the Commander-in-Chief.[13] and it was a presidency marked by many charitable projects (the largest of which is the President's Star Charity, an annual event initiated by Ong).[14] and benefited many charities, arts groups and youth organisations. Ong stepped down as President at 63.[4] Ong ran for the presidency under the PAP's endorsement. He ran against Chua Kim Yeow, a former accountant general, for the post. A total of 1,756,517 votes were polled. Ong received 952,513 votes while Chua had 670,358 votes despite the former having a higher public exposure and a much more active campaign than Chua.[15]

Ong Teng Cheong with the President of Argentina Carlos Menem in 1997

However, soon after his election to the presidency in 1993, Ong was tangled in a dispute over the access of information regarding Singapore's financial reserves. The government said it would take 56-man-years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets. Ong discussed this with the accountant general and the auditor general and eventually conceded that the government could easily declare all of its properties, a list that took a few months to produce. Even then, the list was not complete; it took the government a total of three years to produce the information that Ong requested.[16]

In an interview with Asiaweek six months after stepping down from the presidency,[17] Ong indicated that he had asked for the audit based on the principle that as an elected president, he was bound to protect the national reserves, and the only way of doing so would be to know what reserves (both liquid cash and assets) the government owned.

In the last year of his presidency (1998) Ong found out, through the newspapers, that the government aimed to submit a bill to Parliament to sell the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB) to the Development Bank of Singapore. The POSB was a government statutory board whose reserves were under the president's protection; the move according to Ong, was procedurally inappropriate and did not regard Ong's significance as the guardian of the reserves; he had to call and inform the government of this oversight. Still, the sale proceeded, and the Development Bank of Singapore still owns POSBank.[18]

Ong was appointed as Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG) by Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom in 1998.[19]

Ong decided not to run for a second term as president in 1999 partially because of the death of his wife. He was succeeded by S. R. Nathan.

"Having a good government is better than having a good President to check on a bad government. Singaporeans are fortunate to have a clean and able government for the last 35 years" - 30 August 1999, making his farewell speech[20]


Mr Ong's wife, Mdm Ling Siew May (b. 1937), then aged 62, died on 30 July 1999 after a cancer relapse.

On 8 February 2002, at the age of 66, Mr Ong died in his sleep from lymphoma in the Singapore General Hospital at about 8:15 pm SST after he had been discharged from hospital a few days earlier and he was survived by his 2 sons, Tze Guan and Tze Boon. Mr Ong was not given a state funeral due to Chinese New Year. In a reply[21] to Mr Leong Sze Hian by PM Press Secretary, Mr Chen Hwai Liang said that the decision to offer a State Funeral lies with the Prime Minister and his cabinet, after which they would take the family's wishes into consideration. Before his death, he had asked to be cremated and for the ashes to be placed at Mandai Columbarium with those of ordinary citizens instead of Kranji State Cemetery, where late dignitaries are usually buried. The Singapore flags flew at half mast on the government buildings, including the Istana, to pay him his last respects.[22]


The Ong Teng Cheong Professorship in Music was launched by National University of Singapore on 2 October 2002 in honour of Ong.[23]

The Ong Teng Cheong Student Activities and Leadership Training Centre was opened in his alma mater Hwa Chong Institution on 21 March 2007 in honour of Ong.[24]

The Singapore Institute of Labour Studies, which opened in 1990, was renamed the Ong Teng Cheong Institute of Labour Studies in March 2002 to honour Ong. Its current name is the Ong Teng Cheong Labour Leadership Institute.[25]

In August 2017, a mountain range located in south eastern Kazakhstan near the Kyrgyz border, was named Ong Teng Cheong peak.[26]


  1. ^ Istana Singapore. "The President". Archived from the original on 11 June 2011.
  2. ^ Ling Siew May (Infopedia) Archived 27 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "Biography". Archived from the original on 19 February 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  4. ^ a b In Memoriam – Ong Teng Cheong Archived 20 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine, Channel News Asia
  5. ^ Moving Image and Sound Archives of Singapore (MISAS) – Crowds gather at crematorium to pay last respect to late First Lady Archived 22 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ ONG & ONG Website Archived 15 May 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ "Former NTUC chairman Phey Yew Kok sentenced to 60 months' jail". 22 January 2016. Archived from the original on 20 March 2017.
  8. ^ a b c d Barr, Michael D. (2000). "Trade Unions in an Elitist Society: The Singapore Story". Australian Journal of Politics and History. 46 (4): 480–496. doi:10.1111/1467-8497.00109.
  9. ^ Letter: Lee Kuan Yew to Lim Chee Onn, 9 April 1983, published in the Straits Times
  10. ^ "Labor—Singapore". Library of Congress Country Studies. Library of Congress. Archived from the original on 5 August 2011. Retrieved 18 August 2011.
  11. ^ "'I Had a Job to Do' Whether the government liked it or not, says ex-president Ong". Asiaweek. Archived from the original on 11 February 2011. Retrieved 17 August 2011.
  12. ^ 4,000 protest against US interference Archived 19 September 2016 at the Wayback Machine, The Straits Times, 12 May 1988
  13. ^ "Ong Teng Cheong". Encyclopedia of World Biography. Archived from the original on 10 January 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  14. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 21 March 2016. Retrieved 25 August 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  15. ^ "Ong Teng Cheong". National Library Board. Archived from the original on 22 December 2014. Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  16. ^ Ong Teng Cheong is out but not down Archived 22 February 2010 at the Wayback Machine.
  17. ^ Ong Teng Cheong- Extended Interview Archived 26 November 2009 at the Wayback Machine Accessed 15 February 2010
  18. ^ Ong Teng Cheong- Extended Interview Archived 26 November 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  19. ^ Loo Lay Yen. "Our Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors : a biographical sketch : Our Chancellors.Ong Teng Cheong". Archived 16 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  20. ^ "Quotes by Mr Ong Teng Cheong". Archived from the original on 19 February 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  21. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 25 August 2016. Retrieved 23 August 2016.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  22. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 22 February 2016. Retrieved 11 September 2015.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  23. ^ "ONG TENG CHEONG PROFESSOR IN MUSIC". YONG SIEW TOH CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC. Archived from the original on 30 May 2015. Retrieved 10 January 2015.
  24. ^ "ONG TENG CHEONG SALT Centre". Archived from the original on 25 August 2016. Retrieved 26 August 2016.
  25. ^ "About Us". Archived from the original on 7 August 2017. Retrieved 7 August 2017.
  26. ^ "A mountain named after Ong Teng Cheong". The Straits Times. 24 August 2017. Archived from the original on 7 November 2017.