Saturday, 10 November 2018

Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story

ESM Goh Chok Tong on why he decided to have his memoir written
Note from founding prime minister and urging of five friends led him to agree to authorised biography
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2018

Even before he became prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong had decided not to write his memoir.

But a note from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the urging of five friends eventually persuaded him to agree to an authorised biography.

The result is Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, which was launched yesterday.

"I did not keep a diary of conversations and interactions with people," Emeritus Senior Minister Goh said in his speech at the book's launch.

"A memoir would be seeing events through my own eyes. Bias is inevitable.

"Moreover, unlike Mr Lee's fight for independence and struggle to build Singapore, meticulous notes were taken of my official meetings. Historians will not be bereft of materials," he added.

But when Mr Lee gave him a copy of his memoir, From Third World To First: The Singapore Story, he added a note: "To PM Goh Chok Tong, You have to write the sequel to the Singapore Story."

Mr Lee had also added the inscription: "With my hope that the lessons need not be paid again by the present generation of Singaporeans."

It was signed on Sept 15, 1998, a day before Mr Lee's 75th birthday.

"When I reached 75, I became more acutely aware of my mortality and the weight of his message," Mr Goh, now 77, said. "Several friends had also asked me to write my memoir. Still, I said no. Then, five of my senior grassroots leaders suggested an authorised biography."

These long-time grassroots leaders and personal friends - Patrick Ng, Ng Hock Lye, Chua Ee Chek, Kok Pak Chow and Tan Jack Thian - would commission someone to write, Mr Goh said.

"The author would do the heavy lifting - the research, interviews and the writing. The idea of someone looking in from the outside, and unlocking my inner memory, appealed to me."

That writer, chosen by Mr Goh, was Mr Peh Shing Huei, a former news editor at The Straits Times and the co-founder of content agency The Nutgraf.

"Today's occasion belongs to Peh Shing Huei, the writer. I am merely the subject," Mr Goh said.

"Several names were suggested as my possible biographers. I chose Peh Shing Huei. I like his easy-to-read, unpretentious, questions-and-answers style."

Mr Peh and his Nutgraf team did the research, while Mr Goh answered his questions candidly. "We checked and verified my recall of events as necessary," he added.

Mr Goh also asked The Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang to be a member of Mr Peh's team. "I valued his shrewdness and insights (into) Singapore politics. He proved invaluable," he added.

"Peh has done a good job in writing up my life till November 1990, when I became prime minister. I am happy with the product. Readers' feedback is positive. There will be a volume 2."

In his speech, Mr Peh said he started work on the book a year ago "with more than a bit of trepidation". "For too long, since ESM Goh stepped down as PM in 2004, many Singaporeans had been wondering when he would write his memoir. We all waited. One year became five and eventually, today, 14 years.

"So I knew there were high expectations for this book. We all wanted to know what were his thoughts about global leaders, international affairs and, of course, local politics," he said.

Mr Peh recounted his mounting anxiety before his first interview with Mr Goh, as he had prepared a list of "silly personal questions", such as why Mr Goh did not play basketball despite his impressive height, what he ate at home when he was young and whether his wife was his first girlfriend - all of which are answered in the book.

Mr Peh said Mr Goh answered the questions patiently and even praised Mr Peh for them because the questions forced him to look back and recall things like what he ate as a child. "The answer, by the way, is tau geh, tau kwa, tau pok, kangkung. Not the most exciting dishes," Mr Peh quipped.

He added: "So, thank you, ESM for your patience and for sharing your life with me and my team at The Nutgraf. We are most honoured to be able to tell your story and play our role in telling the Singapore Story."

Both Mr Peh and Mr Goh also gave special thanks to Mr Bernard Toh, Mr Goh's special assistant, and Mr Heng Aik Yeow, his press secretary.

Mr Goh said the duo not only sat in on all the interviews and gave useful comments, but also chased up additional materials and pored over photographs to select the most appropriate ones for the book.

"Sometimes, what I found interesting, they did not. This reinforces my point that an authorised biography is better than an autobiography," he said.

There will be another book launch for charity on Nov 21, to raise funds for two groups of disadvantaged children: people with disabilities and disadvantaged students with poor grades.


We entrust the fate of our country to elected leaders with our votes. Voters can only pick from what are on offer, based on incomplete information and, sometimes, false branding, as we have seen around the world. News media and manipulated algorithm influence the outcomes. This is a major weakness in democratic elections.

I was not a born politician. But I was fortunate to be mentored by Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Hon Sui Sen and Lim Kim San, among others. I had my knuckles rapped, more than once. Only when they were satisfied that I could fly Singapore was I allowed to occupy the cockpit.

My book brings out the important aspect of political mentoring, and the training and experience needed to run a country.

I hope my story will encourage the present and future generations of 'technocrats', as my colleagues and I were called once, to serve their country.



It has been a long relationship, productive and harmonious. Chok Tong began as my mentor; we became comrades; we remain lifelong friends. We have somewhat different temperaments and instincts, but we complemented each other well. We developed a strong partnership, not just between the two of us, but across our whole team.


Singapore leaders doing their best to ensure leadership transition is smooth: PM Lee Hsien Loong
Need to entrench culture of renewing ranks, teamwork, he says at ESM Goh's book launch
By Royston Sim, Deputy News Editor (Politics), The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2018

Singapore's leaders are doing their best to ensure the ongoing leadership transition will be as smooth and sure-footed as previous changes of the guard, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

This culture of leadership self-renewal and cohesive teamwork needs to be entrenched in the Republic's political norms, he added.

"It is not just about finding the right successor: We need to assemble the right team to lead Singapore," he said yesterday.

PM Lee was speaking at the launch of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's authorised biography, which details, among other things, the transfer of power from Singapore's first generation of leaders to its second, as founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew handed over the reins to Mr Goh in 1990.

The book, Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, is particularly timely as a major theme in it is leadership renewal, PM Lee said.

Its launch comes three days before the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) holds its biennial party conference, where cadre members will elect the next central executive committee, the party's decision-making body, and a clearer picture of the core team that will take Singapore forward is expected to emerge.

PM Lee noted that it was not easy for the second-generation leaders to fill the shoes of Singapore's founding fathers, "who loomed larger than life in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans".

Many, including some members of the Old Guard, doubted whether these "technocrats" had "fire in the belly" and the political charisma to mobilise the nation, he added.

But Mr Goh, now 77, wisely resolved to be himself, said PM Lee, and not try to be a copy of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

"Quietly but confidently, he established his own leadership style, one that resonated with a new generation of Singaporeans," PM Lee said.

"Over time, Chok Tong showed that he had the ability and political gumption to make difficult decisions and carry the ground. The early doubts faded away, and Singapore carried on steadily in a new era."

Singapore made a similarly uneventful transition when Mr Goh decided to retire as prime minister in 2004, PM Lee said.

"This is something that rarely happens elsewhere, and we should not believe that it will always happen in Singapore," he added.

He noted that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had to retire many comrades when he brought in Mr Goh and the other second-generation leaders.

It was a difficult and painful task.

The 2G leaders were then put into key ministerial positions, he said, to learn to work together, develop their own leadership styles, and earn the confidence and trust of Singaporeans.

Mr Goh was on the lookout for young leaders long before he took over, and as prime minister continued to bring in new people, PM Lee said, adding that he has done the same and tested the younger ministers in different portfolios.

"The next team is shaping up," he said. "They are taking charge of sensitive issues and tough conversations with Singaporeans, making themselves and their convictions known to the people, developing rapport with voters and winning their confidence."

Speaking before PM Lee, Mr Goh said the intricacies of political succession are "underappreciated and underestimated". "The mentors are often more exasperated than they let on publicly. And the understudies are like swans - calm on the surface but paddling furiously below."

Singapore, he noted, is in the midst of another leadership transition. "It requires painstaking preparation and testing in all aspects - in policies and politics, in taking hard decisions, in fighting and winning elections, in winning the minds and hearts of people, in forging good relations with leaders of other countries and in bonding as a team."

PM Lee also shared anecdotes of his interactions with Mr Goh and lauded the elder statesman, whom he has known since 1978.

"It has been a long relationship, productive and harmonious. Chok Tong began as my mentor; we became comrades; we remain lifelong friends," PM Lee said.

