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Sunday, August 13, 2006 

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong
The Benevolent Leader or The Unwilling Candidate?

I think to those who read my blog, they often have five conclusions: 1) I don’t update my blog that often (in my defense, I am rather busy and each article takes lots o f research… *eyeballs rolling*); 2) This blog seems like a FAQ for the govt and PAP (doesn’t mean that I am pro-PAP); 3) Each article is so damn lengthy (that is if you read them); 4) I wrote more on the dead than the living (or when the living becomes dead); 5) Whatever you wish to read, I’ll try to write! (*fingers crossed*)

In this article, I’ll be writing on a recent and continuing history of SM Goh Chok Tong with a slight twist. There are little doubts that he was a popular PM in comparison with his predecessor and successor. His “softer” approach and style was a breath of fresh air to many. Upon his stepping down from his premiership, there have been many articles written on his policies, his leadership and his achievements. This will not be one of them. Simply, if I do write on those standard contents, you will be better off reading the Straits Times than this lengthy blasphemy (not that Straits Times always purport the unbiased truth!).

The first lesson of observing political truths is to never treat an entity as one (btw, who am I to teach lessons of politics…Ooops). In other words, is never to stereotype or characterize the entity. What is the PAP? What characteristics does the PAP MPs or Ministers have? These questions are fallacies. Behind the scenes of unity, there may be differences in opinions, characters and ambitions. There is no PAP character or person but is just an amalgamation of diverse people and their motives. Anyway, many of policies made within the Cabinet are not unanimous. That is politics; the innate and unseen character of each participating entity. Of course, like what Lim Kim San mentioned about assessing people is that one could only briefly know the other person through observation and instinct. This is what made assessing politicians so difficult. In the public face and media spotlight, we thought we know them like friends but there are more that we don’t know than we thought we know. The resulting impact is that we place mental and perception brackets on their names, like Lee Kuan Yew (the Authoritarian), Goh Chok Tong (the Good Guy) and the Cabinet (the group of “Yes-men”) based on what the media feeds to us. This article (or blasphemy, depending on how you see it) will just add fuel for your thoughts with statements from GCT and on GCT. Ultimately, this blog can’t claim to know or speak the unspoken truth on GCT or any politicians, but just form an alternative perception track. I’ll leave you to make your own conclusions.

His Political Beginnings
In LKY’s memoirs (Chapter 41 – Passing the Baton, Pg 735), he mentioned about how he ease the way for GCT to succeed him. For those who have not read that chapter, I strongly recommend that you do. That chapter is very interesting as words are contained within words. Depending on which angle you read, you will get a different story.

First, we must know that LKY’s book was an international bestseller across many countries, and read by most leaders around the world. Second fact is that whatever he wrote in his book about GCT or LHL would be what foreign leaders read about them. In that chapter, he described GCT as “not a natural politician…tall, gangling and awkward, and spoke English with a heavy Hokkien accent.” This is not the best description for the person who is about to succeed you. LKY also described GCT as “self-conscious and without the gift of speech-making but had ability, dedication and drive, and was interested in people”. Later LKY even mentioned that he found an English women to teach GCT to speak in a more relaxed and natural way. For a person who will be Prime Minister, he still needed someone to assist him to look for a tutor? This might have pointed out that GCT wasn’t really in the “driving seat” but had an instructor beside him, constantly.

Another interesting point to the chapter was GCT not wanting move into LKY’s office. “I did not suffer any withdrawal syndrome. Chok Tong did not want to move into my old office in the Istana Annexe, which I had occupied for 20 years since I moved from City Hall, but chose to create a new office on the floor above mine.” Aside from the niceties that one might think of when he first read it, there might be more significance in that statement. Maybe LKY was literately the “power behind the throne”, or maybe it suggested how much power LKY had and wish to remind GCT about it. More importantly, what is the message that LKY wants to bring to all the leaders in the world about his deputy?

