If there was one thing I really wanted to hear from former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, it was how he dealt with Malaysia’s premier Mahathir Mohammad who had made life pretty difficult for him – and Singapore.
But all he would say was that Dr M described him as a “minor luminary’’ when they first met in the days when he was a mere Senior Minister of Finance. And that while he was PM, Dr M called him during the Asian Financial Crisis to ask that Singapore buy up some companies in the Malaysian stock market. Mr Goh said no.
What would I give to know what the two men discussed during those tortured negotiations over the water price, the new bridge, KTM land, Pedra Branca and so forth! Author Peh Shing Huei said he didn’t want to say much. I suppose it would be impolitic to reveal anything given that the protagonist is very much alive and still politicking next door.
Standing Tall is the second part of what can be described as Goh Chok Tong’s memoirs, with a focus on domestic issues. It reads like a television series with each episode (chapter) opening narrative style to focus on a dramatic event during his premiership. Tuck in-between each chapter is a dialogue between the two men. Like the first book, at the end of the book are Mr Goh’s reflections on each chapter, although this time, they took up considerably more space. The book is 358 pages, much longer than the previous 272.
As someone who covered Mr Goh extensively while he was PM, a lot of the content was a trip down memory lane. I loved, however, the bountiful hitherto undisclosed anecdotes about how he tried to win foreign friends for Singapore. It reflected the personal touch that he brought to the premiership, after decades of a tough, austere Lee Kuan Yew government. Like passing a hand warmer to a fellow leader, timing his entrances and exits to coincide with those of someone whom he really wanted to know, making small talk with someone who looked so desperately alone. I am not naming names. You can buy the book.
Like in the first book, he is still as full of admiration of the late LKY and was gratified by the present PM’s conscientious loyalty. PM Lee Hsien Loong was in no hurry to take over the helm, he said, although 14 years is a long time to keep a seat warm.
I didn’t expect any mea culpa from him regarding any policy enacted during his term. The nearest he got was admitting to a “gaffe’’ equating those who earned less than $500,000 a year as mediocre people who shouldn’t be in the ministerial ranks. That was said, however, after he stood down from the job.
On ministers and would-be ministers
Paying ministers well is still a good policy as, among other things, it would help them stay on the job for longer, as they would be assured that they wouldn’t need a mid-career change because money no enough (my words).
“My point is that , pay them an adequate market-related wage so that when they step down at around 60, they can still think about how they can contribute to society using their experiences as ministers without having to worry about what happens when they retire from politics. Otherwise, good able people might not even enter politics to serve.’’
It was a newish argument, beyond the usual reasons such as making up for the loss of privacy. He’s also surprised though that there is still so much cynicism over ministerial salaries after so many years. Both he and the late LKY thought the populace would settle down and agree with their point of view.
My own view is that the subject of ministerial salaries has always been contentious. It was just not played out in mainstream media because the late Mr Lee wanted the subject out of the public eye. But you can’t gag the Internet. You can’t stop people talking, including putting politicians under scrutiny. He described social media as the Number One reason for people declining to enter politics.
That made me sad.
He is correct that social media is full of intemperate and unkind remarks, but he should have added that offline, Singaporeans are an obedient and docile people. That’s more than what a lot of politicians elsewhere can expect: a people who are roughly in tune with the national agenda. That political aspirants could be shying away because of internet scrutiny simply shows how thin-skinned the generations have become. I wonder what LKY would have made of this, given that he belongs to a generation who had to dodge bullets and flying objects, rather than avoid being the subject of a meme.
I have heard too much about how people have to be wooed and courted to join politics, that is, stand as a PAP candidate. Even the supply of top civil servants is drying up, said Mr Goh, although we can still bank on the generals to join elections. (Yes, he said this). I wonder if ministers believe it looks better for them to be dragged into the job with inducements, rather than shoot for jobs because of conviction.
Perhaps, in Mr Goh’s calculation, governing ability is primary. The government must be run by technocrats who, hopefully, have some political nous. What’s incredible is that after so many years, the difficulty of finding new blood is always blamed on something else rather than the PAP. Surely, it’s time for the PAP to think about whether it is an attractive magnet for the best people who are not in the civil service. And I am not talking about the money.
I would have expected Mr Goh to say more about the 4G leadership and the search for the fourth prime minister. After all, he was impatient enough to ask them to get a move on three years ago. He was pretty ambivalent in the book, pointing out that Singapore didn’t have many precedents to turn political succcesion into a formula.
But he made two points that piqued my interest.
First, he thought it might be a good practice for the person who has passed over the prime ministerial baton to hold on to the position of party secretary-general post for a while.
“…you might have a PM who is DPM for only a few years before he takes on the top job. When this person takes power, he might behave differently. Or he might not measure up. It is better for his predecessor to take a step back and observe him for a while. Let there be a transition period to be sure that things would not go wrong.’’
He was quick to say he wasn’t referring to the impending handover but just making the “more important point’’. Perhaps, he was being polite but I cannot foresee the next Prime Minister having a long runway as the deputy before having to take over.
Second, he recalled that when he himself passed on the baton to PM Lee, he called for a meeting of MPs to endorse his successor even though Mr Lee had always been his heir apparent. They must have a say, he said, even to nominate some one else. But once they had decided, they must hold their peace thereafter.
