Tall Order – a Review

ESM Goh CT’s announcement of his retirement from politics was in the headlines this evening. This is an opportunity to take a look at his legacy and what better place to look than his biography, Tall Order, by Peh Shing Huei. In addition to the usual historical information about Mr Goh and his progress through the familiar pathway, Raffles Institution, scholarship in the US, government linked company, politics etc, there are some very interesting insights into the workings of the PAP (although mainly the 2G PAP) that are timely to examine at the time of a general election.

Mr Goh’s first encounter with Mr Lee Kuan Yew as an adult is reported on page 48 as occurring after Mr Goh returned from Williams College in 1967. When Lee saw Goh, he said, “I am looking for a general factotum” Goh was puzzled and Lee explained “You know, an errand boy”… when Mr Goh told his mentor Mr JYM Pillay that he had been posted as PM Lee Kuan Yew’s personal private secretary (PPS), Mr Pillay put his foot down, reportedly annoyed, saying “I did not send you to Williams College to be his private secretary” and ensured that he returned to the Ministry of Finance’s Economic Planning Unit. The description of this incident in the book must surely trouble the former PPS’s in the current cabinet.

His first electoral contest was in Marine Parade constituency (page 56ff). Mr Goh claimed that the money and manpower he needed for the campaign came from the Chai Chee PAP branch. In Mr Goh’s words, “Party headquarters never offered and Yeoh Ghim Seng was supposed to look after me, but never offered.” Mr Goh still won convincingly with 78.6 percent of the vote but inexplicably, was criticised by Mr Lee Kuan Yew in parliament in Feb 1977 who compared Mr Goh’s performance with the MP for Buona Vista. Mr Lee offered reasons why veteran MP Prof Ang Kok Peng did better than novice Mr Goh but Mr Goh’s own theory was that “the answer is racial”. Thus the seeds of the PAP’s racial politics which became manifest in the Presidential Election of 2017 may have had their roots way back in the mid 1970s.

One of Mr Goh’s earliest acts in Marine Parade was the establishment of resident’s committees with the help of his founding PAP branch secretary Mr Tan Kin Lian (page 68ff). Apparently, that there was a paper put up to a PAP task force headed by Mr Hwang Soo Jin. “… on forming block working committees using policemen who had priority to get their HDB flats as the nucleus. At that time, petty crime was quite rife in the many new housing estates so the idea was to use the police. They were given priority in buying their flats so they would anchor a block and, from there, form a block working committee”. This alarmed Mr Goh as he pointed out that Singapore was already labelled by some as a police state, so he suggested an alternative – a “precinct resident’s committee for which “the police should still be drawn in – but the leaders must be non-policemen”. Mr Hwang reported “of course, to Lee Kuan Yew” who approved the idea. Mr Goh tries to make the distinction between “bonding people which is political” and RCs which were “not directly political” describing how many of the RC members “said they were grassroots leaders and asked not to campaign” during elections. This resulted in the PAP “branch leaders” getting “very angry” at the RC members who did not come to help in the campaign. Apparently Mr Goh had to intervene to educate the PAP branch leaders on the distinction between party and grassroots. It is not clear if that still happens.

The search for new PAP leaders after independence is described in a series of waves (page 76ff). Quoting from Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s autobiography, the first wave, in the 1970s is described as the rise of activists from the party branches, election volunteers etc which was “discovered” to be “dreadful”. The next wave was to select PhDs for PAP party roles but that “failed to pay off” and so in 1976, the “talent search” pivoted to technocrats. This may explain the current wave from the military and government linked companies.

There are also fascinating insights into the “camps” within the PAP which have previously been the subject of much speculation but rarely discussed openly.  In response to the book author’s question about opposition within the party to the rise of the technocrats, Mr Goh says (page 89) “Toh Chin Chye, Ong Pang Boon and that camp never got involved with us. Goh Keng Swee – that was Lee Kuan Yew’s camp – Rajaratnam, Lim Kim San, Ho Sui Sen and so on, they were supportive of renewal ” One wonders what are the 4G equivalents of the 1G camps!

Mr Goh recounts (page 92ff) discontent about the selection of PAP candidates for the 1984 GE which Mr Goh describes as the “most awkward experience” of his political career. He had to take back the election manuals from MPs who were removed from the slate just before the election. The loss of face for the MPs who had previously told their “branch people” that they were safe from the cuts obviously pained Mr Goh who explained that he was merely carrying out Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s orders. When the biographer asks Mr Goh the rationale for this unusually cruel act, Mr Goh let loose one of the most interesting parts of the book. He writes “that is the nub of the story. If you let them know too early, Toh Chin Chye, Ong Pang Boon and a few others might organise a protest. They might leave the party and fight us. In other words, LKY was not sure whether they would do it or not…” When the biographer seems somewhat incredulous that Mr Lee was afraid of a PAP split in 1984, Mr Goh clarifies “if you knew Lee Kuan Yew, you knew what he had gone through when Barisan split from the PAP. After that he did not trust anyone fully in politics.”

When pressed on the reasons for a possible split, Mr Goh points out the elite views of Mr Lee versus Dr Toh who had greater faith in the party activists. When Dr Toh told Mr Lee about the branch activists who could become MPs, ” Lee Kuan Yew would just laugh”, according to Mr Goh as he thought that the activists would be “like UMNO, just groundwork and getting votes and so on”, rather than suitable for ministerial positions.

