He was one of those instrumental in the formation
of the Alliance, which took all but one seat in the first Legislative Assembly
elections of 1955, and he was a member of the multi-party team that negotiated
independence from Britain. Tun Omar Ong Yoke Lin was a taskmaster, but those
who know him, and have worked with him, remember him as a warm and caring
friend with a puckish sense of humour. P. SELVARANI speaks with friends
and colleagues of one of the last of our freedom fighters, who is recuperating
from a stroke five years ago.
A diplomat to the core.
How else can one describe the ability of the
ambassador from a small developing country to arrange a meeting
between his finance minister and the President of the United States?
"It was unheard of for a minister of any government,
and a small and developing one at that, to meet the US president.
"Such meetings are only held between heads of state
"But Yoke Lin secured that meeting between Tun
Tan Siew Sin and President Lyndon B. Johnson. That incident speaks
volumes about his diplomatic skills," recalls former Health Minister
Tan Sri Chong Hon Nyan, a close friend of Tun Omar Ong Yoke Lin.
Chong says this happened in the 1960s when the price
of rubber, one of Malaysia’s two main commodities, dropped.
"Siew Sin thought of the audacious idea of buying
the US stockpile of rubber so that we would have control and rubber
from the stockpile would not be released when our prices are low,"
says Chong, then a senior finance ministry official. He regularly
attended World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in Washington.
"When we met President Johnson at the White House,
he was very gracious. He heard what we had to say and even arranged for
us to visit the godown where their stockpile was stored.
"In the end, we decided that it wouldn’t have been
viable to transport it back to Malaysia because of the cost involved.
"Fortunately, the Vietnam war was at its height and
rubber prices bounced back."
Omar, who was then ambassador to the US and
the United Nations, also managed to get world opinion on
Malaysia’s side during the Confrontation with Indonesia.
"It was a busy time for any ambassador in
the US, but he never showed any sign of strain or lost his temper.
"He was never patronising or condescending.
He treated everyone as an equal.
"He had this innate courtesy and good manners,
which made it easy for people to warm up to him," adds Chong.
Chong remembers the affinity Omar had with
Tunku Abdul Rahman, which made for a harmonious partnership
between the members of the Alliance Party.
"There was no need for the confrontational
politics we see today."
Omar was a gracious host as well when he was
ambassador. He would provide a good Malaysian meal to anyone
who visited New York or Washington.
Chong’s wife, Puan Sri Chong Eu Ngoh, recalls
with delight how she helped the embassy staff in New York clean
the taugeh (bean sprouts) for the noodles served for the
Merdeka Day celebrations.
"And all his (Omar’s) American friends
expected to eat satay, so we had to get the coconut from Miami
and serai from another part of Florida. It was great
fun," says Eu Ngoh, who was the Deputy Director of Social
Welfare when Omar was the Minister for Health and Social Welfare.
She adds that Omar always had a story or
joke to tell, a skill which he honed during his days in the
"One of his favourite jokes was about having
three rings in one’s life — the engagement ring, the wedding
ring and then suffe-ring!" Eu Ngoh chuckles.
Chong says Omar also expected visiting
dignitaries to maintain a certain standard when they were on
official business in New York.
"Once I was in New York to meet some bankers
to raise some capital for our development.
"Yoke Lin insisted that I stay at the
luxurious Waldorf Astoria Towers and not some bed and breakfast.
He felt I should have a good address where the bankers could
"That was his style. He’s not extravagant.
But he told me that if we want to make an impression, the
financiers must know that they are meeting people with some
Former Director-General of Health, Tan Sri Dr
Abdul "Coco" Majid Ismail, says that although he knew Omar from
the Victoria Institution, their real friendship developed
later, especially when Majid was an orthopaedic surgeon at the
Kuala Lumpur General Hospital and Omar the Health Minister.
"Later, when he was still in the Cabinet in
a different portfolio, I used to go to his house and play
mahjong with his late wife, May, and their friends."
