A Tribute To Ex-Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong - A Fervent Promoter Of Music & The Arts

A Tribute To Ex-Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong - A Fervent Promoter Of Music & The Arts

The late Mr Ong Teng Cheong will always be fondly remembered as the fifth President of Singapore who held office from 1 September 1993 to 31 August 1999. Mr Ong’s presidency was marked by many charity projects and Mr Ong was strongly regarded as a people’s President by the citizens of Singapore.

An architect by training, Mr Ong was very passionate about music, the arts and charity. Being an accomplished musician, Mr Ong had a strong love for the piano and occasionally played the piano at public events.

He even played a major role in setting up the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO). Mr Ong had a hand in conducting the SSO and he first commissioned the SSO’s President Young Performers Concert in 1995, to raise funds for selected charities. The President Young Performers Concert was officially launched in 2001, 22 years after the establishment of the SSO. In April 1998, the SSO held a fund raising drive and Mr Ong graced the rehearsals to motivate the orchestra.

Throughout Mr Ong’s six year tenure as the President of Singapore, he was heavily involved in the promotion of the arts and music scene in Singapore. It was his belief that the arts and music would help to create a common Singapore culture and identity, as well as to promote a strong sense of pride and togetherness. Through music and even more so, his personal touch, Mr Ong wanted to make a positive difference in people’s lives and this was what endeared him in the hearts of Singaporeans.

Mr Ong’s personal touch was embodied in an incident that happened in December 1981. Mr Ong, then the Minister of Labour and Communications, had been visiting Block 26 in Kim Keat when he was invited into the home of six-year-old Ng Chuin Ting.

Although the little resident in his constituency had only learned the piano for a month, she voluntarily played for Mr Ong. What transpired subsequently surprised Chuin Ting and her mother;  Mr Ong gave an impromptu rendition of “On The Street Where You Live” from the musical “My Fair Lady”. Things went further when both Mr Ong and Chuin Ting got into the mood, with the former playing Jingle Bells and the little fan singing along.

This incident reinforced the notion that Mr Ong was truly a people’s President in people’s minds. At the same time, getting into a duet with a six-year-old girl was an apt demonstration of Mr Ong’s belief that music truly binds people of different backgrounds together and connects people of all ages.

This was accentuated when Mr Ong’s piano teacher Daniel himself commented, “In music, there’s no age limit.” Indeed, even though Mr Ong had studied the piano up to Grade Eight – as the public later found out – nothing would truly stop a young person from taking baby steps towards learning music, so long as he or she was willing to.

Mr Ong initiated a number of charities during his tenure, such as the President’s Star Charity, which eventually benefitted more than 160 organisations. In the 1999 President’s Star Charity show, Mr Ong stepped up to the stage to personally give a piano performance, accompanied by MediaCorp artistes Kym Ng and Evelyn Tan. Mr Ong played one of the famous pieces during his time, The Moon Represents My Heart, a Mandarin song made famous by Taiwanese legend Teresa Teng. It was truly a memorable performance to be remembered for a lifetime.

Mr Ong’s promotion of the arts in an official capacity started early. In 1978, when Mr Ong was the Acting Culture Minister, he created the Singapore Cultural Foundation, whose mission was to “essentially play a catalytic role in creating a vibrant cultural life.” The Foundation, he added, had the objective of creating “a congenial atmosphere in which cultural activities can thrive and local talents can blossom forth.” Under Mr Ong’s patronship, the Foundation raised $1.2 million in donations within three months of its creation.

In the same year, Mr Ong launched the Singapore Festival of Arts (SFA). This annual event was paired with the Festival of Asian Performing Arts (FAPA), another programme that had an Asian-centric flavour, as biennial events hosted in alternate years. Eventually, the two events were merged in 1999 to become the Singapore Arts Festival (SAF), which underwent changes before being renamed the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA), as we know it today.

Mr Ong’s dedication to the promotion of the arts and culture also led to engaging debate among Singaporeans. Mr Ong had, in 1979, invited cultural bodies and even individuals to contribute ideas on how best to better the culture among the public.

Responding to his call, many suggested the setting up of arts schools, particularly within universities, where students would benefit from good facilities and quality training. However, some argued that it would be precipitous to create such schools when the social environment then was hardly ready for the influx of future artists and musicians. It would be more important, they suggested, to teach art- and music-related subjects in universities. Grooming people trained in and who were appreciative of the arts would allow these future leaders to create an ecosystem in the country in which art forms would fluorish and mature.

For someone so passionate about arts and music and a love for his people, Mr Ong had serious views about these cultural forms. His emphasis on music education cannot be overstated. In 1979, he reportedly rapped some schools for removing music lessons from their timetables. Mr Ong truly believed that the best way to engage people in music was during their youth, and that young people had to utilise their time wisely.