Building His Own Legitimacy
Perhaps the second lesson of politics is the word, “legitimacy”. Whether be it an organization or leader, it or he has to have some form of legitimacy. The forms of legitimacy includes: mandate from people (elections), leadership charisma (eg: Mao Tze-Dong), expert knowledge (for technocrats), military power (like in Indonesia) or economic performances. The last form of legitimacy, economic performances, is developing into the most important form for any political office. For the case of PAP, the core strength is their ability to provide economic success and is unmatched by any parties. No opposition parties came close to challenging them in that area. The trends for the past few GEs was for the oppositions to divert away from economical issues and focus on other side issues such as human rights infringements.

For leaders, they too have to build their own legitimacy and mandate as well. “Inherited” authority will not last long without legitimacy. Similarly, if a leader managed to last long (in at least a semi-democratic country), you could somewhat say that he is not riding on “inherited” authority but has some form of legitimacy (yes, I am hinted at someone).

In the case of GCT, many assumed that he was a seat-warmer, sandwiched between the Lees. In his early political years as PM, he needed to gain support from three areas, within the Cabinet, within the Party cadres and with the Singapore population. His apparent tactics was to first gain the mandate of the Singaporeans by General Elections then gradually make changes within the party and Cabinet to place the men loyal to him in key positions. Doing the opposite might anger his predecessor who still has considerably power and influence over all matters. He has seen lessons from his neighbouring counterparties and will be careful not to make the same mistakes. However, his election mandate will not come easy. Since Independence, LKY has been Singapore’s only Prime Minister. For GCT to step into his shoes and gain the confidence of the population was no easy feat.

Altered Ego in Elections
However, his first GE (1991) was setback from him and probably changed his “election personality” several degrees. In the 1991 GE, the PAP lost a record of 4 seats to the opposition, one of which was his female Senior Minister of State, Seet Ai Mee. Other wards, such as Bukit Batok, were barely won by the PAP. That election was the turning point of his “election mentality”. Since then, he has opted to be tougher during elections with his words and actions.

In the 1997 Election, he was determined to be tough on the Oppositions and would take them out by any means, previously endorsed by LKY. During the “Battle of Cheng San”, GCT gave this message,

“You decide. You choose Tang Liang Hong, Jeyeratnam, raise their status and lower the Prime Minister’s the Deputy Prime Ministers’ stature, in Singapore, internationally, that will have very serious consequences.”

“What we are now doing is to… put all the chips on the table. It is a winner-takes-all situation. MRT, LRT, Punggol 21, upgrading, estate improvement, libraries, kindergartens, better schools… all these are plans which… have put to the people.”

“We win, Cheng San will get not just the attention of Lee Yock Suan and the team. Cheng San will get the Government’s attention, my attention, Lee Hsien Loong’s attention, Tony Tan’s attention. Even in Marine Parade you don’t get such attention. So you win big or you lose big. So tomorrow, you have to decide.”

Of course, we all knew what happened to Tang Liang Hong and JBJ after that Election.

Era of Disposed Number Ones & Downfall of Twos
cheng ye xiao he, bai ye xiao he” – He who gave you success, can bring your downfall.

If one reads the memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, both volumes, you could sense his apprehension over several domestic issues such as Party splits (which I will mention later), succession planning, ousting of top Asian leaders and the downfalls of Number Twos. Not known to many is that the PAP suffered a Party split twice, once by the charismatic Mayor Ong Eng Guan and by the leftist, Lim Chin Siong. The latter split was devastating and almost permanently crippled the PAP. In recent history of our neighbours, UMNO suffered two party splits when Tengku Razaleigh openly challenged Mahathir in 1987 and when Anwar fell out with Dr M. These incidents, locally and abroad, remained deeply entrenched in LKY’s mind, even until today.

The world has seen plenty of examples of the difficult relationships between the leaders and their deputies. All these incidents led both LKY and GCT to rethink their own potentially precarious position. No matter what LKY said, deep down, he wanted LHL to be the Prime Minister someday. And he could only exert his influence if he is still in Cabinet. And for GCT, he knows what LKY wants from him and knows that LKY still has the ability and power to remove him should there be a need to. This is a tango that both are dancing in secret. Given their delicate relationship, it is not surprising to see GCT echoing most of LKY views and words. If you look through all the news reports on GCT, majority of his words are singing in the same tune as what LKY previously sung. In the opinions of many, GCT never really stepped out of LKY’s shadow.

