Sunday 9 May 2021

Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years Volume 2

ESM Goh Chok Tong launches second part of biography titled Standing Tall on 7 May 2021

4G leader will have to bring rest of team together: PM Lee Hsien Loong
He urges younger Cabinet colleagues to take reference from Goh Chok Tong and his team
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2021

As the People's Action Party's fourth-generation (4G) ministers deliberate on their next leader, their eventual choice has to be someone who is able to bring the rest together, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

He urged his younger Cabinet colleagues to take reference from Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and his team.

"Whoever will be prime minister must first and foremost be someone who can bring the rest together," PM Lee said in a speech at the launch of Standing Tall, the second of a two-part biography of ESM Goh.

"Pull them together, make the most of the strengths of each minister, and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts."

He said this was the secret of ESM Goh's successful premiership.

Singapore's leadership succession was set back after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat announced last month that he would step aside as leader of the 4G team, paving the way for a younger person to succeed PM Lee when he retires.

PM Lee said the latest Cabinet reshuffle - which saw seven ministries get new ministers - will give Singapore's 4G leaders a chance to work with one another in new capacities as a team.

This will strengthen their mutual understanding and teamwork and prepare them to take over from the current leadership, he added.

ESM Goh, who retired from politics last year, spoke at the launch about how his team enjoyed good camaraderie and had warm personal relations with one another.

"We might have had different points of view, but once a decision was made, all of us rallied behind it," he said. "We trusted each other. We worked as a team, with members looking out for one another. We had a shared sense of purpose. We were united."

ESM Goh also had words of advice for the 4G team - to continue working closely as a team to set the agenda for Singapore. "Show confidence and leadership as a group. Hone your political skills and prepare yourselves to take over the reins from the 3G."

He urged Singaporeans to give the 4G team time to make the important decision about their leader for the country's next lap.

Standing Tall was written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei - now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf - and published by World Scientific.

One topic that comes up several times in the book is the difficulty of getting good people to join politics, a challenge that ESM Goh and PM Lee addressed in their speeches.

People who think that political succession is an "internal PAP problem" cannot be more wrong, ESM Goh said, referring to the People's Action Party.

"It is a national issue. We need people of ability and integrity to serve the nation," he added. "Many have answered the call, and more must do so."

PM Lee said he and ESM Goh often discussed the matter at their regular lunches, and noted that his predecessor's main motivation in having his biography written was to inspire more people to take the leap into politics and serve Singapore.

The Prime Minister acknowledged that the opportunity costs for any individual entering politics are significant, ranging from the loss of privacy to having to give up a promising career.

"But regardless of how difficult the task, we must persevere, and for Singapore's sake, we must hope that we succeed," PM Lee said. "Singaporeans deserve the best people that can be found and developed to serve and to lead them, as one united national team."

This is the only way to maintain the quality of government that Singaporeans have become used to, and the confidence in Singapore that attracts investments and creates jobs, he said. It is also the only way to assure the country's success, to secure the future of generations down the road.

PM Lee thanked ESM Goh for handing over a better Singapore to his successors.

"Now your successors must strive to do the same," PM Lee added.

New book looks back at ESM Goh's leadership
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2021

When Mr Goh Chok Tong received a late-night call in 1991 informing him that a Singapore Airlines plane had been hijacked, the then Prime Minister issued instructions calmly - then went to bed.

The response demonstrated his trust in his deputies and epitomised his leadership style, elements of which have been captured in a new book documenting Mr Goh's 14 years at the helm, from 1990 to 2004.

On the SQ117 hijacking incident, Mr Goh, who retired from politics last year and is now emeritus senior minister, observes in the second volume of his biography, Standing Tall: "When you plan for worst-case scenarios, and when you trust the professionalism, dedication and judgment of those on the ground, you can stay calm and sleep easy."

The new book - a sequel to Tall Order published in 2018 - was officially launched yesterday and takes a thematic approach to detailing key moments in Mr Goh's career as prime minister.

These include his electoral triumphs and setbacks, foreign policy manoeuvres and the handling of national crises such as the SQ117 hijacking and 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

Standing Tall is written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf, and published by World Scientific.

Each of its 18 chapters reveals a different facet of Mr Goh - for instance, his ability to forge strong personal ties with world leaders and a knack for seizing fleeting chances and making them count.

