ESM Goh Chok Tong launches second part of biography titled Standing Tall

The new book takes a thematic approach to detailing key moments in Mr Goh's career as prime minister.
The new book takes a thematic approach to detailing key moments in Mr Goh's career as prime minister.ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - When Mr Goh Chok Tong got a late-night call informing him that a Singapore Airlines plane had been hijacked in 1991, the then Prime Minister issued instructions calmly - then went to bed.

The response demonstrated his trust in his deputies and epitomised his leadership style, elements of which have been captured in a new book documenting Mr Goh's 14 years at the helm, from 1990 to 2004.

On the SQ117 hijacking incident, Mr Goh, who retired from politics last year and is now Emeritus Senior Minister, observes in the second volume of his biography Standing Tall: "When you plan for worst-case scenarios, and when you trust the professionalism, dedication and judgment of those on the ground, you can stay calm and sleep easy."

The new book - a sequel to Tall Order published in 2018 - was officially launched on Friday (May 7) evening and takes a thematic approach to detailing key moments in Mr Goh's career as prime minister.

These include his electoral triumphs and setbacks, foreign policy manoeuvres and the handling of national crises such as the SQ117 hijacking and 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak.

Standing Tall is written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf, and published by World Scientific.

Each of its 18 chapters reveals a different facet of Mr Goh - for instance, his ability to forge strong personal ties with world leaders and a knack for seizing fleeting chances and making them count.

One such opportunity presented itself in the form of a spur-of-the-moment midnight golf game, which eventually led to Singapore clinching a much-desired free trade agreement with the United States.

Mr Goh had proposed the game to then US President Bill Clinton in 2000, at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation dinner in Brunei. After the game, both men had drinks and the deal was struck.

"How did I know Clinton would play golf at midnight? To be frank, I did not know," Mr Goh said. "It was an instinct, a hunch. I just knew he would."

The 366-page volume also sets out Mr Goh's take on government policies rolled out under his watch, as well as topics such as high ministerial salaries and the elected presidency system - both of which he continues to support.

Pay must never be used to entice people into politics, but the move into politics should not be an additional sacrifice - on top of lifestyle changes and the loss of privacy - that politicians are expected to make, Mr Goh said, adding that the issue can also impact leadership transition.

"If their ministerial pay were much lower, they must ask themselves what they would do to support themselves after retiring," he said. "What I am saying is if the ministerial pay does not allow a minister to save sufficiently, and you are going to turn over a minister for political succession, the minister may resist."

On the elected presidency, he added that the system is fulfilling its purpose and remains fit to do so.

Changes to Singapore's presidency - formerly a ceremonial role - were passed into law in 1992, with the elected president given veto powers over the spending of past reserves and appointment of key government positions.

In 2016, further changes were made to raise the bar of eligibility and ensure minority representation. This saw the introduction of a system of reserved elections for candidates based on ethnicity, should five terms pass without a president from a certain community.

In another chapter, Mr Goh revealed that he was "surprised and annoyed" when he learnt that the number of people given permanent resident status rose steadily in the late 2000s, reaching nearly 80,000 in 2008. At present, Singapore takes in around 30,000 new PRs annually.

But Singapore must not give the impression that foreign skills and talents are not welcome, Mr Goh said, adding that the Government must try its best to explain the need for foreigners to help the country compete on the global stage.

"If you do not like it and vote me out, then I have to take it on the chin," he said.

"But I give Singaporeans far more credit than this. If you are upfront with them, tell them the challenges and trade-offs, most can accept it. They might not like the argument, but in the end, they are sensible and pragmatic."