Goh Chok Tong (GCT) is the second Prime Minister of Singapore, serving from 1990–2004. This is Volume 1 of a 2-volume biography of his life, written by Singaporean journalist Peh Shing Huei . 

I was born in 1991, so GCT’s time as Prime Minister largely escaped my general awareness (I was too young.) So, given this context, I didn’t really know much about him or what he did as PM. 

This book was a surprisingly easy read, and I learnt quite a lot about him as a person, his early life and what happened before he took over as PM. (His tenure as PM will be covered in Vol. 2.) 

However, critically speaking, while interesting and easy to read, this is a terrible biography. It offers no insight into his life, no clear insight into his mind and largely glosses over many things. 

We definitely need a more objective biography about him and his life.

Lee Kuan Yew did not like Goh using the phrase “kinder and gentler,” revealed the latter. He felt it telegraphed softness, and more importantly, weakness in the new leader and by extension the ruling People Action’s Party (PAP). Instead, he passed to Goh a seminal text of political philosophy — The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli — urging the younger man to subscribe to the tenets of the 16th century book. In short, to govern, it is always better to be feared than loved.

NOL was a good example. While its goal was to be a profitable business, Goh Keng Swee also had strategic objectives for the company. He wanted it to break the carl, Far East Freight Conference (FEFC), which he felt was responsible for high freight rates that could strangle Singapore’s trade. At the same time, building Singapore’s own shipping line would be useful during war. “In time of war, many of the shipping lines which were commercial might not want to carry your cargo,” explained Goh Chok Tong. “But if you have your own shopping line, you would carry your own. It was wrong thinking at that time and we did not know. We learnt, later on, that if we were prepared to pay a price, high insurance premium, there would always be ships which were prepared to go the war zone. But at that time, it was a strategic thinking.”

Party ideologue S. Rajaratnam wrote in an article in 1969 that the party’s new role must be to find new leaders who can cope with the new world. “The party must become a workshop for forging bold new ideas to meet the requirements of a rapidly changing society and a rapidly changing world…” To do so, it had to renew itself. “One of the most difficult tasks of politics is not how to acquire power but how to transfer it to a new generation of leaders. More difficult still is for leaders to deliberately create new and able leaders to systematically take over from the older when the time comes.”

Rajaratnam began to pay closer attention to Goh’s speeches and turned up at several events where Goh was speaking. “He would sit there and listen, like a Cheshire cat.” said Goh. “At the end, he would give feedback about delivering speeches in a persuasive way. He would say don’t give so many figures, people are not interested in figures unless I gave some startling numbers, out of the blue figures. Otherwise, the figures would be inconsequential. Giving numbers was what I was fond of doing. Because when you write a speech, what do you do? You look for figures and analyse. In the beginning, my speeches were very analytical, academic types and giving facts. So, he said do not do that.”

Again, Rajaratnam stepped in to help. “He told me that when we speak to an audience, you have to assume their mental ages have dropped,” he said. “It is like watching TV. When you watch TV, your mental age is not your present age but it drops to that of a teenager. In other words, it was the entertainment value and sound bites and not a very well-scripted academic speech that would connect. It was very sound advice.”

To instil passion into the Magnificent Seven, Lee (Kuan Yew) impressed on them the urgency of leadership renewal. And very often, he used his own mortality as a morbid example. “He would always ask us ‘What happens if a lorry ran over me, then what would you do?”

Supposing the fight with the opposition was very severe in the 1970s, what would Lee Kuan Yew have done? He would probably have brought in fewer technocrats. And let us have a longer runway to learn more about politics. And he would probably look for people who were good, trustworthy rabble rousers. They may not be able to run a ministry but they would help the PAP win elections first. In other words, have more backbenchers. Your minister types like Howe Yoon Chong — they would still be brought in but at a later age, when they have established a stronger reputation. But he would have more fighters — he who can rally the ground and fight, so you win. Then they form the government and people like us can be appointed ministers.

In the end, you come back to the basic thing. You must be able to win elections. But you must have technocrats to run the government. The best example is Donald Trump. He is a very good politician but he still needs able people to run the government. Unless he brings in good people and listens to them, he can’t run the government. Nelson Mandela told me he could win elections and he knew politics, but he did not know economics or how to run a government. Thabo Mbeki would run the government.

The showpiece of his achievements was MediSave. The thinking behind the scheme was clear: against a backdrop of an ageing population, Singapore needed to move away from a tax-based financing system because the tax revenue was likely to reduce as the workforce shrank. Instead, the solution was in a compulsory personal savings plan for hospitalisation. Such a plan. would also detach the quality of healthcare from the vagaries of economic growth. When individuals co-pay for their own medical expenses, the likelihood of abuses and wastage reduces too. “Otherwise, everybody’s money becomes no one’s responsibility.” said Phua.

