“Many may have forgotten that our first Executive President Mr Ong Teng Cheong, was paid, from recollection, around $700,000 per annum. He was humiliated in Parliament for asking a simple but important question – the total financial reserves of the country. He was told that it would take many, many man‐years for the answer. He was later given a shortened answer. It was a good question, our late President was merely doing his job, and yet this shabby treatment. Why?” -“HARD TRUTHS” AND “HARD MYTHS”
“It is not an overstatement to say that one person made all the difference in the 1986 strike. If not for late President Ong who, at the risk of antagonizing his colleagues, sided with the workers and approved the union’s action as NTUC head, the 1986 strike would not have made history.” – SingaporeArmchiarCritic
Editors’ Note: The late President Ong Teng Cheong will forever be remembered as a people’s president and a failed hero for standing up for his belief and doing his job as a president but was sorely abandoned by the ruling party by not supporting his bid for a re-election.
Among the issues President Ong and the Government clashed over were the latter’s right to amend an article in the Constitution without the President’s consent, and the release of detailed information on the value of the country’s reserves. The disagreement with the Government in 1995 stemmed from the Government’s move to amend an article in the Constitution on the president’s veto powers. The article stated that if a President blocks Parliament when it tries to amend certain laws, his veto is final if the courts agreee that the amendment would have the effect of curtailing his powers. The Government planned to introduce a change to this provision to put in the escape clause of a national referendum should the presdient exercise his veto. But Mr Ong questioned the Government’s right to do this without his consent. He referred the matter to a Supreme Court tribunal which the latter eventually ruled in favoured of the Government. Yawningbread’s blog “The mess that is our presidency” has an excellent account of the clashes of President Ong with the Government.
[Updated 4 Dec 2012: The Taming of the Union
If not for the late President Ong Teng Cheong, the last strike Singapore saw would not be in 1986; it would be in 1977, a whopping 35 years from this week (Dec 2012)’s strike by SMRT China-born bus drivers. In the famous interview with Asiaweek in 2000, Mr Ong, who was head of NTUC and Labour Minister when the 1986 strike took place, said:
“…in January 1986 I did sanction a strike, the first for about a decade. It was in the shipping industry where the management was taking advantage of the workers. I did not even tell the cabinet about sanctioning the strike. And some of them were angry with me about that. The minister for trade and industry was very angry, his officers were very upset. They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore? – we are non-strike. I said: if I were to inform the cabinet or the government they would probably stop me from going ahead with the strike. It only lasted two days. Then all the issues were settled. It showed that management was just trying to pull a fast one. So I believe what I did was right (emphasis mine). ]
[Updated 16 Dec 2012: A damning assessment by famous blogger Yawning Bread on the crisis President Ong almost brought to the ruling party then:
To make things worse, Ong contemplated standing for reelection again in 1999. The government, citing his lymphoma, refused to support his proposed candidacy, and instead arranged to put up S R Nathan as their preferred candidate. Even then, Ong still considered contesting and if he did, observers felt, he would likely have trounced the government’s Nathan. Ong had the benefit of wide respect, name-recognition, incumbency and belonging to the majority race. Moreover, he had the fierce loyalty of many Chinese-speaking Chinese, being one of them, unlike Prime Minister Goh. Nathan, on the other hand, was unknown, and of Indian descent.
Although it didn’t come out into the public till later, it was a moment of crisis. It risked splitting the PAP down the middle, and making Goh’s government look like a loser. Fortunately for the PAP, Ong changed his mind and retired. Nathan’s name was submitted on Nomination Day… and no one else’s.]
President Ong died an unhappy man a few years later. He will also be remembered as the only president who did not receive a state funeral (the other well respected people president Wee Kim Wee chose to be cremated and kept his remains at the people’s cemetery Mandai instead of buried at the exclusive state cemetry).
The most memorable moment of President Ong was his piano rendition of Teresa Teng’s Classic (邓丽君) 月亮代表我的心 in the 1999 (?) President’s Star Charity show. A great man indeed and will be forever missed. RIP!
“Some people still ask whether my long previous association with the PAP will stop me from acting independently. The answer is ‘no’. My loyalty is first and foremost to the people of Singapore. It has always been so and it will always remain so.” - Ong Teng Cheong, First Elected President
Ong ran for the presidency in 1993 under the PAP’s endorsement. He ran against a reluctant 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.
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 only had to declare all of its properties, a list which took a few months to produce. Even then, the list was not complete; it took the government a total of three years (instead of fifty-six) to produce the information that Ong requested.
In an interview with Asiaweek six months after stepping down from presidency , Ong indicated that he had asked for this 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 cash and asset) the government owned.
In the last year of his presidency (1999) Ong found out through the newspapers that the government aimed to submit a bill to Parliament to sell the Post Office Savings Bank (POSB). However, as this was a statutory board whose reserves were under the president’s protection, this move was procedurally inappropriate and did not regard Ong’s significance as the guardian of the reserves; his office had to ring up and inform the government of this oversight.
Ong decided not to run for a second term as president in 1999 due to medical reasons, according to official sources.
Ong’s wife, Ling Siew May, died in August 1999 after a cancer relapse. Ong died later on February 8, 2002, at the age of 66, from lymphoma in his home at about 8:14 pm SST after he had been discharged from hospital a few days earlier.
Among the five former presidents who have died, Ong is the only president who did not receive a state funeral, he received a state-assisted funeral instead.
And Why Nathan is preferred by the Government than Ong Teng Cheong
Extracted from Tan Kin LIan for President!!! – by Lucky Tan
In an interview in today’s Sunday Times, Tan Kin Lian’s said he will run for presidency if there is enough support from the ground i.e. if the people want him to, he will do it. This must have triggered many alarm bells in the regime. The PAP govt would really love to keep President Nathan in the post for another 10 years. Unfortunately, President Nathan is already 84 years old. For the PAP, President Nathan’s performance is excellent compared with the previous President Ong Teng Cheong. Unlike Nathan, Ong Teng Cheong took his job too seriously. He tried to do the impossible – check the govt’s accounts with a staff of two people. His former PAP associates tried their best to help him to enjoy his job by not burdening him with too much information….a president’s job is to smile, carry babies and host parties at the Istana. President Nathan does his job well. That is why the PAP is looking for another Nathan….not another Ong Teng Cheong.
- In memory: Ong Teng Cheong, S’pore’s only people’s president, passed away 14 years ago
- The people’s President – Ong Teng Cheong (22 January 1936 – 8 February 2002)
- Remembering President Ong Teng Cheong
- The Elected Presidency through the years
- Detailed exchange of letters between President Ong and the Government
- The mess that is our presidency
Ong Teng Cheong: “I had a job to do” – An very insightful interview with Asiaweek
- A poignant tribute to ex-President Ong Teng Cheong