Ong & Ong’s group executive chairman Ong Tze Boon is a man of contrasts. Under his leadership, the company is today one of Singapore’s most well-respected design firms. Still, it was not easy for this son of the Republic’s fifth President to turn the firm — founded by his parents in 1972 — into what it is today. Ong opens up to Options about his successes and how he turned his life around at age 40
Much has been written about Ong & Ong’s group executive chairman Ong Tze Boon and the big shoes his father — the late Ong Teng Cheong, who was Singapore’s President from 1993 to 1999 — left for him to fill. The younger Ong lost his mother — who ran the company in her later years — in 1999 to cancer.
In 2002, his father’s life was cut short at the age of 66 due to lymphoma. It then fell on Ong — the youngest of two sons — to run the design firm his parents founded in 1972. Then barely into his 30s, he struggled to keep the business and the legacy of his parents alive. In many interviews, the Rice University-trained architect — who joined the company in 1994 — spoke about his bid to turn the business around, to keep it relevant in a world that was fast-changing at the turn of the century.
The journey of how the firm — which specialises in design, engineering and project management — went from a small outfit with 62 employees to a design powerhouse employing over 700 people in seven countries has been well-chronicled. Along with the rapid growth comes industry accolades.
The firm has won awards for residential projects such as Jadescape as well as civic and infrastructure developments, including [email protected] Bedok and Macpherson MRT Station. Indeed, when Options first made a request for an interview, that was what we expected to talk about.
We fully intended to ask him about his latest projects, including GoFlow — a portable water filter that can be mounted to the rear axle of a bicycle. Driven solely on rotational motion, an in-built motor helps channel the inflow of water through the filtration cylinder, ensuring no external power or electrical source is required (but more on that later).
Instead, the 52-year-old Ong — who displayed the vigour and vivacity of a man half his age — spent the next two hours placing this writer in a quandary as to how to write a story about a man who seemed to be made of contrasts: He is exuberant yet serious, moves and speaks like a bright-eyed CEO of a plucky tech start-up but wears reading glasses which sit around his neck on a strap. He also switches easily between several dialects and languages, yet never loses his distinctly Singaporean accent.
Ultimately, what we learn is of a man transformed not by the experiences of his company but of also by a lifetime of lessons.
Some 10 years ago, Ong — who is also director of the firm’s philanthropic arm Ong Foundation, which he established with his brother Ong Tze Guan — walked into a meeting room just like he had done a hundred times before. Upon walking in, he immediately realised how warm the room was. “I said, why is it so warm in here, didn’t anyone turn on the aircon?”, Ong remembers.
Then he noticed the women in the room were all wearing cardigans and shawls. “I then realised, as someone once said, if you’re playing poker and everyone else seems to be winning, then you’re the loser. If I’m the only one feeling warm when everyone else feels cold, the problem is me.”
“I then thought, something’s wrong. It didn’t dawn on me then, I merely observed it. Then I had the chance to meet a French monk, Matthieu Ricard, also known as the ‘happiest man on earth’.” Ricard is a French intellectual and biochemist turned Buddhist monk, whose views on happiness and well-being have been lauded as life-changing.
It was through meeting Ricard that something shifted in Ong. “In understanding my priorities and values, it lit a light bulb in me.”
“I think my personal transformation journey was when I realised fitness and health was more important than anything else, and yet we tend to prioritise what is less valuable to us,” he says. “There are three things, broadly, which we can put in baskets: Money (or business), family, and self. You and I will agree that you would never sell your mother for money, so we agree: family is more valuable than money.
“Money you can earn, but you cannot buy family. Next, we come to ourselves — and if you are unwell, you will be unable to take care of your family. So if your family is valuable to you, you must be in the position to take care of them. So we now concur, that of these three baskets, money comes third, second is family, and first is yourself.”
“So why is it that we so often have it the other way around?” he asks.
The first thing he does every morning, adds Ong, is to check our phones and emails. “We zoom in on the money basket. We all recognise that money is the least valuable basket, but we seem to prioritise this basket first, family second, and then if we have leftover time, we then think about ourselves last.”
“What if I propose to you that you could actually make that conscientious, deliberate, intentional decision to flip your priorities so that they are aligned to the value [of each basket]? What would your life be like if you did that?” “So I made that clarity and that commitment 10 years ago. And since that day until today, I exercise every day at five in the morning.”
Ong still runs 12km every morning every day since then, going from weighing 90kg to 60kg and eliminating the health problems he had without a single pill. After all, he did not want to wait for a tragedy to happen to change his life around. “My challenge to most is, must you wait for the tragedy to present itself? Is it a motivator, or is that fear?”
He has, perhaps, come to terms to know that we always have what we need, even if not what we want. “If you ask yourself in your present life, “do I not already have all the musthave”, then what are you pursuing every day? You are pursuing the good or nice-to-have in whichever ‘basket’ you’ve chosen. And that basket can get fuller, but it can never be full. So when is the line drawn when will you say, “I have enough?” Surely, that is spoken like a man who has enough in his life but that is not the point, he says.
“The point is, when will it be enough, and where will you draw the line?”
Perhaps it is only after he has realised he has enough that he set his sights on finding a purpose to his career and his life. “I’ve come to terms, that to believe that we were born on this planet for purpose is a bit presumptuous? Yeah, I think we all struggle with finding our purpose because on the balance of things we’re just a speck in the greater cosmos. We all think we are indispensable, but the truth is we are not,” he says.
“I’m not saying that we are purposeless, but I do not think it is a predestined purpose. Isaac Newton probably did not sit underneath the apple tree waiting for it to fall on his head [and discover gravity].”
“But that does not mean we cannot live a life of impact, and of meaning. I think [Thomas] Edison was the same, I don’t think his purpose was to invent the lightbulb. I don’t think many of us set out to change the world, but we have curious minds and we do see little things that need to be fixed; and that’s the beautiful part of business, it’s about problem solving.”
It is a water filter which can be mounted to the rear axle of a bicycle, and the ‘on button’ to the system is as simple as pedalling. Driven solely on rotational motion, an in-built motor helps channel the inflow of water through the filtration cylinder, ensuring no external power or electrical source is required.
“It is lightweight [weighing only 9kg], mobile, compact and easily set up, and it can filter up to 50,000 gallons of water in a single use of the filters. It is very exciting and we’ve got working products already ready to go; the patent was granted to us in 2017, but there’s been challenges of course.”
“Filters need to be replaced even after 50,000 gallons, and the question is distribution — you don’t need a product like this in a city, you need it in the rural areas. Our issues are how to distribute replacement parts, and we’re working with a large Thai oil and gas company called Susco to distribute the filters at their gas stations in rural Thailand.”
Aside from that, he is also working on several other projects, including a self-sustaining, off-grid container accommodation called CoTel and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations. The latter is Charge+, a ‘smart’ alternating current (AC) EV charger Ong aims to be the slimmest in the world (measuring only 15cm wide). A prototype for CoTel also exists but it is not yet commercially available. Interviewing a man like Ong is perhaps never going to be what you would expect it to be. He seems almost evangelical in his enthusiasm to share the lessons he has learnt in his life.
And perhaps one can meet that with cynicism — after all, it takes someone who has everything to have the luxury to contemplate on everything — but one cannot deny that he has come into his own, and found his own purpose.