The book launch at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore was attended by more than 100 people, including current and former Cabinet ministers such as Old Guard leader Ong Pang Boon and former president Tony Tan. Former presidential candidate and ex-PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock - Mr Goh's close friend - also attended the event.

The book, published by World Scientific, is the first of two volumes. PM Lee said he read it in one sitting, and hoped Mr Goh would not take too long to finish the next volume.

'We remain lifelong friends': PM Lee outlines his 40-year relationship with ESM Goh
By Yasmine Yahya, The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2018

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first met Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1978, and something Mr Goh said then has stayed with Mr Lee all these years.

At the launch of Mr Goh's biography, Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, Mr Lee recounted how Mr Goh was then a new MP, having been first elected two years earlier.

"I knew he had built a strong reputation, having turned (shipping line) NOL around," he said.

"A snippet of our dinner conversation has stayed with me all these years. Chok Tong recounted how in Parliament he made it a point not to make speeches about shipping, but instead to talk about other issues."

Mr Lee shared this yesterday as he outlined the "productive and harmonious" 40-year relationship he has had with ESM Goh.

"I am sure neither of us expected that we would go on to have such a long engagement, spanning more than half our lives," he said.

He recalled too how, when he was a student at Fort Leavenworth in the United States, and was required to make a presentation on Singapore, his mother had asked Mr Goh whether he had pictures which Mr Lee could use. "Chok Tong kindly sent some slides of a kite-flying competition in Marine Parade, then a new housing estate with lots of empty spaces," said PM Lee.

They became closer when Mr Goh took over as defence minister in 1982 and Mr Lee was in the General Staff of the armed forces.

Mr Goh "did not have a background in defence matters, but he brought a clear and open mind to bear on the issues", Mr Lee recalled.

"He listened to arguments put up by the professionals, and asked the right questions. When he was satisfied that we knew what we were doing, he trusted and empowered us, allowing young officers who proved themselves to make major decisions and break new ground."

It was while Mr Lee was working under Mr Goh at the Ministry of Defence that Mr Goh asked the future PM to join politics. Mr Lee agreed, and the pair became colleagues in Cabinet. When Mr Goh succeeded Mr Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister in 1990, Mr Lee became his deputy.

And when Mr Lee took over as PM in 2004, he asked Mr Goh to stay on as senior minister.

"Chok Tong began as my mentor; we became comrades; we remain lifelong friends. We have somewhat different temperaments and instincts, but we complemented each other well," he added.

"We developed a strong partnership, not just between the two of us, but also across the team."

As a leader, Mr Goh does not make up his mind in a hurry. But having made a decision he is firm and steady, so his ministers know where they stand and what they are trying to achieve, Mr Lee said.

"I think I have given enough preview to whet your interest in Volume 2 of Chok Tong's book, when it comes out," he quipped.

The first volume launched yesterday covers the significant episodes in Mr Goh's life, from his childhood years to his career in the civil service and private sector, his entry into politics and his eventual succession as prime minister.

"Through this volume, Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, will discover the human being behind Chok Tong's public persona," Mr Lee said.

Need to entrench culture of leadership self-renewal
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touched on the importance of leadership renewal and team cohesion in Singapore's politics in his speech at the launch of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Yong's book Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story yesterday.
The Straits Times, 9 Nov 2018

I have known Chok Tong for more than 40 years. We first met socially around 1978. He was then a new MP, having been first elected just two years earlier. I knew he had built a strong reputation, having turned (shipping firm) NOL around. A snippet of our dinner conversation has stayed with me all these years. Chok Tong recounted how in Parliament he made it a point not to make speeches about shipping, but instead to talk about other issues, which is what he did that night.

Soon after, I went to Fort Leavenworth in the US to study at the staff college. As a foreign student, I was required to make a presentation on Singapore. My mother asked Chok Tong whether he had pictures of community activities which I could use. Chok Tong kindly sent some slides of a kite-flying competition in Marine Parade, then a new housing estate with lots of empty spaces. The slides helped to liven up my presentation, and I wrote to thank Chok Tong.

I asked Chok Tong if he remembered these interactions. He said yes. Even though we both recall these brief encounters, I am sure neither of us expected that we would go on to have such a long engagement, spanning more than half our lives.

After I returned to Singapore, I was sent to command an artillery battalion. A few months later, Chok Tong was appointed Second Defence Minister. And one of his familiarisation visits - I'm not sure, I still don't know whether it was by chance - was to my unit, the 23rd battalion of the Singapore Artillery. We did a field demonstration for him, and showed off a little artillery calculator which we were developing.

Chok Tong and I worked more closely after I was posted to the General Staff in 1981. Mindef would hold headquarters meetings every Monday morning, to discuss the many issues involved in running and growing the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces). Planning for budget and manpower, building up new capabilities, raising the three services and getting them to work together.

Chok Tong chaired these meetings after he took over as Defence Minister in 1982. He did not have a background in defence matters, but he brought a clear and open mind to bear on the issues. He listened to arguments put up by the professionals, and asked the right questions.

When he was satisfied that we knew what we were doing, he trusted and empowered us, allowing young officers who proved themselves to make major decisions and break new ground. In the years that he was Defence Minister, the SAF made considerable progress.

It was while I was working under Chok Tong in Mindef that he asked me if I would join politics. I agreed, and that set me on a different course in life, and a long partnership. We became colleagues in Cabinet. Then I was his deputy for 14 years, after he succeeded Mr Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister in 1990. And when I took over from Chok Tong as PM in 2004, I asked him to stay on in Cabinet as senior minister. And even after he retired from Cabinet in 2011, we continued to meet regularly for lunch.

It has been a long relationship, productive and harmonious. Chok Tong began as my mentor; we became comrades; we remain lifelong friends. We have somewhat different temperaments and instincts, but we complemented each other well. We developed a strong partnership, not just between the two of us, but across our whole team.

As a leader, Chok Tong does not make up his mind in a hurry. But having made a decision, he is firm and steady, so his ministers know where they stand and what we are trying to achieve.

Another of Chok Tong's strengths is the ability to get capable people to join his team and work with him. He nurtures and holds the team together. He considers and takes their views, and gets the best out of the team. In the early 1980s, when we first started seriously on leadership renewal, he personally identified and brought in many new MPs and ministers - I myself was just one of them.

As prime minister, he assembled some of the strongest Cabinets Singapore has had. Mr Lee Kuan Yew had some outstanding lieutenants who played multiple roles in his Cabinets, like Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Lim Kim San. But Chok Tong's Cabinets had heavyweights in many ministries. The task of governing Singapore had become more complex, and it was no longer possible to run the whole government by relying just on a few key ministers. Each minister had strong views, they discussed issues vigorously, but all worked cohesively together. We often had different opinions, but there were no factions in the Cabinet. Everyone saw themselves as part of one team, striving to achieve the best for Singapore.

I think I have given enough preview to whet your interest in Volume 2 of Chok Tong's book, when it comes out. And I hope, and encourage (author Peh) Shing Huei, to make it come out soon.

Volume 1 covers the significant episodes in Chok Tong's life, from his childhood years to his career in the civil service and private sector, his entry into politics and his eventual succession as prime minister.

Through this volume, Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, will discover the human being behind Chok Tong's public persona. Readers will understand how the personal hardships he experienced shaped his worldview and character, and imbued him with a strong sense of duty and service. The stories he tells are relatable, not least because they describe the journey of many Singaporeans of his generation: men and women who resolved to improve life for themselves and their families, seized the opportunities that opened up as the country progressed, and having succeeded, gave back to Singapore.

This book is particularly timely as one major theme in it is leadership self-renewal. Leadership self-renewal is not exactly a secret sauce, but it is what enables our system to work, or in Chok Tong's words, how we "keep Singapore going".

When Mr Lee and his team brought in Chok Tong and other 2G leaders, he had to retire many comrades who had fought side by side with him through the darkest days of our history. It was a difficult and painful task. Some of the stalwarts felt that they still had much to contribute, and should continue in harness for a while longer.

But ultimately, they agreed to step aside. They accepted the broader objective of bringing in fresh blood early, and understood that a new generation needed to be trained and tested.