When Majid became the first Eisenhower Fellow
from Malaysia in 1963, Omar and his wife insisted he stay at their
residence in Washington, although he was working at the Johns
Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
"He can be a taskmaster when the situation
demands it, but he is by nature a warm, friendly and caring person
who is true to his friends."
He says Omar loved good food and is a very good
"He has a real poker face," he says.
Majid laughs as he remembers the time he had
to share a king-sized bed with Omar at the Mayflower Hotel. Omar
had just entertained a group of people from the Middle East.
"I slept on one side and Omar on the other. I
was so tired I fell asleep the minute I hit the pillow.
"When I woke up the next morning, I found Omar
lying curled up on the floor of the suite’s lobby.
"When I asked him what he was doing there,
he told me he couldn’t stand my snoring so he decided to sleep
After May died in New York, Omar embraced
Islam, and later married his present wife, Aishah Ong.
"I was honoured when he asked me to be a
witness to his marriage to Aishah in Tun (Abdul) Razak’s house.
"We remain close friends till today. I
visited him just two months ago and although he is in a wheelchair,
he is in good health and is still as sharp as ever."
Economist Tan Sri Dato' Ramon Navaratnam shares
an anecdote that he thinks best sums up Omar’s personality.
As a junior officer in the Ministry of Health
in the early 1960s, Navaratnam often dealt directly with Omar.
"As a junior officer, I was too scared to
apply for leave to attend my wife’s graduation in Singapore,
especially since we were finalising the report for the Second
"Later, when Tun found out, he was upset
that I did not think of asking his permission.
"But that is the kind of person Tun is, a
man with a golden heart. He is tough but compassionate. He was
a taskmaster at work but gentle as a lamb outside the office."
Navaratnam is also grateful to Omar for
instilling in him values, which he holds true to this day.
"Tun is the epitome of what a Malaysian
should be. He believes that your duty is to God, King and
country first. Your ethnicity comes later."
Navaratnam describes Omar as "a true patriot"
who was highly dedicated and committed to proving that Malaysians
could run the country even better than the British.
"Because of this drive, he was a taskmaster.
I remember how we had to work until 6 or 7pm everyday because
Tun would come back (to the office) from his political work at
about 4pm (just when it was time for the staff to leave) and
get his (ministerial) work done.
Omar, he remembers, was also a meticulous
person who would go through the draft of a speech five or
six times to make sure that every word was right and conveyed
the correct meaning.
"He taught me values which I still hold
true to this day and I am eternally grateful to him for this."
A life full of milestones
* Born on July 23, 1917, Ong Yoke Lin began
schooling at the Pudu Girls’ English School before continuing his
education at the Victoria Institution.
* He joined the workforce in 1936 selling
air-conditioners, while training as a chartered accountant at a
firm called Gibson, Anderson, Butler. After the war, he founded his
air-conditioning firm, Ong Yoke Lin & Company, in 1948.
* He was a founding member of the MCA, a federal
Legislative Council member, leader of the majority party of the
Kuala Lumpur Municipal Council and a Selangor State Council member.
* In 1955, after the Alliance Party's resounding
victory, he was appointed Malaya’s first Post and Telecoms Minister.
The following year, he assumed the position of Transport Minister and,
upon independence, he became Labour and Social Welfare Minister. He
was returned in the 1959 election and was appointed Health and Social
Welfare Minister. He was also acting Minister of Defence, Commerce and
Industry, and Agriculture.
* From 1962 to 1972, Yoke Lin was Malaysia’s
ambassador to the United States and Brazil, Permanent Representative
to the United Nations and High Commissioner to Canada. He was, until
1973, Minister without Portfolio. He was later appointed President
of the Senate, a post he held till 1980.
* He embraced Islam and took on the name of Omar
Yoke Lin Ong. He is now the patron of the National Heart Foundation
and was actively involved in social work with his wife, Toh Puan Aishah
Ong, until five years ago when he suffered a stroke.