'National interests always come first' for Chinese community

Pioneer Cabinet minister Ong Pang Boon and book editor Pang Cheng Lian at the launch of 50 Years Of The Chinese Community In Singapore yesterday.
Pioneer Cabinet minister Ong Pang Boon and book editor Pang Cheng Lian at the launch of 50 Years Of The Chinese Community In Singapore yesterday.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

The most important contribution of the Chinese community to Singapore's growth and prosperity in the past 50 years has been its acceptance that national interests must always precede communal interests, said pioneer Cabinet minister Ong Pang Boon yesterday.

"In Singapore, the Chinese community has long recognised that size does not equal might," he said.

Speaking at the launch of the book 50 Years Of The Chinese Community In Singapore, Mr Ong, 86, explained that the community had taken a middle way, tolerating and accepting the beliefs and practices of the minority communities.

  • Last surviving member of first PAP Cabinet

  • Mr Ong Pang Boon's appearance yesterday at the launch of the book 50 years Of The Chinese Community In Singapore was the third time he had been in the limelight at a public event this year since retiring from the Cabinet some 30 years ago.

    The first was when he delivered a eulogy at the funeral of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in March this year, at the University Cultural Centre in Kent Ridge.

    Mr Ong, 86, the last surviving member of the first Cabinet of the People's Action Party (PAP) government in 1959, also appeared at the National Day Parade at the Padang on Singapore's Golden Jubilee in August.

    He was seated next to two other Old Guard ministers - Mr Othman Wok, 91, and Mr Jek Yeun Thong, 85.

    The three men were among the 10 who signed the Independence of Singapore Agreement on Aug 9, 1965.

    Mr Ong was born in Kuala Lumpur and attended the University of Malaya in Singapore.

    He joined the PAP in 1955 and was its first organising secretary. He was elected City Councillor for Tanjong Pagar in 1957 and became a legislative assemblyman and, later, MP for the former Telok Ayer constituency from 1959 till 1988, when he retired from politics.

    Mr Ong was appointed home affairs minister after the PAP won the 1959 Legislative Assembly election and formed the Government.

    In his 26 years in the Cabinet, he also held ministerial portfolios in education, labour, the environment and communications.

    After his retirement, he kept a low profile and was appointed director at several companies in the Hong Leong Group till 2012.

    He was married to former PAP MP Chan Choy Siong, who died in a car accident in 1981. They had three children - two daughters and a son.

    Leong Weng Kam

"Despite the fact that three out of every four Singaporeans are ethnic Chinese, Singapore's Chinese have always taken pride in the equitable treatment and respect given to the minority races," he said.

The book in English, launched at the Ee Hoe Hean Club in Bukit Pasoh and comprising articles written by 17 contributors, traces how the community has evolved and changed over the past 50 years in the organisations it set up, the issues it faced and in the fields of culture and the arts.

However, one important characteristic which has not and should never change, Mr Ong noted, is the community's commitment to a multiracial, multireligious and multicultural state.

Multiracialism was the basic platform of the People's Action Party (PAP) when it was founded in 1954 and was a policy supported by all Singaporeans, Mr Ong said. He attributed the PAP's success to its ability to harness the strengths of both the English-educated and Chinese-educated within the Chinese community, especially in the early years of nationhood.

Contrary to popular belief, he believed that the two groups complemented each other well though they had been sharply divided 50 years ago because of their different language backgrounds.

He explained: "While the English-educated civil service developed to become one of the most efficient and clean public services in the world, our Chinese-speaking citizens provided the badly needed capital and labour force for our industrialisation programme in the post-Separation years."

He recalled that, in the early days, those who could speak, read and write in English formed a minority in the community .

"When I entered politics in the 1950s, the majority of the Chinese community communicated mainly in dialects and Mandarin," he said.

He noted that the PAP won the 1959 and 1963 elections because of the overwhelming support it received from the Chinese-speaking community.

In contrast, he said, many of the English-educated in the Chinese community looked at the PAP with distrust and fear.

But over the years, especially the past two decades, he noted that English has become more dominant in the Chinese community owing to several reasons, starting from more parents sending their children to English-medium schools from the 1970s because of the rise of the language as the lingua franca of the global economy.

In addition, he said, English is considered a "neutral" language in multiracial Singapore and was thus actively promoted by the Singapore Government. It resulted in it becoming the primary medium of instruction in all schools.

Mr Ong also praised the community for adapting well to these changes and for its promotion and preservation of traditional values such as filial piety, family cohesion and harmony, and empathy and support for the less privileged in society today.

Speaking at the launch, Ms Pang Cheng Lian, editor of the book published by World Scientific, said non-Chinese-speaking Singaporeans would benefit from reading the book which highlights the contributions of the Chinese-speaking community over the last 50 years.

The book is available at major bookstores for $26 (paperback) and $58 (hardcover).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2015, with the headline ''National interests always come first' for Chinese community'. Print Edition | Subscribe