Excerpts from Goh Chok Tong’s biography: Lee Kuan Yew 'never meant for me to be a seat warmer'

The biography titled Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story is written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - A biography about Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong has hit the shelves of bookstores here.

Titled Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, the book chronicles Mr Goh in his youth, his entry into politics, and the highs and lows on his journey to become Singapore's second prime minister.

It also reveals the deliberations and negotiations between Mr Goh and founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, before Singapore's maiden leadership transfer in 1990.

Written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei and published by World Scientific, the book is the first of two volumes on Mr Goh. It contains a foreword and afterword by the Emeritus Senior Minister, and a Q&A segment in each of the book's 10 chapters.

Mr Peh, a partner at content agency The Nutgraf, said Mr Goh's journey to the top was an extraordinary one.

"While the public has seen and heard bits and pieces over the years, this is the first time ESM Goh is opening up and sharing about his past. How did he overcome the early loss of his father? Why did he rise in politics so quickly? What setbacks did he suffer? How did he cope with LKY calling him "wooden" publicly? Readers will find many interesting and insightful stories in the book," he added.

Here are edited excerpts of the Q & A between the author and Mr Goh from the book.

Q: Were you regarded as the top high-flyer in the 1976 general election and seen as one of the potential new Cabinet ministers?

A: 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.

Q: What was the discussion with Lee Kuan Yew after the result? (The People's Action Party had lost the Anson seat in the 1981 by-election to the late J. B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers' Party)

A: There was a post-mortem, and that was how you learnt again. It was a quick post-mortem, but we knew all 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? I felt that we should pass the CC to JBJ. And many of the young ones felt so. I thought we should be fair - he had won, so pass everything on to him.

LKY never scolded us but he asked the older ones. And they said no, we do not pass 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? (The) 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.

Q: (Lee Kuan Yew) did not suggest Lee Hsien Loong and yet he suggested Lee Wei Ling?

A: Wei Ling as an MP. MP is okay. And it was because of her social conscience, which was very strong. At that time, we did not have so many women candidates. We were looking for women candidates and it was difficult to find them. So, he was helping me. It was not because he wanted her, but he was helping me look for candidates. It was in that context - here was a good candidate.

Q: Speaking of women candidates and the Lee family, did you speak to Ho Ching at any point about joining politics?

A: I knew you would ask! I did approach Ho Ching and ask her if she would be interested in politics. It was quite early on. She was about 28, 29 or 30, before she married Lee Hsien Loong. I spotted her in Mindef and thought that she had the intellect and attributes we were looking for. I knew she was a President's Scholar, but I didn't know her well - only superficially because she was in the science part of Mindef. Through briefings and so on, I could see that she had a lot of substance. She would have made a good minister, a different kind of minister.

She did not say no. She said not at this stage. She was still young. After that, I was overtaken by events! She and Hsien Loong got married. As she was part of the Lee family, I never approached her again. I would not have asked her to be a politician. Hsien Loong would be against it. She would be against it. And Singapore would be against it.

Q: Would you be friendly with long-time opposition MPs like Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang too?

A: I regard Chiam as a friend.

Q: As a friend?

A: As a friend, yes. 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.

Q: Would that be the same towards Low?

A: It is the same 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.

Q: So who would be someone whom you would not speak to?

A: Chee Soon Juan.

Q: How did you know that you were not a seat warmer?

A: It was interaction and confidence in (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, my strengths and weaknesses.

Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story is available at major bookstores at $56 (hardcover) and $37 (paperback), excluding GST.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.