SINGAPORE - In order to signal that national defence was a priority back in 1965, Mr Ong Pang Boon, together with fellow ministers Jek Yeun Thong and Othman Wok, led by example and volunteered to serve in the People's Defence Force.
The following year, the trio marched proudly in Singapore's first National Day Parade.
This anecdote was among many shared by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at Mr Ong's 90th birthday celebrations on Saturday (March 23). He was born on March 28, 1929, in Kuala Lumpur.
A hundred guests, including PAP activists, former MPs as well as friends of Mr Ong, were present at Parliament House for the occasion.
They included Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Fengshan MP Cheryl Chan, who is the niece of Mr Ong's late wife, former MP Chan Choy Siong who died in 1981.
PM Lee, who has known Mr Ong for more than 60 years, recounted that Mr Ong first volunteered to be founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's election agent in the 1955 Legislative Assembly elections.
The year after, Mr Lee asked Mr Ong to become organising secretary of the People's Action Party (PAP). At the time, Mr Ong had gone back to his hometown in Kuala Lumpur and had a good job that paid "a princely sum" of $700, with a possible training opportunity in England, said PM Lee.
Accepting Mr Lee's offer would have meant taking a pay cut for Mr Ong, as Mr Lee could afford to pay him only $450.
However, PM Lee said, like the other pioneer leaders, Mr Ong had witnessed the brutality of the Japanese Occupation, and the chaos of the post-war years.
He firmly believed in the PAP's vision of an independent, multiracial Malaya, and a fair and just society where Malayans of all races would be masters of their own destiny. So, he accepted Mr Lee's offer.
As the PAP's first organising secretary, Mr Ong was "much more than an administrator", said PM Lee. He also played a crucial role bridging the non-communist PAP leaders, who were mostly English educated, with the Chinese-speaking masses who had become the voting majority from the 1955 elections.
As one of the few senior PAP leaders who was effectively multilingual, Mr Ong used his fluent Mandarin, Hokkien and Cantonese to rally and win the hearts and minds of voters and cultivate strong ties with the branches, the grassroots and community leaders.
This contributed much to the PAP's victory in the 1959 Legislative Assembly elections, which enabled the PAP to form the government for the first time.
PM Lee noted that the elder Mr Lee had written in his memoirs that, without Mr Ong, he (Mr Lee) would have been a "deaf and dumb Secretary-General".
The quiet and soft spoken Mr Ong also played an important role during the lead up to Singapore's merger with Malaya, said PM Lee.
His strong connections to the Chinese-speaking ground and sharp assessments of who the party loyalists were, were critical in forming the core of an effective counter to the pro-communists, and in the battle for merger.
PM Lee added that although Singapore's separation from Malaysia "came as a huge shock" to Mr Ong, and though he was born in Malaysia, had family there and had strong emotional ties with his home state of Selangor, he did not look back after the separation agreement was signed.
Instead, said PM Lee, Mr Ong "poured heart and soul into making sure that newly independent Singapore survived".
Aside from volunteering to serve in the newly formed People's Defence Force, Mr Ong became Minister of Home Affairs at the age of 30 in 1959, and also held key portfolios such as Education, Labour and Environment.
PM Lee said that as Minister of Education, Mr Ong had to face the "particularly delicate task" of moving students towards bilingualism.
If not for the fact that Mr Ong could speak many languages and dialects, and was well-respected by the Chinese-speaking community, this move would have faced much greater resistance, added PM Lee.
Mr Ong also came up with the idea of a loyalty pledge to be taken by students, to inculcate national consciousness and patriotism. This was later developed into the National Pledge which Singaporeans know today, and which Mr Ong produced the final Chinese version of.
Calling Mr Ong "one of the Old Guard who laid the basis for Singapore's survival, sovereignty and eventual success", PM Lee said Mr Ong's contributions, and those of the first generation, will never be forgotten.
"We owe them an incalculable debt of gratitude. On behalf of all of us, Mr Ong, thank you for your lifetime of dedicated service to the PAP, and for your many illustrious contributions to Singapore," he said.
PM Lee added that he and his colleagues had done their best to build on the foundations laid by the founding generation, live up to their ideals and improve on what they had inherited.
"Soon we will be handing over the baton to the next generation.
"And I am confident they, too, know how precious a legacy they will be taking charge of, how heavy their responsibility is, and how carefully they must steward the precious treasure that is Singapore," he concluded.
Thanking PM Lee for his remarks, Mr Ong said: "It is the environment that shapes the man. lt has been my good fortune to be at the right place at the right time."
He added that he had accepted Mr Lee's job offer in 1956, as he believed in the PAP's leadership and its vision for the country.
He also recounted how the PAP's first generation of members came from diverse backgrounds, but were united with the common objective of breaking free from British colonialism and creating an independent and prosperous Malaya and Singapore.
Mr Ong said: "I believe that leadership renewal is crucial to the success of all organisations, including political parties.
"But I also believe that, like the orderly waves of the Yangtze River, the renewal process must be well paced and sensitively executed so as to avoid unnecessary unhappiness among the older members."
He added that it had been a privilege to witness Singapore transform from a Third World nation to a First World one.
"What gives me greatest personal satisfaction is that I have contributed, in some small ways, to this transformation," he said.