President Ong Teng Cheong passed away on 8 February 2002, at the age of 66.
He had served as Singapore’s 5th president from 1993 to 1998.
He was also the first president to contest in an open election after the Elected President scheme came into effect in 1991, during the tenure of his predecessor, President Wee Kim Wee.
When President Ong passed away in 2002, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, representing the Government, wrote a condolence letter to President Ong’s eldest son, Ong Tze Guan.
In his letter (see below), PM Goh expressed sadness at the passing of the former president.
“He served as a Member of Parliament until 1993 when he resigned to stand in Singapore’s first presidential elections,” PM Goh wrote.
“As the first elected President, Teng Cheong had to work the two-key system of safeguarding our reserves and key appointments in the public sector,” Mr Goh said and added, “We had no precedents to fall back on.”
PM Goh acknowledged the difficulties the government at the time had with President Ong.
“But Teng Cheong applied himself diligently and worked with the Government to come up with the rules and procedures,” PM Goh said. “His efforts helped to put the two-key system through its paces and made the job of future presidents that much easier.”
It is worth noting that at the time this condolence letter was issued, Lee Hsien Loong was one of the deputy prime ministers under PM Goh.
DPM Lee himself would become Prime Minister two years later in 2004.
So, it is safe and reasonable to say that both PM Goh and DPM Lee had, through the condolence letter, recognised President Ong as Singapore’s first Elected President, as PM Goh had explicitly said so in the letter.
Additionally, President Ong was not only the nation’s first Elected President in name, he had also – in the words of PM Goh – “helped to put the two-key system through its paces and made the job of future presidents that much easier.”
This is significant, given that President Ong’s predecessor, President Wee, had been given the powers of the Elected President halfway through his second term.
President Wee apparently did not help put the Elected President scheme “through the paces” to iron out the kinks in the system, unlike President Ong who came after him.
In the changes to the Elected President scheme passed by Parliament earlier this year, the Government has now apparently made a turnaround on President Ong being Singapore’s first Elected President, contrary to what PM Goh had said in his condolence letter in 2002.
There are a few questions which the Government’s latest actions have raised.
- In 2002, was PM Goh advised by anyone, the Attorney-General perhaps, that President Ong was indeed Singapore’s first Elected President? If not, why did PM Goh ascribe the honour to President Ong in his letter?
- DPM Lee, who must have been aware of the condolence letter and its content, apparently agreed with PM Goh’s statement that President Ong was Singapore’s first Elected President. Mr Lee does not seem to have raised any questions about this until this year.
While the above two (and other) questions are pertinent, what is perhaps more important is the question of integrity in what is said in the condolence letter.
The letter was issued to President Ong’s grieving sons who had mourned the death of their mother just 21/2 years earlier.
It was a letter of consolation in which PM Goh praised President Ong’s contribution to the nation, to ease the pain of the family at such a time.
President Ong’s greatest contribution was to take up the responsibility of the highest office in the land, the elected presidency.
Now, 15 years after his passing, the Government of Lee Hsien Loong – on the advice of the Attorney-General , advice which is kept secret and confidential from the public – has effectively removed the very honour which PM Goh had given President Ong in the condolence letter, namely that President Ong is Singapore’s first Elected President.
Can the Government do such a thing?
What about the integrity of the words of the Prime Minister (Goh)?
When you said President Ong was our first Elected President, did this not mean something? Was it not the truth?
And how would you explain this about-turn to the family of President Ong, especially his children to whom you addressed the condolence letter?
When the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government, and indeed on behalf of the people of Singapore, makes such a statement, surely his words must mean something.
Otherwise, what value is there in such a condolence letter if the words in it do not mean what they say?
Perhaps Mr Goh could explain to President Ong’s family, and to Singaporeans, if he agrees with the Government’s recent decision to remove the honour he, PM Goh, had given President Ong.
And perhaps also PM Lee could publish the Attorney-General’s advice to the Government on why President Ong should not be counted as the nation’s first Elected President.
At the very least, the Government owes it to the family of President Ong to make things clear.
President Ong, after all, had given more than 25 years of his life to public service and deserves nothing less.