I refer to the report “State funeral for former DPM Goh Keng Swee” (Channel News Asia, May 14).
When former President Wee Kim Wee passed away in May 2005, I penned a letter (published in the Today newspaper on 10th May 2005), to ask why former President Ong Teng Cheong was not given a state funeral – a honour accorded to President Wee and all previous Presidents.
I refer to media reports that the honour of state funerals was accorded in the past to former presidents Yusof Ishak and Benjamin Sheares.
I would like to ask whether a state funeral was accorded to the late former President Ong Teng Cheong when he died in 2002.
If not, why is it that he is the only president who was not given a state funeral?
As Singapore’s first elected president, I think many Singaporeans may feel that he deserved a state funeral.
The late President Ong Teng Cheong dedicated 27 years of his working life to public service, as President for six years, Deputy Prime Minister for three years, Second Deputy Prime Minister for five years, Secretary-General of NTUC for 11 years, chairman of the People’s Action Party for 12 years, Minister for Communications, and Member of Parliament for 21 years.
Who decides whether a former president is to be given a state funeral? Is there some criteria for deciding on a state funeral?
I suggest that a state funeral be accorded to all former presidents who die in the future.
Letter from Leong Sze Hian
The Prime Minister’s press secretary replied on 13th May:
Honour rites still evolving; No formula for state funeral entitlement
Mr Leong Sze Hian (Today, May 10) and Mr Goh Choon Kang (Lianhe Zaobao, May 12) have asked why the funeral arrangements for Mr Ong Teng Cheong and Dr Wee Kim Wee, both former presidents, were not the same.
Mr Ong Teng Cheong received a state-assisted funeral, while Dr Wee Kim Wee received a state funeral. Mr Goh Choon Kang suggested that we should have definite rules on who is entitled to a state funeral.
When Singaporeans who have made major contributions to the country pass away, it is right and fitting that they be honoured and mourned by the nation. They may or may not be former Presidents. The appropriate way to do so will vary with each individual.
It is not feasible to have a set formula as to who should receive a state funeral, based simply on the person’s rank or the appointment that he or she had held. It depends on the person’s services to the nation, as well as other special circumstances.
Persons who have made truly exceptional contributions will receive a state funeral. The decision to hold one is made by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
If they decide to offer a state funeral, they will of course consult the family members and take into account their wishes.
Singapore is still a young country. Our practices and customs for public ceremonies and observances are still evolving.
As the years pass, we will gradually establish norms and traditions that will reflect the Singapore way of honouring our best sons and daughters who have passed away, that is dignified, restrained and expresses the gratitude and sense of loss of the nation.
Chen Hwai Liang
Press Secretary to Prime Minister
When the late President Ong Teng Cheong asked how much assets the Government had, he never got an answer because he was told that it would take 56 man-years to obtain the information for him.
We re-publish former President Ong Teng Cheong’s interview with AsiaWeek (10 March 2000) where he revealed the obstacles he faced when he asked for the copies of the government’s accounts on the reserves and investments.
President Ong Teng Cheong’s political career spanned 21 years. He was Member of Parliament, Cabinet Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, before he resigned to become Elected President in 1993. And it was as Communications Minister that Ong pushed for the development of the MRT system, the largest construction project in Singapore’s history. His next challenge came on the labour front, when he became NTUC Secretary-General in 1983. Ong was diagnosed with lymphoma-cancer of the lymphatic system in 1992. But this did not dampen his desire to continue serving. He became Singapore’s first Elected President a year later, and it was a presidency marked by many charitable projects, which touched the lives of many Singaporeans. Ong stepped down as President at the age of 63.
As chairman of the People’s Action Party (PAP) and secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, Ong was considered a firm Lee Kuan Yew loyalist. In January 1986, he sanctioned a strike in the shipping industry, the first for about a decade in Singapore, without telling the cabinet. He said that he did not inform the cabinet or the government because they would probably stop him from going ahead with the strike. There was a major corporate and Cabinet backlash against his decision; however, the strike lasted only two days, and a deal was struck. He was also a former Minister of National Development.