Unwillingly Unseated?
Many often wondered if GCT stepped down willingly from the position of PM or was he pressed into doing so. Perhaps only three people in Singapore know the answer. But what we can do is to decipher his actions and words leading up to his stepping down. In the article on Lee Hsien Loong, I’ve mentioned this before and will do it here again. During GCT’s last National Day Rally as Prime Minister, he mentioned this:

“You may also have heard this old story about Loong. Back in 1990, Loong had a quarrel with Richard Hu. Dhanabalan sided with Richard. Loong lost his temper, reached across the table, and gave Dhanabalan a tight slap! The whole Cabinet was thrown into commotion. I then forced Loong to apologise.

I must be suffering from amnesia. I just cannot remember this incident! Now you know how creative Singaporeans are!”

GCT need not mention the Dhanabalan incident since it was already 13 years ago (from the National Day Rally). People wouldn’t remember if they weren’t reminded by him. But he still made that comment and later claimed amnesia. And for the first time in Singapore history, GCT created a three-step process to the transition of power, through endorsements from the PAP Central Executive Committee, PAP Cabinet Ministers and the PAP MPs. The words and actions of GCT during that year can be quite intriguing. But I’ll leave you to decipher that.

Can there be Three Tigers in One Mountain?
One question that no one explicitly asked was whether the system and post of Senior Minister would exist when LKY passes. The current situation, of having two former Prime Ministers in the present Cabinet (plus the present PM), is unprecedented in any part of the world. Since it currently exists, the question should really be whether it should continue to exist and will it cease to exist. There are some coffeeshop talks on this issue that before LKY passes, GCT will either step down or have his loyal men removed. (According to market talks) Given LKY sensitive nature developed during the tumultuous times (see the History of PAP) and struggle of the traumatic party split, he will leave nothing to chance. Although the possibilities of a party split or power struggle is negligible, he will not rest until that has been resolved even after his death.

Necessary Stage of Change: Uprooting the Roots
Some might find this (removing GCT or his men) objectionable or unwarranted, but there is nothing inherently wrong with that. The mistake that Abdullah Badawi (Malaysia’s current PM) made was his inability to gradually and systematically remove his predecessor’s men from the Cabinet and plant his loyal lieutenants into key positions. Now, he is facing a situation of having policies with no one loyal enough to him to implement it. With half of the Cabinet still loyal to Mahathir and a strong number two candidate in Najip, his position is vulnerable to ousting. That is the main reason for him to undertake several key Ministries (PMO, Home Affairs and Finance) himself.

For LHL’s team to be effective, it is vital and necessary for him to place his people into the key Ministries. As predicted before the GE 2006, I expected Yeo Cheow Tong, Lee Boon Yang and Lim Boon Heng to gradually step down (within one year) and it is taking shape now. Yeo Cheow Tong has stepped down, and both Lee Boon Yang and Lim Boon Heng have indicted their stepping down within a year. MPs loyal to GCT like Dr Tan Cheng Bock (Golf partner of GCT) have also stepped down. For GCT himself, he has been assigned to foreign and finance affairs issues such as Middle East Islamic finance hub and Malaysia bilateral issues. This isolates his impact on “domestic politics”, leading him away from the public eye and leaving room for LHL in the spotlight. Again, there is nothing wrong with that, all in the name of “renewal”.

Deciphering GE2006
Similarly, during the GE2006, two incidents are worth analyzing. Firstly, before the GE, GCT openly challenged the opposition parties to test Marine Parade GRC (his ward). Yes, all MPs and Ministers also challenged or stated that they welcomed opposition contest. But for GCT, it was different. He needed the contest to demonstrate that he is still more popular than LHL, something which he is sure of but required undisputable figures. If he scored well in the contest, it might prolong his career in LHL’s administration or (very remotely and speculatively) offer him a chance of a comeback (which GCT himself wouldn’t even expect or probably want). But he didn’t receive a contest and it turned out worse.