One such opportunity presented itself in the form of a spur-of-the-moment midnight golf game, which eventually led to Singapore clinching a much-desired free trade agreement with the United States.

Mr Goh had proposed the game to then US President Bill Clinton in 2000, at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation dinner in Brunei. After the game, both men had drinks and the deal was struck.

"How did I know Clinton would play golf at midnight? To be frank, I did not know," Mr Goh said. "It was an instinct, a hunch. I just knew he would."

The 366-page volume also sets out Mr Goh's take on government policies rolled out under his watch, as well as topics such as high ministerial salaries and the elected presidency system - both of which he continues to support.

Pay must never be used to entice people into politics, but the move into politics should not entail an additional sacrifice - on top of lifestyle changes and the loss of privacy - that politicians are expected to make, Mr Goh said, adding that the issue can also impact leadership transition.

"If their ministerial pay were much lower, they must ask themselves what they would do to support themselves after retiring," he said. "What I am saying is if the ministerial pay does not allow a minister to save sufficiently, and you are going to turn over a minister for political succession, the minister may resist."

On the elected presidency, he added that the system is fulfilling its purpose and remains fit to do so.

Changes to Singapore's presidency - formerly a ceremonial role - were passed into law in 1992, with the elected president given veto powers over the spending of past reserves and appointment of key government positions.

In 2016, further changes were made to raise the bar of eligibility and ensure minority representation. This saw the introduction of a system of reserved elections for candidates based on ethnicity, should five continuous terms pass without a president from a certain community.

In another chapter, Mr Goh revealed that he was "surprised and annoyed" when he learnt that the number of people given permanent resident (PR) status rose steadily in the late 2000s, reaching nearly 80,000 in 2008. At present, Singapore takes in around 30,000 new PRs annually.

But Singapore must not give the impression that foreign skills and talents are not welcome, Mr Goh said, adding that the Government must try its best to explain the need for foreigners to help the country compete on the global stage.

"If you do not like it and vote me out, then I have to take it on the chin," he said.

"But I give Singaporeans far more credit than this. If you are upfront with them, tell them the challenges and trade-offs, most can accept it. They might not like the argument, but in the end, they are sensible and pragmatic."

Public calm, private anguish: PM Lee on ESM Goh's handling of 2003 SARS crisis
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2021

When the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) hit Singapore in 2003, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong mounted a "maximum national response" to stem the spread.

Although he appeared calm and collected in public - rallying the nation behind him and his team - he confided his anxieties and worries to those around him, recounted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

"He was anguished about each SARS death that occurred, particularly those of the brave medical workers," PM Lee said. "One of his Marine Parade activists recalled him exclaiming 'My people are dying! They are my people!'"

But the crisis strengthened his resolve to do his duty and keep Singaporeans safe. It also gave the country a baseline to work from when the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year, PM Lee added.

The Prime Minister was speaking at the launch of Standing Tall, the second volume in a two-part biography of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf. It is published by World Scientific.

The book touches on topics that have defined ESM Goh's 14-year premiership, including the SARS crisis a year before he stepped down in 2004.

When SARS hit, Singapore had no playbook for dealing with such a crisis, PM Lee said, adding that no one knew what the new disease was or how long the outbreak would last.

At the time, Mr Goh marshalled the whole government machinery to put in place temperature screening, contact tracing and quarantining of contacts, along with other measures.

"He explained the situation to Singaporeans, calmly and clearly - what we needed to do, individually and together. People understood what was at stake, took heart, and played their part to win the fight," said PM Lee.

SARS did not break Singapore, but made it stronger. When Covid-19 hit 17 years later, it adapted the measures that worked in 2003, he added.

"Covid-19 is a new and different disease, and has demanded fresh thinking and responses from us. But the SARS experience gave us a baseline to work from, and a head start in bringing Covid-19 under control," he said.

PM Lee noted that the country is not yet out of the woods, having just had to tighten restrictions to prevent community cases from spiking.

"But having overcome SARS once, we are confident that despite all the twists and turns, we will overcome Covid-19 too."

On forging a new social compact, PM Lee noted that when Mr Goh took over as prime minister, Singapore society was changing and the times called for a new leader with a fresh touch.

Mr Goh - a milder, gentler, more personal man than his predecessor, founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew - was the right leader at the right time.

