Of hijackings and military generals: 5 insights from new book on former PM Goh Chok Tong

(From left) PM Lee Hsien Loong, author Peh Shing Huei and ESM Goh Chok Tong at the book launch on May 7, 2021.
(From left) PM Lee Hsien Loong, author Peh Shing Huei and ESM Goh Chok Tong at the book launch on May 7, 2021.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Standing Tall, the new book chronicling Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's 14 years as prime minister, was launched on Friday (May 7).

It is the second volume of a two-part biography on Mr Goh, and details his electoral triumphs and setbacks, and foreign policy manoeuvres, as well as sets out his thinking on topics such as leadership renewal and foreign manpower.

Here are five interesting revelations from the book:

1. The SQ117 hijacking

When Singapore Airlines flight SQ117 was hijacked in 1991, he gave calm instructions over the phone - then went to bed, leaving the situation in the hands of former senior minister S. Jayakumar, who was then Home Affairs Minister.

There was no need to be anxious and nervous, he said. "If you had a PM who was jumping up and down asking many questions... the whole thing would collapse. So, as the leader of the government, you do not intervene unless it is really necessary."

Mr Goh had a restful seven-hour sleep that night - although he did wake up earlier than usual. In fact, he admits, he was more nervous during his first National Day Rally than he was about the hijacking incident.

2. Building personal relationships

Making friends and building personal relationships with other leaders helped him forge ties between Singapore and the rest of the world.

One example: At an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Seattle in 1993, Mr Goh saw former Indonesian president Suharto standing with his hands in the pockets of his overcoat. He went over to him, asked him if he was cold, and passed him a hand warmer to keep him toasty.

Another example: Seeing Myanmar's Finance Minister Tun Tin standing alone at a cocktail reception at an Asian Development Bank meeting in the late 1970s, Mr Goh went up to talk to him. Mr Tun Tin eventually became the country's prime minister.

"Whenever I went to Myanmar after that, he always had time for me," Mr Goh says. "So, you make friends. You do not have ulterior motives."

3. Death and afterlife

He doesn't believe in the afterlife or fear death - although he will be sad to leave his family and friends behind.

In his own words: "I think I will just disappear. Nothing will happen."

Mr Goh, who is patron of the Inter-Religious Organisation, has started reading the Bible in order to better fulfil his role. He plans to start on the Quran later, as well as the Buddhist books his wife owns. Although he was brought up to pray to his ancestors, he considers himself non-religious.

4. Merdeka Generation package

If he were in charge today, he would take "a deep breath" before introducing the Merdeka Generation Package.

Taken together, the Pioneer and Merdeka Generation packages have created the expectation for a third "Majulah Generation" package, he says.

If the economy continues to grow and there are budgetary surpluses to be shared, this is not a problem. Otherwise, the Majulah Generation will be followed by the "Mati-lah Generation", he quipped, using the Malay word for "death".

5. Military generals in Singapore politics

He believes military generals make good candidates for political leadership, and that Singapore is likely to see more of them.

This group of people are intellectually robust and loyal to the country, Mr Goh said, adding that what has to be tested is their policy versatility and political acumen.

With it getting increasingly difficult to recruit top-tier Singaporeans into politics, generals offer a "ready pool of good potential candidates".

"My point is, looking at the way things are unfolding, you are going to see more generals in Cabinet. This is happening now," he says. "Some people quip that this is why the election is called general election."