It’s only Volume 1. I think Volume 2 which covers Mr Goh Chok Tong’s prime ministership should be more interesting. Nevertheless, there were some nuggets of really cool information, some of which I had forgotten, that turned up in the book, Tall Order, which tracks his journey to the top job.
- The four Tans who vied for the Presidency had close associations with Mr Goh. Dr Tony Tan was in his Cabinet, Mr Tan Jee Say used to be his principal private secretary, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, ex-People’s Action Party MP, is an old friend and his doctor while Mr Tan Kin Lian was his PAP branch secretary at his Marine Parade constituency. Bet you don’t remember that last one…
- The one person he would never, ever acknowledge is….Dr Chee Soon Juan. He considers him untrustworthy….this man who went all the way to Williams College in the United States to disrupt a conferment ceremony he was at. There was no disruption (I was there) but Mr Goh is clearly super livid still. The book didn’t talk about Dr Chee’s infamous heckling of Mr Goh during a general election campaign. Perhaps, that will be in Volume 2.
- He saw PM Lee Hsien Loong’s CV when the younger man was being vetted as a candidate for the 1984 general election. And Mr Lee is NOT a straight A student! He got a C4 for Chinese! The book doesn’t say at what level and it could be that it’s a B4 or a C5 – because I don’t think there’s a C4 even in those days….
- More on the Lee family…You know that it was Mr Goh who brought Mr Lee into politics right? Mr Lee Kuan Yew didn’t recommend his son. But Mr Lee did suggest his daughter, Wei Ling. Mr Goh said no, after consulting her brother and former Foreign Minister George Yeo, both of whom also said no. No explanation was given for the no answer in the book.
- More on the Lee family…he did consider Mr Lee Hsien Yang but decided against it because he thought the elder brother would outshine the younger one. Also, how was he himself going to cope with so many Lees? “Nobody would believe I am my own man, isn’t it?”
- More on the Lee family…the candidature of Madam Ho Ching did cross his mind but she said “not at this stage”. Then she got married to Mr Lee Hsien Loong and…that was that.
- He was uncomfortable and felt humiliated when the late Lee Kuan Yew publicly said in his 1988 National Day rally speech that his preference was for Dr Tony Tan as Number 1. He told his old friend Dr Ahmad Mattar that he would “walk out” if Mr Lee repeated it next year. But that year, all he could do in front of the public eye was stay “wooden” (his word). In fact, he wryly referred to several descriptions people have of his role straddling father and son – seat warmer, puppet, Holy Goh. He also described himself rather off-handedly as a “lubricant” because both the Lees had their own independent cast of mind and he had to stop them clashing.
- Although Mr Lee Kuan Yew never pushed his son forward as prime minister, there was one time he lost his temper in Cabinet and told Mr Goh: “If Loong is not my son, I would have asked him to take over from you now.” This was during the Marxist conspiracy in 1988 when Mr Goh delayed his decision to re-arrest some conspirators who had recanted their confessions. He took a day. Mr Lee, who was not in town then, said he would have re-arrested them immediately. This anecdote, by the way, wasn’t volunteered by Mr Goh, but by former Cabinet Minister Ahmad Mattar who was interviewed for this book.
- He followed his mentor’s working style by leaving it to the permanent secretaries to implement policy. He wasn’t a super minister or super permanent secretary. He thinks that the relationship has now changed with politicians and civil servants interacting directly and frequently. “And in their interactions, ministers function as super perm secs”. He adds that some ministers know more than their perm secs. No, he doesn’t say if this is good or bad.
- I am going to take a deep breath here and say this: I know he’s being bashed for his statements on mediocrity but this is a man who grew up without electricity or sanitation facilities in Pasir Panjang and lost his dad when he was 14. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and there is very little hint of any kind of snobbery or elitism portrayed in the book. By all accounts, he’s a humble, nice guy whom the late Mr Lee thought was ‘too’ nice. I am going to go so far as to suggest that we don’t remember a man for one line, but for his life of service.
Now I’m waiting for Volume 2.