Singapore

Still giving after their deaths

As part of late philanthropists' wishes, proceeds from sale of their house will go to universities, hospitals

More than 40 years ago, a young Mr Ong Tiong Tat spotted a man eating char kway teow by himself at a stall in Zion Road.

Mr Ong approached the man and learnt he was Mr Koh Choon Joo, a lawyer. They chatted, discovered they shared many values and became friends, even though Mr Koh was 38 years older than Mr Ong.

Over the next 40 years, that friendship resulted in a legacy which saw millions given to various causes.

Even after Mr Koh died in 1997 at the age of 96, Mr Ong, and his wife Irene, continued the philanthropic mission.

It did not stop with Mr Ong's passing in 2013 when he was 74.

Mrs Ong continued giving until she died in February this year at 73.

She has a heart for education and believed in supporting people who need financial help. Dean of law school at UniSIM, Professor Leslie Chew, on Mrs Ong

Like Mr Koh, the Ongs had no children.

Now her nephew Tan Hsuan Heng, 64, will ensure the legacy continues with the sale next year of the couple's two-storey King Albert Park bungalow estimated to be worth $45 million to $50 million.

Mr Tan is Mrs Ong's estate executor.

The monies will go to universities and healthcare institutes, and will also be used to attract scholars to spur medical research in areas such as dementia, diabetes and cancer.

The late Mr Ong, an investment trader, and his wife, an investor, had bequeathed most of their assets, including the property which they had inherited from their friend.

The law school at SIM University (UniSIM), Dover Park Hospice, Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital and the Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) Community Fund are among those that will benefit from the sale of the bungalow.

About 13 per cent of the sale proceeds will be distributed to family and friends, including Mrs Ong's nephews and nieces.

Mr Tan, an executive director of a local small- and medium-sized enterprise, said of Mr Koh and Mr Ong's friendship: "They shared a passion for fine dining, watching wrestling over Guinness stout and art appreciation.

"They also shared a very strong belief in the importance of education."

Mr Tan said Mr Koh, a widower, had contributed to many education causes in his lifetime.

For instance, the C J Koh Law Library at the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Bukit Timah campus is named after Mr Koh, in honour of his pledge of $5 million to fund the costs of expanding the building, added Mr Tan.

In 1988, Mr Koh became bedridden after a stroke when he was 87. Mr Ong, then 49, nursed him and managed his finances.

After Mr Koh's death, Mr Ong became his estate executor and continued his friend's legacy, giving more than $16 million from Mr Koh's estate to initiatives in education, mainly for NUS and the Nanyang Technological University.

These include scholarships and endowment funds, as well as two professorships - the C J Koh Professorship in Education at the National Institute of Education (NIE) and the NUS' C J Koh Professorship in Law.

Former NIE director Lee Sing Kong, got to know Mr and Mrs Ong in the late 1990s.

The horticulturalist by training said: "I took them to see my aeroponics research in a greenhouse and Mr Ong immediately gave me $10,000 to help fund my work. It was a big morale booster."

CLOSE TIES

The Ongs developed close ties with staff and academics from NIE over the years.

In 2010, when Mr Ong was diagnosed with Stage 4 stomach cancer, and Mrs Ong with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, five to six NIE staff members became the couple's pillar of support.

When her husband died three years later, Mrs Ong was distraught.

Mr Tan said: "She preferred to stay at home instead of joining my family at Chinese New Year celebrations.

"But she remained strong and often said she would meet him again in heaven."

In February this year, she died and entrusted her estate to Mr Tan, who hopes to distribute the funds after Mrs Ong's first death anniversary next year.

Professor Leslie Chew, dean of the law school at UniSIM, said: "We are touched and encouraged by Mrs Ong's gift as we are not a known entity yet.

"She has a heart for education and believed in supporting people who need financial help."

Mr Pang Tong Tat, assistant chief executive of Kwong Wai Shiu Hospital, said the donation was timely.

He added: "It would help to support our increasing operating expenses, especially with the completion of the redevelopment in 2017."

Professor Leo Yee Sin, who heads TTSH's Institute of Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology, said: "We will uphold the legacy of Mrs Ong in keeping our community ready for outbreaks.

She added: "We aim to reach out to the community, prepare them, and unite them in the fight against future outbreak threats."

Mr Tan said of the couple: "They lived a meaningful life in helping so many people.

"In return, so many people helped them when they were in need - not because of their donations, but because of the friendships forged."

And it all started over a meal of char kway teow.

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