To Be the Designers of Our Age

Written by Cassie Lim, Be Movement issue 1 – SINGAPORE, published October 2012

Meeting Ong Tze Boon, the Group Executive Chairman of ONG&ONG in person, was a revelation. One would have thought that, being the son of the ex-president of Singapore, Tze Boon would be more serious and staid. On the contrary, he displayed a lively demeanour and was thoroughly engaging and candid throughout the interview.

From his immaculate jacket with a colourful lining, to his comfortable usage of impeccable English and the very local Singlish, Tze Boon is a fascinating character. His refreshing honesty is what made this interview exceptional in understanding what it means to have been born into a privileged and respected family. In one of the most intimate and heartfelt interviews I have conducted, we can share the personal journey that Tze Boon undertook in becoming his own person and stepping out of his family’s shadow.

As ONG&ONG celebrates its 40th anniversary, we explore how Tze Boon eventually overcame rigorous challenges by increasing his parents’ architecture company from a 62-person operation to the current 800 staff within a decade. You may be surprised to learn that what motivates him is not the usual drive for money that we so often hear from people, but rather, Tze Boon’s enthusiasm cannot be equated simply with verve. Far beyond that, his is a gazing into the quantum leap of the future, believing that the future really is just around the corner.


Interviewer: What was it like growing up as the son of the first elected President of Singapore during Mr Ong Teng Cheong’s term between 1993 to 1999?
Ong Tze Boon: I won’t go too far back, just to the time when I went to school, entered the army and worked in the US. Principally, being the son of someone so prominent cast a huge shadow and along with that all kinds of expectations. Junior College was hard, because everyone in school for instance would expect me to get “A”s. The minute I didn’t get an “A” and got a “B+”, it was like, “Ong Tze Boon got a ‘B+’!”

Interviewer: So you were under a lot of pressure?
Ong Tze Boon: A lot, indeed. I remember in those days it was very trendy to ‘taper’ your pants and we would alter our pants, deliberately to not wear socks and wear “Bata” shoes. Those were the days. (Smiles).

Of course the school did not condone wearing shoes without socks, there were so many people doing it, yet I was called out during assembly to be made an example of. The teachers felt that, if they could make an example of me, they could easily deal with the rest.

Since young, I was always called on to lead by example, whether it was for good or bad. I have always wanted to just lead a normal childhood, but I was not able to do so and it does not come by asking, “Can I have it, please?” There was no option of an unobtrusive childhood for me. The army was the same. When the officer said, “Gentlemen, can we have a volunteer please?” and everyone tried not looking at him, surely then someone would say, “Ong,” and there I go. I got called up again.

Interviewer: How do you feel about it?
Ong Tze Boon: The general public will always think that I had it good in the army. (Smiles) That’s certainly a public perception, but the reality on the ground is that the officer who was leading the platoon was also out to set an example that he wasn’t biased. Therefore, I started the army on non-neutral grounds, as both the public and the officers had preconceptions against me.

Interviewer: How did people know you were the president’s son at that time?
Ong Tze Boon: They know. People talk. It was not like I waltzed in and put up my hand and said, “Excuse me, I am so-and-so’s son”. A normal person starts out on neutral ground in the army. Meanwhile I felt a differential of two: one from the public and one within the army when I started.

Interviewer: Was the army difficult?
Ong Tze Boon: (Short pause) I think for me, I built my independence from the army. As much as I found it difficult, it was also character building and so kudos to the military. Would I go through it then again? No. When it was done I decided at some point to leave Singapore afterwards, because I felt that if I were to achieve anything on my own merits I needed to be viewed on my own terms. Insofar as I was viewed in the shadow of so-and-so, I might not ever get that accreditation on my own.

Interviewer: Did you think going away to the US for studies was a good move for you?
Ong Tze Boon: I think it was a good move. Most importantly, it did one thing for me. You see, when I had arrived in the US I was such a nerd. I was in California, UC Berkeley, and I remember it was my first semester and first week in school. There was one guy whom I recognised from my class back in Singapore. As I walked by he said, “Hey dude, what’s up?”, and I replied, “Hey, you know…”, and he walked away! I was baffled. I thought he just asked me “What’s up?” and I was about to share with him what WAS up and he walked away. Then I learnt that “What’s up?” is just a greeting.

Interviewer: (Laughs) So did you speak the way you do now at that time?
Ong Tze Boon: Not at all. It is only since being in the US that I speak the way I do now.

