Ong Tze Boon: "I went from A to B to Z, skipping everything in between"
Thu, Mar 23, 2017

Best known for his residential and mixed-use developments that include major projects in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines and India, Ong Tze Boon has established a reputation as one of Singapore’s leading architects. Executive Chairman of ONG&ONG (the firm founded by his parents back in 1972), the younger son of the late former Singaporean President, Ong Teng Cheong, and architect Ling Siew May, is variously described as a design visionary and pioneer, with his architectural and design work published in books, journals and magazines across the planet.

The formidable Tze Ong has been awarded an EY Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Asia Pacific Property Award, SIA Architectural Design Award (to name but a few) and was recently elected President of the Singapore Institute of Architects. Under his leadership, ONG&ONG has grown from an architectural firm of 62 people in 1999 to an internationally-recognised practice that has completed over 1,000 building projects worldwide. 

If that’s not impressive enough, Tze Ong is always looking to broaden ONG&ONG’s global reach. Having established offices in Vietnam, Malaysia, India, China, the USA, Indonesia, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand, plans are in the pipeline to expand into other cities, further underlying his goals to develop the ONG&ONG brand.

While earning accolades, gongs and professional recognition seems simply to all be in a day’s work for Tze Ong, his considerable achievements don’t stop there. You have to wonder just how he managed to find the time, but last year Tze Ong also managed to complete the World Marathon Challenge (WMC), running 295km in seven continents in seven days – a running event that is renown for pushing participants to their very limits mentally and physically.

Just in case you are unaware of the WMC, the event takes runners to all the seven continents in seven days (168 hours) for seven marathons (42.2kms or 26.2 miles). Starting at the Union Glacier in Antarctica, it travels to Punta Arenas, Chile (South America), Miami, USA (North America), Madrid, Spain (Europe), Marrakech, Morocco (Africa), Dubai, UAE (Asia) and Sydney, Australia. Participants run a total of 295 km (183 miles) on all the continents over the seven-day period, spending about 59 hours in the air and flying approximately 38,000 kilometers.

Running with his cousin Ong Yu-Phing, ONG&ONG’s Director of Information Technology, they became the first Singaporeans to successfully complete the WMC, while also raising awareness and funds for a handful of worthy causes, including: Alzheimer’s Disease Association, Caregivers Alliance Limited, Singapore Association for Mental Health and WE CARE Community Services. Not only that, in recognition of his philanthropic spirit,
Tze Boon was also awarded the 2016 World Marathon Challenge Sportsmanship Award, chosen by fellow participants. Impressive indeed.

Having only taken up running regularly back in 2012, UVU catches up with Tze Ong to understand what it takes – mentally and physically - to complete one of the most grueling challenges in the world, and to discover if any parallels can be made between getting to the pinnacle of his career as a leading architect with what he’s learnt from his epic achievements at the WMC.


Congratulations Ong on completing the WMC. What an incredible achievement. How did you get into running? 

I never thought I would actually do it. It certainly wasn’t something I ever set out to do. About four and a half years ago I thought I could live my life in a more balanced way, combining my work with health and fitness. Initially, weighing 85 kilos, I started off with a one km run which drained the life out of me. The walk became a jog, which became a light run. When I could handle a proper 1km run, I started pushing it up to 2km, upping the ante every two weeks. Before long I was doing 10km a day.

The more I ran, the more weight I managed to lose, dropping 20 kilos. Then a friend suggested I should try doing a marathon? I didn’t like the idea of signing up for an event with 48,000 other people. I just said that I ran for my own health and for my own happiness. He response was that if there was a marathon where you didn’t need to be in a crowd, where you did it just for yourself, where you’re not up against anyone else except you, would I do it?

This is how I discovered the Marathon Des Sables. I did some background reading, where I discovered that it was  ‘toughest foot race on earth’ with temperatures up to 45 degrees in the heat. I thought that it couldn’t possibly be that bad, as it’s already 34 degrees in Singapore. So I said why not. I geared up for it, did the training and went to MDS and finished it. It was tremendous fun. I finished it just shy of 50 hours.


How did you go from running the Marathon Des Sables to signing up for the World Marathon Challenge? 

