Singaporean couple donates 400-year-old Buddha statue to Bhutan in late son's name


On May 9th, a 400-year-old Buddha statue embarked on its voyage from Singapore to the Kingdom of Bhutan, catching a 9 a.m. flight.

Dr. Tommy Ong and his wife, Heidi, made the heartfelt decision to donate the polychrome clay statue from their personal collection back to its country of origin. They dedicated this gesture to their late son, Zi Yun, who passed away in April 2023 at just a month old.

Dr. Ong, CEO of a dietary supplements company, formally presented the statue to Bhutan Ambassador to Singapore, Kinzang Dorji, during a ceremony at the Singapore Buddhist Federation (SBF) in Geylang on May 8th. A thermoluminescence test confirmed the statue's age, dating back to the 1620s. Standing at 34cm tall and 27cm wide, the statue was valued between US$2 million (S$2.7 million) and US$3 million by an antique dealer.

Dr. Ong emphasized the rarity of an intact clay statue of such age, noting the challenges of preserving clay over centuries. Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, president of SBF, emphasized the profound significance of this gift, considering the statue's importance as a sacred symbol of Buddhism in Bhutan.

Mr. Dorji highlighted the statue's historical significance as one of Bhutan's national treasures, dating back to the 17th century. Dr. Ong first encountered the Buddha statue during a visit to Bhutan in 2016. He was led to it by his tour guide, who introduced him to an elderly couple selling the statue on the outskirts of Thimphu.

Moved by the statue's aura and beauty, Dr. Ong made a heartfelt commitment to care for it. Although he didn't know its age at the time, he promised to cherish it.

In December 2022, Dr Ong returned to Bhutan with his five children and his wife, who was then pregnant with their sixth child. During a visit to the National Museum of Bhutan, Dr Ong noticed that some statues in the Chapel of the Tree of Merit, part of the museum, resembled the Buddha statue he owned. “I thought, I have something like that at home.” 

His wife gave birth to Zi Yun in March 2023, but he died the following month in a case of sudden infant death syndrome, where no cause of death is known. The loss of their son deeply affected the Ong family. During this time, he said he sought advice from Ven Kwang Phing on what to do with the statue. Thereafter, Dr Ong sent the statue to Kotalla Laboratory in Germany for dating in December 2023, and also had it valued.

For the Ong family, the statue's return signifies the continuation of their son's spiritual journey, bringing a sense of closure to their grief.

He said looking at the statue made him remember his son, and at one point in 2024, “a voice whispered to me that the statue yearned to return to Bhutan, a place where our beloved son had visited in his mother’s tummy”. 

Dr Ong and his wife then contacted Mr Dorji in April 2024 to tell him he was donating the statue.

For Dr Ong and his family, the statue’s return symbolises the continuation of his son’s journey to the Pure Land – a realm of enlightenment in Buddhism – and is their way of seeking closure. 

“For my beloved son, he is my love lost, but it was his love found.” 

Asked about what will be done with the statue after it returns home, Mr Dorji said he does not know where it will end up yet, but that it will be “placed at the right place for all people to worship”.

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