A leader who is in touch with reality

  • Nation
  • Saturday, 24 May 2003

DATUK Seri Ong Ka Ting has come a long way in both life and MCA. 

Born into poverty in the Kota Tampan new village, about 7km from Lenggong in Upper Perak, Ong and his six brothers and four sisters realised from an early age that education, hard work and perseverance were the tools that would empower them to overcome obstacles in life. 

Ong's ability to chi ku (withstand hardship) was evident from even his younger days, when he kept his stomach filled with diluted porridge and tapioca leaves. 

He had also decided then that it was useless to blame fate for his father’s early death, the family’s extreme poverty, and the never-ending hand-me-downs of tattered clothes and school bags. 

His father Ong Chew Seng died when he was eight, leaving his mother Toh Kim Eng to fend for her young family by tapping rubber. 

“My siblings and I chose to be positive about our plight. Yes, we were poor and there were never brand new clothes to celebrate Chinese New Year but we learnt a more valuable lesson in life – sharing, the importance of education and how to tolerate each other in the small confines of our wooden hut,” Ong told a roomful of students, when launching a reading club in Klang last year. 

Ong, 47, who used to tap rubber and harvest tobacco leaves to make ends meet, said his love for books opened him up to a wide world of information, entertainment, lessons in life and inspiration.  

He said he would pore over books in the library or borrow from teachers and friends because he could not afford to buy them. 

Ong, who is a product of TAR College where he did his Form Six, began his political journey in MCA right after his graduation from Universiti Malaya with a Bachelor of Science degree. 

After a brief stint as a mathematics teacher at the Catholic High School in Petaling Jaya, he practically dedicated his young adult life to the MCA – even to the point of sacrificing personal happiness, a subject he chose not to dwell on. 

Ong chose to work for the party in the lower rungs as a speaker at motivational camps, went on to become then party president Datuk Seri Dr Ling Liong Sik's political secretary in 1986, and then climbed his way up to handle party administrative affairs in the early 1990s. 

During the economic downturn in the 1980s, he even worked for the MCA without any allowance. 

Ong had been fortunate to be noticed by Dr Ling, who had given him various tasks to prove his capabilities.  

Ong returned the trust by working hard and earning the respect of the leaders in both MCA and Barisan Nasional. 

During the internal political turmoil in MCA, Ong stood firmly by Dr Ling, remaining loyal to his mentor even in the face of the darkest of accusations.  

Reporters, in the course of covering Ong from his days as a parliamentary secretary right up to his appointment as Housing and Local Government Minister, found him an extremely cautious leader.  

Unfortunately, he does not make for good copy sometimes for his refusal to join in the endless polemics or for his tenacity in keeping mum until a particular issue is solved. 

“What the reporters read as overcaution is actually a trait born out of years of careful restraint aimed at taking care of the ‘big picture’ instead of jumping the gun for two cents' worth of publicity,” said a party member. 

Another party leader said Ong’s years in the Home Ministry, where classified information on national security was daily reading, helped him “engage his mind more than his mouth”. 

Ong's road to the MCA presidency is a story line shared by many other party leaders, who had also tasted the bitterness of life before achieving success in their political careers. 

This common ground puts Ong in touch with the needs of people of many backgrounds – from the rubber tapper to the plantation owner, and from the construction worker toiling under the sun to the computer-wielding professional calling the shots from a comfortable office. 

This trait will stand Ong in good stead as the leader of MCA, the second largest Chinese-based political party in the world.  

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