Remembering Ong Teng Cheong: The People’s President who fought for Singaporeans’ rights

By: Kheng-Liang Tan

A law permitting the Singaporean electorate a right to elect the President was first passed in 1992. The new elected President would have expanded powers from the legislature-appointed one, including a right to detain citizens under the Internal Security Act and the appointments of key government officials.

The late JB Jeyaretnam greatly opposed this – as did the honorable Chiam See Tong – on the basis that the expanded powers of the elected President would ultimately make him not accountable to parliament. He argued that the newly elected president could easily “thwart a government elected by the people from carrying out the mandate of the people.”

As our country enters an era where politics are more hotly contested, a real possibility of such a scenario playing out has a real danger of happening. As such, this would be an appropriate time not only to remember the greatness of the man who truly loved Singapore, but also to review the balance of presidential and legislative powers in Singapore.

One of Ong’s boldest actions came at the onset of his Presidency in 1993 when he used his powers for the good of people, making an unprecedented demand to open up information regarding Singapore’s financial reserves. The PAP objected with the excuse that it would take 56 man-years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets.

A negotiation was eventually settled and the accountant-general took several months to declare a list of all government properties. The original list given was thought to be incomplete and Ong had to request for more information over the next 3 years.

Later in 1986, the PAP government opposed a strike from shipyard workers as they feared investor backlash. Nevertheless, Ong approved it simply because he believed that “management were taking advantage of the workers”. After it settled down, Ong was proven right as the strike “only lasted two days [and] all the issues were settled. It showed the management was just trying to pull a fast one.”

His actions were so commendable that this later led SR Nathan to remember him as a “genuine concern for the ordinary man [and] selfless sense of duty with which he devoted himself to the workers who placed their trust in him marked him as an outstanding leader in the labour movement that he led and transformed.”

Towards the end of his presidency, the PAP government was intending to sell POSB to DBS. At that time, the POSB had a legal status as a statutory board and whose reserves were under the president’s safeguard purview. Interestingly, Ong was not kept in the loop and only found out about the sale through the newspapers and was deeply angered by this.

Even though he raised his objections to the PAP, the sale of POSB proceeded. Accordingly, this sale was considered inappropriate as it did not consult Ong despite his role as the guardian of the reserves. Throughout a 6 year Presidential term, his time-and-time willingness to stand for what was right accordingly gave him status as the “People’s President”.

At his election speech in 1993, he bravely professed: “Some people still ask whether my long previous association with the PAP will stop me from acting independently. The answer is no. My loyalty is first and foremost, to the people of Singapore. It has always been so, and will always remain so”

This was more than just cheap talk – it was manifested both in his action as well as his leadership philosophy. May our remembrance stick with this great man forever.

[Note: Article was first written in 2014 and this revisit is made to commemorate the 15th anniversary of his passing]

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