The 2G leaders were put into key ministerial positions. Not just to master the intricacies of government policies, but more importantly, to learn to work together, develop their own leadership styles, and earn the confidence and trust of Singaporeans. Having been brought in to politics from other careers, they were described by some as technocrats. Many, including some members of the Old Guard, doubted whether they had "fire in the belly", and the political charisma to mobilise the nation.

It was not easy to fill the shoes of our founding fathers, who loomed larger than life in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. It was particularly daunting for Chok Tong or anyone else who had to succeed Mr Lee Kuan Yew. But Chok Tong wisely decided not to try to be a copy of Mr Lee. He resolved to be himself.

Quietly but confidently, he established his own leadership style, one that resonated with a new generation of Singaporeans. And over time, Chok Tong showed that he had the ability and political gumption to make difficult decisions and carry the ground. The early doubts faded away, and Singapore carried on steadily in a new era.

When Chok Tong decided to retire as prime minister, we made a similarly uneventful transition. Again there was change, but there was also continuity. This is something that rarely happens elsewhere, and we should not believe that it will always happen in Singapore.

It is perhaps useful to recall these precedents now, as we approach another generational change in the political leadership. My colleagues and I are doing our best to ensure that this changing of the guards will be just as smooth and sure-footed.

We need to entrench this culture of leadership self-renewal and cohesive teamwork in our political norms. It is not just about finding the right successor: We need to assemble the right team to lead Singapore. Chok Tong was already on the lookout for young leaders long before he took over, and as prime minister continued to bring in new people. Many in my team - George Yeo, Teo Chee Hean, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Khaw Boon Wan, Lim Hng Kiang, Yaacob Ibrahim, Lim Swee Say, Vivian Balakrishnan and of course myself - were brought in by him.

Similarly, I have inducted many younger ministers over the years and tested them in different portfolios. They started off as young ministers, and they still are younger ministers. But time has passed.

The next team is shaping up. They are taking charge of sensitive issues and tough conversations with Singaporeans, making themselves and their convictions known to the people, developing rapport with voters and winning their confidence.

I am glad that Chok Tong finally relented to the urging of his grassroots leaders and friends and published his biography, in collaboration with Shing Huei. Telling your own life story, even to an author, is no easy feat. You have to relive and reflect upon the ups and downs in your life, and open yourself up for the public to read and judge. You have to be accurate and objective, and yet it has to be your story: what you have lived through, what you have done, what has been most meaningful and satisfying in your life.

Those of us who know Chok Tong well know how much more difficult this task must have been for him, an unassuming and down-to-earth person. He will readily agree, even volunteer, to do an after action review after a policy is implemented. And you can expect from him an honest review and a willingness to take responsibility for any shortcomings. But he is always most reluctant to claim credit for or to crow about his own achievements, as you will discover when you read this book.

I am sure Singaporeans will enjoy the book as much as I did. I sat down and read it in one sitting. It has many captivating stories to tell, many life lessons to impart, and many insights into different aspects of our nation-building. So I hope Chok Tong will not take too long to finish the next volume! It will be another page-turner.

Lunch With Sumiko: 'My mantra was to keep Singapore going', says ESM Goh Chok Tong
ESM Goh Chok Tong looks back on his political career in his authorised biography
By Sumiko Tan, Executive Editor, The Sunday Times, 4 Nov 2018

The batteries of my tape recorder fail me just as my lunch with Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong begins.

I had put in new ones earlier so I can't understand why the recorder is dead.

Mr Goh looks on while I fiddle with it.

Sorry, I say, grimacing.

He laughs. "Sometimes it's just the contact," he says helpfully.

I give up after a while.

Never mind, I tell him, I have another recorder on the table and there's also my phone. My heart sinks, though, because the errant recorder has been the most reliable of the three devices I always use at interviews.

"Have a look?" he smiles and reaches over to take the recorder from me.

He turns it over, examines it - "where's the power?" - but the recorder refuses to respond.

He asks the information officer who's there to check the device, but I tell them it's okay. The officer has placed two other recorders in front of us and so I'm covered.

We settle down to eat and chat.

The reason for lunch is the release of Mr Goh's authorised biography, Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, written by journalist Peh Shing Huei.

It comes 14 years after Mr Goh stepped down as prime minister and looks back on his childhood, early career, entry into politics and road to becoming Singapore's second prime minister in 1990.

In the book - as during his prime ministership - the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's first PM, looms large, featuring in no fewer than 75 pages in a 272-page tome.

Much has always been made of how different the two men were.

Mr Lee was a forceful presence who didn't suffer fools gladly - reporters with malfunctioning recorders included, no doubt.

Mr Goh is famous for his geniality. He favoured what was then termed a more consultative style of government after the top-down approach of the first-generation leaders.

Where Mr Lee was an eloquent and fiery speaker, Mr Goh was a poor orator who swallowed his words and mangled his sentences. He relied on a folksy charm and Everyman appeal to win audiences over.

Yet he must have impressed Mr Lee sufficiently to have risen so quickly. He presented his first of three Budgets in 1979, three years after entering politics.

It took him just 14 years to be PM in an era where Mr Lee was still around, beating down competition from talented peers like Dr Tony Tan and Mr Ong Teng Cheong along the way.

He stayed in control for 14 years, overseeing a further period of economic growth. In 2004, he stepped down and Mr Lee's son, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, became the country's third PM.

HE HAS chosen to meet at the Feast@East Buffet Restaurant in the Grand Mercure Singapore Roxy hotel in Marine Parade, his ward since 1976.

The buffet lunch there offers a decent spread of Eastern and Western dishes. The F&B manager tells me the durian pengat (paste) dessert is popular and urges me to try it later.

Lunch is at 1pm and I arrive at 12.30pm. At 12.45pm, the information officer gets a call that his car is near the hotel and we head to the lobby to meet him. Mr Goh likes to be early for appointments, she says.

When he sees me, he quips: "Oh you are already here. I was coming early to greet you."

At 77, his 1.89m frame is still strong and upright. His hair is white but other than that he hasn't changed that much physically from the 1990s when I was on The Straits Times political desk and had covered him regularly. His manner is as relaxed and friendly as I remember.

He is a familiar face at the hotel and stops to speak to staff as we make our way to the restaurant on the third floor.

We start off by touring the buffet stations where he explains some of the dishes to me. He gets sashimi while I opt for fried spring rolls.

He says that for years he hadn't wanted to do a book but friends and grassroots leaders kept urging him to write one.

He didn't want to do a memoir because it would mean "looking at yourself, injecting your own thoughts, and the tendency will be to write good about yourself".

Two years ago, he agreed on an authorised biography. "By then I was 75 and I thought, will there be something from my experience which I could share?"

I ask what legacy he wants to leave with the book and he says it is the idea of service to the nation, which in his case was to enter politics.

Those who have done well in life should do their part to manage Singapore for others who need help, he says. "When called upon, please do it as a sense of duty. Do it as your responsibility."

His own entry into public service was because of that sense of obligation.

His father died of tuberculosis when he was 10, his mother was a school teacher with five children to feed, and a government bursary helped him go to the University of Singapore where he got a first-class honours degree in economics.

"Without the bursary and a meritocratic system, I wouldn't have a chance to go up. No guanxi (connections). I didn't know anybody."

He knew politics wasn't a natural fit - "I could write but to speak, I mean I was not good, got to face it" - but he kept at it because his mantra was always to help "keep Singapore going".

If people read the book and realise that they, like him, could overcome challenges and serve the country, Tall Order would have done its job, he feels.

He also wants to put on record his interactions with Mr Lee.

The older man's passing in 2015 at the age of 91 left him with a sense of personal loss. Perhaps more than any other second-generation leader, he had worked most closely with Mr Lee, meeting him three to four times a week and having lunch regularly.

"It was as though I lost somebody from the family... I worked with him for so many years and I did feel that a part of me had died."

I suggest that Mr Lee had been like a father figure to him. He agrees. "I don't know whether he regarded himself as a father figure to me, but I regarded him as a father figure (although) publicly I used the term mentor, teacher."

He points out that he has also likened Mr Lee to a gongfu master. "That's when you got slapped here and there as well." But he accepted all the "reprimands and the lashes" as part of learning from Mr Lee.