The second incident was his assignment to win back Potong Pasir and Hougang from Chiam (SDA) and Low Thia Khiang (WP). This is an astute move by LHL (possibly LKY). On the face of it, it demonstrates the new PM’s serious intent on recovering Potong Pasir and Hougang. The implicitly explicit reason is to keep the opposition leaders, Low and Chiam, busy in their own wards and negate their effects on the neighbouring GRCs, especially Aljunied GRC. But the real beneficiary of this strategy is LHL. There are four possible scenarios out of this strategy: 1) winning both Potong Pasir and Hougang back; 2) winning one of them back, like to be Potong Pasir; 3) losing both wards by lesser margins and; 4) losing both wards by larger margins.

If (1) happens, LHL will be credited for winning back the PP and Hougang but not GCT, since GCT was not able to do it when he was PM. But the government will run into lots of foreign affairs (such as democracy advocators) issues of having no oppositions in parliament (inter-parliamentary visits require oppositions as well).
If (2) happens, LHL will still be credited more than GCT. If (3) happens, it shows the slight impact of GCT’s campaigning influence. Lastly, if (4) happens (which happened), it will be the worst scenario for GCT. As he mentioned during the campaign, the losses will affect his “personal prestige” and “reputation”, almost like a slap in his face. Since scenario (4) materialized, GCT doesn’t have the chip to say that he is more popular than LHL or LHL is any less popular than him. And since LHL didn’t campaign at PP and Hougang (at all), the burden of loss is solely and squarely on GCT.

Once again, I’ve asked more questions than provide answers. This is probably what makes a perceivably dull local politics interesting. As mentioned in the beginning, I am no pseudo-Lim Kim San and can never be and never will be. Never can I claim to speak the uncensored truth about one’s character since I don’t know him in person. What I can do is to spark some interest that allows you to question the answers you see or hear in public and make judgments of your own. Of course, we maybe wrong and must accept that we might be wrong. There is always more that we don’t know than know. This article provides only an alternative view which might be wrong, so do make your own judgment call.

as PM & PAP secretary-general, various support structures are available to the incumbent; as an individual operator, as GCT had to be in PP and Hougang, he had little impact

2 imaginative a mind. next time when he c his gf talking with another guy he will think they r going to end up in bed.

A good read with analysis to back up the points.

Tony Tan is now chairman of SPH and deputy chairman of GIC, both important positions with clearly defined power; it is less clear what power GCT now has

well LKY did say that GCT was never his choice for PM..not really a great way to endorse your own successor.

intriguing article...
If u read this article, in the hope that the length will put you to bed, you're utterly wrong. Instead of a lullaby, the article will jolt you awake!

First and foremost, no need for apologies - your articles are well worth waiting for.
I still keep a copy of the FEER issue featuring Goh as "no more mr nice guy" on the cover, which documented his threat on upgrading, and subsequest denial when rebuked by US Secretary of State Madeleine Korbel Albright. Was there really a pre-1997 and post-1997 Goh Chok Tong or is it just two sides of the spin doctor's contribution? His speech writer was sent to jail for pouring hot water on her domestic help. Was Goh a victim of his assistants? Whoever wrote that "suffering from amnesia" confession really has some explanation to do, on top of your own postulated theories. But his take on the true intent of GRCs really begs the question - did we have an idiot savant in the highest office of the land?

My opinion is that GCT was arrowed to fight PP and Hougang, hence he challenged the opposition in the hope of staying away from doing the sh*twork (in NS terms, sai gang). I think GCT would guess scenario 4 is most likely. If you would read between the lines from GCT's speeches in GE2006, he did not seem particularly happy to fight for the opposition wards.

he knew it was mission impossible, but could hardly admit that he did not have enough popularity to do it

Hi Anonymous(s), Angeline and thor666

Glad that you all didn't fall asleep on this one, and found it somewhat interesting.

Just bear in mind that this is quite a polemic article on GCT. May not have factual truth in it. In the end, we must also remember that the Cabinet is a congregation of high intelligent men, and no idiots. Each word, each actions are often well-thought of and calculated.