Interviewer: Was there anyone who knew you were the president’s son in the US?
Ong Tze Boon: No, nobody, which was invigorating. What America has done for me is it has changed me to be more participatory and articulate. This I would credit to being in the US. When I came back to Singapore, I taught as an external tutor in the NUS School of Architecture for five years. I realised, when I asked if anyone has a question, no one ever has a question. However, as I was leaving the lecture room, people came to me with questions. On the other hand, in the US before the lecturers could even finish talking people would jump in and ask questions.

Interviewer: So it made you a lot more proactive?
Ong Tze Boon: Definitely, and I recognised that there are no dumb questions when you are learning.

Interviewer: Would you say that you became your own person?
Ong Tze Boon: I found a little bit more about who I was and I was given the opportunity to evolve. The American education system really makes you evolve. There’s nothing about syllabus at all. You had to choose what you wanted to do. You had to calculate what were the modules you wanted. Everything you had to decide on your own. My parents left it very freehand and I chose my education on my own terms. That to me was the greatest value from my parents sending me for an education in the US.

Interviewer: When did you return to Singapore?
Ong Tze Boon: I returned in 1994, as my mother felt it was time. I graduated in 1992 from my Masters and worked for over two years. By then, my father had cancer and my mother asked me to come home. Hence, I packed up and returned to Singapore and started work in my parents’ company on 1 June 1994. I can still remember the exact day.

Interviewer: What position did you start out in?
Ong Tze Boon: Architect. My mother made it very clear that I was sitting on this legendary floor where they had first started out in 1982. My mother made sure that I was kept as far away from her as possible and put me under the tutelage of another senior architect. I started no differently from anyone else. Although I was very privileged to have worked in the US for over two years, coming back to Singapore was a totally different learning curve. I guess cultural differences and the way things were done here were different.

Interviewer: Did you feel like you needed to prove yourself here?
Ong Tze Boon: No. By the time I came back, academically I’d done all right. No shy, no shame. I did well in work too and got some awards here and there. It was refreshing when I came back to Singapore, because everyone had forgotten about me. I fell off the radar when I left aged 18. I found those early years rather difficult, as I had very few friends. Most local architects graduated from the NUS (National University of Singapore) School of Architecture. There were about 100 each year from each cohort.

Therefore most architects had at least one other friend in their firms and, if not, the rest of the cohorts would be working in the same line in other firms, so there’s a lot of contact with your peers. Meanwhile, when I graduated I had no cohort and I knew none of my peers.

Interviewer: People would have thought you had it so easy, coming back to ONG&ONG.
Ong Tze Boon: No, I knew no one. None of my primary and secondary classmates studied architecture. I was the only one. I had no one to ask.

Interviewer: What kept you going?
Ong Tze Boon: Well, I enjoy my work, though in the earlier years I was lonely professionally.

Interviewer: You said your parents left you to choose your studies. Why did you choose architecture?
Ong Tze Boon: Because I could draw. From the nature standpoint, I’m the artistic one, compared to my brother. From the nurture standpoint, there were two boys, no girls. Our mum and dad were both architects and they would talk about work at home. Therefore, we would learn about architecture through osmosis and spend some weekends in their office familiarising ourselves with the drawing blocks, fonts, labels etc. Of course, we didn’t really understand at that point what it all meant. However, it all connected when I went to school and I floored my classmates during presentations about architecture. I naturally did very well in a techno-craftic way. I could draw and I could make models, because I was brought up in that space.



Interviewer: So was it a passion?
Ong Tze Boon : I think “passion” is a tough word. I have to be honest and say that I don’t think it was a passion, because now that I’m older I understand that word a little bit more. It came as second nature. I pursued architecture because it was a laid out path that I thought I needed to walk, so in that sense to be very honest you can call it filial piety. I thought it was being part of the family. Whether they wanted it or not, I don’t think so, I don’t think my parents were ever like that, but I thought if this was something I could do, why not?


Interviewer: Have you ever wanted to pursue a different career?
Ong Tze Boon: I wanted to pursue law for a little while. Perhaps you can tell I like to rationalise things out. (Smiles) I think architecture was the calling of being in the Ong family, in that kind of setting and environment.

Interviewer: What, then, is your passion?
Ong Tze Boon: The strange part is that being in ONG&ONG has led my passion to materialise. Let me explain how that came about. I watched my mother die and I was very close to my mum, but of course we had our fair share of arguments. At breakfast I saw her, come office I saw her, lunchtime I saw her and dinner time too! Basically, 24 hours a day. That created opportunities for fights and disagreements, but it also created great closeness. I saw how my mum’s earlier two partners left the business and she was managing it alone. I saw how it was a very patriarchal business, but when my mother said “Jump”, the staff would ask “How high?” and nobody would question why we were jumping, so when she passed away everybody just turned around to look at me, expecting to be led.  That feeling was not fun. The burden was staggering.


