Mr Goh Chok Tong took me around the world with him. We dropped in on Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Chengdu, Suzhou and Wuhan in China the 1990s. (Yes, the same Wuhan that was the Covid-19 virus incubator. It was nothing like the Wuhan you see on TV. Chinese officials still donned Mao suits. )
We did the grand European tour, moving through Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Berlin and Bonn in Germany, then swinging over to Paris and to London ( I don’t know whether it still qualifies as part of Europe now). There was the bumpy plane ride we took in New Zealand that had many of us praying for our lives and a very distressed NZ premier waiting for our arrival at the airport.
The greatest fun was to be had very early in his prime ministership, which started in 1990. When we were in Zimbabwe for the Commonwealth meeting, he decided to make an impromptu hop over to South Africa. We were the first Asians to enter the country, after apartheid was dismantled, and among the first foreigners to speak to Nelson Mandela.
They weren’t sight-seeing tours although, of course, we saw many sights – fleetingly. The trips were to drum up economic opportunities for Singapore businessmen as the country embarked on building its “second wing’’. They were so tightly packed that there was little breathing space, even for the Prime Minister.
But these are the times when you get to see the man in a more relaxed mode and when he lives up to his reputation as a congenial and affable person. Once in Paris, he told his dinner companions round the table to make way for the media. He wanted to talk to us rather than his ministers and officials, who had to get up to exchange places with us at another table. In Berne in Switzerland, a press conference was turned into a conversation, much to the consternation of his press secretary who couldn’t tell what was on the record or off. I think the setting, out in Swiss fresh air and with mountains as a backdrop, had invigorated the Singapore Prime Minister.
That was the magic of Goh Chok Tong. He made you feel at ease. He likes his food and wine. Making sure that he would enjoy his meals abroad, and could partake of the local fare, became an important part of the work of the protocol officers. Not for the him the steamed, grilled or boiled diet with plenty of fibre that characterised the menus for his predecessor. He ate heartily.
I cannot recall any occasion when he asked the media for “questions in advance’’. Nor would he turn down a chat with reporters who were trying to wave him down for a door-stop interview. Twice, he even herded foreign newsmakers our way so that the Singapore media could have our interviews. Truth to tell, that generation of political leaders was “like that’’ – open and willing to take questions. There was very little “scripting’’ of remarks or stage-managed door-stop interviews.
He was a straight-talker, which makes him somewhat blunt with his words. I appreciated his no-nonsense approach. It was never about scolding or rebuking and hard remarks were sometimes laced with humour. I don’t think the term “arrogant’’ has ever been stuck on him.
I have written columns on my admiration for the man. I still admire him. Which is why it pains me to see so many nasty remarks that followed his announcement that he wouldn’t be standing for election this time. Forty-four years in political service isn’t a short time, and to be a prime minister while sandwiched between the father and the son can’t be a comfortable position for him. A man with less steel in him would have said no to the job, especially when his predecessor wasn’t so keen on him as well initially. But he outlived expectations and grew into the job. And he handed over the reins gracefully to the current Prime Minister.
I detect this common thread in all the nastiness: about how he had been extremely well-paid for the job, just like all other ministers. It is the usual lament about ministerial salaries, which will always, always be perceived as too high, especially when so many people working here aren’t in that same income bracket. I once suggested that the best way for the 4G leaders to distinguish themselves from their predecessors is to ditch the ministerial salary scheme and come up with another system. It could symbolise their commitment to narrow the income divide, an issue which has been pushed aside because job creation has become the day’s pressing problem.
But leaving aside this old hoary chestnut, I would like to think that as a people, we are nicer to those who have spent much of their lives attempting to carve out a better future for everyone. We might not have achieved that Swiss standard of living while Mr Goh was PM, but we’re no lagards either. He introduced Medisave and Edusave, social initiatives that are part of welfare structure here. He updated the grassroots network by putting in place Residents Committees in HDB neighbourhoods.
Of course, there are many things we can fault him and his government for. Like a grow-for-growth economic strategy so that we could have “more good years’’, one of his mantras. We didn’t complain then because we were enjoying the fruits of an economy helped by more and more importation of foreign labour. But in recent years, we have started feeling the social effects of this dependence.
We also underestimated how tough he could be in shoring up the votes for the PAP. He started six-member GRCs and made priority in HDB upgrading an electoral carrot. Determined not to be set back by the results of his first general election in 1991, which allowed four members of the opposition into Parliament and gave the PAP 61 per cent of the vote, he put his own parliamentary seat on the line when he called for a by-election the next year.
And who can forget the so-called Catherine Lim saga in, when the weight of the government came down upon the writer for criticising the prime minister for failing to live up to the kinder, gentler nation that he promised. That is something that cannot be repeated in this day and age. The internet is full of “boh tua, boh suay’’ people making quick judgments about anyone, especially those in positions of power.
Many, for example, could not forgive his remarks about the calibre of political leadership, which should be filled by those who can make more than $500,000 a year. It smacked of elitism, and nobody wants to be seen as elitist these days.
But those who lived and thrived under Goh Chok Tong leadership will recall what a breath of fresh air he was. Coming out from the shadow of Lee Kuan Yew, and labouring under the constant hectoring of then-Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohammad, he pulled the country into the next millenia, with a much better educated people and a strong economy.
He was popular with the people, something which younger people who have only known a Lee Hsien Loong government may not realise. Although he stepped down as PM in 2004 and became Senior Minister and later Emeritus Senior Minister, his words still carried weight. We saw this in 2017 when the fourth generation leaders scrambled a meeting to respond to his question on the slow pace of self-renewal in the party. I am glad that he made clear that stepping down from electoral politics is not the same as retiring from politics. Every country needs its elder statesmen, unafraid to speak truth to power.
Retiring from electoral politics at the age of 79, he deserves our respect and appreciation. Put aside the green-eyed monster in us, and let’s remember that as an electorate, we all had a hand in picking our leaders and giving them the vote again and again.
They say that history will be the final judge of a person’s performance. I agree. It will also judge our civility, generosity and magnanimity as a nation.