This month is the 12th anniversary of the death of Ong Ten Cheong, remembered by many as the people’s president. Here is a tribute to his memory.

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

The late JB Jeyaretnam opposed this, as did the honourable Chiam See Tong. Jeyaretnam argued that the expanded powers of the elected President would ultimately make him not “accountable to parliament. What the proposals do is to lock the people out of what is theirs” as the President “can 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, let us band together to remember the greatness of the man who truly loved Singapore. While the late Ong Teng Cheong may have passed away 12 years ago this month, the legacy of a great man hardly passes with him and many still regard Singapore’s first elected President the most loved one.

Ong was more than willing to use his powers for the good of people, demanding the access of information regarding Singapore’s financial reserves after he became President in 1993. The PAP objected, saying that it would take 56 man-years to produce a dollar-and-cents value of the immovable assets thereby depriving Ong of his legitimate powers. Eventually, a negotiation was settled and even so, it took the accountant and auditor general 3 years to declare a list of all government its properties.

While the PAP government opposed a strike from shipyard workers in 1986 as they feared investor backlash, Ong approved it in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister. He did so 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.”

In 1998, Ong was furious after finding out only through the newspapers that the 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. Accordingly, this sale was considered inappropriate as it did not regard Ong’s role as the guardian of the reserves. Despite his objections, the sale proceeded.

His willingness to challenge the PAP’s nonsense for what was right gave him status as the “people’s President”. His most famous quote was that his “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.

Joseph Kheng-Liang Tan

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