A leader of the People's Action Party and an activist for more consultative mechanisms of government, Goh Chok Tong (born 1941) became Singapore's prime minister on November 28, 1990.
Goh Chok Tong's appointment as the first deputy prime minister after the victory of the People's Action Party (PAP) in the December 1984 general election was the first indication to Singaporeans that he would succeed Lee Kuan Yew, the only prime minister of Singapore since June 1959, when the PAP government first assumed office. After the September 1988 general election, which reelected the PAP government for the seventh time, Goh informed Singaporeans that he would succeed Lee as prime minister in two years' time. Later, Goh confirmed that while Lee would step down as prime minister on November 28, 1990, he would still be a senior cabinet minister.
In a sense, the political renewal of the PAP and the search for the second generation leaders to replace the old guard began in September 1972, when Ong Teng Cheong (the second deputy prime minister in 1990) and Ahmad Mattar (minister for the environment in 1990) were among the ten new PAP candidates who were elected into Parliament. Similarly, Goh, S. Dhanabalan (minister for national development in 1990), and Tan Soo Khoon (speaker of Parliament in 1990) were part of the second batch of ten new PAP Members of Parliament (MPs), winning their seats in the December 1976 general election. Goh, who entered politics at the age of 35, would become Singapore's second prime minister 14 years later.
Education in Singapore and the United States
As Goh was born in Singapore in 1941, he was an infant during the Japanese occupation years of 1942-1945. He came from a humble background, and in one of his parliamentary speeches he admitted that his two children were much better off than he was when he was young, as he was then living in a house with several families. Because Goh's father died when he was very young, his mother worked as a teacher in a Chinese school to support him and his sister. Both of them were raised by their mother with the help of their grandmother, an uncle, and an aunt.
Like Lee Kuan Yew, Goh was educated at Raffles Institution. He excelled in his studies and in sports. He was interested in writing and was described by his schoolmates as a good writer. At the 30th anniversary reunion dinner of the Raffles Institution Class of 1958, in December 1988, Goh confessed that he had become a politician by default, because in his youth, he had aspired to be a journalist. After completing his school certificate examinations, he switched from the science stream to the arts stream for his higher school certificate examinations. This decision was a turning point as it enabled him to study economics at the University of Singapore in 1961.
Goh spent three years at the University of Singapore and topped his class of 19 students by obtaining a B.A. (Honours) Class I in economics in 1964. As partial fulfillment for his degree, he wrote a 108-page thesis on "A Statistical Analysis of the Production Response of Malayan Fisherman to Price Changes." He joined the Singapore Civil Service (SCS) as an administrative officer after graduation. In 1966 he won a fellowship to Williams College in the United States and successfully completed the M.A. program in development economics.
From Business to Politics
On the completion of his graduate studies in the United States, Goh returned to his job in the SCS and worked as an economic planner and research economist. In August 1969 he was seconded to the Neptune Orient Lines Ltd. (NOL), a newly incorporated government company and Singapore's national shipping line, as its planning and projects manager. He resigned from the SCS about a year later and became part of NOL's permanent staff. His rise up NOL's corporate ladder was rapid. He was appointed as a financial controller and later as a financial director on the NOL board of directors. His appointment as NOL's managing director in November 1973, after only four years' service, was a tribute to his managerial skills. Indeed, his ability to transform NOL into a profitable enterprise caught the eye of the minister for finance, Hon Sui Sen, who succeeded in persuading him to enter politics.
Accordingly, Goh left NOL and participated in the December 1976 general election as the PAP candidate for the electoral constituency of Marine Parade. He won his seat with a convincing majority of 10,496 votes and captured 76.8 percent of the valid votes. He was appointed senior minister of state in the Ministry of Finance in September 1977. He held that post until March 1979, when he was promoted to the position of minister for trade and industry. In January 1981 he was given the additional portfolio of health. He relinquished the trade and industry portfolio in May 1981 and devoted the remaining year as the minister for health to the introduction of the Medisave scheme, which enabled Singaporeans to use their Central Provident Fund to pay their medical bills. He was appointed as minister for defence in June 1982 and as first deputy prime minister in January 1985. He indicated that he would retain the defence portfolio after succeeding Lee as prime minister in November 1990.
Developing a Leadership Style
Unlike Lee, Goh believed in a consultative style of leadership. He and his colleagues were responsible for a change in leadership style after the December 1984 general election that resulted in the PAP winning 77 of the 79 parliamentary seats, but its share of the votes had unexpectedly declined by 12.6 percent, from 75.5 percent in the 1980 general election to 62.9 percent in 1984. The election also demonstrated that 37 percent of the voters who voted for the opposition wanted a change in both the style of government and the substance of some of its policies. Perhaps the most important signal sent by the electorate to the PAP government was that Singaporeans wanted to be consulted and involved in the public policy-making process and to have more control over those decisions that affected their lives directly.
