Goh Chok Tong's midnight golf game with US President Bill Clinton in 2000: The untold story

Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (left) having a game of midnight golf with former President Bill Clinton in Brunei in 2000. -- PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong (left) having a game of midnight golf with former President Bill Clinton in Brunei in 2000. -- PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

IN the late 1990s, Singapore's economy was affected by the Asian Financial Crisis. The global economy then looked like it was in danger of coalescing into regional trading blocs; and the WTO Doha Round of negotiations was floundering.

We decided to pursue bilateral and plurilateral FTAs even as global trade negotiations were taking place in parallel. Some 15 FTAs were eventually signed or conceptualised during my tenure (as prime minister). The US-Singapore FTA was one of the most important but concluding it was a drama.

We had our eyes on an FTA with the US for some time, but some quarters in President Clinton's Administration were less enthusiastic.

You may recall that in 1994, Singapore sentenced Michael Fay, an American teenager, to jail and caning, for vandalism and theft. President Clinton requested that we grant Fay clemency from caning. We were put in a dilemma. On the one hand, we need to stand firm on the rule of law. Otherwise, we lose credibility in the eyes of Singaporeans and in particular President Soeharto, amongst other foreign leaders. Again you might recall that we had proceeded with the hanging of the two commandos from Indonesia who bombed MacDonald House and killed some innocent Singaporeans, despite Soeharto's appeal. On the other hand, had we granted clemency, we would not have done our relationship with the US a favour, because we would be seen to be a client state of the US.

So, we deliberated with this issue carefully and we decided that we should show that we had given President Clinton's appeal serious consideration and yet, stood by our principle of the rule of law. We decided to cane Michael Fay but reduced the number of strokes from six to four.

Clinton's White House staff kept Singapore at arm's length after this to show the US' displeasure. My request to visit the White House was turned down - we could not get through the White House gatekeepers.

But as luck would have it, I had become friends with an American whom I played golf with in the Augusta National Golf Club. When this friend visited Singapore a little later and learnt that I had not been able to get access into the White House, he said that he would try and do something about it. He was a friend of Bill. He was from Little Rock, Arkansas, same place as Bill Clinton, so I left it at that.

And it was only two years ago when I met this friend again at Augusta for a golf game, that he told me he had actually spoken to President Clinton about my inability to visit him because of the block by his gatekeepers. So that explained a mystery which I suspected but which I could not quite confirm, as to why at the APEC Leaders meeting in Vancouver in 1997, out of the blue, Clinton invited me to play golf. So that's Clinton's clever way of by passing the gatekeepers. So I had my first golf game with him in Vancouver because of this mutual friend that we had.

The following year, I was welcomed at the White House.

As a postscript, Michael Fay had several brushes with the law after his return to the US. When I hosted Clinton to dinner in Singapore in 2002, he mentioned Michael Fay in a light-hearted moment. He quipped, "You should have caned him more" and added that Fay's father should also have caned him earlier.

Well, I recount this story to show how we stood by our principles to the world's most powerful country, to the world's most powerful man, when knowing that there would be a cost to pay. So standing by principles is very important, even though there will be costs to pay.

But it is also to provide the background to the conception of this idea of USSFTA, US-Singapore Free Trade arrangement - conception on a golf course again.

The APEC Leaders meeting in Brunei in November 2000 was the backdrop. I knew Clinton was a night owl. I've done my homework. So before the state banquet started, I approached him. I said, "what would you be doing after the banquet?" I told him I'm looking for a partner to play golf. He said yes, he's also looking for a partner. So I said, "okay, let's go and play golf." I anticipated that. I had my golf bag and my golfing attire all packed in my car, ready to go!

Then, horrors, before we departed, while we were still waiting for the car, a sudden rain storm erupted. It was one of the heaviest thunderstorms I had come across. And a Clinton aide told me, "Looks like the game is off." So I put on a bold front and told him no, I know my weather, this is a tropical thunderstorm, it will blow over in half-an-hour's time. And I added, the golf course is 30 minutes away. So knowing a little bit about psychology, I told him I am going anyway. I leave it to the President but I'm going.

So I went, and when President Clinton arrived at the course after me, the rain had become a light drizzle. Then he changed into his attire, his golfing attire. By the time he finished that, the rain had stopped completely. You might not know this but this is about midnight. You know, night golf, where they have these lights on the golf course which you could play in Brunei.

We played 18 holes. After we had finished at about 2.00 am, I made a pitch for a USSFTA. My argument was a simple one. The FTA would signal strongly the US' strategic interest in Asia and anchor the US in Asia. He said that it was worth doing so we agreed to launch the FTA, all in under 20 minutes.

Our agreement, and the occasion, place, time, manner and speed in which it was reached amazed the American and Singapore officials! The next day of course, the officials started to work to draft the press statement on this agreement to have the FTA.

My good personal relations with Clinton also helped to restore normalcy to our bilateral relationship following the Michael Fay episode.

But the crucial factor was having a strategic and decisive counterpart. Bill Clinton was such a leader. Our two countries' strategic interests in having a bilateral FTA were aligned. Ultimately, trade is strategy. The FTA was for geopolitical reasons, not just about lowering tariffs and more trade.

National interests are foremost in determining a country's foreign policy; but personal chemistry and relationships are important enabling factors. No leader operates in a vacuum. He must work with other leaders to succeed together. But we must know how to get the other person to see the benefits of our idea from his perspective, and from his country's point of view - not from yours, but from his.

So, the art of persuasion lies in aligning our interests with that of our foreign friends', and getting them to see that the benefits to their countries far outweigh the potential costs, if any. Personal warmth provides the opening and a helpful push.

This is an excerpt from a lecture delivered by Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, at the S. Rajaratnam lecture on Oct 17, 2014.