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Ong Teng Cheong

President of Singapore from 1993–1999 and champion of the arts.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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There are so many things to be done. I intend to live every minute of it as fully as I can (and) press on with the work.

Ong Teng Cheong was the President of Singapore from 1993–1999. He is remembered for being a tireless servant to the people and for his significant contributions to the labour movement and the arts in Singapore. Fondly known as the People's President, he chaired the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts in 1989, whose seminal Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts resulted in the significant growth of the Singapore arts scene. The report was a catalyst that improved Singapore's arts environment greatly through several initiatives, including the establishment of the National Arts Council, the new National Library building, the National Heritage Trust, and Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

Born in 1936 in Singapore, Ong Teng Cheong was the second eldest of five children. His civil servant father was a self-taught painter and sculptor who encouraged his children to adopt artistic pursuits. As a young boy, Ong developed a strong passion for the arts and performed in school plays and concerts, and also became a talented painter. As a keen and able pianist, music was one of Ong's lifelong passions, and he spent many happy hours practising the piano, in particular his favourite piece, Frédéric Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor, Op. 66.

Ong received his primary education at Chong Cheng Primary School and went on to attend The Chinese High School. It was during this time that he would first meet Ling Siew May, then a Nanyang Girls’ High School student, whom he would marry in 1963.

In 1956, Ong began studying architecture at Adelaide University in Australia and worked as an architect in Adelaide after he graduated in 1961. He returned to Singapore in 1964 to become a town planner with the Singapore Civil Service. The following year, he received a Colombo Plan Scholarship and went to the University of Liverpool, UK to obtain a Masters of Civic Design (Town Planning), returning to Singapore in 1967 to work at the Ministry of National Development as an architect and a town planner. At the same time, he headed a Singapore team in a United Nations Development Programme in transportation and land use planning in central Singapore.

In 1971, Ong left the Ministry of National Development and started his own firm, Design and Planning Services. The following year, the firm’s name was changed to Ong & Ong Architects and Town Planners, with Ong and his wife Siew May as founding partners.

Ong began his involvement in grassroots activities around this time, serving as chairman of the Seletar Hills Estate Residents' Association. His duties brought him in contact with Hwang Soo Jin, the Member of Parliament for Jalan Kayu, who would later spark Ong's political career when he introduced Ong to the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.

By 1972, Ong had become a member of the People's Action Party (PAP) as well as the Member of Parliament for Kim Keat, a constituency he would serve for the next 19 years before moving over to Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency in 1991. Along the way, Ong rose through the ranks, first becoming Senior Minister of State for Communications in 1975, then Acting Minister of Culture in 1977, and then taking on the additional portfolio of Minister of Communications the following year. Ong next became Minister for Labour in 1980 and Chairman of the People's Action Party in 1981. After two years as Minister without Portfolio, he became Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) for ten years from 1983. In 1985, he became Chairman of the Singapore Labour Foundation and Second Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore. In 1990, he became Deputy Prime Minister.

During his political career, Ong made many significant contributions to Singapore. One of major national development projects he championed was the establishment of a high-speed rail-based transportation system in Singapore. In the face of strong resistance from his colleagues, he pushed for the construction of the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system through the better part of the ’70s and the ’80s, eventually launching it successfully in 1987. Today, the MRT spans the entire city-state, and has become the backbone of the public transport system in Singapore.

A humble, unassuming man with a genuine heart for the man in the street, Ong was an able and committed Secretary-General of the NTUC who earned the respect, trust and loyalty of Singapore's labour unions. In the 10 years he spent at the helm of the NTUC, he successfully guided Singapore's workers through the severe economic downturn in 1985, revitalised the labour movement, and successfully brought to fruition ambitious plans for ever-improving social benefits and facilities for union members, such as the Orchid Country Club, so that even blue-collar workers would be able to enjoy access to leisure pursuits such as golfing, that were long the domain of only the wealthy and privileged.

