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Ong Yoke Lin

Catching up with... The Patriot with the golden heart

17 Dec 2006
P. Selvarani



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 and governments.

"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 Victoria Institution.

"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 contact me.

"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 credibility."

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 poker player.

"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 outside!"

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 Malaysia Plan.

"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.