Interviewer: Were you prepared for the responsibilities?
Ong Tze Boon: Who prepares for their parents to die when they were only in their 60s? My mum died at 62 and my dad died at 66. They died 16 months apart. (Sighs) No child should ever have to go through that. One funeral and estate settled and then the next funeral comes. When my mother passed away, I was only 30. Before I turned 32, my father passed away. Technically, I was an orphan at the age of 32. After my mum’s death, my father left politics. Although he hadn’t been in the architect practice for a long time, his gravity in society was very helpful. Can you imagine when he died that gravity goes too? At that time people looked at me and thought, “Young man, what can you do?” We had 62 employees at that time and my monthly expenses were about SGD350,000 (approximately USD281,140). How does a young man at 32 years’ old handle an overhead of SGD350,000 every month?


Interviewer: How did you manage that?
Ong Tze Boon: Frankly, I was not able to sleep. I have to say my mother secured big projects in multiple phases that could last a little time. It was like her saying, “Son, I’m about to go. Here’s a silo of food that can last for the next two to three years. I can’t provide for you forever, but I did not leave you stranded.” I look at it that way and of course I had to make many decisions in life. You know, you come to a crossroads in life and then you have to decide whether to turn left or to turn right. At that time both ways were possible, but you have to make one decision; a big decision. I thought if it took my mother and father 30 years of social networking and business acumen coupled with 60 years of age and gravity in society to run a company of this size, who was I at 30 years’ old? I thought I should get a grip, come to terms with it and the fact that I was all alone.


Interviewer: How about your brother?
Ong Tze Boon: My brother is not in the business. He does his own things.


Interviewer: So it was really all on you?
Ong Tze Boon: It was tough. I look back and wonder how I survived? I thought maybe I should downsize, let half the people go and make the overhead more manageable, but that was not an ideal solution as what would people say? “The Ong family, the parents just departed and the son downsized?” Then I thought perhaps I should maintain the status quo? However, people were generally unforgiving, saying, “What is so great about maintaining the status quo when it has all been left for him by his parents?”

Downsizing was not the answer and maintaining the status quo was not the answer, which meant the only option was to grow. My initial drive was just to grow the company. I did not know how, but I figured that that was the right path. I tell you, 1% is vision and the other 99% is just one straight line 20 years down the road. After making the decision, I never went down the other way and that was it.


Interviewer: How did you come to that decision?
Ong Tze Boon:  How I did it? All I can say is that I came to a crossroads of turning left or turning right. I did not know whether it was right or wrong, you never do at that moment, but I knew in those days it was very difficult to find a project and I could not afford to be choosy. It was so hard to find a building, and without a building there is no interior design, garden, landscaping, columns, nothing. Once you have a building, all the other things happen around it. It is like catching a fish. It is so hard to catch a fish and yet you want to be picky in what you eat? It is not like you catch a shark, cut off the fin and throw away the rest of the fish.


That line of thought led to the beginning of where we are today. I figured that, if I can catch a fish, I must learn how to eat all the different parts of the fish. If it was so hard to catch a fish, why chop it up into ten pieces and throw away nine? From here, many events moulded my belief that this is really the way forward. Even as I look at other businesses, Carrefour, Kinokuniya and Ikea, I saw that for instance nobody buys a mattress without a bed sheet and nobody buys a bed sheet without a pillowcase.


Interviewer: So you basically created a whole ecosystem around architecture?
Ong Tze Boon: (Broad smile) This is what the company is about today.


Interviewer: And you came to this conclusion by yourself?
Ong Tze Boon: Yes, and it is through studying other businesses.

Interviewer: Is that where the 360° Solutions came about?
Ong Tze Boon: Yes, from all these. I’m just saying there are many examples which show that the world is changing that way. It was a survival instinct at first. If they were all providing comprehensive solutions from entertainment to books to food supplies, why not us? Why not in the build environment business? Hence, in 2003 I started interior design and landscaping to complement architecture.


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Interviewer: Was there any doubt?
Ong Tze Boon: Of course! You don’t know whether you’re right or wrong, and on top of that our company’s name was ONG&ONG Architect Private Limited. Can you imagine me trying to tell people that I do interior design as well? From there, the notion of branding and position begin to heighten in my mind and take on greater importance. Today we are called ONG&ONG. I dropped the word “Architect” and at that time nobody understood why I did that. I was trying to build a brand.

