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My opinion / thoughts of Mr Ong Teng Cheong

The late Mr Ong Teng Cheong is a man, a politician, and above all else, a Singaporean, whom I have tremendous respect for. He had contributed significantly to the progress of Singapore, having served as a Member-of-Parliament, Cabinet Minister (holding the portfolios of Communications, Culture and Labour), Deputy Prime Minister and as the first-ever Elected President of the Republic of Singapore. In addition, the late Mr Ong had also served as the secretary-general of National Trade Union Congress (NTUC), and had fought for the rights and welfare of the labour unions and workers in Singapore. As the President of Singapore, Mr Ong and the First Lady, Mrs Ong Siew May, also initiated several community and charity projects for the less well-off. They had also graced the events with their presence.

When the late Mr Ong was sworn in as the fifth President of the Republic of Singapore on 1 September 1993, I was then a teenager. I had no interest in who would become the next President of Singapore, after Dr Wee Kim Wee (I became interested in political issues only after majoring in Political Science at NUS). Nonetheless, I do recollect watching Mr Ong on television, broadcasting his election speech. To date, I remembered only one but everlasting phrase which he said, "My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so".

In February 1999, speculation had already begun as to whether President Ong would run for a second Presidential term. I remembered that during one official overseas trip (to China in April / May, if I am not wrong), a journalist asked President Ong if he would contest in the next Presidential Election, due in August. I do not recollect his exact reply as reported in the papers but it was something like, "What do you think? I'm feeling fine", with a smile. My view then of Mr Ong was that he has been a good President and naturally, I was hoping that it was a hint of a possible second term for him. On 16 July 1999, I heard from the news that President Ong had decided that he would not run for a second term. That evening, I watched excerpts of his press conference where he listed some problems he had faced in discharging his duties as the President. Details of the issues he had raised were published in the papers the following day. Like many Singaporeans, I was stunned for two reasons - the first being that Mr Ong, a former PAP heavyweight, would reveal the problems he faced in the dealings with his former party colleagues, and the second being that even the President of the State would face problems in performing his roles and functions. The Government soon announced that they will address the points raised by Mr Ong in the next Parliamentary sitting.

On 30 July, our First Lady, Mrs Ong, passed away. The Government announced that in view of the passing away of the First Lady, they would answer the issues President Ong had raised, at a later date (mid-August). Less than 10 days later, President Ong decided to attend the National Day Parade. It had to be an emotional one for him, as firstly, his beloved wife had just passed away and secondly, it would be the last NDP he would attend in an official function since 1973 (whether as an MP, Minister or President). I was touched and saddened at the sight of him waving to the spectators. Subsequently, the Government, including Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, answered President Ong's issues in Parliament. I remembered that I was particularly upset at the revelation of a particular issue in Parliament - that of President Ong's health. For the first time ever, I felt an impulse to write a letter (on this issue) to the forum page of a local newspaper, but it was not published. The Government's 'rebuttal' of President Ong's issues made me felt more appreciative of him. I admired his courage to speak up, when he felt that certain things were not right. I then realized what he had meant in his pre-election broadcast message in 1993, that his "loyalty is to Singaporeans". President Ong had indeed sought to serve Singaporeans to the best of his abilities.

It has been four years since the late Mr Ong completed his term as our first elected President. To this date, I would always remember a statement in President Ong's farewell speech, "Having a good government is better than having a good President to check on a bad government". While our government has served us well and honestly over the past few decades, the elected Presidency would serve to check on a bad government should we unfortunately vote one into Parliament someday. It is inevitable that teething issues would surface in the beginnings of any new creations or establishments. The elected presidency is no different. The late Mr Ong had tested several issues during his 6-year term, and he had also pushed for the publication of the 'White Paper on the Determination and Safeguarding of the Protection of the reserves of the government' which was also tabled in Parliament in July 99. Way before that in early 1995, President Ong had referred a constitutional question to the Special Tribunal under the new Article 100 wherein the Tribunal was asked to consider whether the President could veto a bill to amend Article 5 (2A) and Article 22H of the Constitution. The Special Tribunal ruled that the President could not.

