CITY of Melbourne Councillor Ken Ong was a former international student pursuing a double degree in engineering. After years in the corporate industry, he made the switch into non-profit work and public affairs. Kai Yi Wong delves into Cr Ong’s daily life and finds out about his strong work ethic.
“Ah yes, I get lots of students coming in to interview me. Sit down, sit down,” he smiles and gestures to a seat.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt and dark trousers, City of Melbourne Councillor Ken Ong is every inch the welcoming host: warm, cordial and very practiced.
On the table next to his computer, are papers and documents stacked at varying heights. Sparsely furnished but spacious, his office is a reflection of the man: neat and highly organised.
He wastes no time getting down to business. He has only a precious 20 minutes to spare, and he promises to “fill you in and answer your questions as best as possible”.
Born in Malaysia, Cr Ken Ong came to Australia in 1978 to pursue a double degree in engineering at Monash University. He specialised in electrical engineering and computer systems, and upon graduating, found work in consulting engineering firms in Malaysia.
But the lure of Melbourne proved too strong.
“I didn’t quite like the environment or the kind of work, so I came back here in ’83,” he says.
“In mid ’83 I started work at Ericsson in the area of telecoms because of my computer systems background, so I ended up designing software, later taking on project management and engineering services.”
In 2001, after nearly 20 years of service at Ericsson Australia, he left the job and decided to pursue what he felt mattered in life: getting into the non-profit community sector, and doing lots of volunteer work. He became more interested in public affairs, which eventually led him to politics.
“I’m a doer and a fixer. And I see things that could be done better by governments. From a purely intellectual perspective and from my professional experience, governments should be able to do things better. They should be able to operate better and should be able to deliver better results and outcomes,” he says.
“So I decided to put my hand up to have a dip in it in 2006. I ran as a Liberal Party candidate in an upper house seat. I did not expect to get elected, but (I) wanted to develop a much deeper understanding of how politics work, how campaigning works. All of that was a very good learning experience.
“I wasn’t successful at the elections in 2006, but I think I had a lot of good input because a lot of people encouraged me to run again. So I ran again in council elections in 2008 and I got elected here. And it’s my second term now,” he reflects.
It is a high calling and a delicate balancing act. Council work is not considered a full-time occupation, and councillors while compensated for their time, typically still maintain day jobs to pay the bills, just like everyone else.
“The balance is up to you. I’m used to working 70-hour weeks for my entire professional life. So this is almost like two full time jobs,” Cr Ong says.
He dedicates approximately three weekdays, and sometimes more, to council matters.
With multiple portfolios to manage, there is always plenty of reading to do, and in the evening, council activities to attend – meetings and engagements, speeches to deliver at community festivals and other events, which often spill over into the weekends. He returns home, and puts in more hours for his own business.
He is governed by a strong work ethic.
“I’ve always said, in all my years working in community and non-profit groups, charities, is that when you put your hand up, you should do the work.” he says.
“What is the point of putting your hand up to be elected a councillor and then not putting the time and effort in to do what you were meant to be doing?
“You don’t put your hand up to have a title and look smug, and go around telling everyone that I’ve got this title.”
If there is a lesson that any young person would do well to learn from Cr Ong, it’s not just time management, but the ability to discern the most urgent tasks when everything seems to be important.
“You have to be very good at defining priorities. Every day we’ll have five or six things coming at us and the question is – what are the most important things that you need to do, because it has an impact and an outcome, or is substantial?
“I’ll look at it and say, ‘If I don’t do this today, tomorrow or next week, is it going to make a difference?’”
His desire to make a difference has also shaped his attitude towards money. Most of the $41,000 he receives in council allowances goes towards charities.
“I don’t keep it. I have my own business that looks after my needs… For me, you accumulate some wealth to prepare for the future, but you also need to see what your role is in human society. For me, it’s doing things, adding value and giving back. It’s about improving society,” Cr Ong says.
“A lot of people come up to me and say: you’re the busiest councillor. We see you everywhere, every day. I always say there’s actually four of me and we go everywhere,” he laughs.
“My personal viewpoint being a councillor in the City of Melbourne – it’s an amazing job. It’s an amazing job if you want to do something.”
The story was supported by the City of Melbourne’s Community Services Grant 2014, and is part of the ‘Day in the life of…’ project featuring a cross-section of the diverse local Melbourne community – the extraordinary and ordinary people in the city, their lives and their jobs, and opportunities to connect.