SINGAPORE: Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Saturday (Mar 23) paid tribute to the "many illustrious contributions" to Singapore made by one of the country's founding leaders, Mr Ong Pang Boon.
Speaking during Mr Ong's 90th birthday celebrations, Mr Lee called the former People's Action Party (PAP) minister "one of the Old Guard who laid the basis for Singapore's survival, sovereignty and eventual success", and went on to highlight several key contributions.
These included being appointed the PAP's Organising Secretary - and the party's first paid full-time employee - in 1956, before going on to serve as Home Affairs Minister in 1959 when he was just 30 years old.
Mr Ong then went on to hold a string of key portfolios, subsequently serving as Education (1963-1970), Labour (1970-1980), and Environment Minister (1980-1984).
In his speech, the Prime Minister also shared a little-known fact about Mr Ong - that he was the person who came up with the idea of a national pledge to be taken by students.
"It is not so well-known that it was Mr Ong who had come up with the idea of a loyalty pledge to be taken by students, to inculcate national consciousness and patriotism," said Mr Lee. "He wrote to Raja (Mr S Rajaratnam) to explain this, and sent some initial drafts of the pledge by MOE staff for Raja’s comments and amendments."
"Raja worked on the drafts, took some time and proposed a version which Mr Lee Kuan Yew subsequently amended to become the English Pledge we have today."
After the English text was settled, Mr Ong also personally amended the Chinese translation to produce the final Chinese version of the pledge, said Mr Lee.
"And so on Aug 24, 1966, schoolchildren all over Singapore, including myself, recited the Pledge for the first time before the national flag."
Together with other Old Guard leaders, Mr Ong led by example, said Mr Lee.
"For example, to signal that national defence was a top priority, Mr Ong, together with fellow ministers Jek Yuen Thong and Othman Wok, volunteered to serve in the People’s Defence Force (PDF) which had been set up soon after Separation," said the Prime Minister. "And the following year, in our first National Day Parade, they marched proudly in the PDF contingent."
Mr Lee also spoke of Mr Ong's role in strengthening Singapore's education system as Minister of Education, in particular moving students towards bilingualism.
He thanked Mr Ong and other founding leaders for their contributions, adding that these would "never be forgotten".
"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," said the Prime Minister. "My colleagues and I have done our best to build on these foundations, to live up to the ideals of the founding generation, and to improve on what we have inherited."
"Soon, we will be handing over the baton to the next generation," he added. "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."
"IT IS THE ENVIRONMENT THAT SHAPES THE MAN"
Speaking in response, Mr Ong thanked the Prime Minister, adding that he was "deeply touched and highly honoured".
"It is the environment that shapes the man," said Mr Ong, quoting a Chinese saying. "It has been my good fortune to be at the right place at the right time."
He recounted how the first ten years had been "challenging ones" for Singapore and the PAP, noting too that the party's members came from diverse backgrounds, but were united with one common objective, "to break the yoke of British colonialism".
Mr Ong also touched on the subject of leadership renewal, noting that he stepped down from the Cabinet in 1984 as part of the leadership renewal process.
Citing another Chinese saying, 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."