When the late Mr Ong was nominated to contest the Presidential Election in 1993, many Singaporeans were skeptical about having a former People's Action Party (PAP) Chairman (who was then also a DPM) as the first elected President of Singapore. After all, the Elected President would be vested with certain powers to act as a check on the Government, as and when necessary. Critics of the elected presidency had, in 1988, argued that the proposal 'would erode Parliament and the Prime Minister would then be a Mayor and MPs would become town councillors'. Would a former PAP man be able to convince voters of his abilities to perform the role of an Elected President? Despite securing close to 60% of the votes on polling day, many Singaporeans remained skeptical about Mr Ong's new role as the President. These critics should now have been convinced that indeed, Mr Ong, the President, would serve Singaporeans faithfully, as we all can recollect in 1994, Mr Ong referred to the judiciary about the roles and powers the President has. In July 1999, at a press conference to indicate that he would not be running for a second Presidential term, the late Mr Ong listed some problems he had faced in dealing with the Government and civil servants while serving as the President. While the Government subsequently rebutted Mr Ong's points, we know for certain that Mr Ong had indeed served Singaporeans to the best of his abilities and sincerity. He would not choose to remain silent when he foresaw some problems. Despite having served as a PAP MP for more than 20 years, upon assuming the Presidency in 1993, Mr Ong's loyalty, first and foremost, is to fellow Singaporeans. Voters in 1993 who were hesitant about having a former PAP Minister as the country's President should have been heartened that President Ong had indeed fulfilled his electoral promises. Critics of the elected presidency should also have been silenced by now.

It has been 10 years since Mr Ong declared in his pre-election speech that, "My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so". As a Singaporean, I am really proud of Mr Ong. His selfless nature, coupled with his courage, integrity and loyalty to fellow Singaporeans deserve nothing less than our total recognition and appreciation. Together with his wife, the late Mrs Ong, they have always been concerned about the less fortunate in this society. Their sincerity is evident from the fact that few weeks before the demise of Mrs Ong, she chose to attend the President's Star Charity and as was reported, she was experiencing pains while seated in the audience as President Ong played the tune "The Moon Represents My Heart" on the piano on stage. All in a bid to raise funds for charity. (That event was reported to have raised $600,000.00)

The late Mr Ong was a dedicated, kind, sincere, courageous and humble man. While Singapore would need more men and women of Mr Ong's calibre, I know that deep in the hearts of many Singaporeans, Mr Ong would be irreplaceable. His contributions to Singapore must always remain in our minds, our hearts. Mr Ong was a man who chose to continue serving Singaporeans even after being diagnosed with cancer in 1992. Mr Ong was a man who chose to speak of the problems he faced during his Presidential term, well aware that it would result in a robust response from the Government. Without any doubt, Mr Ong - the MP, labour chief, the Minister or the President - has made a difference to Singapore. Grassroots leaders ought to look up to Mr Ong as a role model - serve residents only for the pure desire of seeking a betterment in their lives, rather than for some personal agenda / motives or to seek fame or glory.

1 September 2003 marks 10 years to the establishment of Singapore's Elected Presidency. We are indeed fortunate and privileged to have the late Mr Ong as our first Elected President. Together with his wife, the late Madam Ling, they have served Singaporeans faithfully over a 6-year period. Let us also not forget their contributions to fellow Singaporeans since 1972, when Mr Ong first contested in a general election. Singaporeans have known the couple to be humble and kind. It is my wish that fellow Singaporeans and friends from overseas will remember both the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong and his late wife, Madam Ling.

Mr Ong and Madam Ling's names will remain anchored in our minds forever, and their contributions to Singapore will always remain with us.

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