Ken and the art of political independence
By Shane Scanlan
Cr Ken Ong is very much his own man.
He’s a supremely self-confident and forthright maverick with a big, bass voice and an even bigger presence.
Unaligned with any other councillors, the self-made-man does things his own way and would prefer not to care what his colleagues think of him.
But reality dictates that he needs majority support for his views – which is clearly a frustration for the Malaysian-born entrepreneur.
Now half-way through his second four-year term as a City of Melbourne councillor, Cr Ong says this time around has been tougher.
“We have developed along certain lines,” he said.
“There seems to be factions forming.”
“I don’t know whether this is because of how the election turned out with five for Team Doyle, effectively four from the left, myself – a Liberal but sitting in the middle – and then there’s Stephen Mayne who loves to play his politics.”
“So you end up with: the governing faction, the opposition faction and the balance of power. On one side you have a strong personality in the Lord Mayor and, on the other side, people whose sole objective is to fight the Lord Mayor. I can’t understand that.”
“For me, this has been difficult because this is not what I signed up for – spending half the time playing politics – and politics associated with certain egos,” he said.
Cr Ong would prefer all councillors to vote on the merits of each argument and says party political affiliations should be left at the town hall door.
“I came into council with the mindset that this was just an extension of my community work. It’s not a political thing. If you want it to be political, you should go to either the state or federal level,” he said.
Interestingly, he says he was offered the Liberal candidacy for the safe lower house seat of Mt Waverly in the lead up to the 2010 election but chose to finish what he started as a Melbourne councillor.
But it’s hard to see how he would tolerate toeing the party line as a parliamentary back-bencher.
He says blind adherence to ideology is the cause of many of the world’s problems.
“Here (at council) I am clear in my conscience that when I vote it is because I believe it is the right way to go – and not along party lines,” he said.
“I have a clear view of what I want to achieve and I also have a clear conscience that I am not selling my soul. Maybe I’m not meant to be a party-political person.”
Cr Ong says he’ll remain a councillor for as long as he has goals to achieve.
He would consider attempting to become deputy lord mayor in the future.
He says his involvement in council is an extension of his vast community and charitable involvements.
He is particularly active within the Chinese community.
“I can always put my time into the philanthropic sector as well,” he said.
“Being a councillor is not the be-all and end-all. If I find there are one or two key areas that I want to do, I might come back and focus on those.”
“I don’t want to be here as a councillor just because it’s great to be a councillor with a nice title and all that stuff,” he said.
Cr Ong says he started developing self-confidence and leadership skills as a youth.
The ninth-born of a family of 13 children, he faced particular challenges after his father died when he was only 10-years-old.
“There is an ethic in my family that we have to work hard,” he said.
In Cr Ong’s case, hard work resulted in being selected for Malaysia’s premier public school, the Victoria Institution in Kuala Lumpur.
He didn’t become school captain, despite being destined for the position.
Instead, he took the decision at the end of year 11, to travel to Australia for his final year of schooling.
“I said to my mum: ‘give me an air ticket and enough money for a couple of months’ rent and I will find my own way,” he said.
Cr Ong found private board near Caulfield High School (now Glen Eira College) and worked in restaurants and factories to fund his completion of high school as well as a double engineering degree in computer and electrical systems at Monash University.
He spent a brief period back in Malaysia upon graduating in 1983 before returning, marrying and starting a 19-year career in various roles with Ericsson.
He moved from technical to business development roles within the company following completion of a part-time MBA in 1993.
In 2002 he left the electronics giant and concentrated on his own business interests – in childcare centres. Now independently well-off, Cr Ong chooses to serve the community via his council and charitable involvements.
He attributes his abundant self-confidence to achievements as well as a capacity and interest in ongoing learning.
“About three or four years after my dad passed away I joined the army cadets (becoming drum major and warrant officer) and that helped a lot in terms of self-discipline and focus,” he said.
“Then I got involved in the Red Cross, the Scouts, played a lot of sports and built up confidence and leadership skills.”
And his also apparent high level of energy and commitment?
“It’s more determination than energy,” he laughed. “Determination overcomes fatigue.”