I'm curious what it was exactly that made him get along with the older man, for clearly they must have got on even if they were temperamentally different.

"What you learn is never try to be clever when you do not know something," he says. "A fool trying to be intelligent who knows everything, he will find out very quickly. He doesn't suffer fools."

Were there qualities you had that made Mr Lee take to you?

He says character and personality were important to Mr Lee.

On the first point, "he would ascertain whether I was an honest person, diligent, hardworking and have the commitment, sense of duty".

But Mr Lee had a "negative" view of some aspects of his personality.

"I am friendly. I wave to people. I get on well with people. But he thought that sometimes I would entertain journalists too much."

He recalls how, during Nomination Day at one general election, some journalists had jostled and pushed their recorders in his face.

"Lee Kuan Yew saw that... He was very worried, unhappy - ' you should have just put your foot down... don't be pushed around by journalists'."

He laughs at the memory.

"So that part he didn't like. He thought I was trying to be nice to people. But my point is, you got to be yourself... It's not that I entertain all the time such questions. That was during nomination. After nomination, you better answer questions by the journalists."

He adds: "I don't know whether he liked it or not, but that's immaterial. The point is, whether he found me a worthwhile person to train to be the next prime minister."

Does he find it strange that Mr Lee features so heavily in his biography?

"I don't find it strange. The people who read it did tell me that this is about me, don't write too much on Lee Kuan Yew. They were concerned that we're trying to use Lee Kuan Yew's photograph to project myself."

But he believes it is useful to let readers know what Mr Lee was like. "I cannot pretend that I've achieved a lot without that mentor and teacher. Without him there, I would not probably have succeeded as the prime minister."

WE BREAK for more food and this time he fills his plate with spring rolls, slices of roast beef and some prawn salad. I opt for laksa.

When we return to our seats, he says with a laugh: "You're asking me a lot about Lee Kuan Yew."

I assure him that I'm moving on to other topics.

I start with his post-PM years. When Mr Lee Hsien Loong took over in 2004, Mr Goh became Senior Minister. He left Cabinet in 2011 with the honorary title of Emeritus Senior Minister. It comes with no pay but he has kept his office at the Istana. He is also Senior Adviser to the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

How was the period after 2004? "Easy to step down. Not easy to adjust,' he replies. "You got to go through a period of withdrawal. There are withdrawal symptoms."

He was used to a life of making decisions and taking responsibility and those pressures disappeared. "You felt that, suddenly, what's my worth?" he says. "You have to take a little while (to adjust)."

There was also the question of what he could and should do.

He had started his career at loss-making national shipping company Neptune Orient Lines, turning it around in three years, and had enjoyed corporate life. But joining a big company was not an option because he wanted to safeguard the position of prime minister.

"Had I gone into the corporate world, there was no guarantee that I would do well because it would depend on many other factors."

If he had become chairman of a large company and it failed, people would question his prime ministership. "People would say, look, I thought he was very good. In fact, he couldn't even run a company. So there were moral hazards."

He also didn't want to start a trend for future PMs entering the corporate world, as that might lead to conflicts such as a future prime minister making decisions with a view of securing a position after retirement.

I ask him what he thinks he would have become if he hadn't been a politician. "Probably a successful corporate man," he says without hesitation.

He has spent much of his post-PM years helping out with Singapore's external relationships. A second volume to his biography will likely touch on his ties with foreign leaders as well as go deeper into policies he was involved in.

He has also set up two charities - EduGrow for Brighter Tomorrows and the MediaCorp Enable Fund. All his royalties will go to them.

His retirement years seem happy. His low-profile twin son and daughter have six children between them, aged 13 to 18.

He has always had a lot of friends, many dating to schooldays. "It has kept me happy." Even when he was PM, he would play golf with them and let his hair down - "talk about golf, about many things, except politics".

"If you don't do that, when you retire what do you do? You don't have friends."

In fact, he and some friends and their families will be holidaying in Okinawa next month, all 50 of them.

Whether he will stand in the next general election is up in the air. "I will consider it when the time comes."

It will depend on factors like his health, which he describes as "so far so good but never say good - in the end something may happen right away". In 2014, he underwent successful surgery for prostate cancer.

He will have to consider his interest because "when you're 80 and one full term means stretching till you are 85, you got to ask yourself, are there other priorities in your life?"

"It will also depend on the party's position because we believe in self-renewal," he says of the People's Action Party. "Ideally the party should tell me, please train somebody to take over from you."

The contest in Marine Parade will be a factor too. "If it's going to be under severe attack, then maybe you have to do something to defend it."

The F&B manager is hovering around the table and Mr Goh asks if I want coffee or tea. He gets coffee and I say I would like tea and to also try the durian pengat.

He says he will keep me company, and invites the information officer, photographer, videographer and video producer to join us for dessert.

The restaurant is by now empty save our table merrily tucking into bowls of the durian pengat, which is delicious. He jokes that some bowls have been scraped clean. "That means first round. Second round the bowl will be a bit less clean."

He is disturbed by the amount of food left in the buffet stations. "It is a waste," he tells the manager and spends some time pondering the merits of redistributing uneaten food and how buffets are priced.

I have to settle the bill and he tells us there's no need to see him off. He says goodbye and leaves us smiling in his wake. The photographer reminisces how Mr Goh was always friendly to everyone when he was PM. Yah, agrees the videographer, he's a nice guy.

History will judge the achievements of Singapore's second prime minister. Did his policies emphasising economic success lead to some of the social inequalities so much discussed today? How open, really, was Singapore under his consensual style of government?

Few, though, will dispute that he was a steady pair of hands that guided the country safely through the post-LKY years.

And no one, I think, will disagree that his congeniality left many people feeling good - which is no mean feat.

I knew I was not to be a seat warmer: Excerpts from Goh Chok Tong's biography
The Sunday Times, 4 Nov 2018

Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story chronicles the political journey of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, from his young days to his entry into politics and the highs and lows as he rose through the ranks to become Singapore's second prime minister. It also reveals the deliberations and negotiations between Mr Goh and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, before Singapore's maiden leadership transfer in 1990. Written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei and published by World Scientific, the book is the first of two volumes on Mr Goh. It contains a foreword and afterword by the Emeritus Senior Minister, and a Q&A segment in each of the book's 10 chapters. Here are edited excerpts of the Q&A between the author and Mr Goh from the book.


Q Were you regarded as the top high-flier in the 1976 General Election and seen as one of the potential new Cabinet ministers?

A I would not say so. At that time, nobody expected you to be anybody. Succession was still not quite yet flaunted or talked about. How did you know the others would not be high-fliers? Nobody speculated that you would be an office-holder and there was no point in speculating because the old ministers then were still quite young. It was too early to say. Your bigwigs in politics were there - Toh Chin Chye, Ong Pang Boon, Chua Sian Chin, Jek Yeun Thong, S. Rajaratnam, E.W. Barker. They were in their late 40s, at most 50s. I was 35.


Q Would you be friendly with long-time opposition MPs like Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang too?

A I regard Chiam as a friend.

Q As a friend?

A As a friend, yes. I have seen him at dinners outside. He would come to me and I would go and talk to his wife and so on. If I see the wife, I would ask her how Chiam is. He was a gentleman politician. He had his own purpose in politics, which is to create a two-party Parliament. There is nothing wrong with that. We did not like it, but we said you try, so he tried.

Q Would that be the same towards Low?

A It is the same with Low. In fact, with most of the people, it is the same thing. We always watch. What is the purpose, their aspirations, their goals and would they bring Singapore down? Or would they be just difficult opponents for us? Then we got to be better than them. So, if they are honest and honourable and want to do good for Singapore even though it is in a different way, well, we can have a debate on that. But if your views are totally wrong in our view, like promising a welfare state and using the reserves, then we would fight you. We would fight you tooth and nail on your wrong-headed and populist approach.

Q So who would be someone whom you would not speak to?

A Chee Soon Juan.


Q As you approached 1990, what were your thoughts on what kind of leader you would like to be?

A The first thing you would ask yourself and your colleagues would ask you is whether you stood for change or continuity. That was also the question Lee Kuan Yew asked me. And he asked me because I was thinking of, at that time, to move into the Istana Villa and making it my office. It was very clear in my mind that I was not going to move Lee Kuan Yew out of his room.