"He established connections with people in his own way, to walk in his own shoes, as he put it," said PM Lee.

"The change of gear suited that period in Singapore's development. The 'kinder and gentler Singapore' that Chok Tong talked about resonated with the new generation."

Hiccups in Singapore's political transition process are to be expected; ESM Goh commends DPM Heng’s ‘selflessness’ in stepping aside as 4G leader
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 8 May 2021

Hiccups are to be expected in the political transition process, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said yesterday of Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat's surprise decision to step aside as leader of the People's Action Party's fourth-generation team.

He added that there were similar hiccups when the pioneer generation of PAP leaders handed over the reins, and commended Mr Heng on his decision.

"It takes courage and selflessness to do this when one is only a step away from being Prime Minister," said Mr Goh at the launch of Standing Tall, the second volume of his two-part biography. "He has put the interests of Singapore first, like a good leader should."

The topic of leadership was a central theme in Mr Goh's speech, in which he stressed that a country's future depended on its leaders.

Good leaders should possess five qualities, he said - integrity, iron, intelligence, and the ability to be inspiring and impactful.

"I do not believe that good leaders will automatically emerge in a democracy nor that the whims of elections can guarantee a slate of the best to govern the country," Mr Goh added. "For democracy to work, ours anyway, we must offer the best candidates possible for the people to choose."

Contrary to what some believe, the PAP does not seek to perpetuate itself, he said. Instead, it seeks to perpetuate good governance, values, institutions and practices.

In his book, the 79-year-old elaborates on the difficulty of persuading "good, capable Singaporeans" to enter politics in the lead-up to last year's general election.

These potential candidates included top civil servants and private-sector individuals, some of whom he met more than once and believed would make good ministers. Many turned him down.

"The 4G leaders are among the best in their cohort we could enlist," he wrote in his reflections on a chapter about ministerial salaries and the difficulty of attracting the right people to enter politics.

"There could be others as good as, if not better than them, who can strengthen the team. But who are they, where are they and how do we find and persuade them to sacrifice their careers, interests, income and personal privacy to serve in the fishbowl of politics?"

And when those with the requisite qualities say 'no' when the country calls, Singapore has a problem, he added. "Some people think political succession is a PAP problem. They are wrong. It is a national and existential challenge for Singapore."

Standing Tall was written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf.

Mr Goh also stresses that a leader cannot be reluctant, and should be at least prepared to step up if asked. "In the case of the 4G leaders, some are more than prepared; they want to do it," he added.

When it is put to him that this could potentially be problematic, he replies: "The more you widen the group of selectors, the greater the risk of campaigning and factionalism, as we see in many other countries. In-fighting could be politically destabilising. But that is politics. It is inevitable."

In his view, the key is to have a strong centre, with the entire party, including the individual's peers in Cabinet, rallying around him when a choice is eventually made.

Of hijackings and military generals: 5 insights from new book on former PM Goh Chok Tong
By Linette Lai, Political Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 May 2021

Standing Tall, the new book chronicling Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's 14 years as prime minister, was launched on Friday (May 7).

It is the second volume of a two-part biography on Mr Goh, and details his electoral triumphs and setbacks, and foreign policy manoeuvres, as well as sets out his thinking on topics such as leadership renewal and foreign manpower.

Here are five interesting revelations from the book:

1. The SQ117 hijacking

When Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 was hijacked in 1991, he gave calm instructions over the phone - then went to bed, leaving the situation in the hands of former senior minister S. Jayakumar, who was then Home Affairs Minister.

There was no need to be anxious and nervous, he said. "If you had a PM who was jumping up and down asking many questions... the whole thing would collapse. So, as the leader of the government, you do not intervene unless it is really necessary."

Mr Goh had a restful seven-hour sleep that night - although he did wake up earlier than usual. In fact, he admits, he was more nervous during his first National Day Rally than he was about the hijacking incident.

2. Building personal relationships

Making friends and building personal relationships with other leaders helped him forge ties between Singapore and the rest of the world.

One example: At an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Seattle in 1993, Mr Goh saw former Indonesian president Suharto standing with his hands in the pockets of his overcoat. He went over to him, asked him if he was cold, and passed him a hand warmer to keep him toasty.

