Chance meeting over char kway teow leads to friendship and legacy of giving

Clockwise from left: Mr Koh (seated) at his birthday celebrations in 1997, with Mr and Mrs Ong (in black); Mr and Mrs Ong celebrating her birthday in 2010; and Mr Ong and Mr Koh in their earlier years. The two men were friends for more than 40 years.
Mr Tan, who is Mrs Ong's nephew and estate executor, will ensure that the Ongs' legacy continues, with the sale next year of their two-storey King Albert Park bungalow, estimated to be worth $45 million to $50 million. The funds will go to universities and healthcare institutes, and will also be used to attract scholars to spur medical research.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Clockwise from left: Mr Koh (seated) at his birthday celebrations in 1997, with Mr and Mrs Ong (in black); Mr and Mrs Ong celebrating her birthday in 2010; and Mr Ong and Mr Koh in their earlier years. The two men were friends for more than 40 years.
Above: Mr Koh (seated) at his birthday celebrations in 1997, with Mr and Mrs Ong (in black). The two men were friends for more than 40 years. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF IRENE ONG TAN LIANG KHENG
Clockwise from left: Mr Koh (seated) at his birthday celebrations in 1997, with Mr and Mrs Ong (in black); Mr and Mrs Ong celebrating her birthday in 2010; and Mr Ong and Mr Koh in their earlier years. The two men were friends for more than 40 years.
Above: Mr Ong and Mr Koh in their earlier years. The two men were friends for more than 40 years. PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF IRENE ONG TAN LIANG KHENG
Clockwise from left: Mr Koh (seated) at his birthday celebrations in 1997, with Mr and Mrs Ong (in black); Mr and Mrs Ong celebrating her birthday in 2010; and Mr Ong and Mr Koh in their earlier years. The two men were friends for more than 40 years.
Above: Mr and Mrs Ong celebrating her birthday in 2010.PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF IRENE ONG TAN LIANG KHENG

3 late philanthropists' charity to continue, with sale of bungalow expected to raise funds for causes

More than 40 years ago, a young Mr Ong Tiong Tat spotted a man eating char kway teow by himself at a stall in Zion Road.

Mr Ong approached the man and learnt he was Mr Koh Choon Joo, a lawyer. They chatted, discovered they shared many values and became firm friends, even though Mr Koh was 38 years older than Mr Ong.

Over the next 40 years, that friendship resulted in a legacy which saw millions of dollars given to various causes.

Even after Mr Koh died in 1997 at the age of 96, Mr Ong and his wife Irene continued the philanthropic mission.

It did not stop with Mr Ong's death in 2013 when he was 74. Mrs Ong continued giving until she died in February at the age of 73.

Like Mr Koh, the Ongs had no children.

Now, Mrs Ong's nephew Tan Hsuan Heng, 64, will ensure that the legacy continues, with the sale next year of the couple's two-storey King Albert Park bungalow, which they inherited from Mr Koh. It is estimated to be worth $45 million to $50 million. Mr Tan is Mrs Ong's estate executor.

The money will go to universities and healthcare institutes, and will also be used to attract scholars to spur medical research in areas such as dementia, diabetes and cancer.

Mr Ong, who was an investment trader, and his wife, an investor, bequeathed most of their assets.

The law school at SIM University (UniSIM), Dover Park Hospice, Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital and the Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) Community Fund are among those that will benefit from the sale of the bungalow.

About 13 per cent of the sale proceeds will be distributed to family and friends, including Mrs Ong's nephews and nieces.

Mr Tan, an executive director of a local small and medium-sized enterprise, said of Mr Koh's and Mr Ong's friendship: "They shared a passion for fine dining, watching wrestling over Guinness stout and art appreciation… They also shared a very strong belief in the importance of education."

Mr Tan said Mr Koh, who was a widower, had contributed to many education causes in his lifetime.

For instance, the C J Koh Law Library at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Bukit Timah campus is named after Mr Koh, in honour of his pledge of $5 million to fund the costs of expanding the building, added Mr Tan.

In 1988, Mr Koh suffered a stroke at the age of 87 and became bedridden. Mr Ong, then 49, nursed him and managed his finances.

After Mr Koh's death, Mr Ong became his estate executor and continued his friend's legacy, giving more than $16 million from Mr Koh's estate to initiatives in education, mainly for NUS and the Nanyang Technological University.

These included scholarships and endowment funds, and two professorships: the C J Koh Professorship in Education at the National Institute of Education (NIE) and the C J Koh Professorship in Law at NUS.

Former NIE director Lee Sing Kong got to know Mr and Mrs Ong in the late 1990s.

Professor Lee, a horticulturalist by training, said: "I took them to see my aeroponics research in a greenhouse and Mr Ong immediately gave me $10,000 from his funds to help fund my work. It was a big morale booster."

The Ongs developed close ties with staff and academics from NIE over the years.

In 2010, when Mr Ong was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer, and Mrs Ong with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, a team of five to six NIE staff became the couple's pillar of support.

When her husband died three years later, Mrs Ong was distraught. Mr Tan said: "She preferred to stay at home instead of joining my family at Chinese New Year celebrations. But she remained strong and often said that she would meet him again in heaven."

She died earlier this year, entrusting her estate to Mr Tan, who hopes to distribute the funds after her first death anniversary next year.

UniSIM law school dean Leslie Chew said: "We are touched and encouraged by Mrs Ong's gift as we are not a known entity yet. She had a heart for education and believed in supporting people who needed financial help."

Mr Pang Tong Tat, assistant chief executive officer of Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, said the donation was timely, adding: "It would help to support our increasing operating expenses, especially with the completion of the redevelopment in 2017."

Professor Leo Yee Sin, who heads TTSH's Institute of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology, said: "We will uphold the legacy of Mrs Ong in keeping our community ready for outbreaks.

"We aim to reach out to the community, prepare them and unite them in the fight against future outbreak threats."

Mr Tan said of the Ongs: "They had lived a meaningful life in helping so many people. In return, so many people helped them when they were in need - not because of their donations, but because of the friendships forged."

And it all started over a meal of char kway teow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 20, 2016, with the headline 'Chance meeting over char kway teow leads to friendship and legacy of giving'. Print Edition | Subscribe