Public calm, private anguish: PM Lee on ESM Goh's handling of 2003 Sars crisis

Mr Goh was the right leader at the right time, as he set out to forge a new social compact. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - When the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) hit Singapore in 2003, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong mounted a "maximum national response" to stem the spread.

Although he appeared calm and collected in public - rallying the nation behind him and his team - he confided his anxieties and worries to those around him, recounted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Friday (May 7).

"He was anguished about each Sars death that occurred, particularly those of the brave medical workers," PM Lee said. "One of his Marine Parade activists recalled him exclaiming, 'My people are dying! They are my people!'"

But the crisis strengthened his resolve to do his duty and keep Singaporeans safe. It also gave the country a baseline to work from when the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year, Mr Lee added.

The Prime Minister was speaking at the launch of Standing Tall, the second volume in a two-part biography of Mr Goh. The book is written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf, and published by World Scientific. It touches on topics that have defined Mr Goh's 14-year premiership, including the Sars crisis a year before he stepped down in 2004.

In his speech, PM Lee set out the situation when Sars hit Singapore.

The country had no playbook for dealing with such a crisis, he said, adding that no one knew what the new disease was or how long the outbreak would last.

At the time, Mr Goh marshalled the whole government machinery to put in place temperature screening, contact tracing and quarantining of contacts. Screening protocols were put in place at Singapore's borders and public spaces, with medical resources mobilised in hospitals. As part of the "detect, isolate and contain" strategy, schools were also closed to reassure parents.

"He explained the situation to Singaporeans, calmly and clearly - what we needed to do, individually and together. People understood what was at stake, took heart, and played their part to win the fight," Mr Lee said.

Sars did not break Singapore, but made it stronger. When Covid-19 hit 17 years later, it adapted the measures that worked during the Sars period, Mr Lee added.

"Covid-19 is a new and different disease, and has demanded fresh thinking and responses from us. But the Sars experience gave us a baseline to work from, and a head start in bringing Covid-19 under control," he said.

Mr Lee noted that the country is not yet out of the woods, having just had to tighten restrictions in order to prevent community cases from spiking. "But having overcome Sars once, we are confident that despite all the twists and turns, we will overcome Covid-19 too."

When Mr Goh took over as prime minister, Singapore society was changing and the times called for a new leader with a fresh touch, Mr Lee added.

Mr Goh - a milder, gentler, more personal man than his predecessor, founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew - was the right leader at the right time, as he set out to forge a new social compact.

"The change of gear suited that period in Singapore's development," Mr Lee said. "The 'kinder and gentler Singapore' that Chok Tong talked about resonated with the new generation."

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