Interviewer: When did your vision prove to work?
Ong Tze Boon: It took a little while to gestate. It was in 2006 and 2007, when I had gained enough traction and enough clients to believe in this concept of 360° solutions. At that time a lot of clients still came to me for architecture and none came to do everything. It took about six years of just towing it and towing it to bring it to fruition.
Interviewer: Did you ever feel like giving up?
Ong Tze Boon: No. So going back to your initial question of what was my passion, my pet peeve question that I have always asked myself is, “How do I create a company that can continue in perpetuity and hence is self-sustainable?“ In order to do so, the company must have its own life. Ownership is not important, and the trouble with a lot of patriarchal businesses is that we believe ownership equals management and ultimate management power equals ownership.


That is a very Asian flaw, and in my opinion I boldly call it a flaw where, if I don’t own the business I don’t decide. That notion has got to go, because that notion is fundamentally flawed. This will probably take a while to sink in for a lot of Asian patriarchal companies, because we are brought up with this concept of ownership. I knew from early on that if I were to make one change, one dramatic change, it was to make ONG&ONG a true company; not a patriarchal business, but a company. In order to do that, I needed to build a true core team that is empowered to make decisions. A top talent such as a CEO or CFO would only work in a large company and not a small, family run business. Therefore, the magic is scale. So the one thing that I am passionate and driven about is how to create a company without me.


Interviewer: You mean to create a system?
Ong Tze Boon: Yes, my passion is to create a system that can make me obsolete. A lot of people come out to do business to make money. I’m not saying that it’s wrong; it is their drive, but for me it has never been my drive, not from day one. A lot of people said that that is because I did not need money, so I’ll say this: money is your report card. That’s all it is. For example, you go to school and study. If you’re studying for the “A”s, you’re missing the point of education. The “A”s will come if you enjoy what you’re studying. So money is the same thing.

So there you have it, my passion. Personally I enjoy my profession, as I like the drawing. The core love for design is really 40% of my focus and 60% of my focus is on the business. Allow me to explain in very simple layman’s terms.  You can have the best designs covered on every magazine, but if you can’t even feed yourself, or pay the rent, that is not workable.


Interviewer: Spoken like a true businessman.
Ong Tze Boon: Well, if you have designs that are on magazines but that do not feed you, how long can you last? Maybe a year and then you will be begging for money. Our designs may not be on the cover of all the magazines, but I can pay all the bills. I may not earn as much as Richard Branson, but I am quite content. I can put food on the table, I can take care of my friends and reach out to society and do CSR. There must be a balance between passion and business. It is a given that you have to do well in your passion, but once you have established that the emphasis should be on the business.

If you simply focus on your passion, you will never fly. I think most people are very focused on passion, which is right, but they also need to complement it with business sense. I encourage all my friends in business to focus on the business aspect. The weightage for business people is never 60% passion and 40% on business. It is always the other way round in order to sustain the business and the passion.


Interviewer: Is this contradictory to what you said earlier about money being the report card?
Ong Tze Boon: Understand this: when I said “business”, I don’t mean money. It means the business system, how you plug and play into the world. It means the business strategy, the place you should be in, the space you should be in and the mechanics of how it should work. That 60% is everything to me.


Interviewer: I can really feel your passion from what you’ve just said.
Ong Tze Boon: Well, I have seen so many businesses. Some fail and some succeed. I have seen dear friends fail. My mother told me, “There is not much value in lunching with only the successful people. They have no time and, besides, everyone wants to ask them out for lunch. The ones that you should reach out to are the ones that have failed, because those are the ones who will cherish every lunch that they had with you”.

Interviewer: Your mother was a wise woman.
Ong Tze Boon: Yes, she said, “Don’t chase after all that.” I have many friends, but I spend a lot of time with my friends who are in need. Of course, that doesn’t mean I ignore the ones who are successful. I am friends with everybody. However, the ones that I reach out to and touch their lives are the ones who are really friends. Maybe it comes from the Chinese culture of “Yi Qi” (loyalty), the whole upbringing of integrity, pride and honour.


(Deep pause) The personal responsibilities that I had to carry, I do not wish this on anyone. I made some correct decisions on the left turns and right turns in life. Maybe I was blessed and guided? Maybe I was lying in bed tossing and turning and my mother or father whispered something in my ear? How I was blessed, by who or what, I do not know, but I do not want someone else to go through what I went through. So I need to prepare the company to be ready for my departure, hopefully for the next generation of my managers. Once I have it this way, the company could be owned by anybody.