Ong remained a passionate supporter of the arts throughout his life. He believed that the arts would play a vital role in the creation and evolution of a common Singapore culture and identity that would transcend cultural lines and promote togetherness. His frequent attendance of cultural exchange events and ASEAN meetings as Acting Minister of Culture convinced him of this as he saw the distinct and unique national dress and cultural performances of each country. The Singapore delegates then had no national dress or a readily agreed upon culture from which it could draw. Out of this came Ong's push for the creation of the Singapore national dress. This featured Singapore’s national flower, the orchid, as a motif.

In 1979, as Minister for Culture, he instituted the Cultural Medallion in an effort to elevate the status of the arts and to encourage Singapore artists in their pursuit of artistic excellence. With the Cultural Medallion, Singapore now had an official award to recognise outstanding arts individuals who made significant contributions to the arts in Singapore.

In 1989, Ong, then the Second Deputy Prime Minister, chaired the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts. The Council published the seminal Report of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts that had far-reaching and an incredibly significant impact on the development of the arts in Singapore. Arts and culture was officially recognised as being important elements of national development and identity that would broaden Singaporeans' minds and sensitivities, improve the quality of life and strengthen the social bond amongst Singaporeans, and contribute to the Singapore tourism and entertainment industries. The Council aimed to create a culturally vibrant society consisting of a well-informed, creative, sensitive and gracious people.

Through the many recommendations of the Report, the National Arts Council and the National Heritage Trust were established, and a new National Library was built together with the addition of several branch libraries around Singapore. The quality of arts education in Singapore was also significantly improved with the development of tertiary arts education and arts scholarships for talented art students. The arts were also promoted more vigorously and widely through a range of activities at various grassroots organisations, and enjoyed increased media coverage of cultural events. Singapore artists also benefited from the commissioning of original works with the support of grants and incentives from the Singapore government. Other recommendations led to several other initiatives resulting in the strengthening of arts and heritage collections in the libraries and the National Museum.

The Report also recommended the upgrading of existing performance spaces in Singapore, and most significantly, the construction of a national arts centre that would be situated in Marina Bay. Ong felt that Singapore lacked a world-class performing arts venue that would encourage the development and growth of the Singapore arts scene. This proved to be one of his most challenging projects that also became his crowning achievement in the arts. After years of development, with Ong chairing the Singapore Arts Centre Steering Committee in the initial stages, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay opened in October 2002.

In his capacity as Secretary-General of NTUC, Ong also initiated the sponsorship and commissioning of Singapore musicians to adapt Singapore folk songs into orchestral works that could be performed by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. This made orchestral music more accessible for Singapore citizens, and allowed them to enjoy performances by the country's national orchestra.

Ong also personally contributed his time to supporting the arts in Singapore. He organised concert evenings that showcased young Singapore music talent, and was involved in many charity art exhibitions.

In 1992, Ong was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphatic system, but he continued working and recovered to contest successfully in the presidential election the following year. As in his career as a public servant, Ong earned a reputation as a loyal and tireless servant of Singapore who had the interests of its citizens at heart. He became known as the People's President through his convictions and actions that transcended political leanings and affiliations. His presidency was one that included the establishment of many charitable schemes and initiatives, the most prominent one being the annual President's Star Charity event.

As his presidential term was coming to an end, Ong announced in July 1999 that he would not be contesting for another term, so that he could spend more time with his family. Unfortunately, his wife passed away after a two-and-a-half-year battle with colon cancer soon after his announcement.

Ong completed his term and went on to become an advisor at Ong & Ong Architects, the firm he started with his wife. He continued being a strong supporter of the arts, and was instrumental in the setting up of the National Arts Council's Violin Loan Scheme in 2000. The first beneficiary of the scheme was Singapore violinist Siow Lee Chin, who lacked a good violin for her international performances.

On 8 February 2002, Ong passed away at the age of 66 in his home in Singapore.

In his honour, NTUC’s Singapore Institute of Labour Studies was renamed the Ong Teng Cheong Institute of Labour Studies in March 2002. The NTUC also set up the Ong Teng Chong Education Trust Fund in November that year. The Singapore Institute of Planners posthumously awarded Ong a honorary fellowship in 2003.