“It would not be right for a leader to be selected by just a few going forward. We need to broaden the pool of selectors. Otherwise, the party leaders could be accused of practising cronyism or factionalism. I wanted the process to evolve further.’’
Now, the choice of PM is left to the current batch of 4G leaders. I wouldn’t expect the choice to be made by the whole party, or even just its cadres, but it seems a small and reasonable step to extend the selection or endorsement to its own elected MPs.
On presidents and presidential aspirants
While there are no mea culpas, there is a “key regret’’: the acrimonious end of the Ong Teng Cheong presidency.
He said the Cabinet didn’t want to endorse Mr Ong’s bid for a second term because the doctors’ prognosis on his health was not good. But people had the impression that it was because the Government and Mr Ong didn’t see eye-to-eye on the scope of presidential duty. Mr Ong held a press conference to complain of being stymied by civil servants when he asked them for details. Mr Goh said Mr Ong wanted even the location and value of every single property of the government. His own view was that president was delving too much into nitty-gritty details.
Then Mrs Ong died two weeks after the unprecedented press conference and a new wrinkle came up: Is she a formal First Lady or just Mrs Ong? What sort of funeral should she be accorded? The Government decided it should be a private affair because First Lady was never an official title. He admitted it looked “petty and ungracious’’ but it decided to follow state protocol.
Then he also had to respond to Mr Ong’s charges of non-cooperation from the executive branch.
“My wife and I knew Teng Cheong and Siew May very well. They were a generous and gracious couple. The government had to rebut him, but we had to do it in such a way that would not, in a sense, diminish him or the government. That was particularly painful and sad.’’
Mr Ong died three years after he stepped down, which would be smack in the middle of a second term should he have decided to contest. Before you ask, no, Mr Goh didn’t say if he agreed that Mr Ong should be known as Singapore first elected president rather than the late Wee Kim Wee, as the Government had declared on the advice of the Attorney-General.
But he did say something about the latest reserved presidential election which Madam Halimah Yacob clinched in a walkover.
He said that if Madam Halimah had a straight fight with Dr Tan Cheng Bock, she would lose. He even disclosed that his wife had voted for Dr Tan. But he held firm to the government line that the race rule for presidential office was not intended to keep Dr Tan out of office. Dr Tan would be knocked out because of the new criteria on corporate management which require candidates to run far bigger companies, he added.
On foreign workers
If there was one criticism he made of the current government, it was over immigration.
Although he started the policy of opening the door to foreign talent because of Singapore’s declining birth-rate and the need to keep the economy humming, he was surprised and annoyed to know that the number of permanent residents escalated after he left office in 2004.
“Take permanent residents (PRs) for example. In the years before 2011, the numbers rose to 50,000, then 70,000 a year. It was nearly 80,000 in 2008! I was surprised and annoyed. I told PM so. Since then, we have kept the numbers to around 30,000 PRs a year. But even then, when you add the numbers up over the years, you will begin to feel the cumulative effect within society and in daily living.’’
Asked who should be blamed, he said that it wasn’t “our style’’ to blame anyone. Nor was it an “error in policy’’. Rather it was a lesson learnt about keeping an eye on the ball to ensure that people do not get anxious about being crowded out.
I’ve only put out three topics in the book which I found interesting. And I am certainly not doing it justice. People have said that autobiographies tend to be self-serving, to justify words and actions of the past. They are, but it doesn’t mean that insights cannot be gleaned or new details emerge to give a more complete picture. Buy the book to know what happened in the 1990s because it adds to our understanding on why some things are the way they are.
I didn’t know, for example, that Mr Goh was so instrumental in building up Singapore’s network of free trade agreements and the effort he put into ensuring that this little red dot had a say in regional and global issues, like the Asia Europe Meeting or ASEM he mooted while he was in Davos, Switzerland in the 1995. This, even though I covered many of his foreign visits. I just never toted them up.
I think like many others, I have always seen Mr Goh through a domestic lens. People remember his votes-for-upgrading election ploy and jumbo GRCs. He is no softie when he plays political football, talking up an opposition member to prevent another from getting into Parliament even if this annoyed his own candidate, or risking his own seat to secure a mandate for his Government in a by-election.
Perhaps, some would remember how he started Medifund and Edusave, and decided to distribute some of the fruits of the economy to the people with bonuses and share schemes – which is still continuing. Every leader has pluses and minuses on his ledger, and I think Mr Goh came out on the positive side. It can’t be easy to be the Holy Goh sandwiched between father and son.
Clearly, however, he has a problem with social media voices. I wish that he had been pressed on the infamous Catherine Lim affair when he drew OB markers to ensure that there was respect for hierarchy and institutions. There is a chapter, The Story of Chok and Cat, but it doesn’t say if Mr Goh still stood by his insistence that those who want to influence policy should do so in the political arena. What would he say to the many, many people who think nothing of deriding their leaders and the institutions? Boh tuah, boh suay isn’t going to cut it with them.
Lastly, I hope he is keeping notes on his dealings with Dr M. At some stage, I would like read about how the two men duked it out to secure their respective national interest. It would be extremely educational and probably make dramatic reading too.
Go buy Standing Tall. It is an informative yet easy read.