Writing the story of Singapore’s second prime minister

By Wong Shiying

Author and journalist Peh Shing Huei, who wrote Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, speaks at his office. PHOTO: DARYL CHOO

Many in Singapore were shocked when founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew revealed in front of a live television audience during the 1988 National Day Rally that Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong was not his first choice to be his successor because he wasn’t decisive enough.

After some 30 years have passed, we learn that Mr Goh, who by that time had been chosen by the second generation ministers as their next leader, felt “perplexed, stunned and dumbfounded” by the public put-down.

He thought there could be two reasons for Mr Lee’s criticism. Either Mr Lee wanted to make clear at the outset that he wasn’t to blame if his successor did not work out, or that he was trying to get the team to reconsider its choice and go with his first pick, then-Cabinet minister Tony Tan.

While that remains speculative because Mr Goh never asked Mr Lee directly, it wasn’t the only humbling experience documented in the first volume of his biography Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, published in 2018.

Written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, the book covers Mr Goh’s rise to power from shy student to leader of the Government, and with it, his struggles and missteps.

“We (Mr Goh and I) were very clear from the start that we wanted to tell a balanced story,” said Mr Peh, 45. “This is a story in which we capture his setbacks, less glamorous moments and shameful episodes because that’s reality. You can’t go through an entire life where everything about you is hunky-dory, you’re not superman.”

This authorised biography is also the first book that’s been written about Mr Goh’s personal life and his journey to becoming prime minister. The sequel, which will focus on his time in office, will be launched at the end of this year, two years after the first instalment. While Mr Peh remained tight-lipped on the issues that will be discussed in Volume 2, we can expect to learn more about Mr Goh’s political philosophy and leadership style.

Even with the planned sequel, very little has been written about Mr Goh compared to his predecessor. Mr Lee had written eight books about his life and political insights, most notably One Man’s View Of The World (2013) and Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going (2011). More titles about the man line the shelves of public libraries, courtesy of journalists and academics.

Following in Mr Lee’s footsteps, several People’s Action Party politicians have documented aspects of their personal and political life. The collection includes memoirs by former ministers S Jayakumar and Ho Peng Kee. Mr S Jayakumar, in his memoir titled Be At The Table Or Be On The Menu: A Singapore Memoir, chronicles his early life and career as a law academic and dean before cycling through his stint in politics. Mr Ho recollects his 20-year political journey in his book, My Journey in Politics: Practical Lessons in Leadership, and tackles issues such as drug addiction and juvenile delinquency.

Even the backbenchers have come forward to share their candid reflections on national policies and their experiences as Members of Parliament in the book We Also Served: Reflections of Singapore’s former PAP MPs.

While most of these political memoirs were written by the politicians themselves, Tall Order does not follow this norm. Mr Peh was commissioned to write the story of Mr Goh and he brought his journalist training into the project. This entailed asking Mr Goh some difficult questions and extracting the most salient stories that would appeal to the reader.

Mr Peh pulled no punches. When nine of the detainees in the Marxist conspiracy recanted the confessions they had made the year before, Mr Goh — who was acting prime minister while Mr Lee was abroad at that time — decided to re-detain them the next day. The 24-hour delay made Mr Lee furious. Former Cabinet minister Ahmad Mattar revealed that Mr Lee had chaired a cabinet meeting upon returning to Singapore and said angrily to Mr Goh that “If Loong is not my son, I would have asked him to take over from you now.”

Presented with this revelation, Mr Peh was unsure if Mr Goh would be comfortable including Mr Lee’s harsh admonishment in the book, especially since it had happened behind closed doors. Why would the former prime minister want to shed light on the indignities he had suffered more than 30 years ago? Mr Peh went ahead and when Mr Goh read it, he was not opposed to having it in the book.

“It’s a fact, it happened. I lose face, but that’s ok,” Mr Peh recalled Mr Goh saying.