Another example: Seeing Myanmar's Finance Minister Tun Tin standing alone at a cocktail reception at an Asian Development Bank meeting in the late 1970s, Mr Goh went up to talk to him. Mr Tun Tin eventually became the country's prime minister.

"Whenever I went to Myanmar after that, he always had time for me," Mr Goh says. "So, you make friends. You do not have ulterior motives."

3. Death and afterlife

He doesn't believe in the afterlife or fear death - although he will be sad to leave his family and friends behind.

In his own words: "I think I will just disappear. Nothing will happen."

Mr Goh, who is patron of the Inter-Religious Organisation, has started reading the Bible in order to better fulfil his role. He plans to start on the Quran later, as well as the Buddhist books his wife owns. Although he was brought up to pray to his ancestors, he considers himself non-religious.

4. Merdeka Generation package

If he were in charge today, he would take "a deep breath" before introducing the Merdeka Generation Package.

Taken together, the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation packages have created the expectation for a third "Majulah Generation" package, he says.

If the economy continues to grow and there are budgetary surpluses to be shared, this is not a problem. Otherwise, the Majulah Generation will be followed by the "Mati-lah Generation", he quipped, using the Malay word for "death".

5. Military generals in Singapore politics

He believes military generals make good candidates for political leadership, and that Singapore is likely to see more of them.

This group of people are intellectually robust and loyal to the country, Mr Goh said, adding that what has to be tested is their policy versatility and political acumen.

With it getting increasingly difficult to recruit top-tier Singaporeans into politics, generals offer a "ready pool of good potential candidates".

"My point is, looking at the way things are unfolding, you are going to see more generals in Cabinet. This is happening now," he says. "Some people quip that this is why the election is called general election."

Goh Chok Tong story: Lessons for 4G leaders
Four episodes that revealed what sort of leader he was.
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor-at-Large, The Straits Times, 9 May 2021

What qualities should a prime minister possess?

The question is pertinent as Singapore awaits who the ruling party anoints to succeed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

When the choice is not obvious, there will be different views about what to look out for and which quality counts the most.

Should it be the ability to inspire Singaporeans through great communication skills? Or the person best able to work the team and get the most out of every minister? Or is it critical for the man to have the temperament to make tough decisions and carry the people along?

Ideally, all of the above.

But there is no ideal candidate, and the choice might depend on which of these qualities is seen as most important.

Singapore's three prime ministers were all different, with unique strengths and weaknesses.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a very determined person with a commanding intellect and great oratory.

Mr Goh Chok Tong declared famously when the baton was passed to him that Mr Lee's shoes were too big for him and that he would be his own person - gentler and more consultative.

But he was also capable of implementing unpopular policies which he believed were right for Singapore, such as paying ministers market wages and linking HDB upgrading to the votes received at general elections.

When looking back for answers to what makes a good leader, perhaps Mr Lee is less relevant because he was such a giant of a man and impossible to emulate.

No one should try to act like him.

But Mr Goh is good material to study. He too was a civil servant persuaded to enter politics, and there were question marks about his leadership qualities as well early on.

Reading his biography Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years by my former colleague at this newspaper, Mr Peh Shing Huei, and which was launched on Friday, I was struck by how Mr Goh was tested in so many different ways and how his response to these challenges revealed what sort of leader he was.

These insights are especially relevant in the discussion today on leadership succession because they are real-life examples in uniquely Singaporean circumstances.

I have shortlisted four episodes from the book, and they are as good case studies as any on how and what leadership qualities matter here.

(Disclosure: I was involved in the book, sitting in at all the interviews the author had with Emeritus Senior Minister Goh.)

The first is about the ill-fated attempt to hijack a Singapore Airlines plane by four Pakistani terrorists.

When it landed at Changi Airport in the evening of March 26, 1991, with the terrorists holding the crew and passengers hostage and making their demands known, Mr Goh was at home.

His phone rang just before 11pm and Mr Lim Siong Guan, the most senior civil servant of a group formed to deal with such crises, briefed him on what happened.

It was not a long conversation but, in Mr Lim's words, it "left me the impression that he (Mr Goh) noted it, he said to carry on and we knew what to do - that was it".

After he had put down the phone, the PM went to bed.

It might seem unthinkable for the PM, barely four months into the job, facing an unprecedented hijacking with so many lives at stake, to call it a night.

Why were you not pacing up and down your house nervously, or rushing to the airport? the author asked.