Mr Goh led the campaign for the 1979 by-elections and the 1980 GE where the PAP increased its vote share to 77.7 percent. However, his rise in the party was unexpectedly checked. In the CEC after the 1980 GE, Mr Goh was “widely expected” (page 95 ff) to cement his position as “first among equals” among the “second generation leadership” but instead Dr Tony Tan was moved above him as first assistant sec-gen. Mr Goh recalls that “LKY told me he wanted to make Tony the first assistant sec-gen, so I said okay”. As the biographer reiterates ” Lee asked Goh if he minded but did not tell him why he was pushing Tan ahead of him, leaving Mr Goh to speculate on the reasons.

Mr Goh’s account of the historic 1981 Anson by-election is even more striking. He describes (page 102) PAP candidate Pang Kim Hin as an “ah siah kia” (rich man’s son) and similar to Ms Tin Pei Ling in the 2011 General election. After Mr JB Jeyaratnam’s victory – the PAP MPs were gathered for a post-mortem. Apparently the “younger MPs wanted to do the right thing by ” British parliamentary rules – accept it and shake his hand…” and hand over the resources such as the community center (page 109ff). The response was swift. “LKY and the older ones” said “We keep it, this is our base. You pass it on to him, he would be entreched and we would never win Anson back again.” Thus the policy of using the publicly funded resources in the People’s Association to preserve the political privileges of the party in power became part of Singapore’s political culture.

The subsequent account of Mr Goh’s time at the ministry of health includes an unusual description of the leadership of the Ministry (page 136ff). Apparently, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had wanted to remove Dr Toh Chin Chye as minister of health and also Mr Howe Yoon Chong as minister of defence. For some reason, according to Mr Goh “LKY had to park Howe somewhere, (so) he chose the health ministry”. Mr Goh then accepted the position of ” second health minister” but he was “wise” and “never stepped into the Health Ministry”. The reason given was that if Mr Goh ” attended meetings as Second Health Minister, it would be like spying on him to report to Lee Kuan Yew” apparently “to make sure he did not do crazy things”. This makes one wonder if this practice continues and how many if any of the current ministers “never step into the ministry” they helm to avoid being seen as “spying” for the Prime Minister.

The account of Mr Goh’s selection as Prime Minister designate is also fascinating – it was not at a formal meeting of the party Central Executive Committee. Instead (page 149ff), Mr Tony Tan (then the Asst Sec Gen) invited 11 PAP Leaders to his home – seven ministers three ministers of State and “rookie Lee Hsien Loong who had just entered politics”. Mr Goh was apparently not there when the decision was taken over “coffee, orange juice and chocolate cake”. This was a decision which was reportedly “already settled” by the time Mr Goh arrived for his chocolate cake. This was reported in Petir in 1987 by Mr Jayakumar.

In reviewing the Dec 1984 leadership decision, Mr Goh addressed the question of the “rookie” head-on in the book. In response, Mr Goh said “Lee Kuan Yew was a very Machiavellian leader. After a while, it was possible that Lee Hsien Loong would take over. How would you know?” In an unusual commentary on the position of a deputy prime minister in a constitutional democracy, the biographer reports “He (Mr Goh) was well aware that an overreach by him would have led to his head being chopped”. (page 153)  

Mr Goh goes on to describe how he “brought Mr Lee Hsien Loong” into politics, taking pains to show how it was not Mr Lee Sr directly but indirectly through Mr Goh and interestingly enough through a letter from a Cambridge mathematics professor which Mr Lee Kuan Yew “asked to be read” at a cabinet meeting to persuade Mr Ong Pang Boon and Mr Toh Chin Chye who were opposed to a “dynasty which would be bad for the PAP and for the country”.(page 161)  Mr Goh describes his thinking as such, “If I did not suggest Hsien Loong then he (Mr Lee Kuan Yew) could have said “My God, this fellow is afraid of competition”. He says that Mr Lee Sr did not want his son to succeed him directly as the “gears would clash” so he needed someone who Goh jokingly called a “lubricant” rather than the more widely used and more pejorative term “Seat warmer”.

Another revealing incident describes the re-arrest of the so-called Marxist conspirators after they had issued a statement denouncing their arrests. Apparently Mr Lee Kuan Yew was very angry with Mr Goh for taking 24 hours to re-arrest the detainees. Mr Ahmad Mattar describes being “embarrassed and infuriated” by Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s comment at the cabinet meeting that followed that “If Loong is not my son I would have asked him to take over from you now”. Mr Goh acknowledged the disagreements of his cabinet colleagues Mr S Dhanabalan and later Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam about the arrests but remains convinced that he had to do it.(page 207ff) although he still does not provide any evidence of the threat they posed.

Although Mr Goh reports that the one person he would not want to meet and hold a conversation with is Dr Chee Soon Juan, he does pay Dr Chee an unexpected compliment by saying that Mr Lee Kuan Yew liked to say (page 221) “that without the GRC , Teo Chee Hean on his own, standing in a single ward, might not win against somebody like Chee Soon Juan”

And that, is the most intriguing thing about this book to the readers of this website. The 2G PAP were so afraid of independent minds like Dr Chee that they set up the GRC system, the 4G PAP are still so afraid of Dr Chee and the others like him that they are holding an election during a pandemic with severe limitations on access to voters etc. This time hopefully the people of Singapore will say “enough!”

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