Goh and his colleagues responded to this signal by creating a Feedback Unit in March 1985 and launching the National Agenda in February 1987. However, the shift toward a consultative style of government became more pronounced when the National Agenda (which was renamed the Agenda for Action) was adopted at the PAP convention on January 24, 1988. It was presented by Goh to Parliament three weeks later as a Green Paper for debate and consultation before a final government decision was made. The PAP had conducted a massive exercise in consultation, public education, and consensus building in 1987 to enable all Singaporeans to participate in formulating the means for attaining the goals envisaged in its Vision of 1999. Goh contended that such an exercise was useful because "the ties between the elected leaders and the people … must be constantly nurtured through continual discussion, feedback and explanation" so that the government "will have a close feel of the mood of the people, and the people will understand thoroughly what is at stake and what needs to be done."
Consultation in the Office of Prime Minister
Another indicator of Goh's commitment to consultation also became evident on January 11, 1988, when he referred the two bills providing for the establishment of the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) scheme to a select committee for scrutiny. This scheme was designed to ensure that the minority groups would always be represented in Parliament by requiring a GRC to be represented by three teams of three MPs each, which must include at least one MP from a minority group in each team. The select committee on the GRC scheme received 99 written representations from Singaporeans of varied backgrounds. Twelve representors gave oral evidence to the select committee, and the proceedings of the three-day public hearing were telecast in the evening by the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation.
The same mechanism of the select committee was also used for the discussion of the land transportation issue in 1989 and of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony and Elected Presidency bills in 1990. This reliance on the select committee to obtain the public's views on controversial legislation in recent years indicates clearly Goh's departure from Lee's paternalistic style of governing Singapore. The select committee was rarely used by Lee, as he did not believe in consulting public opinion.
In short, as Goh became Singapore's second prime minister on November 28, 1990, he was not expected to make any drastic change in policies; but he and his colleagues were expected to rely on a more persuasive and consultative style of leadership more in tune with the aspirations of the younger generation of Singaporeans.
In 1993, Goh spoke in Forbes about IT2000, Singapore's plan to place information technology as a top priority for the country. "We use technology," he explained, "to overcome the disadvantages of a limited labor force, small domestic market and lack of natural resources. We aim to be a developed country by the end of the century and can succeed only if we harness technology effectively for the economy." He admitted that in order to foster the greater entrepreneurship needed to move to the next phase, that Singapore would need to loosen up on rules that would impede on development. However, the government would draw the lines on information flow that included pornography, religious literature, or foreign publications engaging in domestic political debate about Singapore.
In August 1994, on National Day, Goh's speech was reminiscent of his paternalistic predecessor Lee. Goh declared that Singapore's economic success would be undermined if it followed the ways of the west. He urged young Singaporeans to avoid materialism and condemned single mothers, saying that he would make it harder for them to buy government flats. Although older Singaporeans were more impressed with Goh's statements than the younger and ambitious middle class, few Singaporeans seemed concerned about the future of the country. At that time, unemployment claimed less than 2% of the workforce and incomes were rising at an average of 6% a year.
As 1997—the end of Goh's five year term and the next election—approached, Goh postponed calling an election date. Although the PAP's share of the vote dropped from 76% in 1980 to 61% in the last election, the PAP still dominated the popular vote. Singapore continued to thrive economically, with an economic growth rate of 6% in 1996 and ranking sixth in the world in terms of GNP per person. Goh and the PAP won the election with the party's best showing in 16 years—65% of the vote and all but two of the parliamentary seats.
Further Reading on Goh Chok Tong
Many of Goh Chok Tong's speeches are available from the Information Division, Ministry of Communications and Information: "The Second Long March," in Singapore into the Nineties (1986); A Nation of Excellence (1986); "The Vital Importance of Leadership," in Speeches (March-April 1989); and "Spirit of Singapore," in Speeches (January-February 1990). The bibliography and four books on politics in Singapore which cover some of the policies formulated by Goh and his colleagues are discussed in: Stella R. Quah and Jon S. T. Quah (compilers), Singapore (Oxford: 1988); R. S. Milne and Diane K. Mauzy, Singapore: The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew (1990); Jon S. T. Quah, Chan Heng Chee, and Seah Chee Meow (editors) Government and Politics of Singapore (Singapore: 1987); Jon S. T. Quah (editor), In Search of Singapore's National Values (Singapore: 1990); and Raj Vasil, Governing Singapore: Interviews with the New Leaders (Singapore: 1988).
For a biography of Goh Chok Tong see: Chong, Alan, Goh Chok Tong: Singapore's New Minister, Eureka Publications, 1991.
For periodical articles about Goh Chok Tong see: Forbes, March 29, 1993; The Economist, August 27, 1994; The Economist, September 14, 1996; The Economist, December 21, 1996; Macleans, January 13, 1997; Macleans, June 9, 1997; and The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 1997.