Thus, these are no easy relations to postulate or examine.


On "congregation of high(ly) intelligent men": try as I may, I have great difficulty in imagining a "highly intelligent" person saying that "It is more expensive to hire a worker in Singapore compared with the United States and Australia." But that's what then Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan claimed, quoting the finding of the dubious report by PERC to justify the CPF cuts. Of course, we do have the expensive renaming exercise by Mah Bow Tan contending for the idiocy prize.

To share some views on GCT. First, his elevation to PM in 1990. He was chosen by LKY (kingmaker of sorts in our one-party govt) straight off NOL, where he didn't do a very good job overall . From 1976 onwards he was made full minister in MOH, MTI, and MINDEF. The key "power politics" ministries in Finance and Home Affairs eluded him (in MOF he was Minister of State in 1977, whilst LHL was in SAF from 1971-1984), and The Chief Justice and the President was not exactly his people. In fact, he might have no control over the armed Gurkha guards protecting his family.

Second, putting aside his "nice guy style", his political performance as PM isn't good. His promises and visions didn't work out, save for bartop dancing, perhaps. His lifting of party whip in parliament debates were hastily retreated, and his promise of "no one will be denied medical treatment even if poor" or words to that effect never materialized. The negotiations he led failed to break the stalemate with Malaysia over the outstanding bilateral issues, including CLOB, not exactly insurmountable at that time. Then there was the "growth triangle" initiative that failed, as did his disastrous "asset enhancement" scheme, and during his term, he presided over two bad recessions that hit the population badly. In both the political and economic scorecard, he should be in F band. Not one who can bring a country forward. He had his chance but he blew it. Not someone I would regard highly.

P/S: Nice to read this new article - good job!

I think this was a rather harsh account; his government was quite pre-occupied with several domestic issues: house prices and car prices, and dropping birth rates, which are in principle small issues but they do keep people and newspapers busy over long periods of time; then there was 1997 financial crisis and sars; these are basically unsolvable and the guys could merely cope with various ad hoc measures; by merely not shooting themselves in the foot, things get better and they deserved credit

he was considered a seat warmer, but managed to survive 14 years in the job, which too should not be minimized; if LHL had not been sick, GCT probably would have left earlier

both he and LHL have found it impossible to open up the system; this is a systematic issue beyond the capabilities of individuals

he now has little impact on things as his hands are off the important levers of power, but continues to enjoy the status and pay; I still feel a senate would be a better place to keep these retirees

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Hi Meng Kee

Sometimes, what a seemingly simple silly statement has a lot of hidden agenda and messages. Getting behind the veil of secrecy is the key.

Like a stadium full of supporters watching 22 men playing soccer, we always thought we know best. 50,000 coaches think they know best. But really, the experts are on the field.

Hi Anonymous and Yuen

Both your comments are quite similar but of the opposite spectrum.

As I said, this is meant to be a harsh perspective of GCT. But he has done quite a fair bit and good job as Prime Minister. Thus, should be credited for that. Aside from the things most people know, there isn't much point repeating the good points that are available in the papers.

But like all articles, take mine with an extra pinch of salt. Blogs are quite slanted, including mine.


I don't know about soccer and don't care for it. But I did act in school dramas, and know a bit about the rehearsals, background stagework and even manned the lighting during performances. And when the curtain is drawn, the actor and audience cares only about the time on stage. One slight trip, one missed word, one misjudged cue, and the applause turns to boos. AS the Bard puts it, the world is like a stage, and taxpayers should not have to suffer fools. Maybe that's why the American system will not allow a Bush to run more than two terms.

Hi T

it is smart of you to raise more questions than to provide answers as that would protect yourself from being labeled as pro/anti-pap!

quite a good piece!


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Hi Locky2ky

Thanks! Yes, you've read my intentions! =P


Hi Thrasy,
Will you be doing a dissection of the recent National Day Rally?The media will most likely repeat the politically allowed analysis of the Rally for god-know how many times in the next few days, but I guess it might be refreshing to see the dissection from another angle..

