ESM Goh Chok Tong on why he decided to have his memoir written

A note from founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the urging of five friends eventually persuaded Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who had decided not to write his memoir, to agree to an authorised biography.
A note from founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and the urging of five friends eventually persuaded Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who had decided not to write his memoir, to agree to an authorised biography.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

SINGAPORE - Even before he became prime minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong had decided not to write his memoir.

But a note from founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the urging of five friends eventually persuaded him to agree to an authorised biography.

The result is Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, which was launched on Thursday (Nov 8)).

"I did not keep a diary of conversations and interactions with people," Mr Goh said in his speech at the book's launch.

"A memoir would be seeing events through my own eyes. Bias is inevitable. Moreover, unlike Mr Lee's fight for independence and struggle to build Singapore, meticulous notes were taken of my official meetings. Historians will not be bereft of materials," he added.

But when Mr Lee gave him a copy of his memoir, From Third World To First: The Singapore Story, he added a note: "To P.M. Goh Chok Tong, You have to write the sequel to the Singapore Story."

Mr Lee had also added the inscription: "With my hope that the lessons need not be paid again by the present generation of Singaporeans."

 
 
 
 

It was signed on Sept 15, 1998, a day before Mr Lee's 75th birthday.

"When I reached 75, I became more acutely aware of my mortality, and the weight of his message," Mr Goh said. "Several friends had also asked me to write my memoir. Still, I said no. Then, five of my senior grassroots leaders suggested an authorised biography."

These long-time grassroots leaders and personal friends - Patrick Ng, Ng Hock Lye, Chua Ee Chek, Kok Pak Chow and Tan Jack Thian - would commission someone to write, Mr Goh said.

"The author would do the heavy lifting - the research, interviews and the writing. The idea of someone looking in from the outside, and unlocking my inner memory, appealed to me."

That writer, chosen by Mr Goh, was Mr Peh Shing Huei, a former news editor at The Straits Times and the co-founder of content agency The Nutgraf.

"Today's occasion belongs to Peh Shing Huei, the writer. I am merely the subject," Mr Goh said.

"Several names were suggested as my possible biographers. I chose Peh Shing Huei. I like his easy-to-read, unpretentious, questions-and-answers style."

Mr Peh and his Nutgraf team did the research while Mr Goh answered his questions candidly.

"We checked and verified my recall of events as necessary," he added.

Mr Goh also asked Straits Times editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang to be a member of Mr Peh's team.

"I valued his shrewdness and insights of Singapore politics. He proved invaluable," Mr Goh said.

"Peh has done a good job in writing up my life till November 1990, when I became Prime Minister. I am happy with the product. Readers' feedback is positive. There will be a volume 2."

In his speech, Mr Peh said he started work on the book a year ago "with more than a bit of trepidation".

"For too long, since ESM Goh stepped down as PM in 2004, many Singaporeans had been wondering when he would write his memoir. We all waited. One year became five and eventually today, 14 years," he said.

"So I knew there were high expectations for this book. We all wanted to know what were his thoughts about global leaders, international affairs and, of course, local politics."

Mr Peh recounted his mounting anxiety before his first interview with Mr Goh, as he had prepared a list of "silly personal questions", such as why Mr Goh did not play basketball despite his impressive height, what he ate at home when he was young and whether his wife was his first girlfriend - all questions which are answered in the book.

Mr Peh recounted that Mr Goh answered the questions patiently and even praised Mr Peh for them because the questions forced him to look back and recall things like what he ate as a child. "The answer, by the way, is tau geh, tau kwa, tau pok, kang kong. Not the most exciting dishes," Mr Peh quipped.

He added: "So, thank you, ESM, for your patience and for sharing your life with me and my team at The Nutgraf. We are most honoured to be able to tell your story and play our role in telling the Singapore Story."

Both Mr Peh and Mr Goh also gave special thanks to Mr Bernard Toh, Mr Goh's special assistant, and Mr Heng Aik Yeow, his press secretary.

Mr Goh said the duo not only sat in at all the interviews and gave useful comments but also chased up on additional materials and pored through many photographs to select the most appropriate ones for the book.

"Sometimes, what I found interesting, they did not. This reinforces my point that an authorised biography is better than an autobiography," Mr Goh said.

There will be another book launch for charity on Nov 21, to raise funds for two groups of disadvantaged children: people with disabilities and disadvantaged students with poor grades.