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 on Goh sharing his insights regarding The Catherine Lim affair, following one of author Catherine Lim's political commentaries, "One Government, Two Styles". Goh also expressed that he would like to meet Lim.
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.
By Goh Chok Tong
A Singaporean politician cannot afford to "lose face"
As a student, I dreamt of being a writer. I followed newspaper reviews of local writers with some interest. Catherine Lim’s novels consistently received positive reviews.
When Catherine Lim ventured into commentaries on politics, I wondered why. She was a literary person, not a political commentator. She might have had no political intent, but she was exercising political influence through her articles.
Her first piece on “The Affective Divide” disconcerted me but did not cross the line. Her second piece, “One Government, Two Styles,” did.
Hence, the sharp riposte to set out my position. Not doing so would diminish the standing of my government and me. I responded in my own style, wearing velvet gloves rather than Lee Kuan Yew’s knuckle dusters.
Catherine Lim told Peh Shing Huei that she did something that was a taboo in Asian societies — making a leader "lose face." Yes, in Asian societies, "face" is essential in social relations and for doing business.
But in politics, it is more than that to me. To make a leader “lose face” is to cause others to lose respect for that person. Respect is critical for government leaders, at least insofar as Singapore is concerned.
If that happens, they will lose their credibility and legitimacy to govern
To exercise moral suasion, a Singapore leader must be respected and held in high regard by the people. Our leaders work hard to earn that respect.
Singaporeans may now be more Westernised but we are still very much an Asian society. We cannot allow ministers and Members of Parliament to be scorned and ridiculed by commentators without justification.
If that happens, politicians will be relegated to the bottom of the totem pole in public standing. Hence, the PAP insists on high standards of personal and political behaviour for its Members of Parliament.
Singapore’s leaders will have to respond to unfounded comments which hurt their credibility. Not doing so will lead to an insidious erosion of respect and trust — drip by drip, remark by remark. Without these two qualities, leaders will lose the moral authority to govern. A parliamentary majority only grants electoral legitimacy.
Opposition politicians have also sued government leaders on some occasions
Our opposition politicians have also sued government leaders for alleged defamation.
The late J. B. Jeyaretnam, leader of the Workers’ Party, sued me for having said that he “engineered” a walkout at Chiam See Tong’s inauguration of his Singapore Democratic Party.
The newspapers had reported the exodus of guests after Jeyaretnam left the meeting at the end of his speech. Not being a lawyer, I had used the term “engineered” loosely.
Our High Court ruled that it was defamatory but fair comment in context. Jeyaretnam appealed to the Privy Council in the UK which upheld the Singapore High Court judgment.
Chiam See Tong had also served notice to sue a PAP minister. At a 1980 General Election rally, S. Dhanabalan had made fun of Chiam as “a one-man band and a two-bit lawyer.” The “two-bit lawyer” part was defamatory.
Dhanabalan apologised and paid Chiam S$7,000 in an out-of-court settlement.
Without "face" or respect in our society, Singapore's politics and the country itself will end up in the gutter
Politics in many parts of the world is a dirty game. Just look at election campaigns in some Western countries, where ad hominem and vicious personal attacks are tools of the trade. Some politicians are also shameless in making empty promises and false statements just to win elections.
If “face” or respect is not treasured in our society, our politics will descend into the gutter. Then, so will Singapore. Our leaders must stand up to their critics and refute them if the criticisms are unfounded.
Conversely, they should have the humility to acknowledge and correct themselves when the criticisms are warranted.
Our democracy works only if leaders earn and command the respect of the people by delivering results. If they seek love and popularity, our politics will degenerate into populism.
Both Lim & Goh had never met and spoken throughout all these years
By Peh Shing Huei
Despite history tying Chok and Cat together in a story which had survived a generation, the pair had never met and spoken. Born a year apart in 1941 and 1942, with Chok the older, their paths crossed only once briefly.
It was during a dinner event to mark the completion of Discovery Asia’s documentary on the history of Singapore in December 2005. The documentary was initiated by Goh in 2003 to mark Lee Kuan Yew’s 80th birthday.
Chok said he walked past Cat’s table on his way down from the stage and nodded at her. She gave an awkward smile. Cat said she tried to make eye contact with Chok the entire night so as to have an opening to begin a conversation. But she did not succeed.
Chok said he did look at her: "I did glance at her. I knew who she was. If I did not, that means I would be deliberately giving her the cold shoulder. But we were seated quite far apart. I recall she was dressed elegantly in a cheongsam. I think she should remember."
She did, of course, feel rueful that an opportunity was missed to put the ghosts of 1994 to sleep.
When asked if she would like to meet and chat, she replied with a big smile: "Yes, I would really like to. Politics could come in gently, but with my writing, I would have plenty to talk about. And even my political satire — I could talk about that — that could be my bridge. I would be the first to stretch out my hand for Mr Goh."
The message was delivered to Chok. "She would love to meet me? What do you think?” he asked tentatively, before finding his own answer. "Yes, you can say that I would love to meet her too."
Top collage left photo by Joshua Lee, right photo via Goh Chok Tong's Facebook