It was not just Mr Goh’s unflattering moments that caught Mr Peh’s interest. He saw it as his job to play devil’s advocate and ask Mr Goh what he thought of the controversial issues that shook up the nation during his premiership.

This was the Marxist Conspiracy and Graduate Mothers’ Scheme, identified Mr Peh. “Both policy and incident were dealt with extensively in this book. If we just wanted to show off the good things, we would have just thrown these two things out altogether and pretend it didn’t happen. But there was none of that,” he said.

Mr Goh had answered his questions honestly, in a way that would be considered “politically incorrect” today, said Mr Peh. Asked about the Marxist arrests which many felt were unjustified, including former Cabinet minister S. Dhanabalan and senior minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Mr Goh stood by his decision. He attributed it to his “faith in the ISD” and “a deep conviction that (the activists) were up to no good”.

On the infamous Graduate Mothers’ Scheme which gave better-educated women tax breaks and priority admission to schools, Mr Goh said he “instinctively supported it” and was more or less on his (Mr Lee’s) side”. He argued that genes did play a part in the development of a person and the Government should seek to maximise both nature and nurture.

Mr Peh’s tough questioning and Mr Goh’s honest responses drew readers in. The book sold like hotcakes the moment it hit the shelves, surging past the 20,000 mark in under a month. So far, around 30,000 copies of the English edition and 5,000 copies of the Chinese edition have been sold. All royalties from the book sales go towards two charities Mr Goh is a patron of — the Mediacorp Enable Fund and EduGrow for Brighter Tomorrows.

While Mr Goh had no qualms about speaking on controversial issues, he struggled to answer personal questions. He was happy to talk about his parents and childhood but was careful not to reveal too much about his own family.

The journalist in Mr Peh was, however, hungry for more intimate details on Mr Goh’s personal life — “After he told me how he proposed I wanted to know what ring he bought, whether he went down on one knee and which location he chose…”

Mr Peh admitted that he is so used to being the one asking questions that he sometimes forgets how uncomfortable it can be for the person on the other end, especially so for a man in his 70s who grew up in a fairly conservative era. In response to the questions he was not keen to answer, Mr Goh would ask, “Why do you need to know this? Is this important to the book?”

He had requested interviews with Mr Goh’s wife and two children, which were cancelled the day of.

The reason: Mr Goh was uncomfortable bringing attention to his wife and kids, whom he wanted to lead normal lives.

“I respected it, it was pointless to push for it anyway,” said Mr Peh. “That is his private life.”

On the bright side, Mr Peh got to interview his aunt, Ms Goh Shu Er. She would correct Mr Goh when he spoke about his memories from childhood, saying “No, you were just a kid, you had no idea what happened.”

“(To see) someone tell that to the former prime minister was quite fun,” said Mr Peh, laughing.

As he got to know Mr Goh better over the course of a year, what struck Mr Peh the most was his strong sense of humour, much of it self-deprecating. In one interview, ST editor-at-large Han Fook Kwang had asked: “Lee Kuan Yew said much later that Lee Hsien Loong could not succeed him directly and he used the analogy of the gears. He said the two gears would not engage properly. So you are like the…”

As Han struggled to find the appropriate term, Mr Goh quipped, “seat warmer?”

These verbatim extracts of interviews lend a glimpse into Mr Goh’s candid demeanour which has mostly been absent from public records and mainstream media. The interviews were conducted in his Istana office by a team from content agency The Nutgraf.

“(Mr Goh) was not afraid to laugh at himself all the time and that really relaxed the whole team,” said Mr Peh. As we laughed and laughed, we were able to ask him more direct questions which definitely resulted in a better end product.”

Mr Goh himself said he was “happy with the product” during the book’s official launch. He confessed that if he had authored his own biography, it would only be 50 pages long because he has no idea what would be interesting to the reader. After 29 interviews with Mr Goh, Mr Peh has turned the promise of 50 pages into two substantial volumes, and it constitutes an important chapter in the Singapore story.

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