But selling MediSave to the public was tricky. When Goh first announced the outlines of the scheme in March 1982, it was only give months after the Anson by-election. The mood on the ground was one of increasing rancour towards the government and the first glimpse of a slightly sceptical people after almost two decades of almost unquestioned trust in Lee and the PAP. It did not help that MediSave was the first major dipping into the CPF for non-retirement purposes after housing in 1968. The public was wary, recalled Goh. “We were going to take CPF money for something new,” he said. “There were quite a lot of murmurings… what was the plan of the government?”

Predictably, the scheme was passed by the PAP-dominant parliament. But remarkably, the public embraced MediSave with nary a hint of controversy. By the time the scheme was implemented in government hospitals in April 1984, Goh had already prepared the ground for two years. Khaw (Boon Wan) praised it as an exemplar of a good policy. “As a result of all this hard and patient work, the implementation was a non-event. That is what a good policy ought to be like,” he said. “The worst is being unprepared and, after you implement, people go “What is that all about” and they start questioning why we are doing this — that would be an example of a bad policy implementation.

He had taken on the job with a strong zeal to save lives but was soon educated on the limits of government in matters of life and death. In the initial months as the minister, he came across cases of young people with kidney failure who could not get access to dialysis machines because of its limited numbers. Why did we have to play God in deciding who could get it and who could not? Why are we not saving a life just because of a lack of dialysis machines? We should save every life,” he said. “My father died young and I looked at these young people and I asked why couldn’t we save them?”

He did the sums and concluded that the government could afford to get more machines. But his permanent secretary in the ministry, the late Andrew Chew, cautioned him against it. “He said, ‘Minister, it is not just kidney failures that we have to worry about. There are other diseases, like cancer, and if you do likewise, you would not have enough money. It is not possible to try and save everybody. You do not have the money. The Finance Minister would not agree,” recalled Goh. “So somehow, we had to decide. It is very sad, but somebody has to play God.”

Let me tell you a story. In NOL, I had an administrative manager. He was very good but he wanted to do most work by himself. I felt that he was not delegating enough. So, I told him one day, you are a very good worker and you do so much work. But do you know that if you want to get promoted, you cannot make yourself indispensable? Because nobody else could do his job! In other words, learn to delegate. If you want to get promoted, you have to train people and delegate. Train them, then you are free to do other things.

And the other part he (LKY) imparted to me was, between an organisation and a man, go for the man first. Do not try and shape an institution, perfect it and find a man for that. Get a good man first. The good man will shape the institution and make a good one.

For four years now, he (LKY) had made known publicly that he would not choose his own successor. He had seen how Winston Churchill failed with his, and later Deng Xiaoping too. Instead, Lee wanted the second-generation leaders to select from among themselves, reasoning that they would then be more likely to support the new leader.

By 1988, it (town councils) was implemented nationwide, with each town council have three MPs, one of them acting as the chairman. Goh did not shy away from saying the policy had a strong dose of politics in it. After the 1984 election, he was keen to put in what he called “stabilisers” in Singapore politics. It was to address a peculiar electoral behaviour which was emerging in the country then. While the voters wanted the PAP as the government, they also wanted to vote in some opposition to check the ruling party. Such a scenario might lead to a freak election when the PAP was voted out when in fact few intended for it to happen.

Goh had another reason for NMP which was less well known. He saw it as an avenue for the government to plug key appointments in the Cabinet if the preferred candidates had lost in an election. Specifically, he was concerned with finding the right men to be Finance and Law Minister. “I was very worried about those two positions.” he said. Given the domain knowledge and expertise needed to fill the two jobs, he wanted a back-up plan in case the PAP ministers with these qualifications were not elected. The NMP scheme would give him a chance to appoint a suitable person from outside the PAP for the job and ensure the government could continue to function well.

Today, there is constant pressure to spend more, and even to dip into our reserves. The public appetite for spending is insatiable. Like Goh Keng Swee, our Finance Ministers must be disciplined and say “no” unless a strong case is built. We should take a long view in our budgeting.

Why do high-flyers in the private sector shun politics? Changes in lifestyle, loss of privacy, lack of personal freedom, family considerations, and the heavy responsibility of a Minister are the main factors. The sizeable loss in income is also a factor. We are also victims of our own success. When the country is doing well, successful Singaporeans would rather pursue personal aspirations and ideals than be scrutinised, and even vilified in politics. Social media and fake news only make things worse.

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