of Romance - Mr Ong Teng Cheong and Madam Ling Siew May
The first meeting
It was at a Christmas party organized by his schoolmate in 1952 that President Ong Teng Cheong first met his wife and the great love of his life, Madam Ling Siew May. Teng Cheong was then a student at the Chinese High School while Siew May was studying at Nanyang Girls’ High School. On the way to that event, Siew May’s friends had told her to take note of a guy named Teng Cheong. Siew May joked: “Why should I notice him? He should be the one noticing me!”
Siew May had always loved the piano, but her family was unable to afford one. At the party, she was excited at the sight of a piano. She was however more surprised when Teng Cheong later played the piano. They spoke after his performance.
Both Teng Cheong and Siew May were top students and they had often participated in joint activities and cultural events between the two neighbouring schools. In 1953, Teng Cheong was in the first year of High School while Siew May was then in Secondary Three. Later that year, Nanyang Girls’ High School was to stage a play performance, and the male leads were sourced from Chinese High School. It was perhaps fated that Siew May ended up with the female lead role (as a hostess) while Teng Cheong got the male lead role (as a customer who loved to drink). Through the rehearsals and time spent, Teng Cheong and Siew May grew closer together.
During that time, the daughters of the principal of Chinese High School were Siew May’s schoolmates. Sometimes after school, Siew May would visit their house and help the schoolmates’ mother to prepare dumplings. On some occasions, Teng Cheong and his friends were also there.
At the first meeting, Teng Cheong had found Siew May to be an attractive and lively girl. He later realized that Siew May was also a thrifty and highly-principled girl. By 1954, they became a couple and began dating each other. The couple often met in coffee shops, and Siew May 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 Teng Cheong’s father gave him pocket money that was for his use. As such, they should each pay for their own lunches, Siew May reasoned. Teng Cheong had initially tried to persuade her otherwise, but after two lunches, Siew May maintained her principle. Teng Cheong accepted her stand and the couple subsequently went Dutch every time they met for lunch.
In Adelaide, Australia
In February 1956, Teng Cheong had to travel to Australia to pursue his studies at the University of Adelaide (School of Architecture). Siew May also had an interest in architecture and a year later, she arrived in Adelaide. Siew May became the first Asian girl to be enrolled at Adelaide Girls High School. She went on to top the class and began her studies at the School of Architecture.
Later on, more students from Singapore arrived in Adelaide (including Teng Cheong’s younger brother) and the group often organized gatherings. Teng Cheong and Siew May also spent time together on revising their schoolwork and also during extra-curricular activities. Sometimes on weekends and during holidays, Teng Cheong would borrow his friend’s motorcycle and went out with Siew May.
In 1960, Teng Cheong won a prize of £50 for his academic performance during his fourth year of architecture studies, and a special commendation for a design of Singapore’s Istana which formed part of his thesis. He visited other Australian cities with Siew May, and the couple used the opportunities during the trips to examine the various topics associated with their architectural careers.
Teng Cheong graduated from the University of Adelaide in 1961. After his convocation, he joined the firm of McMichael and Harris in Adelaide. Teng Cheong chose to remain in Australia partly to gain working experience, and also to accompany Siew May who was still studying. In 1963, Siew May joined the firm of Woods, Bagot, Laybourne-Smith and Irwin as she was completing the thesis for her degree.
After a courtship of 10 years, the couple’s wedding was held in a church on Easter Saturday in 1963 (April 13).
to Singapore, then to Liverpool
In April 1964, the couple returned to Singapore. However, the construction industry was in the doldrums; and Siew May was unable to seek employment as an architect. One day, Teng Cheong came across an application opportunity for a Colombo Plan scholarship (for post-graduate studies in planning) in the newspapers. He applied for the scholarship and later obtained it.
On September 5, 1965, Teng Cheong and Siew May departed Singapore for Britain. A month ago, Singapore had announced its separation from Malaysia. Teng Cheong’s application to travel to Britain was submitted before the separation, and this meant that he traveled to Britain using his Malaysian passport.
The couple arrived in Liverpool but had problems with their accommodation. Over the period of 21 months, the couple shifted 12 times. At one point, they had stayed with a retired missionary. While Teng Cheong pursued his post-graduate studies at the University of Liverpool’s School of Civic Design, Siew May was employed by the prestigious firm of William Holford. The couple’s first child, Tze Guan, was born at Liverpool Maternity Hospital on August 22, 1966.
In 1967, Teng Cheong had graduated from his studies and the family returned to Singapore. In 1968, Siew May gave birth to the couple’s second child, Tze Boon.
In October 1971, Teng Cheong set up his own firm, Design and Planning Services, and the firm was later renamed as Ong & Ong Architects and Town Planners. Teng Cheong and Siew May were the partners of the architectural firm.
Teng Cheong contested the General Election in 1972 in Kim Keat Constituency, and his victory marked the beginning of his political career. As his political career took him away from his architectural practice, Siew May ran Ong & Ong Architects. This was in addition to her role of taking care of both her young kids at that time. Although Siew May could neither swim nor cycle, she taught both sons to swim and cycle. The family did not have a maid in the house for several years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and Siew May had wanted her children to be independent. She taught both children how to cook their own lunches, when they were in primary and secondary school.
As Teng Cheong went on to assume the positions of Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and later as President, Siew May’s multiple roles as a devoted mother and a supportive wife had provided a great source of support to Teng Cheong. At the same time, Teng Cheong was also attentive to the concerns of his wife. In 1993, before he accepted the nomination to contest the Presidential Election, Teng Cheong had asked the Prime Minister if his wife could continue her practice as an architect, should he win the election. It was only after the reassurance that there would be no problem with Siew May continuing with her practice did Teng Cheong agree to contest the election, which he won and thereafter becoming the first elected President of Singapore.
In 1999, the First Lady was seriously ill with cancer. Yet, Mrs Ong continued to provide supporting duties by gracing public events in her capacity as the First Lady. On these occasions, President Ong kept an eye on Mrs Ong and would signal their departure when he noticed that she was in pain.
After a brave fight with the disease for 2½ years, Mrs Ong passed away on July 30, 1999. Singaporeans from all walks of life mourned her demise but the loss was felt the greatest by her loving husband.
At her funeral, President Ong said: “It was the simple things that gave us the greatest joy… 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.” The eulogy had moved many to tears.