Q Why?

A Because too much of him was in there. I did not want to take over the room. I mean, it is not a joke, but to me, the room would smell of Lee Kuan Yew. Everything there would have his spirit. You could not operate. Also, out of respect for him, he should stay there; it had been so many years. But it is the thought that you were stepping into something which was his - it was like going into his home to run the family of Singapore - it was very difficult. So, I was thinking of moving the Prime Minister's office (PMO) out. I was thinking that I could go to the Villa. I quite liked the idea of a small PMO in a villa instead of at the Istana main building.

During Lee Kuan Yew's time, the staff strength was very small; and my time, it was very small. There was just myself, a PPS (principal private secretary), a press secretary who was based in MCI, and two secretaries. That was all my staff. That was also the staff for Lee Kuan Yew. That was Singapore's "White House". The Cabinet secretaries are not part of your inner staff. They handle Cabinet papers and they are more administrators. The Singapore system is that the PM would deal directly with the ministers and ministries. So, if I had to do something on economy, I would go through the minister and the minister has the whole ministry. So, it is a very lean PMO. Of course, the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) and a few other places come under PMO - that is different. Election's Office - that is different. But the Istana staff was very small. So, this was all I had and I was thinking it would be very nice to go to the Istana Villa. It would be a very cosy kind of a PM's office.

So, I gave Lee Kuan Yew my view and I told him continuity in policies. He advised that if I was for continuity, then do not move out. If I moved out to a new place, I was signalling change. And I would be distancing myself from the old regime. He said he wanted me to take over his room, it is the PM's room. I said no, I did not want to take over.

Q If you had taken over his office, where would he have gone?

A In other countries, that was their problem, not the PM's problem. You are out, you are out in the streets. John Major and Tony Blair - they are out, going all over the place. That is the system. Ours works out differently and very well now; there is a certain system in looking after the former PM. At that point, there was no experience. So, I said, stay where you are. Seeing that I would not change my mind, Lee Kuan Yew told me that there was a place available above his office. It was his dining room. The whole floor was empty and only a little corner was marked out to be his dining room. The place was quite big and I could use it. I asked him where he would then have his lunch. He said that there was no problem - he created a small room on a different level from his office to be his lunch room. We are all very practical; we are not looking for grand things. So, the third floor was renovated to be my office. I decided on the carpet and picked the furniture.

Q How were you able to have such a relationship with him, especially after how he criticised you publicly?

A We were quite frank with each other. I trusted him. I never doubted his honesty, motive and integrity. I never doubted that he wanted me to succeed. If anything, he was exasperated with my lack of public communicative skills. And if he wanted Lee Hsien Loong to be in charge, he would have told me. That was why I could work with him. I came to the conclusion early that he did not want the son to take over from him, and he was looking for somebody other than Loong. That was quite clear. The public conclusion was that he wanted me as a seat warmer. But I knew him and I went in knowing I was not to be a seat warmer and I was to be in charge for as long as I could. In other words, he was looking for a real successor outside his family.

Q How did you know that you were not a seat warmer?

A It was interaction and confidence in him. If I suspected that he was just putting me to be a seat warmer for his son, and just for two, three years, what is the point? Then I would have said 'let us find a way for Lee Hsien Loong to take over from you'. There was no need to have me. There was no point. But I never worried about the seat warmer joke. In my heart, I knew that Lee Kuan Yew never meant for me to be a seat warmer. Politicians must have some thick skin and be able to laugh it off because in my view, that is not what Lee Kuan Yew regarded me as. You must have self-respect. If Lee Kuan Yew used me for his own purpose, then what is the point for me? History would laugh at you, isn't it? I have the self-confidence. I was prepared to do the job and I knew he was honest with me, my strengths and weaknesses.

Q How did Lee Kuan Yew tell you that he was ready to hand over to you?

A I was quite happy he was doing the job of PM. He was still young and I was in no hurry. But in early 1990, over lunch, he told me that I should take over now. I was to pick a date and take over. So, the man was true to his word that he would hand over. He could not do so at 65 as he felt I was not ready. In 1990, he just said I was to take over. So, I said yes. That was all. That was how transition took place in Singapore. Elsewhere, they fought and so on. He added that he thought he should stay on in Cabinet. Was it because he wanted to play a role or was he not fully confident in me? I think he was not fully confident. Indeed, he would not be immediately confident in anyone taking over from him. He wanted to guide and help; not to direct or control.

Q When he said he should stay on in Cabinet, did that come as a surprise to you?

A Not really. I was quite happy. It was better to have Lee Kuan Yew inside than outside! Remember his remark about rising from the grave if things went wrong? If things went wrong, would he have kept quiet? Would he have said that this is a new PM, he would watch and he would not interfere right away? In 1988, I was very relieved he was going to carry on for two more years. By 1990, I was ready. In my heart, I was ready.

New book tells of how ESM Goh felt after public criticism from Mr Lee Kuan Yew
By Yasmine Yahya, Senior Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 31 Oct 2018

Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story is available at major bookstores, at $56 (hardcover) and $37 (paperback), excluding GST.

When founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew delivered his National Day Rally speech in 1988, many in Singapore were shocked to hear him say that then Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was not his first choice to be his successor.

Seated in the front row in the audience, Mr Goh, who by that time had been chosen by his fellow younger ministers as their next leader, felt "perplexed, stunned and dumbfounded".

Mr Goh, now 77 and Emeritus Senior Minister, reveals these feelings for the first time in Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, a biography that has hit the bookstores.

The book also details for the first time how Mr Goh felt humiliated when, a week after the rally, then-PM Lee made more public criticisms of him, saying that he was "wooden" when speaking in public or on television.

Still, Mr Goh says: "It was not personal. He was not out to humiliate me for personal reasons, even though I felt humiliated."

He adds: "I never doubted that he wanted me to succeed. If anything, he was exasperated with my lack of public communicative skills."

Tall Order chronicles Mr Goh in his youth, his entry into politics and the highs and lows in his journey to become Singapore's second prime minister.

It also reveals the deliberations and negotiations between Mr Goh and Mr Lee before Singapore's maiden leadership transfer in 1990.

Among the anecdotes is how Mr Lee once suggested his daughter, Dr Lee Wei Ling, to Mr Goh as a possible MP "because of her social conscience, which was very strong", and because it was difficult to get female political candidates at that time.

"So, he was helping me. It was not because he wanted her, but he was helping me to look for candidates. It was in that context - here was a good candidate."

Written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, 43, now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf, and published by World Scientific, the 344-page book is the first of two volumes.

It has a foreword and afterword by Mr Goh, and a Q&A segment in each of the book's 10 chapters.

In his foreword, Mr Goh says he had never intended to write his memoirs, but agreed to his story being told to achieve three objectives.

First, to encourage present and future generations of Singaporeans to consider political office, regardless of their background or upbringing.

Second, to tell the story of Singapore's second-generation leadership.

"Finally, my story of working with Lee Kuan Yew, and to a lesser extent Lee Hsien Loong, holds intriguing lessons too," Mr Goh wrote.

"Most relationships between top men and their successors do not end well. But ours did. We made it work."

In one segment, Mr Goh answers a question on veteran opposition figures, Singapore People's Party leader Chiam See Tong and Workers' Party MP Low Thia Khiang. He says he is friendly with both, and regards Mr Chiam as a friend.

"We always watch. What is the purpose, their aspirations, their goals, and would they bring Singapore down? Or would they be just difficult opponents for us? Then we got to be better than them," he says.

"So, if they are honest and honourable and want to do good for Singapore even though it is in a different way, well, we can have a debate on that.

"But if your views are totally wrong in our view, like promising a welfare state and using the reserves, then we would fight you. We would fight you tooth and nail on your wrong-headed and populist approach."

ESM Goh Chok Tong to release first volume of biography in November 2018
By Linette Lai, The Straits Times, 7 Sep 2018

The first volume of a two-part biography of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong will hit bookshelves in two months.

Called Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, it will cover Mr Goh's early life up to 1990, when he took office as prime minister.

