When Straits Times erroneously published on the front news that SR Nathan was "Singapore's first elected and longest-serving president," the papers was half right. I trust you can discern which part is inaccurate (because it is really not difficult to get it right since we have only three elected Presidents since 1993. And if you exclude the current living president, you are left with just two. The mathematical order is unmistakably elementary).
Ok, let me spell it out nevertheless. Ong Teng Cheong was in fact Singapore's first elected president in 1993, the "People's President" that is. And SR Nathan was the second, the Compassionate President. I guess if both presidents were alive, they would have squirmed at the error - more so for SR Nathan since he was once the Chairman of The Straits Times Press.
But of course, Straits Times have admitted to it and have accordingly apologized to her readers. Kudos.
However, this kept me thinking about the two great Presidents. I thought about their similarities and differences.
Character wise, both were giants in their own right. Both were handpicked by the government. Both served with exceptional dedication and commitment. And while Ong Teng Cheong spearheaded the President's Star Charity, SR Nathan continued with it with millions donated to help the poor and disadvantaged. They have indeed made an enduring difference in many lives.
Both served as public/civil servants with Ong Teng Cheong serving as the second highest political office in the land, DPM, before he resigned to be Singapore's first Elected President.
Both had the trust, admiration and respect of LKY (at least for a time for one). And both served the people with humility, honor and integrity. The list of distinctions, of course, can go on, but I think you get the point. Singapore can be proud of them and we are greatly blessed in return.
Lesson? Here comes the differences between them - with some trivial (immaterial) and some less so.
Ong Teng Cheong was a Colombo Plan scholar and SR Nathan was not a scholar - however, SR Nathan's grit, dedication and compassion were his sterling and timeless credentials.
SR Nathan was awarded the Order of Temasek (First Class) in 2013, but Ong Teng Cheong was not a recipient of the same. Ong Teng Cheong was elected in 1993, beating Accountant-General Chua Kim Yeow with 58.7% of the people's votes. However, SR Nathan was elected in uncontested elections in 1999 and 2005.
SR Nathan, in 2009, surpassed Benjamin Sheares to become Singapore's longest-serving President to date. Ong Teng Cheong served only one term till 1999.
Now comes the less so immaterial ones - for sentimental reasons at least.
Ong Teng Cheong surprised everyone when he openly criticized the government. During his presidency, he disclosed a "long list" of obstacles he encountered. There were "disagreements over accounting principles, the lack of clarity over the definition of "national reserves" and whether "net investment income" comprised part of the current or past reserves." ("50 Constitutional moments" - pg 184).
Needless to say, SM LKY was not pleased. He put on record in Parliament that "by using the press meeting to "vent his frustrations", the Government was left "with the unpleasant task of having to rebut him in public." ("50 Constitutional moments" - pg 185).
In another occasion, in 1986, when Ong Teng Cheong was NTUC Sec-Gen, he sanctioned a workers' strike against an American company Hydril for better working terms. This was another move that ruffled many political feathers locally and abroad, that is, the US.
In a Asiaweek interview in year 2000, Ong Teng Cheong recalled this about the sanctioned strike:
“Some of them were angry with me about that… the minister for trade and industry was very angry, his officers were upset. They had calls from America, asking what happened to Singapore?” (FYI: the minister for trade and industry then was Tony Tan).
However, the strike was a success and this was what Ong Teng Cheong had to say:
“I had the job to do… [the strike] only lasted two days. All the issues were settled. It showed the management was just trying to pull a fast one.”
There was in fact a time when people didn't think Ong Teng Cheong would be an independent President since he was a DPM before the President Election.
But with that show of "public defiance", I guess he was given the unofficial title of being the People's President - because he has shown to the people that his allegiance has always been with them and not to any political party or ideology. And neither to any force of personality.
As for SR Nathan, in 2009, he approved a withdrawal of $4.9 billion from past reserves to help the economy at that time of the worst global economic crisis. It took him less than two weeks to deliberate and decide after considering all relevant areas of concerns.
So, the difference between Ong Teng Cheong and SR Nathan when it comes to the presidency is one of style and approach. The former adopted a “confrontation boxing glove” style while the latter applied a “low-key velvet glove” approach.
Another difference between Ong Teng Cheong and SR Nathan is that one had a state funeral and the other did not. The best Ong Teng Cheong got was a state assist funeral.
When asked by a concerned citizen "how come?", the PM's press secretary replied with characteristic diplomacy:-
"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."
I guess the last difference between them is that Ong Teng Cheong and SR Nathan shared different "special circumstances" and these nuances of judgment are better left to the prudence of the government to painstakingly enunciate.
So, in my earnest view, both presidents deserve the highest honor and respect and Singapore has lost two great sons. Both fought for the people admirably, one openly confrontational and the other quietly transforming. Both are respected for their love for the people and their sacrifices. We are infinitely better off because of their life and contributions.
Respect and love always, Mr Ong and Mr Nathan. Shalom. Cheerz.
Ps: Remembering our first elected President too.