Mr Goh explained: "I made a conscious decision not to go because my presence would affect the focus of those in charge of the operations. When you manage a crisis, you must know when to intervene and when you must be present at the scene. That is important.

"If I were there, the ones in charge would not have dared to make decisions without first consulting me... They would be looking over their shoulders at me."

Mr Goh knew the men in charge, he trusted them to get the job done, and he knew the preparations that had been made to deal with such matters.

Leaders have to take a step back sometimes and let the people who are closest to the problem handle it.

I think ministers today are overly involved in too many aspects of their ministry's work, so much so that some critics call them "super permanent secretaries". The problem with this is that you might not have time to think about the really important issues. Also, those under you might be inclined to always check back or second guess you.

In the book, Mr Goh put it this way: "If you had a PM who was jumping up and down asking many questions... the whole thing would collapse. So, as the leader of the government, you do not intervene unless it is really necessary. If you are prepared, and you trust that the matter is in good hands, then just monitor and observe."

My second example from the book is drawn from the controversial purchase of a luxury apartment in 1996 by Mr Lee Kuan Yew at a discounted price from the developer who was also his friend, Mr Ong Beng Seng.

When the matter was reported to the PM amid market talk of the purchase, Mr Goh was put in the awkward position of having to investigate his mentor.

Could he not have settled the matter quietly since the discount offered was not unusually large and there was no hint of corruption?

"No, there was no other way than to call him up in person. If I had taken the easier way out, I would be opting out of my duty as PM, and my fiduciary duty of governing Singapore. As I have said before, it goes back to the heart of what we believe in, the value of integrity. And integrity means you have to have the political courage to do painful things.

"This was a painful episode. If you did not have the political courage, because you thought Lee Kuan Yew would come and hammer you after that, then you do not deserve to be the Prime Minister," Mr Goh declared in the book.

In the end, the probe cleared all parties of any wrongdoing.

Political courage to do the difficult thing, including standing up to the Lees if necessary - I would put it at the top of my list of what the next PM should demonstrate.

The third example is about how Mr Goh managed to get President Bill Clinton to agree to a US-Singapore free trade agreement (FTA), a landmark breakthrough at the time.

US officials were not keen on the idea and had blocked it from reaching the White House.

Mr Goh knew he had to get close and personal with President Clinton and the opportunity came at the Apec meeting in Brunei in 2000. At the end of dinner as the leaders were leaving the banquet room, Mr Goh made his move and told the President that he was planning to play a round of golf after the dinner.

President Clinton replied: "I was thinking of looking for someone to play with. Let's play."

But the plan was almost scuttled when moments later, a loud thunderclap shook the place and heavy rain poured down.

A US security officer turned to Mr Goh and told him that it did not look like game-on.

This is how the author recounted what happened next in the book:

"Without missing a beat, Goh replied very assertively: "No, it is on. I know my weather. This is a tropical storm. It will pass within half an hour. The golf course is half an hour from this place. So, by the time we arrive, the rain would have stopped."

To be safe, he raised the odds. He told the US Secret Service officer: "Anyway, I'm going. But the President does not have to go if he thinks the weather is bad."

The one-upmanship paid off.

"If I'm going, how could he not go?" said Goh with a grin.

The rest, as they say, is history. The two played golf that night and after the game, over drinks, the Singapore Prime Minister made his FTA pitch which his golfing partner promptly agreed to, and the breakthrough was achieved.

A leader needs to be able to think and act on his feet and to seize opportunities when they present themselves.

Officials can do detailed ground work, but without political leaders to act decisively at the right moment, the best-laid plans may come to nought.

My final example from the book is on how Mr Goh developed personal relationships with other leaders, a skill which will become increasingly important for any future PM to possess because of the changing geopolitical balance.

There are numerous stories in the book of how he was able to break the ice with his foreign counterparts, including advising Chinese President Jiang Zemin not to speak so fast so that the audience could better understand his speech, offering a hand warmer to Indonesian President Suharto during an Apec meeting in Seattle, and playing tennis with Chinese Premier Li Peng.

Singapore is likely to face many external challenges in the years ahead that will test its leaders' ability to read the other side's intention and game plan.

Mr Goh put it this way in the book: "Personal familiarity plays a very important part. When you suggest an idea or when you agree to an idea by the other side, you would know where the person was coming from. I think that is key. You have to know the other person's thinking and establish trust, before you even ask for something."

