SINGAPORE: Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's authorised biography, titled Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, has reached bookshelves in Singapore.
Written by former Straits Times journalist Peh Shing Huei, the book is the first of what is expected to be a two-part series.
It tells the story of Mr Goh’s life and career, from his childhood until he takes office as Singapore’s second Prime Minister in 1990, succeeding Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Goh's own voice is heard directly in the book. First, book-ending the volume are a foreword and an afterword written by the Emeritus Senior Minister himself. Within each of the chapters - which take a chronological tour of his life - are also questions and answers from the interviews that the author undertook with Mr Goh.
The following are some excerpts from the Q&A between the author and Mr Goh:
ON HIS CHILDHOOD
What were your nicknames at home and in schools?
No nicknames at home. But Chinese like to use ‘Ah’ before your name, so I was ‘Ah Tong’ growing up at home. But among my friends in school, I had a few nicknames. I went by Panjang (a Malay word which means long). This was how friends teased me, but I never took any offence. One friend called me Shorty. Close friends called me Chok.
Were you tall since primary school?
Oh, I was. When I was in Primary 6, I was 68 inches (172cm) tall, I remember. I was very tall.
ON HIS ENTRY INTO POLITICS
Were you regarded as the top high-flyer in the 1976 general election and seen as one of the potential new Cabinet ministers?
I would not say so. At that time, nobody expected you to be anybody. Succession was still not quite yet flaunted or talked about. How did you know the others would not be high fliers? Nobody speculated that you would be an office holder and there was no point in speculating because the old ministers then were still quite young. It was too early to say. Your bigwigs in politics were there - Toh Chin Chye, Ong Pang Boon, Chua Sian Chin, Jek Yeun Thong, S Rajaratnam, E W Barker. They were in their late 40s, at most 50s. I was 35.
ON PAP’S FIRST ELECTORAL DEFEAT AT THE ANSON BY-ELECTION
What was the discussion with Lee Kuan Yew after the result?
There was a post-mortem. And that was how you learnt again. It was a quick post-mortem, but we all knew the reasons. But it was also looking forward. So, you learnt that what had gone, had gone. We called a meeting of all MPs and the question was: What do we do now in Anson? Do we continue to run the community centre (CC) in Anson or do we pass it on to JBJ (JB Jeyaretnam)? I felt that we should pass on the CC to JBJ. And many of the young ones felt so. I thought we should be fair - he had won, so pass on everything to him. The CC was part of Anson and we should pass it on. British parliamentary rules - accept it and shake his hand. Write him a congratulatory letter and so on. That was the thinking of the younger ones, the MPs.
LKY (Lee Kuan Yew) never scolded us but he asked the older ones. And they said, no, we do not pass it on. We keep it, this is our base. You pass it on to him, he would be entrenched and we would never win Anson back again. This cannot be done. So, you learn. Yet, what is the reason to justify keeping it? This is part of government facility. CC is part of the government - you do not pass on part of the government to the other side. We young naive ones thought the CC was part of the constituency’s institutions and we had to pass it on. The older ones said, no.
ON BRINGING LEE HSIEN LOONG INTO POLITICS
Leading up to the 1984 election, the major talking point was Lee Hsien Loong as a new candidate. Were you prepared for the public interest in him?
Of course. Surely. He is the son of Lee Kuan Yew. Surely people must speculate. The difficulty was for him to convince the public that he was not there because of Lee Kuan Yew. First, he must convince Lee Kuan Yew’s colleagues that he was not put in there by Lee Kuan Yew. Second, the ministers must be convinced that Lee Kuan Yew was not building a dynasty.
Lee Hsien Loong - and I have said it before on many occasions - came in because I spotted him. He was a colonel in the general staff office. He was a young man and I was the Defence Minister. At our Monday meetings, he had to make presentations. He was very articulate. I was very impressed by his articulateness, his logical thinking. So, I said, yes, he has the potential. I asked him if he was keen to be involved in politics some time in the future. He said he was.
ON BEING A "SEAT WARMER"
How did you know you were not a seat warmer?
It was interaction and confidence in him (Lee Kuan Yew). If I suspected that he was just putting me to be a seat warmer for his son, and just for two, three years, what is the point? Then I would have said ‘let us find a way for Lee Hsien Loong to take over from you.’ There was no need to have me. There was no point. But I never worried about the seat warmer joke. In my heart, I knew that Lee Kuan Yew never meant for me to be a seat warmer. Politicians must have some thick skin and be able to laugh it off because in my view, that is not what Lee Kuan Yew regarded me as. You must have self-respect. If Lee Kuan Yew used me for his own purpose, then what is the point for me? History would laugh at you, isn’t it? I have the self-confidence. I was prepared to do the job and I knew he was honest with me, with my strengths and weaknesses.
ON THE OPPOSITION
Would you be friendly with long-time opposition MPs like Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang too?
I regard Chiam as a friend ... I have seen him at dinners outside. He would come to me and I would go and talk to his wife and so on. If I see the wife, I would ask her how Chiam is. He was a gentleman politician. He had his own purpose in politics, which is to create a two-party Parliament. There is nothing wrong with that. We did not like it, but we said, you try, so he tried.
Would that be the same towards Low?
It is the same thing with Low. In fact, with most of the people, it is the same thing. We always watch. What is the purpose, their aspirations, their goals and would they bring Singapore down? Or would they be just difficult opponents for us? Then we got to be better than them. So, if they are honest and honourable and want to do good for Singapore even though it is in a different way, well, we can have a debate on that. But if your views are totally wrong in our view, like promising a welfare state and using the reserves, then we would fight you. We would fight you tooth and nail on your wrong-headed and populist approach.
So who would be someone whom you would not speak to?
Chee Soon Juan.