Mr Goh revealed the news in a Facebook post on Thursday night (Sept 6), when he uploaded pictures of himself meeting former Hong Kong chief executives Tung Chee Hwa and Leung Chun Ying on a recent visit to the city, as well as an older photo of himself and Mr Tung.

"Both are old friends," Mr Goh, 77, wrote. "I first met Chee Hwa in the early 1970s when we were both in shipping."

He added that the older photo of both men "partying in Vienna drinking young wine after an international shipping conference" will feature in his biography, which will be released in November.

Mr Goh was Singapore's second prime minister, and held the post for nearly 14 years before stepping down in 2004.

According to a description on the website of the publisher World Scientific, the book will reveal "the private deliberations and negotiations" between Mr Goh and Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew before the leadership transfer in 1990.

It will also tell the extraordinary story of Mr Goh's life and career over half a century, "revealing how Singapore's second Prime Minister rose through a combination of strength, wit and a political nous which many, including himself, did not know he had".

"In this first of two volumes, Goh navigated years of a challenging apprenticeship to Lee, scoring numerous policy successes but also suffering political blows and humiliation," it added.

The biography is being written by former Straits Times journalist Peh Shing Huei, who is now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf.

Mr Peh said the book was based on a series of face-to-face interviews with Mr Goh, done by the Nutgraf team as well as ST Editor-at-Large Han Fook Kwang. It will include content that has not been made public previously.

"It has been 14 years since ESM Goh stepped down as Prime Minister and I understand there have been many people who have tried to persuade him to tell his story during this time. I'm glad he has finally agreed," Mr Peh, 42, said.

"He gave me and my team generous time and plenty of good stories."

Behind a tall order: Goh Chok Tong reflects on succession and politics past and present
By Jaime Ho, Chief Editor, Digital News, Channel NewsAsia, 2 Dec 2018

My interview with Emeritus Senior Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong following the publication of his authorised biography, Tall Order, happens at a fortuitous time.

We speak three days after the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) announcement on Nov 23 that Mr Heng Swee Keat had been chosen as the party’s presumptive next-generation leader.

Political succession within the PAP today and Mr Goh’s story of his own ascension within the party as told in the book are natural parallels. We therefore start by discussing Mr Heng’s appointment.

The former prime minister gives a solid endorsement – not only of the finance minister’s capabilities and experience – but also of the team that has emerged, with Mr Heng having chosen Mr Chan Chun Sing as his deputy in eventually leading the party.

He agrees with the notion that had it not been for the stroke that Mr Heng suffered in May 2016, the fourth generation of PAP leaders might have come to the decision on their leader earlier.


With the current transition out of the way, I turn to his own experience of political succession, especially in the years where his second generation of PAP leaders began to emerge.

The internal party dynamic is described vividly in Tall Order, involving senior party members such as PAP old guard and one-time Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye.

Dr Toh left the Cabinet in 1981, before eventually retiring from politics altogether in 1988.

In his own telling, Mr Goh describes in the book that Dr Toh was “against the speed of change whereas Lee Kuan Yew said Toh was against political succession”.

I ask him to explain this bump in the road in the transition from the pioneers of the PAP. 

“Well, I think Dr Toh had his reasons, and I understood where he was coming from. He was in his 50s and many of the colleagues of Toh Chin Chye at that time were in their early 50s or late 50s, and we had no interest at that point of time or experience in politics. We came in, within two years or so and we are appointed ministers. From Dr Toh’s perspective, too early. They were too young and it was too early. How could we just assume a position in the ministry without having the experience to be able to win elections? So his point of view was valid.

“Then I began to think deeper into this,” he adds. “I think Mr Lee Kuan Yew was right, from my own experience. Dr Toh was expecting the party naturally to throw up people who could govern. That was not possible.”

I ask if it is an issue with the party itself, the way it identifies, the way it encourages people to contest.

“It was an issue,” he replies.

“Mr Lee said, look at the party - who are the people who can be your backbenchers? You could find a few, but to be your ministers, that was difficult to find. So he had to manage these sentiments on the ground, and also the feelings of the ministers and Dr Toh, and of course the need to bring in people like ourselves.

“Very importantly, we also had to learn how to manage these difficulties, this balance between Dr Toh’s views and Mr Lee’s views ... That’s the difficult part,” Mr Goh adds.


I suggest that within any political party, it is always useful to have differing views. Maybe not dissenting views, but differing views. I ask Mr Goh if he thinks the party now has that kind of voice that is able to provide the alternative, to test assumptions.

“I would say that you must have different views in the party, and also dissenting views,” he replies.

He explains that having just differing, but not dissenting views, “means we have more or less decided to agree”, and suggests that within the PAP, there are those who do provide at times, a dissenting voice.

“I do know that many of the ministers whom I know well, not the younger ones but the older ones – (DPMs) Teo Chee Hean, Tharman (Shanmugaratnam), (minister) Shanmugam, they do express their views. Sometimes they dissent; but then they discuss, and in the end they come to a consensus.”

Is he therefore confident that there are enough alternative and dissenting views that will provide for better decisions?

“I’m confident as of now,” he says. “But I am less sure going to the future.”

I ask him why.

“Because if they are unable to attract people from outside the civil service and armed forces, then you’ll have some kind of civil service, public service thinking.”

It is a theme he has spoken about in the past.

He admits that “SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) officers, police officers and civil servants” are “very able people”, but points to a “certain kind of group think”.

“And then over time, if you’re attracting only fewer and fewer top civil servants, you end up with many SAF officers, old generals; again the group think is even narrower.”

His fears are not immediate, he qualifies.

Looking forward 20 years, he hopes “we would not be in that situation”.


Early in its narrative, Tall Order describes the role that Machiavelli played in Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking:

“…he passed to Goh a seminal text of political philosophy – The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli – urging the younger man to subscribe to the tenets of the 16th century book. In short, to govern, it is always better to be feared than loved.”

Mr Goh eventually set the book aside, eschewing Machiavelli.

I ask Mr Goh if he felt he succeeded in injecting his own so-called “kinder and gentler” approach instead.

“I think I’ve caused a change. Mr Lee’s style was appropriate for that part of history of Singapore. We became independent and there were no resources, so he had to use a no-nonsense, tough love approach. Kindness was there, but it was a tough-love kindness approach. But by the time we took over, Singapore was growing into adulthood.

“So I thought we should move into a more relaxed, and yet disciplined kind of society. So I used the term kinder and gentler,” he adds.

“Have I succeeded? This is a process. There’s no end to it, you can make it better and better.”

Things have changed, he says. It is more participative, more consultative.

With Machiavelli in mind, I turn to events in 1984.

I recount events told in Tall Order, where on the night of Dec 30, Dr Tony Tan, who was then a key member of the new generation of PAP leaders, gathers 11 of his other younger cabinet ministers at his home in Bukit Timah to decide on their leader. A young Lee Hsien Loong was part of the group.

Mr Goh himself was late to the party, arriving only when the decision had already been made that he would be their leader.

“You are first deputy prime minister and people know you are the presumptive PM, so to speak … But it’s also the year that Mr Lee Hsien Loong enters politics,” I say.

I ask Mr Goh what was going through his mind at that point, the situation he was in and what he needed to do going forward.

“In 1984, Lee Hsien Loong stood for election. I was the one that spotted him during my work, in the SAF. I invited him and he accepted even though he was going through some personal difficulties. He came in. So I was very happy that I was able to recruit, in my view, a candidate with the potential to be a minister and later on as a prime minister. So that went through my mind,” he replies.

“Did it change your mindset knowing that he was the prime minister’s son,” I ask. “How did you approach that disjuncture in your own head that you’re trying to attract one candidate, but he’s also the prime minister’s son?”

“I never worried about that,” he replies.

“I just look at who could be good candidates. It could be by another surname, that happened to be a Lee … Yes, he was the prime minister’s son, but I knew the system very well, that when he came in there would be others looking at you like a hawk, whether you had received any special treatment just because you’re the prime minister’s son.”

I ask if Mr Lee Hsien Loong voiced any misgivings of his own at that time.

“No, we never discussed the fact that he was the prime minister’s son,” he said.

“In the SAF, we had to be very careful when we recruited top civil servants’ children, sons, into the SAF, national service; ministers’ sons, judges’ sons. We had to be very careful they didn’t receive any special favours. (This was) very important because if they received special favours, you can’t expect the other national servicemen to support them. Likewise for Lee Hsien Loong. We have our own views in politics.”