Ong was also remembered in the arts. In October 2002, the Ong Teng Cheong Professorship in Music was launched at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music. The following year in April, The Ong Teng Cheong Concert was held at the Concert Hall at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, featuring young Singapore music talents.

Timeline

22 Jan 1936

Born in Singapore.

1946 to 1949

Attended Chong Cheng Primary School, Singapore.

1950 to 1955

Attended The Chinese High School, Singapore.

1956 to 1961

Attended University of Adelaide, Australia. Graduated with Bachelor of Architecture.

1962 to 1964

Architect, McMichael and Harris, Adelaide, Australia.

1964 to 1965

Town planner, Singapore Civil Service.

1965 to 1967

Attended University of Liverpool, UK on a Colombo Plan Scholarship. Graduated with Master of Civic Design (Town Planning).

1967 to 1971

Architect and town planner, Planning Department, Ministry of National Development, Singapore.
Head, Singapore team, United Nations Development Programme (Special Fund) Assistance in Urban Renewal & Development Project.

1971

Founded Design and Planning Services.

1971 to 1975

Architect and town planner, Ong & Ong Architects and Town Planners.

1972

Elected as Chairman, Seletar Hills Estate Residents' Association.
Renamed firm Ong & Ong Architects and Town Planners, with himself and wife Ling Siew May as founding partners.

1972 to 1993

Member of Parliament, Kim Keat Constituency, Singapore.

1975 to 1977

Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Communications, Singapore.

1977 to 1978

Acting Minister, Ministry of Culture, Singapore.

1978 to 1979

Minister, Ministry of Culture, Singapore.

1979 to 1981

Minister, Ministry of Communications, Singapore.

1979

Established Cultural Medallion.
Chairman, Moral Education Committee, Singapore.

1980 to 1981

Minister, Ministry of Labour, Singapore.

1981 to 1983

Chairman, People's Action Party, Singapore.

1983 to 1985

Minister without Portfolio, Singapore.

1983 to 1993

Secretary-General, National Trades Union Congress, Singapore.

1985

Chairman, Singapore Labour Foundation.

1985 to 1990

Second Deputy Prime Minister, Singapore.

1988

Founding Patron, Singapore Dance Theatre.

1989

Chairman, Advisory Council on Art and Culture, Singapore.

1990

Instituted the Singapore national dress, featuring an orchid motif.

1990 to 1993

Chairman, Steering Committee, Singapore Arts Centre.

Nov 1990 to Aug 1993

Deputy Prime Minister, Singapore.

1991 to 1993

Member of Parliament, Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency, Singapore.

1992

Chairman, Chinese Language Review Committee, Singapore.

Sep 1993 to Aug 1999

President, Republic of Singapore. Singapore's first elected President.
Chancellor, National University of Singapore.

1994

Received Distinguished Comrade of Labour award, National Trades Union Congress, Singapore.
Established President's Star Charity.

1998

Received Knight Grand Cross, Order of Saint Michael and Saint George, UK.
Received honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, University of Liverpool, UK.

1999

Performed a piano recital at the President's Star Charity All-Star Challenge, Singapore.

1999 to 2002

Advisor, Ong & Ong Architects.

2000

Instrumental in the establishment of National Arts Council's Violin Loan Scheme.

8 Feb 2002

Passed away at age 66 in Singapore.

Mar 2002

National Trades Union Congress' Singapore Institute of Labour Studies renamed Ong Teng Cheong Institute of Labour Studies.

2 Oct 2002

Ong Teng Cheong Professorship in Music established by Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

Nov 2002

Ong Teng Cheong Education Trust Fund established by National Trades Union Congress.

2003

Received posthumous honorary fellowship, Singapore Institute of Planners.

Apr 2003

The Ong Teng Cheong Concert, featuring young Singapore music talents, held at Esplanade Concert Hall.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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