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How the Holy Goh got on with the Father and the Son

I know the book Tall Order Volume 1 is about Mr Goh Chok Tong’s route to prime ministership, but what I didn’t expect was a glimpse of the mental gymnastics that the late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew put him through. Like Mr Goh, I believe all of us were caught off-guard by Mr Lee’s 1988 National Day comments about preferring that Dr Tony Tan succeed him as Prime Minister. Now, some 30 years later, we read about the shock and consternation this news was to the man whom everyone thought would be Singapore’s next Prime Minister.

“I was perplexed, stunned and dumbfounded by his revelation. You have the awkwardness of facing the big crowd after the rally. You had to be very wooden when you came out,” so Mr Goh recalled in the book, wryly using the term that the late Mr Lee had attached to him just one week after.

Mr Goh thought there could be  two reasons for Mr Lee’s public put down. Mr Lee himself had said that he wasn’t to be blamed if Mr Goh failed – because he wasn’t his first choice. Then there was the question of whether he wanted to derail the succession process by putting Dr Tan as first among equals. Or even place his son, who entered politics four years before. It’s a pity that Mr Goh never asked the man directly. But clearly, Mr Lee wasn’t ready to give up the job.

That 1988 speech is also famous for Mr Lee’s promise to rise from the dead should anything untoward happen to Singapore. To Mr Goh, he was publicly signalling that he wasn’t ready to leave the stage. “He had raised expectation that I would take over in 1988, so he had to square with me publicly, with the whole team, that I was not quite ready yet.”

The second blow came a week later when Mr Lee described Mr Goh as “wooden” in his communication skills and who might need the help of a psychiatrist. (Mr Lee said later he meant “psychologist”). In fact, Mr Lee told him at one lunch after the rally that he didn’t think he was ready “and asked if it would be all right if he carried on for two more years”. You can guess Mr Goh’s answer…

That was one big revelation: That it was Mr Lee who wanted to stay on.

Even when Mr Goh became PM in 1990, he knew Mr Lee could always remove him if he wanted to. This was  because Mr Lee was still secretary-general of the People’s Action Party.

“He told me that normally it is the secretary-general who becomes the Prime Minister. I am handing over to you, but would it be all right if he stayed on as secretary-general? So what does that tell you? He’s not sure if I might change or could succeed…You know my style, and I said yes.”

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There could be another reason for Mr Lee’s hesitation, which Mr Goh didn’t allude but which was revealed by former Cabinet minister Ahmad Mattar. The rally speech came just months after news that some of the ex-detainees in the Marxist conspiracy had recanted the confessions they made the year before. Mr Goh, who was acting PM because Mr Lee was away, decided to detain them the next day. Mr Lee was furious at the 24-hour delay. When he returned to Singapore, he rounded on Mr Goh  saying in front of the Cabinet ministers that “If Loong is not my son, I would have asked him to take over from you now.”

Mr Goh was never really sure if he made the cut in Mr Lee’s eyes, but he was sure that he had the support of the New Guard (what his generation was called then). After that rally, they publicly re-affirmed their choice of leader. Fast forward to today and you wonder what’s taking the fourth generation leaders so long.

There have been many books on the late Mr Lee, including some by the late Mr Lee. They give his thoughts on policies and political philosophy. This book gives the another perspective of the man – from someone who had to work for him, and later, with him.

It is no secret that the two men are as different as chalk and cheese in terms of personality. Mr Goh described his predecessor  as Machiavellian. He recalled how Mr Lee had even handed him a book by Machiavelli to read because he thought the younger man was much too soft. Mr Goh discarded it.

His idea of consultative government and participatory democracy also made no sense to the older man, who though it was inefficient and smacked of indecision. But, according to Mr Goh, Mr Lee still left him very much on his own to make his own decisions. Hence, the setting up of Residents’ Committees and the Feedback Unit. Hence,  the year-long consultation exercise on the introduction of Medisave when Mr Goh was Health Minister.

He never thought that Mr Lee got “personal” or had an agenda that was not for the greater good. The fact that Mr Lee was open in his remarks showed he was not a backstabber, he said. Several times, Mr Goh described Mr Lee as an ”honourable” man. Even when Mr Lee suggested that his daughter, Wei Ling, could make a good MP, Mr Goh saw the suggestion as Mr Lee’s attempt to help him recruit new candidates, especially women. “He was trying to be helpful.”

You can see some pussy-footing he did around Mr Lee, especially when it came to the changeover period. Should he take over Mr Lee’s Istana office? He didn’t want to out of respect for the man and also because the room would “smell of Lee Kuan Yew”.  In the end, his office, ready before he became PM, was set up above Mr Lee’s. The comical part: Mr Lee actually moved into the new premises because his old office was being refurbished . “So he was the first PM to use this room, not me!”

If there was one harsh thing he said about the late Mr Lee, it was about his “unparliament-like” language when the late Mr J B Jeyaretnam entered politics after the 1981 Anson by-election. The younger leaders were uncomfortable with the debating style, which was reminiscent of an earlier tumultuous era.

You cannot read a book about Goh Chok Tong without wondering how he dealt with not just the older Lee but also the younger Lee in the Cabinet. In the book, Mr Goh took pains to stress that it wasn’t Mr Lee who recommended his eldest son for politics. He himself had put forth the name and persuaded the younger man to stand in the 1984 election. There was “due process” – two rounds of interviews with two different panels.

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Author Peh Shing Huei tried his best to play devil’s advocate, going by some interview transcripts that were published in the book. Maybe Mr Lee was hoping that Mr Goh would put forth the name himself? Did Mr Goh really think people would believe that the father had nothing to do with the son’s entry into politics?

Mr Goh actually conceded that it might be difficult for people to believe him but reiterated that Mr Lee was an “honourable man” who respected certain principles and was very “correct” in his dealings. .  There was, however, one time when Mr Lee had a “not very good” reaction to one of Mr Goh’s decisions: appointing the late Ong Teng Cheong as deputy prime minister.

“He asked why Ong Teng Cheong. He did not say why not Lee Hsien Loong. But from the way he asked, I could sense it, that he was thinking of the future and the future lay with Lee Hsien Loong, not with Ong Teng Cheong…I am not saying he wanted Hsien Loong there because he was his son, but he wanted to put Hsien Loong there because he was the better man.”  In the end, Mr Goh decided on having both of them, making clear that it would be Mr Lee who would act for him when he was not in town.

You get the feeling that Mr Goh was also  being very “correct” with his answers when it came to the late Mr Lee. He had suffered some indignities but didn’t take them to heart. He knew that some of his decisions looked either like “self-sabotage”, naive or even stupid, such as bringing the younger Lee into politics and making him deputy prime minister. But he was no stooge nor anyone’s puppet, he said. The Father, Son and the Holy Goh worked very well together and never doubted each other’s intentions.

If I were Mr Goh, I would probably be miffed with this review which revolves on his relationship with the father and son. He said in his “afterword” that the book should capture his unexpected journey to become Singapore’s second Prime Minister, and his trials and missteps along  the way. The story is about Singapore’s transition from the Lee Kuan Yew era, he said.

The thing is, you can’t tell people the “takeaways” they should have after reading anything. There will always be a fascination about how he navigated the waters with the Lees. It comes through as well in the questions that were asked of him.  The question in people’s minds: Was he really, really his own man?

Perhaps, it isn’t fair to him, because he should be judged on his political philosophy and his policies. I am waiting for Volume 2, which would focus on his time as prime minister. Even then, I think I’ll still be fascinated by how he led the country, sandwiched between father and son.

Go buy the book. It’s very readable. I finished it in a day.


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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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