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Mr Ong Teng Cheong's Eulogy to his beloved wife, Madam Ling Siew May (3 August 1999)


“Here lies a girl who came from an orphanage in Shanghai 50 years ago. She arrived in Singapore at the age of 11, speaking only Shanghainese and owning scarcely more than the clothes on her back. But she rose far above her humble beginnings to run a successful architectural practice, and to eventually play the role of the First Lady of Singapore.

But the route from the orphanage to the Istana was not all smooth sailing.

While in the orphanage, she was struck by rheumatic fever. But she was then too young to realise the gravity of her illness. One of her heart valves was permanently damaged as a result. Doctors who examined her while she was in school in Singapore discovered it, and exempted her from all school sporting activities. The disease struck again while she was in the final year of her Architecture degree course, and she had to be warded in hospital for “complete rest in bed” for three months. A quiet and determined girl, she refused to tell her parents or anyone of her problem.

She learned to play the piano for only a few years, but was frustrated that her fingers were not growing long enough to allow her to play the octaves. She decided to give it up. But she always loved the piano.

Tireless and dedicated almost to a fault, her only hobby was work — work in the office and work at home, including sewing and gardening. In her younger days, she used to sew her own dresses, including cheongsams. When asked how she did it, she would quip: “reverse engineering”. She would unpick old dresses, and use the pieces as a dress pattern to follow.

Siew May gave the Ong family two sons. The first son was a breech baby, while the younger son was delivered by caesarean section. Both deliveries needed operation and required heart specialists to be present. We decided to stop at two, because I did not want her to take any unnecessary risk. I knew she would have loved to have more children, especially girls. Happily, this was compensated for by the two lovely daughters-in-law we now have in the family.

She was a wonderful and loving mother. Although she could neither swim nor cycle, she taught both sons, Guan and Boon, to swim and cycle! And as she worked long hours at the office, she even taught them how to cook their own lunches, when they were in primary and secondary school. We did not have a maid in the house for several years in the late 70s and early 80s. She wanted everyone in the family to be as independent as she was. But she was, in every way, a devoted mother and a supportive wife, and performed her multiple roles with equal dedication.

When I first met her at a party, she was only 15. She was an attractive and lively girl. It was not long before I discovered that she was a thrifty and highly- principled girl as well. We began dating each other. Often, we would meet in coffee shops. Whenever we had lunch, she would insist on paying for her own lunch. Her argument was that her father gave her pocket money that was for her use only, and that my father gave me pocket money that was for my use. So we should pay for our own lunches. At first, I tried to persuade her otherwise, but after two lunches, during which she stood her ground, I realised that it was futile to argue any further, and we subsequently just went Dutch every time we met for lunch.

It was the simple things that gave us the greatest joy. We were happiest just chit-chatting with each other and whenever we had family gatherings. Occasionally, when Siew May and I were alone, we would recite Chinese poetry and verses which we had learned and memorised together in our younger days.

Our grandson, Justin, was her real bundle of joy. She would look for him first thing in the morning, and as soon as she came home from work.

It was an unfortunate twist of fate that she had to suffer from the horrible disease at a time when she was about to relax and enjoy her retirement. She bravely fought the disease for 2½ years. She fought several good battles, but the last one was swift and fatal. She was peaceful in her final hours.

Today, I wish to quote one of our favourite quotations from Su Dong Bo (苏东坡).
He said that to part is inevitable:
人有悲欢离合, 月有阴晴圆缺, 此事古难全。

But in the simple yet poignant words of Bai Ju Yi (白居易), the loss is an eternal pain: 天长地久有时尽, 此恨绵绵无绝期。

We took pride that we had led a clean and honest life and had taken our marriage vows seriously — we had been husband and wife, for better or for worse, till death did us part.

Good bye, Siew May. We love you.


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