Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has said in his recently released biography that his cohort within the People’s Action Party (PAP) wanted to give J.B. Jeyaretnam control of the Anson CC when he became the first opposition politician to become elected, but that the old guard of the ruling party led by then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew rejected the idea.
Written by author Peh Shing Huei, the authorised biography entitled Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story covers Goh’s life until the point he becomes the nation’s second Prime Minister in 1990. A second part is expected to cover the rest of Goh’s life and career after he succeeded founding PM Lee Kuan Yew to become head of Government.
Besides writing the foreword and the afterword for the biography, ESM Goh also answers certain questions the author poses in the biography. Peh Shing Huei, a former Straits Times journalist, asks the ruling party leader about his relationship with Lee Kuan Yew and what it was like to be part of the second generation of the PAP.
In the 1976 Singapore general election, at the age of 35, Goh was elected into parliament, as a People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate. He was appointed a Senior Minister of State for Finance. In 1981, he was promoted to Minister for Trade and Industry and later served in other appointments including Minister for Health and Minister for Defence.
In 1985, Goh became the first Deputy Prime Minister and began to assume the responsibility of the government in a carefully managed leadership transition.
Goh admitted to his biographer that he did not foresee that he would be a high-flyer in the party or become a Cabinet Minister when he was fielded in the 1976 election:
“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.”
Five years after Goh became an MP, the PAP’s stronghold in Parliament was broken.
In 1981, at a by-election in Anson Single Member Constituency, J.B Jeyaretnam defeated PAP candidate Pang Kim Hin to become Singapore’s first opposition Member of Parliament (MP).
In his biography, Peh Shing Heui asked Goh about the PAP’s very first electoral defeat at the Anson by-election and Goh revealed that the second generation of the PAP were in favour of passing the Anson CC to Jeyaretnam since he won the election fair and square.
The old guard disagreed and asserted that they could not let Jeyaretnam entrench himself in Anson. Contesting the second generation’s beliefs that the CC belonged to the ward’s institutions, the old guard apparently ruled that the CC is a government facility and part of the Government.
Goh said described the discussion with Lee Kuan Yew after Jeyaratnam’s victory as such:
“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.”
Jeyaretnam was re-elected at the 1984 general election, but lost his seat in Parliament in 1986 following a conviction for falsely accounting the party’s funds. His conviction was subsequently overturned by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which called the conviction a “grievous injustice”.
Jeyaretnam returned to Parliament after the 1997 general election as a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP). However, he was stripped of his NCMP seat in 2001 when he was declared bankrupt after failing to keep up with payments for damages owed to PAP leaders as a result of a libel suit.
He left the Workers’ Party later that year. He was discharged from bankruptcy in 2007, but died of heart failure a year later, in September 2008. Last month marked the late opposition figure’s tenth death anniversary.