Standing Tall contains valuable insights to help Singaporeans understand the job of a Singapore PM and what qualities are called for to do it well.

There are many other examples dealing with tricky situations apart from the four I have highlighted.

Read it to better understand why the choice of who to become the next PM is a big deal.

Getting enough able Singaporeans interested in politics in the first place is an even bigger deal.

Han Fook Kwang is also senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

A mandate in Marine Parade
Standing Tall, Volume 2 of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s authorised biography by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, was launched this month. In the book that covers his time in office as prime minister from 1990 to 2004, Singapore’s second PM describes the 1992 Marine Parade by-election as the turning point of his political leadership journey. We reproduce extracts from the book.
By Peh Shing Huei, Published The Straits Times, 29 May 2021

For more than a year, Goh Chok Tong had a risky idea in his head. When he called the General Election in 1991, veteran opposition politician J. B. Jeyaretnam could not contest the snap polls because he was serving out a disqualification. It led the Workers' Party (WP) leader to accuse the Prime Minister of running scared, of holding the election unusually early so as to exclude him. In response, Goh promised in 1991 that a by-election would be held once Jeyaretnam's ban was lifted. While Goh did not reveal where the by-election would be, he had been toying with the idea of holding it at his political home base of Marine Parade. It was a high-stakes game with the ultimate political bait of the Prime Minister as sacrificial lamb. But Goh had no intention of being an offering. After the defeat in Anson in 1981 by Jeyaretnam, he wanted a rematch and a victory.

It was a decision which Lee Kuan Yew was not fully comfortable with. Over and over, he asked Goh whether he was sure. The idea that his successor could lose it all in a by-election, however slim the odds might be, unravelling years of carefully planned leadership succession, unsettled Lee. After all, the People's Action Party (PAP) had been on a 10-year unbroken slide in votes since Anson. "He kept asking if I was sure I would win," revealed Goh with a grin. "In any other place, it would be a tremendous risk."

Given the stature of Jeyaretnam as the opposition leader, Goh did not want to put someone else in the PAP to the sword. "I could not offer a by-election and then get somebody else to go for it. That person might not win. In a single seat, the PAP candidate would be unlikely to win. With a GRC, it was still dicey," he said. "That would not be a mark of a leader - that you call for a by-election and you sacrifice a lamb."

When Lee knew he could not convince Goh to change his mind, he assured his successor that he would not stand idly by if the voters should do the unimaginable of throwing out the Prime Minister. In typical fighter mode, he said to Goh that the party would wage non-stop electoral battles to make sure Goh would remain as the Prime Minister. "He told me, 'If you lose, we will call another by-election elsewhere'. He said Singaporeans should understand the importance of political succession! In other words, he would not accept the idea of me losing. He was fully behind me as his successor."

But Goh was confident he was more lion than lamb. In early December 1992, he called for a by-election in his own Marine Parade GRC, a four-seat ward. The polls came just two months after he told Singapore that both his deputies (Lee Hsien Loong and Ong Teng Cheong) had cancer. Goh was playing a lethal game and he was not afraid to brand it as such. At a press conference, he said: "The issue is clear. The stakes are very high. The issue is whether the Goh Chok Tong government continues, and the stakes are what follows after the 19th (of December, on Polling Day) - whether we have certainty of government or whether we enter a period of uncertainty… If I lose, there may be a PAP government but there will be no Goh Chok Tong government. So my views, my policies, my philosophy, my values, may or may not be continued by somebody else."

The argument was part of a strategy he had been formulating since the 1991 polls, turning the opposition's "by-election effect" on its head. Instead of offering voters the luxury of a local election with no risk of changing the government, he flipped it around. He called it the "general election effect". While he had placed his head on the chopping board, he also had his hands firmly on the guillotine. Goh was no reckless political leader and his plan worked beautifully. At his home ground of Marine Parade in 1992, he would transform into a shrewd political strategist, even as he began a decade-long tussle with a fresh opposition rival.

