Singapore — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was the guest of honour at the launch of Standing Tall — The Goh Chok Tong Years, the second volume of the former PM Goh’s biography, on Friday (May 7).
Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh hoped readers will enjoy reading his biography.
The book’s author, journalist Peh Shing Huei, said it is “packed with drama, adventure, and also lessons for Singapore in the new millennia”.
Mr Peh also penned Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, Volume 1 published in 2018.
In the first volume, he told the extraordinary story of Mr Goh’s life and career over half a century, revealing how Singapore’s second Prime Minister rose through a combination of strength, wit and a political nous which many, including himself, did not know he had.
This second volume captures the transformation of Mr Goh as a political leader, evolving from a Prime Minister with a touch of naivety to a hard-nosed strategist. How he introduced some of the country’s most controversial policies, including the foreign talent scheme and formula for ministerial salaries, while advancing a kinder and gentler Singapore with the likes of MediFund and Edusave.
“I am confident the sequel will surpass the original,” said Mr Peh at the start of the launch, adding: “The first book was building up to this one, ‘the main event.”
The title Standing Tall originated from Singapore writer Catherine Lim, a fiction author known for writing about Singapore society and themes of traditional Chinese culture.
In addition to Mr Peh, both Mr Goh and PM Lee gave speeches at the launch.
Why this biography?
Mr Goh said, “My main objective of doing my biography is to encourage present and future generations of able Singaporeans to serve their country. My concern is that many have assumed that their good lives will continue indefinitely and have not fully understood that the complex task of keeping Singapore going requires an effective pipeline of good, dedicated and inspiring leaders.”
He mentioned the recent change in the 4G leadership plan, with Mr Heng Swee Keat stepping down as DPM, noting that carefully managed political succession has been the hallmark of Singapore politics since Independence. It has given us political predictability, stability and good governments.
He offered a story about his time when the Government sent him to study Development Economics in Williams College, USA, in 1966, a special course for young officials from developing countries. His class of 20 came from 16 different countries. “Three of the 16 countries broke apart into smaller states: Pakistan, Yugoslavia and Ethiopia. Three were convulsed by revolutions or violence: Philippines, Egypt and Liberia. Others had patchy performance: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Bolivia, Colombia and Honduras. Malaysia, India and Mexico did relatively well. Singapore was the only one which became an advanced high-income country,” he said.
Thus he wrote in one of the reflections in Standing Tall, “I have watched the fortunes of many countries. I have long concluded that it is the competence, iron and the ethical values of political leaders which ultimately determine the fate of countries.”
That is the primary lesson he wants to transmit through his biography: the future of a country depends on its leaders. Good leaders institute good governance. Good governance delivers a safe, secure, stable and conducive environment for its people to grow, compete, succeed and flourish. Therefore, leaders impact our lives and our future, for better or for worse.
Additionally, he added that “good leaders should possess Integrity, Iron, Intelligence; and be Inspiring and Impactful”.
Mr Goh said that he does not “believe that good leaders will automatically emerge in a democracy nor that the whims of elections can guarantee a slate of the best to govern the country. For democracy to work, ours anyway, we must offer the best candidates possible for the people to choose.”
About Heng Swee Keat & 4G
Thus with regard to DPM Heng’s decision to step aside, Mr Goh commends Mr Heng’s self-sacrifice, saying: “It takes courage and selflessness to do this when one is only a step away from being Prime Minister. He has put the interests of Singapore first, like a good leader should.”
He advised the 4G to continue working closely as a team to set the agenda for Singapore. “Deliberate carefully who amongst you should be the leader, and band together to support the leader once a decision is made.” he urged.
He said Singaporeans should give the 4G time to decide on their primus inter pares ( first among equals), as it is an important decision for Singapore’s next lap.
He thanked his former colleagues, including Tony Tan, Jayakumar, Wong Kan Seng, Dhanabalan, Ong Teng Cheong. “We trusted each other. We worked as a team, with members looking out for one another. We had a shared sense of purpose. We were united. Without this team, I would not have succeeded as Prime Minister. Nor would Singapore have grown and flourished.”
He also thanked PM Lee, who he hoped would write a sequel to his story, and to the Singapore Story of Lee Kuan Yew.
‘Let us all do our part to keep Singapore “Standing Tall”.’ he concluded.
PM Lee also made a speech as the guest-of-honour, touching on the contents of the book including the SARS outbreak in 2003, the new social compact of Singapore, and leadership succession.
PM Lee recounted “I worked closely with Chok Tong, supporting him as his Deputy Prime Minister, in most of these events. As a participant, reading the book brought back many memories. I was also pleasantly surprised to learn some new things too.”
PM Lee also compared the stories in the biography to the current situations. Touching on the Sars outbreak, he explained that “having overcome Sars once, we are confident that despite all the twists and turns, we will overcome Covid-19 too.”
He also recalled how Mr Goh set out to forge a new social compact with Singaporeans. He described Mr Goh as milder, gentler, and more personal than Mr Lee (Kuan Yew), yet no less clear-headed and steady. He established connections with people in his own way, to walk in his own shoes.
This shift in leadership was reflected through policies to share economic gains more inclusively across society; spread opportunities more widely and equitably; extend an extra helping hand to the lower-income and vulnerable; and level up our society and leave no one behind. Some include the introduction of Edusave to motivate students, upgrading HDB to enhance the value of homes, and creating Medifund to ensure no Singaporean was denied medical care because they could not afford it.
“We continue to travel on this journey, which Chok Tong began,” PM Lee elaborated, noting the constant efforts to balance the demands for greater social justice and more equal opportunities, with the imperative to keep our schemes financially sustainable, and giving people every incentive to strive and excel.
PM Lee also shared about Mr Goh’s skills in persuasion, mentioning many party members who were brought in by him, including, Teo Chee Hean, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Vivian Balakrishnan, and PM Lee himself.
“Chok Tong was kind enough to agree to my request to stay on in my Cabinet as Senior Minister. He was an invaluable source of support and counsel, and still is long after leaving the Cabinet,” PM Lee had added.
He also addresses the 4G leaders in his speech, noting that they can look at Mr Goh’s team as a template. “Whoever will be Prime Minister must first and foremost be someone who can bring the rest together. Pull them together, make the most of the strengths of each minister, and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts,” he said, adding that this was the secret of Mr Goh’ successful premiership.
He thanked Mr Goh for a lifetime of selfless and distinguished service, saying that it was a “tall order” to keep Singapore “standing tall” (a pun on the names of the two biographies).
Lastly, he thanked Mr Goh for giving his all and more in the service of Singapore and Singaporeans, and wished him good health and the very best.
Denise Teh is an intern at The Independent SG. /TISGFollow us on Social Media
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