Hey Ben, oops, I mean Mr T, since you were right there sitting with the card carrying members and priviledged foreign imports, what was the immediate reaction like when the new menu item "mee siam mai harm" was announced? I mean, the real reaction, not the canned laughter and applause recycled for umpteen NDR speeches.

Hi Hector and Anonymous

Yes, I will be talk about these (not the mee siam mai harm) in my next article. Btw, I didn't see many "priviledged imports" there and did not pick their wallets of those beside to see if they have "cards". lol...Diplomatically, they are not card carrying members. Just grassroots...and invited guest (mainly businessmen).


Mr T, good job. You may also wish to note one small detail.

The President of Singapore, His Excellency Nathan during Goh's handover to Lee Junior noted in his note to Goh that Lee "will appoint you as SM". Strange, don't you find it?

If Lee had every sincerity or that the position was agreed on mutual tursting terms, why need a "neutral third party" to "confirm" the appointment? Goh is not junior in his political caeer. Why the insecurity?

Hi Anonymous

Just wondering, where is that source to that information again? Interesting note, to say the least!


what's the big deal? the president has to swear in all the ministers appointed by the PM; he is entitled to speak about it

The "special note" by Nathan was mentioned in the headlines of the Straits Times and CNA. If you know the date of handover, you can find it on the first page of the day's newspaper.


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    J.B. Jeyaratnam (Formerly WP)
    Lee Hsien Loong (PAP)
    Dr Ng Eng Hen (PAP)
    Sitoh Yih Pin (PAP)
    Eric Low (PAP)
    Current results

    How do you rate PM Lee Hsien Loong's Performance (as Prime Minister) so far?
    Very Good
    Above Expectation
    Poor ("I can even do better!")
    Very Poor
    Current results

    Do you have confidence in PM Lee Hsien Loong's leadership and his team of Ministers?
    Too early to tell...
    Any one but them!
    Current results

    Do you think Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister on his own merits?
    Yes! ("He was the best candidate")
    No! ("He has obvious backing from LKY")
    No! ("There wasn't any alternative candidate to challenge him in the first place")
    Current results

    Which of the (Junior) Minister to you wish to see him/her step down? (Part III)
    Raymond Lim
    Balaji Sadasivan
    Ho Peng Kee
    Chan Soo Sen
    Lim Hwee Hua
    Heng Chee How
    Gan Kim Yong
    Yu-Foo Yee Shoon
    Zainul Abidin
    Current results

    Which Minister do you wish to see him step down? (Part I)
    Lee Hsien Loong
    Goh Chok Tong
    Lee Kuan Yew
    Lim Boon Heng
    Lee Boon Yang
    Yeo Cheow Tong
    Mah Bow Tan
    George Yeo
    Teo Chee Hean
    Current results

    Which Minister do you wish to see him step down? (Part II)
    Lim Hng Kiang
    Wong Kan Seng
    S Jayakumar
    Tharman Shanmuguratnam
    Lim Swee Say
    Ng Eng Hen
    Vivian Balakrishnan
    Khaw Boon Wan
    Yaacob Ibrahim
    Current results

    What is your utmost concern for the coming General Elections?
    "Bread & Butter" issues - Jobs, economy, salary, etc
    Freedom of Speech - or lack of
    HDB issues - upgrading, high housing cost, etc
    International Issues - govt's handling of foreign relationships
    Transport issues - LTA, NEL, MRT
    Change of Leadership - from SM Goh to PM Lee
    All of the above
    I'll vote any party except PAP!
    I'll only vote for PAP!
    Current results

    Which is your favourite Minister?
    PM Lee Hsien Loong
    SM Goh Chok Tong
    MM Lee Kuan Yew
    DPM Jayakumar
    Dr Vivian Balakrishnan
    Teo Chee Hean
    George Yeo
    Tharman S.
    I Hate of them!
    Current results

Faces of Singapore

    Thrasymachus' photos More of Thrasymachus' photos


    The author of this blog bears no responsibility for any misinterpretation, libel, defamation, injury and death as a result of reading this blog. Contents are high subjective and readers should read with caution. All readers should be 18 years and above, with half a decent brain to judge the validity of the articles.

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