On Nomination Day, the man for whom the by-election was called made a farce of his political party. One of the candidates, the chairman of the WP, did not turn up, leaving Jeyaretnam with an incomplete team and unable to contest. "The veteran oppositionist appeared extremely agitated at first, but left the centre in smiles, leaving witnesses clueless about whether he was indeed let down by his comrades, or if it was all an elaborate ruse to back down from the fight," wrote political journalist-turned- observer Cherian George in Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation. The PAP was clear in its verdict, saying in its post-mortem that WP "chickened" out. It also believed Jeyaretnam, also known by his initials JBJ, would no longer be a formidable opponent: "This effectively closes the chapter on JBJ. Even if JBJ were to stand again, he would be much diminished."

In the place of the WP and Jeyaretnam was the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and a fresh chapter in Singapore politics was opened on its new star candidate Chee Soon Juan. It would prove to be a story which overlapped with Goh's, albeit one which never vaguely came close to political parity. Chee would spend years sufficiently irritating Goh by the margins across more than a decade, always more a sideshow than the main act.

Their hate-hate relationship began in Marine Parade, where Chee made his electoral debut as a National University of Singapore psychology lecturer. It drew plenty of attention from the media and the public, stunned that an academic from a state-run university would join the opposition. Goh, not surprisingly, was hardly impressed, and did not hide his disdain for the man. Asked for his first impressions of Chee, he replied dismissively: "He was a man not to be trusted. He would say anything to win elections."

Chee's rhetoric on class divide found a receptive audience, as he played up his poor background versus the PAP's new candidate Teo Chee Hean's wealthy family. The crowds to SDP's rally swelled from about 5,000 on its first day to over 15,000 at the mid-way point of the election. "Dr Chee was a hit," admitted the PAP in its post-mortem.

The talk was that Chee would win a straight fight against Teo. At the halfway mark, the bets among bookies were almost all for a PAP win below 60 per cent, said the report. "Even in Marine Parade ward, there were indications that the ground was becoming unsettled."

Such feedback was worrying the PAP. Goh's team had won the Marine Parade GRC by 77.25 per cent of the valid votes just a year ago. A slide to below 60 per cent would be abysmal and a clear vote of no confidence in Goh as Prime Minister. Worse, the PAP could lose the election...

On Polling Day of the by-election, the result surpassed almost everyone's expectations, including Goh's. His team won 72.9 per cent of the valid votes, with SDP managing 24.5 per cent...

The final score was fantastic, he said, adding that it was the mandate he sought when he called the General Election a year earlier. It may have been belated by 15 months, but finally, the boost he wanted had arrived. "It gave me confidence," he replied, when asked how the by-election shaped his premiership. "I knew I was accepted by the people. My style was accepted."

Ichigo Ichie - one encounter, one chance - in ending US blockage
Published The Straits Times, 29 May 2021

More than a year had lapsed and Goh Chok Tong was getting increasingly worried. After the caning of American teenager Michael Fay for vandalism in Singapore in 1994, the White House had closed its doors to the Singapore Prime Minister. It was payback for Singapore's refusal to cave to American pressure. Despite US President Bill Clinton's personal appeal to the President of Singapore, Goh's government would only reduce the sentencing from six strokes of the cane to four.

The White House would retaliate by denying requests for Goh to visit Washington. The intel which reached Goh's ears was that, in order to show displeasure, the White House staff would not let Clinton receive Goh. Such was Singapore's unpopularity in Washington over the caning of an American boy.

Goh did not believe the decision was made by the US President. "I had met Clinton at the Apec summits," he said, referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. "He was friendly. I knew he would be willing to receive me at the White House. I suspected that my request to see him at the White House was blocked by his gatekeepers, probably someone from the National Security Council. I believed that my request never reached him."

Regardless of the reason, the rebuff was bad for Singapore. "If we could not call on the US President, Americans, our neighbours and others in Asia would have noticed," said Goh, knitting his eyebrows. "This was not just a matter of image. We would lose a lot. Americans would take directions, their readings from the President. So, the consequences for defence, economic, cultural, political relations would be quite damaging for us. I was concerned and was thinking of what to do."

Help would arrive through a most unlikely source - a US businessman and former Arkansas state senator. In October 1995, Goh made a private trip to the southern state of Georgia. He was invited to play golf at the Augusta National Golf Club, among the most famous and exclusive golf clubs in the world. The annual US Masters, one of the four golf "majors", is played at Augusta. Goh's host - the club's billionaire chairman Jack Stephens, who was a friend of S R Nathan, then Singapore's ambassador to the US - could not join the Singaporean. He asked a friend and fellow club official to step in. The friend was Joe T. Ford, a fellow tycoon who founded and ran the communications firm Alltel.