In 1988, Mr Ong held the role of the Chairman of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts. The council’s report, which detailed the policies governing the growth of these areas in Singapore and was released the following year, made a strong recommendation for the construction of a new performing arts centre – an idea first mooted by Mr Ong in 1975. Mr Ong, then the Minister of Culture, was subsequently involved in the designing of the Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, which was finally completed and unveiled in October 2002.

The Advisory Council’s report also led to the eventual setup of the National Arts Council (NAC) and the National Heritage Board (NHB), agencies that have been playing a key role in shaping Singapore’s arts and cultural landscape.

Given that Singapore was rapidly industralising and rising in status as a regional financial centre, it was fitting that attention be given to the non-economic aspects of the country’s growth. In the words of the Advisory Council, “We have reached a stage in our economic and national development when we should devote greater attention and resources to culture and the arts in Singapore. Culture and the arts add to the vitality of the nation and enhance the quality of life.”

In the years that followed, the NAC would champion the performing, visual and literary arts forms, while the NHB would preserve and promote Singapore’s rich cultural heritage. Mr Ong’s leadership of the Advisory Council benefitted Singapore in no small ways.

A sad but touching final moment on the piano marked Mr Ong’s demise. Mr Ong had just been discharged from hospital and had been unable to play the piano for weeks, owing to his fight with lymphoma. On 7 February 2002, however, he made the effort to play his late wife’s favourite tunes before going to bed. Mr Ong passed away peacefully in his sleep the day after. As Mr Ong’s eldest son Tze Guan recounted, “That was the last significant thing he did before embarking on his journey to meet mum.”

Mr Ong’s contribution to Singapore’s arts scene did not go unnoticed. Following Mr Ong’s death by cancer on 8 Feb 2002, the National University of Singapore launched the Ong Teng Cheong Professorship in Music. The Professorship helps to fund musicians to teach at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

During ex-President S R Nathan’s speech on 2 October 2002 to launch this Professorship, he paid tribute to the late President Ong for his dedication to and personal involvement in the local arts landscape. He noted that Mr Ong had taken a personal interest in developing and encouraging young Singaporean musicians and artists, paying close attention to every performer and artist who participated in such events as the President’s Charity Art Exhibition and the President’s Charity Concert.

In April the following year, the Ong Teng Cheong Concert was held at the Esplanade. Featuring young Singapore music talents, this concert was assigned as the event to mark the close of the Music Box Festival.

This was a deliberate move by The Esplande Company and would have moved the heart of Mr Ong. Indeed, in his 2002 speech, ex-President Nathan had described the Esplanade as being “most symbolic of Teng Cheong’s imprint on our artistic landscape”. Very aptly, schools were permitted to use the Tote Board Arts grant to subsidise the tickets, in a clear attempt by the Government to make the performing arts accessible to the young.

Although it has been 14 years since the passing of Mr Ong, the role he played in growing the arts and music scene in Singapore, will forever be remembered by Singapore citizens and music lovers worldwide. May his legacy live on and may the arts scene in Singapore achieve greater heights!

1947 Mr Ong started to learn the piano when he was 11.
1975 Idea for a new performing arts centre (Esplande) was first mooted by Mr Ong, when he was the Minister for Culture.
23 Dec 1977 Mr Ong was Guest of Honour for the Singapore Philharmonic Orchestra's Christmas concert at the Singapore Conference Hall.
09 Jun 1978 Acting Minister for Culture, Mr Ong launched the second Singapore Festival of Arts, which was inaugurated in 1977.
11 Dec 1978

Mr Ong opened the third Singapore Festival of Arts at the Victoria Theatre.

He also  launched the Singapore Cultural Foundation to support the arts.

07 Feb 1979 Mr Ong rapped some schools which have cancelled music lessons from their timetables. He added that "The best time to inculcate music and arts among the population is when they are young. Schools can therefore play an important role".
17 Feb 1979 The Cultural Medallion was instituted  at the initiative of Mr Ong, who was the Acting Minister of Culture. This was to be conferred by the Minister for Culture on people who have attained achievement in the arts and letters.
17 Jul 1979 Mr Ong was the Patron of the concert by a local composer in aid of the Singapore Cultural Foundation.
23 Aug 1979 Mr Ong said that if support for the Singapore Cultural Foundation is further widened, Singapore's cultural development will be that much quickened.
21 Dec 1981 Six-year-old Ng Chuin Ting played for Mr Ong when he toured Blk 26 in his constituency, even though she had only just a month of piano lessons. It was a surprise when Mr Ong played "On The Street Where You Live" from the musical "My Fair Lady" impromptu.
19 Oct 1984 The orchestral score of "Stand Up for Singapore" was presented to Mr Ong by Mr Nick Greville. Few knew of the difficulty that had to be overcome in adapting a tune written originally for a piano and voices.
19 Apr 1988 Mr Ong was appointed as Chairman of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts
13 Jan 1989 Mr Ong and his wife were guests of honour for the SSO's 10th year 2-night concert .
1989 When Mr Ong was Deputy Prime Minister and Chairman of the Advisory Council on Culture and the Arts, he recommended the construction of a new performing arts centre, which is the present day's Esplanade.
08 Apr 1989 Mr Ong was the guest of honour at the concert that saw finalists from the Rolex Music competition perform with the SSO at Victoria Concert Hall, and he gave away the prizes.
22 Dec 1989 SBC staffers had to miss out on Mr Ong's musical treat during the SBC staff union's 7th anniversary dinner, because it would have cost $600 to move the grand piano about 10m on-stage.
01 Jun 1990 Second Deputy Prime Minister Mr Ong was a VIP at the Victoria Concert Hall, where the SSO started off the month-long Singapore Festival of Arts.