Interviewer: What is the legacy that you would like to leave behind?
Ong Tze Boon: It is to carry on the name ONG&ONG. Henry Ford invented the car and he passed on many years ago. However, the name “Ford” is still around and that to me is of consequence. Where ONG&ONG is headed is interesting, as I am driven differently from the other firms. Most firms are driven on profit, or to be famous and have great designs. However, I’m not made of that chemistry. Instead of the personalities like Boy George, or David Bowie, my chemistry is more that of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Because I saw my father pass on and I carried that burden, I do not want that to happen again.


Let me explain, we all know that the Vienna Boys’ Choir represents quality singing. However, every year a bunch of boys have to graduate because they are no longer boys and every year there will be new boys coming in. The boys cannot say, “I’m loyal and I’m not leaving”, because it can never be the Vienna Men’s Choir. Clearly the choir came to terms, hundreds of years ago, with the fact that people will come and go, and yet we all hold in high esteem the fact that the Vienna Boys’ Choir is one of the best choirs in the world and you can’t even name a single boy. That is what I want the company to become. I want the company to transcend from a rock star to an everlasting Vienna Boys’ Choir.


Interviewer: What do you see as the future for ONG&ONG?
Ong Tze Boon: You see, Apple in some sense figured out what is the true value of the phone and computer, aside from speed and portability. Every other computer company was competing on specs. However, Apple went beyond that and figured out that what people really wanted was a digital hub. Hence, Apple created value for everyone by being the centre of the digital hub for the end user. The buy-in is the value-add. What has taken Apple ten years to do has taken Samsung maybe four years. Once you’ve established the business space, people will come in.

It is a playground, free for all. Sure you can protect it with patents and all, but it is not completely exclusive. That’s just the way the world works and those who still persist in playing in the old space, like Nokia, suffer. So everyone is going to come into the new space. I believe the space that I’ve created is a very exciting space for many people. It took us ten years and I suspect it will take my fraternity three to four years. As Apple attempts to figure out what is the next step, whether to extend the current space or to quantum leap into another space, it is a crucial period for them. They can survive by going faster and better, but so can everybody. However, to lead they need to be visionary and it lies in the value creation. Their guess had better be right, or they will be gone in a matter of time.


Interviewer: So what is your next “game”?
Ong Tze Boon: In 2003, we dropped the name “Architect” and are now the ONG&ONG Group.  Architecture is just one discipline of design and likewise for interior and landscape. We are now designing super yachts; not just the interior, but the concept of it. Where then are we headed? My next game is this: ONG&ONG needs to evolve to become a design house.


Take some other companies in the world such as Porsche, who design cars, but they also design clothes. And even BlackBerry, do they make the phone? No. Are the functions different from other BlackBerries? No. Yet it costs SGD2,800 (approximately USD 2,255) for a Porsche BlackBerry and people want it. Porsche figured out that they are designing a lifestyle and they have become a design house. It’s the same thing for Philippe Starck.


There is a certain energy, and I think for us the next game is to be in that design space with them. I’m not trying to only be in the architecture space. What I am looking at is about designing the experience. There are many ways to coin it. You can call it branding, or identity, but I don’t think it is one particular science. One of the businesses in the world that I admire most is car manufacturing, simply because there are so many different trained minds in so many different disciplines coming together to do one thing. If anyone in the industry has showcased what 360° is all about, I think it’s the car industry.


Interviewer: How do you get your inspiration?
Ong Tze Boon: Never look at your same industry. The worst person to learn from is your competitor, because what he knows, you know. That is just trying to edge each other out and there is no re-thinking. My point is there has to be a quantum leap in terms of thinking to stay ahead.


Interviewer: Every brand has a key value, so what is ONG&ONG’s?
Ong Tze Boon: Our vision statement is very simple. I actually created this many years back now and I didn’t quite understand it. Now that I look back, I think I got it right. It is “… to be the designers of our age”. Funny how I never said “… to be the architects of our age”. (Smiles)


Interviewer: What would you say to people looking to follow their passion?
Ong Tze Boon: I think that question is a loaded one, for the very simple reason that passion is only 40% of the game and that really isn’t the game. I hate to be brutally honest to everybody, but I’m just looking at this in hindsight 20/20.

My advice is to really focus on the 60%, which is the business part. Passion is important and you have to score 40% out of 40% in that area. Whatever you do must be good. If it is mediocre, don’t do it. However, 40% alone won’t make it fly and that is why so many people do not take off ultimately. What you do has to be sustainable to take into consideration where the world is heading and looking into the future.






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