Having been identified as the new leader in 1984, I turn to events in 1988 and Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s National Day Rally speech. The incident is described in detail in Tall Order.

In what was his first public assessment of Mr Goh, then Prime Minister Lee said Mr Goh was not his first choice. Instead, it was Dr Tony Tan.

I ask him to explain what Mr Lee had said, and what his feelings were, sitting in the audience.

“I was enjoying his speech until then. He started comparing Tony Tan, myself … So I was wondering what was happening. And then came the bombshell. Looking back and trying to imagine what I was thinking, I believe I sat down impassively, without showing any feelings whatsoever, listening to him. But of course going through my mind later on - not immediately, but later on - what was he trying to do? What was his intention?”

He suggests, tongue-in-cheek, that it is all described in the book, and says we should read it instead.

I try to push him, and ask if he could at least address whether, after having heard this, he had any regrets. Whether in the privacy of his thoughts later that night, he had questioned whether he was even meant to be prime minister.

If more isn’t already described in the book, he replies, it means that he “didn’t think too much about that”.

“If I had thought very much and lost any sleep, I would have remembered it very well and I would have recorded it in the book, if it had been of interest. As I said in the book, I was very confident in my relationship with Mr Lee. I knew he wanted somebody to succeed him. That somebody need not be me. I thought it was me. He did not say it was not me. He said I was not his first choice.

“But more importantly is the reaction of the younger leaders,” he adds.

“I think almost immediately, maybe within a matter of days, Tony Tan came out to say there would be no change (and) I remained the choice of the second-generation leaders. And Lee Hsien Loong also came out, almost immediately after Tony Tan, to say there would be no change in support. More importantly, which I did not put down in the book, this shows that we were not, shall we say, puppets of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Each one of us had our own thinking.”

I ask if what he is stressing is that there was significant-enough input and decision-making from the generation of leaders who chose him. And that ultimately, that was the deciding factor.

“Correct,” he says.

“They decided on me and they were not going to change.”

I ask if this new generation of leaders was willing to justify their decision to Mr Lee.

“They didn’t need to justify; they just had to support me, which they did, I think. And that was also Mr Lee’s purpose: Let us choose, then if you have chosen him, it’s not my choice, you have to support him. So there’s a wisdom, as I put it, the wisdom of Mr Lee Kuan Yew in the process and also in expressing his view. It’s very clear - you’ve chosen, you have to support him. To be fair to Mr Lee, even though I was not his choice, he was very supportive of me.”


Our conversation then turns to 1990, when he became prime minister.

I bring Mr Goh’s attention to his recollection as told in Tall Order, where after Mr Lee says at an early 1990 lunch at the Istana that it is time for him to take over, the elder statesman also suggests that he should stay in the Cabinet.

I ask him what his immediate sentiments were. Did he not feel that he should have had his own say in forming his first Cabinet?

“I think my personality is very different. As you will know … I did not set out to be in politics, and having been in politics, I did not set out to be the prime minister. To be very frank I thought I could serve by helping the country as a minister and I had in mind, minister for finance, because I was invited by Mr Hon Sui Sen. I could do the job, no difficulty.

“When Mr Lee told me after I became PM that he would stay on in the Cabinet, I was very happy. We worked for a long time together after that and I knew his style … I think from early on you knew that we did things differently. We would listen to him, but not to be controlled by him. But having him in Cabinet offered me tremendous, shall we say, backup and a presence internationally. As a new PM, I would not be immediately recognised overseas. I had to establish my credentials, but Mr Lee had the presence … Knowing that Mr Lee was there, it gave tremendous confidence to my dealings with other people,” Mr Goh explains.

He says that Mr Lee never cramped his style, and provides an added insight into his thinking: “And at the back of my mind, I knew it was better to have Mr Lee inside than outside.

“Inside, as a member, he could express dissent, (and if) we overruled him, he would not be able to say it outside, because the Cabinet decides on the basis of collective decision. He could not go out and say: ‘I disagree with the prime minister’.”

I remind Mr Goh that Mr Lee also remained as secretary-general of the PAP as well.

“That’s a bit different,” he says.

“When he opted to remain as secretary-general for another term … I understood his thinking. Singapore was his whole life. He was very fearful that the next prime minister might not have succeeded to carry on Singapore. So even though we had worked for so many years, he knew my strengths, he also knew there were certain areas which I could improve on. The main thing was, could I win elections? That’s number one, you see.”

He explains that Mr Lee stayed on as secretary-general, “in case, as prime minister, I could not carry the ground”.

The realities of politics pervades much of Mr Goh’s further elaboration.

“(If) I could not carry the ministers along, because I was either indecisive or my decisions were wrong, what would he do? As prime minister, I could remove him from Cabinet. So supposing there was something hidden in me. I fake very well as a gentleman, but the moment I became prime minister, I behaved like I’m in charge, I want to decide on everything. I want to put in more people, loyalists - he could remove me as secretary-general. Maybe that suggested a lack of total trust, but I think Singapore was at the back of his mind. He would not allow Singapore to fail. He wanted to watch how I would behave as a prime minister. I mean, I accepted it. He was the man who built Singapore. So, no problem.”


Mr Goh’s description of, and insights into, various opposition figures in Tall Order had struck my eye.

From the Workers’ Party’s Ms Sylvia Lim to Mr Low Thia Khiang, or Mr Chiam See Tong and Mr Francis Seow and Mr Tang Liang Hong, I suggest that his descriptions of each suggested a certain collegiality and respect. Was this a leadership style that he felt that he wanted to project?

“I think it’s part of me, it’s part of my overall leadership style. I generally see positives in people, I know there are negatives in some people. I mean, I’m not blind. I take a balanced view towards people.”

He adds: “So even though I know some people have certain negatives, I do not just let their negatives overwhelm their positive side. So, in politics it’s the same thing. I mean Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang, I talked to them, I am very collegial. But in politics, elections and democracy by their very definition … means you’ve got to contest, and we try in Singapore to contest in a way that you don’t get very personal, you don’t get politics into a very ugly, rake the mud kind of a style.”

Is he comfortable with the tone now and the position that the opposition is in, I ask.

“Yes, at this stage yes. I think that they do make sharp criticisms; that is not the same as making accusations without facts. So it is better for them to be in Parliament rather than outside. Outside there is no responsibility. In Parliament they could be challenged by the governing party’s MPs. So I am quite comfortable with the tone now.”


Our discussion turns back to his first electoral victory in Marine Parade in 1976.

Then a single-member constituency, the rookie won with 78.6 per cent of the vote, higher than the national average of 74.1 per cent. As told in Tall Order, Mr Goh was “quite happy” with the result – until Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s nearly four-hour speech at the opening of the next Parliament brought some introspection. In particular, Mr Lee compared the performance of two constituencies: Marine Parade, and a similar new seat in Buona Vista, which the PAP won with 82.8 per cent.

The question was why.

Mr Goh’s answer is told in Tall Order: “You look at the population demography … and it slapped me in my face … The answer is racial.”

I ask him to explain it further. And if there was still a Marine Parade SMC now, would the same issues still be at play? Is race something that’s still a key election issue?

Mr Goh provides some background first: “Like many Singaporeans of my generation, who went to a common neighbourhood school and later on Raffles, where you have lots of friends from the Malay community, Indian community, I myself was not sensitive to this question of how people would vote. So, the first lesson in this issue in politics, was when I sat down in Parliament listening to Mr Lee Kuan Yew.”

Looking at the two constituencies, both had very high votes, he said.

But he goes on to explain the difference.

“What was the reason? They never gave us the answer and we figured it out. I had a higher percentage of Malay population, about 13 to 14 per cent compared to 2 per cent in Buona Vista. Both of us had an opposition, a Malay candidate, so ... people were voting along racial grounds.

“Fast forward, have we done better? The answer is yes,” he says.

In 1976, at that point in Singapore’s history, he explains, “there were still many people who came out from different streams of schools. We had vernacular schools. Chinese, Malay, Tamil, English. Thinking was very much related in a way to your language.”

