Ong Teng Cheong – Defeated but Unbowed

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By Augustine Low

Saturday 8 February 2014 marks the 12th anniversary of the passing of President Ong Teng Cheong.

And it’s been some 20 years since President Ong first faced off with the government over our national reserves. But things have not changed. Singaporeans are still in the dark about what he sought to clarify – the nature and extent of our national reserves.

The Ministry of Finance states on its website: “It is not in our national interest to publish the full size of our reserves. If we do so, it will make it easier for markets to mount speculative attacks on the Singapore dollar during periods of vulnerability. Further, our reserves are a strategic asset, and especially for a small country with no natural resources or other assets. They are a key defence for Singapore in times of crisis, and it will be unwise to reveal the full and exact resources at our disposal.”

President Ong was a dutiful son of Singapore. His abiding loyalty was to Singaporeans. Yet his Presidency was shrouded in controversy and ended in abject bitterness. While his courage, conviction and integrity took him to the very top, those same attributes eventually brought him untold pain and anguish.

He should be remembered for a number of reasons – for being the first elected President of Singapore, for championing workers’ rights, even sanctioning a strike (as Minister) without the approval of Cabinet, for being an ardent lover and supporter of the arts and music (he pushed for the building of the Esplanade and chaired the committee that set up, among other things, the National Arts Council and National Heritage Board), and for caring for the less fortunate, the annual President’s Star Charity being a legacy of his.

Above all, President Ong is remembered for his stoic dignity during the dark days of his festering dispute with his former colleagues in government, a dispute which started when he ordered a report on the national reserves. He was met with a stone wall, the government declaring that it would take 56 man years to produce a dollar and cents value of its assets.

This led to a protracted dispute and a compromise was reached when it was agreed that the government had to only produce a list of properties under its ownership. A list was produced after some months, but it was incomplete.

As President Ong would later recount: “I had a job to do, whether the government liked it or not… You see, if you ask me to protect the reserves, then you’ve got to tell me what I’m supposed to protect. So I had to ask.”

During his term, President Ong also objected to the government announcing the sale of POSB to DBS without his knowledge. He said later: “I came to know of it from the newspaper. That is not quite right. Not only that, but they were even going to submit a bill to parliament for this sale and to dissolve the POSB without first informing me.” President Ong’s points on the government’s handling of DBS’ takeover of POSB were not answered.

After his six-year term as President ended (1993-1999), President Ong was told that the Cabinet would not support him for a second six-year term. He maintained that he did not need Cabinet to support his re-election bid, but an anguished and dispirited President Ong eventually decided not to contest against the government’s candidate S R Nathan.

Will we ever see the likes of President Ong again? He put honour and duty before self, before friends and colleagues, even before the party which groomed him for political success and for Head of State.

Because of his record in office, there may be those who would rather that he become the Forgotten President. After all, the Esplanade whose milestones record President Ong’s role in its set up, was only able to hold one memorial concert in his memory — in April 2003. This for a nation that clutches at passing straws to build up legitimacy for history and legacy. But the collective memory of Singaporeans – will not forget him. President Ong was defeated but unbowed. He shall be remembered.


first published on 10 Feb 2014