Mr Ong first conducted the SSO when it played a new Chinese composition called Golden Orchid, which was arranged by composer Shen Ping Kwang.

He was also the driving force behind a move by the NTUC to commission Singaporean orchestral works based on local songs such as Di Tanjung Katong and Singapura.

03 May 1992

Mr Ong, the Deputy Prime Minister and NTUC secretary-general, performed a piano solo, Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu at the NTUC Celebrity Concert at Victoria Concert Hall.

He also accompanied Mr Wong Kan Seng on the piano when the Foreign Affairs Minister sang the Cantonese song Shanghai Beach.

He also joined local artistes S. K. Poon, Kay Jamid and Jacintha Absheganadan in their rendition of the song I'm Always Chasing Raindows .

01 Sep 1993

Mr Ong became the first elected President of Singapore.

He said he would still continue to play the piano in public .

24 Dec 1994 4 young music talents, Noella Yan, Rachel Chen, Grace Li Yan'en, and Tang Tee Khoon; were invited to give a private recital at the Istana. After the recital, Mr Ong asked to join them, when they were then playing Christmas Carols by themselves.
10 Feb 1995 SSO's President Young Performers Concert was first commissioned by Mr Ong. That night's concert was also known as The Presidential Charity Concert.
22 Jan 1996 Mr Ong said that as a young man, he had wanted to be a musician and an orchestra conductor, among many other professions.
19 July 1996 Mr Ong's piano teacher, Daniel, said, "In music, there's no age limit."
09 Apr 1997 After the President's Charity Concert for Young Talents, Mr Ong met Lim Yan, 16, at a reception and urged him to continue making music.
01 Apr 1998 Mr Ong rehearsed with the SSO for a fund raising drive.
11 Apr 1998 Mr Ong conducted the SSO to play Beethoven's Fifth symphony to help raise funds for the orchestra.
27 Mar 1999 Mr Ong played "The Moon Symbolises My Heart" on the piano during the President's Star Charity Show, accompanied by a band and actresses Kym Ng and Evelyn Tan who sang.
09 Jul 1999

At the President's Charity Ball, which was also Mrs Ong's last public appearnce, Mr Ong played Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu. After his recital,  Mrs Ong led the audience in a standing ovation. 

Mr Ong also made a special request to play on the piano his wife's favourite song The Moon Symbolises My Heart  with Kit Chan singing along.

30 Jul 1999 Mr Ong's wife, Ling Siew May, passed away .
31 Jul 1999

It was revealed that Mrs Ong's pet love was the piano, and that Mr Ong had won her over with his piano-playing. She was also his first and only love. Their marriage lasted over 35 years.

21 Aug 1999 Mr Ong selected Roanna Tay and Seow Aik Keong to perform at the President Charity Concert with the SSO, which was the last in the series for President Ong, before his term of office ends on 31 Aug 1999.
31 Aug 1999 Mr Ong stepped down as President.
06 Jul 2001 Mr Ong was the guest-of-honour for the fundraising event Love and Music in the Air Charity Gala Dinner at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, which featured two young autistic brothers, Ng Kai Song and Ng Kai Yang; and an eight-year-old pianist Benjamin Boo. $210,000 was raised at the Gala dinner in aid of autistic and musically gifted children.
16 Jul 2001 SSO's President Young Performers Concert was officially launched.
07 Feb 2002

Being unable to play the last few weeks, Mr Ong finally played on the piano today his wife's favourite tunes. 

Mr Ong's eldest son, Tze Guan, said ".. He played mum's favourite tunes before saying he was tired and then he went to bed. That was the last significant thing he did before embarking on his journey to meet mum."

08 Feb 2002 Mr Ong passed away .
09 Feb 2002 We came to learn that Mr Ong studied the piano up to Grade Eight level .
10 Feb 2002

A white piano was placed next to Mr Ong's coffin at his wake. As a pianist played classical pieces like Memory, the harmonious tone set a dignified note that complemented the solemn mood on that day.

02 Oct 2002 Ong Teng Cheong Professorship in Music was launched.
12 Oct 2002 Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, was officially opened.
06 Apr 2003 The Ong Teng Cheong Concert was held at the Esplanade to remember Mr Ong.
10 Jan 2003 SSO moves to the Esplanade.