Was the Original Elected “People’s President” Ong Teng Cheong Denied a State Funeral?

The death of former president S R Nathan and the state funeral he has been accorded has raised the familiar thorny issue of whether another late former president Mr Ong Teng Cheong was denied a state funeral by the government of the day.

Mr Ong was Singapore’s first elected president, after beating former Accountant-General Chua Kim Yeow, by securing 58.7 per cent of the vote.

He was sworn in 1993, and made way for Mr Nathan in 1999 after declining to stand for re-election.

When he died in 2002 at age 66, Mr Ong wasn’t given a state funeral.

Instead, he was given a state-assisted funeral.

This meant that officers from the Singapore Armed Forces and the police formed the coffin bearer party, vigil guards, and an escort band for the funeral march.

Police also performed crowd and traffic control.

Before Mr Ong, ex-Presidents Mr Yusof Ishak, Mr Benjamin Sheares, and Mr Wee Kim Wee were all given state funerals.

So why the difference in treatment?

Sections of the public have accused the government of denying Mr Ong a state funeral because of friction between him and the government.

After all, despite his significant contributions to the public service, he had done many things which brought him in direct contention with what the government deemed was correct behaviour.

As NTUC secretary-general, he approved a strike by shipyard workers against unfair working conditions in 1986 without informing Cabinet.

As president, he demanded to know how much was in the reserves because he was tasked with guarding it – prompting the now infamous reply form the Account-General that it would take 56 man-years to give him a dollar and cent value.

Mr Ong also pressed the government to formalise the constitutional powers of the president.

But was this abrasive relationship truly the reason that he wasn’t accorded the state funeral he deserved as a man who had made major contributions to the country, just as his predecessors?

Maybe yes, maybe no.

(1) Chinese New Year

Some believe Mr Ong wasn’t given a state funeral because it was “pantang”. A state funeral would fall on Chinese New Year, which would be “bad luck”. The government said that a state funeral would make people uncomfortable, so they went with the low-key state-assisted funeral.

(2) Ong’s Family Said No

There’s no official records newspaper articles stating that Mr Ong’s family turned down the offer of a state funeral, or that the government even made the offer in the first place. But that’s the whispers from some quarters.

(3) Ong didn’t make “Truly” Exceptional Contributions?

All we know about the lack of a state funeral for Mr Ong comes from this letter, in reply to a query by Mr Leong Sze Hian and Mr Goh Choon Kang.

With the lack of public information available, it would be a stretch to assume that the government deliberately denied Mr Ong a state funeral as befitting his status as a prominent public servant.

But it’s also due to this lack of information that it would be difficult to debunk speculation that he was deliberately denied a state funeral due to bad blood with the powers that be.




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