Mr Goh adds that national issues might now be a more “common denominator” in electoral decisions – unlike in 1976.

“But when it comes to the crunch, my sense is that people would still tend to be tribal.”

He notes that while race is not an issue that can be “resolved”, neither should it be “eliminated”.

“If you are Chinese, Malay, Indian, be proud of your own race,” he says, while extolling the need for continual mixing, whether in housing estates, National Service or school, to understand that “common ground is important, that we are all Singaporeans”.

“We have made tremendous progress there and should continue to do so,” he adds.


I have mixed feelings whether to ask about his time as prime minister, knowing full well that the anticipated second volume of his biography will address just that. He is never one to let on more than he needs to.

I try a different approach as we come to the end of our interview, and ask if we could talk about regrets instead.

“Maybe if you don’t want to talk about your time as PM, you don’t have to; but personally, in your early years in politics, was there anything you felt that you could have done better,” I ask.

“Of course. Learning the language.”

He adds that he was “never good in languages”, and says that if he had known he was going to be PM, he might have “brushed up earlier on my Chinese and Malay”.

That is one regret. But you can’t solve that, he admits.

How about in politics?

“In politics, always there could have been things that I could have done better,” he lets on.

But no more. “What is in the (next) book, I am not going to tell you now,” he says.

I ask if he might provide a sneak peek. He says no.

The former prime minister does admit, however, that the second volume will be a tougher project.

He recognises that covering his time as leader, the book will have to provide accessible insight into policy.

“I can’t go on talking about my interaction with Mr Lee Kuan Yew,” he also notes.

We leave it there, and I wish him luck for what will no doubt be a much-awaited second instalment.

My last job is to ensure a strong 5G team: Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong in dialogue at BookFest @ Singapore
Singapore's second PM says he believes strongly in managed political succession
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Sunday Times, 23 Dec 2018

Ensuring that Singapore has strong leaders in the pipeline to carry the country forward is on Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's to-do list. "I'm a strong believer in managed political succession," he said, adding that he hopes to help current leaders bring in new blood before he retires.

Mr Goh, 77, who was Singapore's second prime minister from 1990 to 2004, was speaking at a dialogue held during a book festival yesterday where he responded to a question on what his last job for the Republic would be.

In December last year, Mr Goh urged 4G leaders in a Facebook post to pick a leader among themselves.

Last month, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat became the ruling party's first assistant secretary-general, a post that tips him to be the country's next leader, after current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

During yesterday's dialogue, Mr Goh said that countries, like companies, need to plan for new leaders.

Political succession cannot be left to elections, which he likened to "a throw of dice", he added.

"Our lives are being governed by that throw... I believe each time we throw the dice, it must come up with '6' (the highest number on a die), which means that political succession is very important for us," he said.

"The last bit that I want to do is make sure that there is a strong 5G team to lead Singapore over the next 20, 30 years. After that, I won't be around," he said.

Going forward, Mr Goh, who has been an MP for Marine Parade since 1976, said it is important for 4G leaders to reach out to "the ordinary people, and not just focus on policies all the time".

Held during BookFest @ Singapore at Suntec Singapore convention centre, the dialogue was hosted by co-founder of content agency The Nutgraf, Mr Peh Shing Huei, the author of Mr Goh's biography which was launched last month.

Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story has since sold more than 25,000 copies.

Questions asked during the dialogue were posted online, and members of the public wanted to know what Mr Goh's happiest moment as prime minister was (when the ruling party won 75 per cent of the vote in the 2001 General Election so he could think about stepping aside for new leaders), whether he ever thought about joining the opposition ("not even for a second") and his regrets in life (not picking up Mandarin).

Important that Singapore, Malaysia react calmly on maritime dispute: ESM Goh Chok Tong
By Aw Cheng Wei, The Sunday Times, 23 Dec 2018

The current maritime dispute between Singapore and Malaysia over waters off Tuas reminds Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong of another territorial dispute when he was prime minister.

Malaysia had claimed that Pedra Branca, an outlying island off eastern Singapore, was part of its territories, and even sent its ships to the disputed area.

Singapore protested.

The matter was taken to the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 2003 after intergovernmental talks did not resolve the issue.

The court ruled in favour of Singapore in 2008, a decision that resolved a territorial dispute which began in 1979.

Mr Goh, who was prime minister from 1990 to 2004, said yesterday at a dialogue at a book festival: "The Malaysian vessels intruding into our waters are actually a re-enactment of what they did when we had the dispute over Pedra Branca.

"They sent their ships into waters which were under our jurisdiction for decades. The Malaysians were making a point. They were also claiming the waters. In fact, they were claiming Pedra Branca and other islands around there. So they were making a point that the waters were theirs."

He said Singapore could have chosen to "point our guns at them and say 'You get out or I'll shoot'". "But that would start a very, very serious conflict. So, we decided that we leave the boats alone, just circle around them to tell them that the waters are ours, and the dispute should be referred to international tribunal or arbitration."

As for the current dispute, he noted that "importantly, we are reacting calmly, they are reacting calmly", and said the matter could otherwise be referred to international arbitrators.

Both countries have agreed to meet next month to talk.

On Oct 25, Kuala Lumpur unilaterally extended the Johor Baru port limits such that they encroached on Singapore's territorial waters off Tuas.

As a result, Malaysian government vessels strayed into Singapore waters, and 14 incursions were recorded between Nov 24 and Dec 5.

Mr Goh said that just as it was during the Pedra Branca dispute, "their (ships) being there makes no difference whatsoever to the claims".

"The worry is this is a port area, so accidents can happen," he added.

ESM Goh launches Chinese version of his biography
'I knew we would have differences from time to time': ESM Goh on keeping Lee Kuan Yew as senior minister
He recounts days in office and why he wanted to keep Lee Kuan Yew in the Cabinet
By Rei Kurohi, The Straits Times, 5 Jun 2019

When Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong took over as prime minister from Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1990, he decided to keep Mr Lee in the Cabinet as a senior minister so that any differences between them could be resolved internally.

"You know Lee Kuan Yew; if things were to go wrong, even from the grave he would get up. If I were to do something wrong as PM, I would expect him to say something in public," Mr Goh said yesterday.

"It would divide Singapore if people thought there was a fight between us. I knew we would have differences from time to time, so it was better to have him on the inside rather than outside."

He was speaking on a panel at the launch of the Chinese-language edition of his biography, Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, at Capitol Piazza.

Mr Goh himself took up the position of senior minister, after handing over the premiership to Mr Lee Hsien Loong in 2004.

"So, as senior minister, you would not interfere, but as a minister in Cabinet, you give your view," Mr Goh said. "If you think that they (other ministers) are very wrong, then you state your view very clearly and robustly. You say, I think you are wrong, and you try to persuade him (Prime Minister Lee) and persuade the other ministers to come around. But in the end, they decide."

Mr Goh said the arrangement worked for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, himself and PM Lee.

"Whether Lee Hsien Loong will be the senior minister to (Deputy Prime Minister) Heng Swee Keat depends on their interactions. If one party is not comfortable, then it may not work," he added.

That said, Mr Goh hopes PM Lee will remain in the Cabinet after he steps down so the next generation of leaders can tap his many years of experience. PM Lee has said he plans to hand over to his successor by the time he turns 70, which will be in 2022.

Said Mr Goh: "I think the next PM will be wise enough to keep (PM Lee) in Cabinet."

Currently, two former DPMs - Mr Teo Chee Hean and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam - hold the post of senior minister.

"Will there be three senior ministers? That is not for me to say, it is for Mr Heng Swee Keat to decide," Mr Goh added.

The Marine Parade GRC MP also recounted how he had sent the completed manuscript of his book to PM Lee, who requested only one change: a word Mr Goh had used to describe Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

"I used the term 'domineering personality', and (PM Lee) scribbled on the side, 'Do you mean dominant personality?' That was the only change he made."

Mr Goh also commented on what role Singapore can play in the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.

"As an independent country, we give our views quite honestly, and do so through an Asean voice, which carries more weight," he said.

The event was part of the Singapore Book Fair 2019 organised by the Chinese Media Group (CMG) of Singapore Press Holdings.

The panel comprised Mr Goh, former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, who wrote the biography, and Ms Lee Huay Leng, head of the CMG.


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