It took a while for it to really sink in what I had achieved at the MDS. When I was interviewed back in Singapore, the person interviewing me asked me which other marathons I had completed. When I told them I hadn’t they were stunned. I had gone from doing some light jogging to running one of the most testing races in the world. I went from A to B to Z, skipping everything in between.

I was then at peak fitness, with my work and life feeling a lot more balanced. It got me thinking. I thought I have done the hottest and the sandiest marathon, what would be the iciest and the coldest. I looked on the Internet and found the Antarctic Ice Marathon. I thought that doesn’t sound too bad, it’s only 100km. It turned out that it was part of WMC.  

I discovered that one other Singaporean, Dr William Tan, had completed the SPM, doing it in a wheelchair. I knew I would not be the first Singaporean to do it, but then I looked at the World Marathon Challenge, realising if I completed it I would be the first. I thought it would be a great opportunity to raise money for charity and signed up.


How did you prepare yourself for the race?

My initial thought was that it was just seven marathons. Whereas as MDS you have to carry a backpack with everything you need for the race, this wasn’t the case for WMC. You have aid stations; there are toilets; you get fed; you go on a plane where they give you sugar. It’s just 292 km. My thinking was, I have done 250km, what’s 290km going to be like with civilisation? Mentally I was in a pretty good place.


So you didn’t have any concerns about completing the challenge from a physical point of view?

The physical preparation was one thing, but making sure I had the right kit was another issue all together. I got really worried about preparing for the cold and the 50-degree drop from what I was used to in Singapore. This is how I discovered UVU. I thought that if they are sponsoring the SPM, they must know what they are doing? All the reviews about UVU’s products were incredibly positive, from some of the most respected runners around. So I signed up for some kit and didn’t look back.

When my shell arrived, I travelled to Okido in Japan for training as it was so cold there. As assimilation goes it was as near as it goes. I put on a base layer and a fleece layer, with my UVU shell and went for a run. UVU’s shell allowed me to get rid of the fleece layer and stuck to one base later. It was freezing cold, but after the third or fourth kilometre I no longer felt. The jacket gave me ventilation where it was needed and every detail had been so well thought through from a design point of view.


That must have agreed with your design sensibilities?

The design of something is the first action. People can design something and get the job done. The better question comes before that. What is the call to action for what we’re designing? We can then design to formulate that call to action. We exist to understand the experience a person wants to take away from something, we will do the design with that in mind. It’s about the sum of the parts.

I didn’t buy my UVU jacket because it looked good (which it does), but for all the considerations the jacket has for the needs of real runners. If you look at it as a complete whole - from the hood, to the vents, the iPhone pouch - someone has really understood a runner’s needs and what they might be going through in harsh conditions. They have left no stone unturned in questioning how they can create the perfect shell companion for any cold run or adventure.


Do you think UVU mirrors ONG&ONG’s approach for cross-disciplinary design, where something is made for one purpose, but then could be used for many? 

The greatest surprise as a designer is when a design is completed and how you discover it caters for more people than it was intended, or that it has more uses. If that happens I don’t tell my client that was not we were thinking, but I’ll take the credit. We don’t just design something for the issue at hand but we always design with intent. Of course you’ll find that different people will pick up the product and they will have a different interpretation of how they can use it. That’s even better.


You always talk about an ‘intense fuel for learning’. Do you think that delivering best in class design is about reframing the problems you are given to solve?

If we repeat what we already know each time we design something, you just become run of the mill.  People might say that you are good at what you do, but it’s far better to be curious and learn from what to design. It’s about making great things better. Often it’s just about making baby steps. 99% might be the same, with 1% different, but you will be surprised what that 1% can do. You can see that with the designs that UVU puts out. They always evolve; answering new questions set by those who wear them.  It’s not about reinventing the wheel, it’s about making it work harder based on a human need.


Have you ever had a fear of failing? 

None of us set ourselves up to fail. Whenever I am in physical pain, I say to myself, it’s only one day of pain, but it’s a lifetime of glory. You should never look at what your competitors are doing. Do that and you end up playing catch up and you probably will fail. Take inspiration from other disciplines such as music and engineering to inspire your work. If you take that inspiration to your industry, that’s how you become market leaders. 

Photos by Mark Conlon/North Pole Marathon