By Howard Lee
At a time when we are debating about whether a house of bricks will be turned into a shrine for a man, you had a mountain named after you.
Why? Because the team that scaled the peak wanted to pay tribute to the help and encouragement that you have given them. This is not honour conferred on the father of a nation, for the grand legacy he has left behind, or the trophy of a successful nation he has bestowed us. This was a simple and heartfelt “thanks” for working behind the scenes, plodding along to fulfil people’s dreams.
It was the honour for someone who honoured people. And that was what you had been doing for all of us since you were elected President.
People said you won by only a slim margin because you were a government stooge. You didn’t let that put you down. Instead, you went on to prove them wrong by demanding accountability from the very government that you were supposed to be a stooge of.
You could have just taken the pay-check and rolled with it, but you didn’t. You honoured those who voted for you as much as those who didn’t.
Some may have the term integrity thrown on them. You, on the other hand, weaved it into what you did. For you, integrity is not just about playing by the rules of the game. It is also about knowing who put you there to play as team leader, and to you, it was clearly the people who put you in charge. You didn’t care that you burned bridges with your old colleagues. The people came first.
Some would chastise you for doing too little. I beg to differ. You did what no other President did by doing what the first Elected President needed to do. It was baby steps, but you took the plunge anyway. We should have been smart enough to demand that to be the precedence for all Elected Presidents to come. I am sorry we didn’t.
Worse, we allowed the rules you have fought for to be changed. We didn’t have the guts to push through with the votes that would have kept the Constitution safe, perhaps guiled into believing that it will lead to a populist government, whatever that means. It was we who allowed it to be amended at will.
Today, we pay the price of having a reserved presidential election – a bastardised term, an oxymoron onto itself that makes absolutely no sense to any functional democracy. There is nothing wrong in having a President from a minority community, but this is clearly not a free contest that would have made that community and our nation proud with the knowledge that we have indeed transcended bigotry.
Instead, we have allowed the unclarified and haphazard musings of a few to decide for us how our public offices should be filled. It has put the respectability of the Elected Presidency in jeopardy. I am sorry we have let it happen.
And now, the office of the President of Singapore is no longer what it used to be for you, but an affront to our nation, thinly justified by bravado. We focus too much on decorum and forgot all about dignity. The dignity of a people who have the right to determine who they want in the highest office of the land. We hear platitudes of how the most appropriate check on the government is to have someone who is the most senior within their ranks. Good judgement and public service gives way to civility and seniority. Impartiality is a claim, no longer a deed.
We have lost much, and we have let you down. I am so sorry.
But through all this, thank you President Ong Teng Cheong for all that you have done. You have set the right example for us, and may future generations muster the guts to follow. I never had a chance to vote for you, but you will always be my first Elected President, my people’s President. No Parliament, committee or court ruling can tell me otherwise. And may we have the chance to vote for you again.