A few months later, Ford and his wife visited Singapore and Goh hosted them to dinner. During the course of the conversation, Ford asked Goh curiously: "Mr Prime Minister, have you met with President Clinton yet?" The answer was no. Goh explained that his request to do so was probably blocked by Clinton's White House staff. Ford was befuddled. "You are the Prime Minister of Singapore and you cannot get a meeting with him?" he asked, recalling the anecdote in his memoirs An Ordinary Joe: An Extraordinary Life. Goh speculated the reason and Ford was shocked. "I cannot fathom their thought process in that regard. I would do something about it."

Goh wondered how and did not think further about the matter. Little did he know that Ford was an influential man, with close ties to Clinton. He was from the same state, Arkansas, as the President, and Alltel was headquartered in Little Rock, the state capital. "He was a very distinguished and serious man," he said. "I believed him but did not chase him about it."

Soon thereafter, Ford was invited to sit in the chancellor's box at an Arkansas Razorback game, the football team of the University of Arkansas. Clinton, a big fan of the team, was there too. Ford leaned over and said: "Mr President, Goh Chok Tong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, has been trying to get a meeting with you but your staff will not arrange it." Clinton was incredulous. "I cannot believe that. Why would they do that?" he said. Ford replied: "Well, Mr President, you have the power to find out." It was a fleeting encounter, a rare opening, and Ford grabbed it. The Japanese have a term to describe such precious moments - Ichigo ichie, or one encounter, one chance.

Months later, in November 1997, it was the Apec summit again, this time in Vancouver, Canada. Goh received a message from an aide of Clinton: the US President would like to invite him to play golf. Goh knew right away that Ford must have spoken to Clinton. Clinton had cleverly bypassed his gatekeepers. Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien joined the duo at the Shaughnessy golf course amid a drizzle. But it wasn't enough to put a dampener on Goh's spirits. The US blockage was over. "That is diplomacy," said Goh with a big smile.

The White House visit followed in September 1998. Goh had a good meeting with Clinton, discussing several international issues, including the Asian Financial Crisis. After the meeting, Clinton pulled Goh aside to speak privately. He asked if Singapore could make a financial contribution to Kedo (the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation founded by the US, South Korea and Japan in 1995 to provide for the financing and construction of two light-water reactors to replace North Korea's indigenous nuclear power programme). He was looking for international support. Goh said yes. Two days later, Singapore confirmed its contribution to the US State Department. The decisive response and immediate follow-up was the primary reason behind his good ties with Clinton, said Goh. Clinton had raised the request privately after the formal meeting as he had no prior indication of how Goh would respond. The Singapore leader's decisive response made clear to Clinton that here was a man he could do business with.

The breakthrough in ties between Goh and Clinton carried significant impact on not only bilateral relations, but also Singapore's economic survival in the new millennium. By the late 1990s, after the Asian Financial Crisis, it became increasingly clear to the Singapore government that the multilateral trade order was floundering. It was clear to Singapore that to protect free and fair trade, it had to find its own way. Singapore had to try for regional and bilateral free trade agreements or FTAs with its strategic partners.

Some headway had already been made. The Asean Free Trade Area was signed in 1992. It was Lee Kuan Yew's idea, pushed by Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, and shepherded by Goh. Singapore's first bilateral FTA was with New Zealand and it was inked in 2000. The country was also courting Australia, Japan and Chile. "Some people remarked that Singapore was promiscuous in looking for FTA partners," said Goh with a laugh. "But our intentions and behaviour were virtuous, not adulterous."

The partner Singapore wanted to bed most was the United States. It would have a major signalling effect to other countries and greatly boost Singapore's chances to secure more FTAs. But some in Washington were not keen because Singapore was such a small and open economy.

By the year 2000, relations between Goh and Clinton had grown warmer following the Singapore leader's White House visit in 1998. When they were slated to meet again in Brunei in November 2000 for the annual Apec summit, it was the opening Goh had been waiting for to broach the FTA . Clinton had two months left in his presidency and this was the last chance. One encounter, one chance. "There was no Plan B," said Goh. It would turn out to be his most outstanding act of statecraft and diplomacy.


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