I am sorry President Ong, we have let you down

President Ong Teng Cheong. Picture Credit: National Archives

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.


  1. My full respect to President Ong Teng Cheong…..the only president elected by the people and dared to speak it out for the people. Which president has to speak out for the people besides OTC? Now we have a nominated president parachute down from the sky. You have to earn it to be respected and not given.

    • i think they’re lazy. It’s a lot of hard work if you read hansard and see what opposition parliamentarians need to prepare for and do. The entire mechanism is set up for the ruling party to always win. If the voters do nothing, this is exactly what we end up with. Always easier to whine and write about it on facebook, a blog or an alternative news site. Won’t take more than twenty minutes to draft a long complaint article or critique. Takes very hard work to engage different consultative groups, talk them around policies, persuade them, even get a survey going to eventually wind up in parliament to pass a bill – especially if you are Not the ruling party. The odds are heavily stacked against you. Best is to hope for voters to get educated on how laws and the system affects them, be aware of why we get dismal results, rights denied to citizens, and laws re-written into oblivion. Hopefully, armed with this knowledge, we know what to do the next time GE comes along.

  2. This really makes me laugh ..all praise for one of the two ex DPMs why ? What is wrong with the other one..comes in at the wrong time?not useful to make use of ?
    Wow ! OTC of PAP, you were so so so loving…hug hug hug..

    Both had served the Nation through hard n good times for decades…

  3. Actually his legacy prior to his presidency was just as important. It showed his empathy in carefully planning for the transport system (he was after all a trained planner) that we see today. We wished the system are better maintained but like the US highway system, if he did not push for it, we would have been worse off. He was actually more prominent in his presidency than as a minister as he fought publicly for the people while he continued working privately for education and the arts

  4. I take this Independent column to make an honest comment on Monday Game Show “We Are Singaporean” featured on 11th September 2017 at 7.30 pm….
    The Show really make us Singaporean Stupid and have no better Games Show or better Singaporean to lead The Show than Najib Ali…who does not improve after all these Long years…The way he lead this Show looks so Stupid and Childish and being Professional ???
    and The Game have been Organised Not At All Test The Talents of us Singaporeans…Can just Win by mere Luck…either A or B
    America Sure Have Talent and I am sure Singapore Sure have Talents too if guided and produce more sensible Game Show in future with the Right Compere?????
    I am really ashamed of us Singaporeans after watching The Show …I hope fellow countrymen agreed with me !!!!

  5. You call this an election? Elected by who? Remember the democratic constitution, we as citizens have right to vote, this is wrong and yet some ppl still support in here? OTC is the only people elected president who came out to question his own party, we should salute him