ESM Goh on his friendship with Tan Cheng Bock & why he supported reserved presidency

As revealed in the second volume of Goh's biography.

Mothership | May 08, 2021, 10:40 AM

PERSPECTIVE: From November 1990 to August 2004, Goh Chok Tong served as the Prime Minister of Singapore for 14 years.

In the second volume of his biography, Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years, Goh revisits his premiership years and reflects on how he had to navigate Singapore through various crises.

Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book in which Goh answers several questions about his friendship with Tan Cheng Bock, how he perceived Tan's candidacy in the 2011 Presidential Election, and why he supported reserving the 2017 Presidential Election.

Written by Peh Shing Huei, Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years, is published by World Scientific and you can get a copy of it here.

As told to Peh Shing Huei by Goh Chok Tong

Q: In the 2011 Presidential Election, all four candidates were connected to you personally. It was very strange.

A: What do you mean by strange?

Q: It is very interesting.

A: Interesting coincidence.

Q: So, my question is: how did you separate the personal from the political when you knew all four of them?

A: I knew their strengths and character. They all served me effectively in their respective roles. Tony Tan was my DPM. Very supportive, very strong minister, strong pillar in my Cabinet.

Tan Cheng Bock was a very effective backbencher and also a good chairman of the Feedback Unit.

Tan Kin Lian was a very good branch secretary. He helped me a lot when I first became MP for Marine Parade, and I would always remember that, whatever his political disposition now might be.

Tan Jee Say was my principal private secretary when I was DPM and the Minister for Defence.

I was most amused with the coincidence. If it were horse-racing, you could say I had a stake in all the horses! So how did I decide which candidate to back? Well, it was mainly between Tony Tan and Tan Cheng Bock. Cheng Bock was a close friend.

I knew him from school and we had gone for holidays together. But I had to decide based on who had the attributes needed for the presidency.

It was very clear to me that Tony was superior to Cheng Bock in terms of his ability to discharge the responsibility of the Elected Presidency, from the point of experience, the point of gravitas in meeting international visitors, from the point of thoroughness and so on. And in case Cheng Bock expected me to support him since I was his good friend, I told him quite frankly my thinking and decision.

He knew that Tony was my choice.

Q: Did Tan Cheng Bock ask you to support him publicly?

A: Quite the opposite. During the election campaign, he was running away from me. I am not joking. He told me that his supporters told him not to be seen with Goh Chok Tong. Otherwise, they would not support him.

You see, I represented the PAP. So, he and his supporters thought that to win, he must be against the PAP and not be seen with the PAP. They believed that any embrace from me would be a kiss of death for his campaign.

Q: So, during that period, he distanced himself from you?

A: He distanced himself and he explained why.

Q: So he had no problems with you publicly supporting Tony Tan?

A: As a sop to Tan Cheng Bock, I said: “Bock, do not worry, my wife said that she would vote for you!” I did not try and influence my wife on how she should vote.

Q: She voted because she knew Cheng Bock, as a friend?

A: She thought Cheng Bock was more personable. She wanted a more people-friendly president.

Q: That is quite a valid consideration, right?

A: It was her consideration.

Q: Why was it not part of your consideration?

A: My focus was on the custodial duties of the President. To me, those are more important. Why did we decide to have an Elected President rather than an appointed President? Because of the President’s custodial duties over reserves and appointments of key positions. I understood the rationale and I knew the attributes I wanted in an Elected President.

Q: So why did you think Tan Cheng Bock could not play this custodial duty?

A: My view was that Tony Tan would do so better. He was tested, Cheng Bock was not. Cheng Bock was the non-executive chairman of Chuan Hup. He was a doctor, a general practitioner. Would he be able to understand financial accounts and the complexity of public finances as well as Tony?

Q: Did the results surprise you, that it was so close?

A: Not towards the end of the campaign. In the beginning, we thought the campaign would be quite straightforward. We all think with our heads. Logically, most people would support Tony Tan. But politics is not just about logic. It is also about emotions.

Q: Now that Tan Cheng Bock has taken a further step, to form a political party to take on the PAP, how do you intend to interact or deal with him?

A: I practise social and political distancing.

Q: There has been a lot of attention because of your Facebook post.

A: Well, I will leave it to the 4G leaders to campaign against Tan Cheng Bock. If they cannot do it, then I worry over how they will be able to take on nasty opponents in future. Whatever Tan Cheng Bock’s present political motives are, he is still a decent man and my friend, even if we do not see much of each other now.

Q: He said the PAP has changed. Do you agree?

A: Of course, it has changed and evolved over time. Otherwise, we would still be stuck in the old days of Lee Kuan Yew. The PAP under me was different from the PAP under Lee Kuan Yew. Under Lee Hsien Loong again, it has changed in style and practice.

Under the 4G, it will evolve again. Different governing style; different demographics; different aspirations of the people; different world. The PAP has changed with the times to stay relevant. It is even more consultative now. The present leaders do more income redistribution.

The preoccupation during Mr Lee’s time was to accumulate, accumulate, accumulate and grow the reserves. There was a worry of moral hazard and moving towards the slippery slope of a welfare state. This has evolved, right? The style of governing has also changed. I did not govern like Lee Kuan Yew. Lee Hsien Loong also has a different governing style.

But fundamentally, the core values of the PAP are the same. They are immutable. That is key. Integrity, meritocracy, competence, dedication. Working for Singaporeans. Good governance. Getting the best team to look after Singapore. Planned and smooth succession. All these have not changed.

On the 2017 Presidential Election

Q: The reserved election in 2017 had irked some Singaporeans, that they were denied this chance to vote. How has it affected how Singaporeans view this institution?

A: There are two separate issues here. First, many people were not happy because they believe that the presidency should be open to all Singaporeans who meet the eligibility criteria. Reserving it for one ethnic community goes against the grain of meritocracy.

When PM briefed me on the change, I said I would support it because I have been in politics long enough to know that to have a durable harmonious Singapore, every community must have the chance to occupy the top position of President at one time or another.

The second issue is that some people also expressed unhappiness that there was no chance to vote. But we should not mix the two arguments. A reserved election does not mean that there is no chance to vote. We could have had two or more Malay candidates. Then Singaporeans would have had the chance to vote.

Q: So, you do not think Halimah could win if she went up against Tan Cheng Bock?

A: I do not think she would win.

Q: Why not?

A: Tan Cheng Bock lost to Tony Tan by only 7,000 votes. Therefore, against Halimah, I think he would beat her. Would you agree?

Q: I agree. But that also means that the reserved election was to block him.

A: Not at all. As I have told Cheng Bock, he was ineligible to stand because of the change in criteria when the minimum shareholders’ equity required was raised from S$100 million to S$500 million.

The candidate for the President has also got to be a CEO or executive chairman of a company. Chuan Hup never had S$500 million shareholders’ equity. Cheng Bock was a non-executive chairman. So he was already out because of that. But he refused to see that.

Q: It seems like the latest changes to the Constitution regarding an elected presidency were designed such that 2011 would never happen again. In other words, we would go back to the Nathan presidency, the Halimah presidency: all walkovers.

A: No. The next election will not be reserved for any particular race. Any Singaporean can stand. You must meet the criteria, of course. Even when the election is reserved for a specific community, any eligible member from that community can stand.

Q: But the bar has been raised so much more. Since it is going to be so difficult to qualify, why not just go back to a ceremonial president appointed by the government?

A: The Elected Presidency is fulfilling its purpose and it remains fit for the purpose. It is tempting to go back to the purely ceremonial role because we fear that a less than suitable person might get elected.

But if we do that, and one day, we get a populist government bent on appointing its own people to key positions and spending our reserves to win popular support, we may regret not having a strong, responsible and credible Elected President to check the populist, and worse, a rogue


What is the danger to me? Many Singaporeans think that with the PAP in charge, you should not have a PAP-supported candidate to be President. They think: checks and balances; better to have an outsider, not someone from the PAP. That logic is not wrong. If this person is good, no problem.

But if he or she is opportunistic and is in it for the status or power, Singapore will have big problems. But that’s our system and the people

must decide.

Top image collage photos from Goh Chok Tong's, Halimah Yacob's and Tan Cheng Bock's Facebook