Architect of a kinder, gentler nation
By Zakir Hussain , Elgin Toh
Minutes after making public an official statement that he and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew were retiring from the Cabinet, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong turned to Facebook to spread the word.
'PM can then refresh his Cabinet to forge a new Singapore consensus by rethinking policies and reshaping Singapore with fresh ideas,' he said, referring to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to whom he handed over the reins in August 2004.
This little gesture to reach out to a wired generation is, in a way, emblematic of Mr Goh's style during his 14 years as prime minister and, subsequently, Senior Minister.
Where his predecessor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, played a formative role in Singapore's rise to First World status, Mr Goh, who turns 70 this Friday, played a transformative role in building on these achievements and getting Singaporeans to help shape a kinder, gentler society.
A key feature of his time in office was the shift to a more consensual, consultative style of governance, and the opening up of civic and political space to keep pace with changing expectations.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid tribute to these contributions when he was sworn in in 2004, saying he was indebted to Mr Goh for his guidance and support as a colleague, friend and mentor.
He said: 'As prime minister, Mr Goh has fulfilled his promise to keep Singapore thriving and growing. But he has done much more. He built a strong team, involved Singaporeans in the issues which affected all of us, and brought us all closer together.
'Today's Singapore is quite different from the country that Mr Goh took over in 1990. It still bears the imprint of Lee Kuan Yew and the founder generation, but it has grown and matured with Mr Goh's softer touch.'
Mr Lee added: 'Today's Singapore is more vibrant and open, more resilient and cohesive.... In his own quiet way, Mr Goh Chok Tong has transformed Singapore.'
A former Administrative Service officer who became managing director of then-national shipping company Neptune Orient Lines, Mr Goh contested his first election in Marine Parade in 1976, and was appointed Senior Minister of State for Finance a year later.
In 1979, he became Minister for Trade and Industry, and went on to helm the heavyweight ministries of Health and Defence.
Shortly after the 1984 General Election, members of the ruling People's Action Party's second-generation leadership met to discuss who among them should be next in line to be prime minister.
To a man, they decided on Mr Goh, who in 1985 was appointed first deputy prime minister.
When he was sworn in as Singapore's second prime minister in November 1990 at the age of 49, he pledged 'to ensure that Singapore thrives and grows after Mr Lee Kuan Yew; to find a new group of men and women to help me carry on where he and his colleagues left off; and to build a nation of character and grace where people live lives of dignity and fulfilment, and care for one another'.
His rise to the top from humble origins epitomised the meritocratic values underpinning Singapore society.
His friendly style and trademark self-deprecating humour also endeared him to many over the years.
Conscious that many would compare him to his predecessor, he reminded them at his inauguration that Mr Lee's shoes were too big to fill, saying: 'I do not intend to wear his shoes. I shall wear my own, and choose my own stride.'
By the time Mr Goh handed over after 14 years at the helm, Singapore had made more than strides. Many saw their incomes and standards of living rise, in tandem with rising trade and growth figures, and their country was propelled into the ranks of developed nations.
The country also rode through several economic crises - the turbulent Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, the 2001 downturn and the Sars crisis of 2003 - as well as the discovery of a terrorist network that threatened to derail social cohesion.
Mr Goh also oversaw new initiatives to redistribute the country's wealth with more going to the less well-off, while guarding against welfarism.
He mooted Edusave grants for students to level the playing field, Medifund for needy citizens' medical bills, and topped up the Central Provident Fund accounts of citizens when the economy did well. He introduced New Singapore Shares and Economic Restructuring Shares for adult citizens in 2001 and 2002, with more for the poor, in the wake of rising costs. He also set up Community Development Councils to build a greater sense of community and better help those in need.
Politically, he reversed the decline in the PAP's vote share from the 1991 General Election when it got 61 per cent of the vote and the opposition secured four seats.
At the 1997 elections, he tied the level of support for the PAP within each Housing Board precinct in a constituency to whether the estate would be put up for upgrading earlier.
The move drew criticism, but the PAP received 65 per cent of the vote, and clinched 75.3 per cent in the 2001 snap elections two months after the twin towers tragedy of Sept 11.
On the foreign policy front, Mr Goh expanded Singapore's economic space through free trade agreements with major trading partners.
He also raised Singapore's profile abroad, proposing forums such as the Asia-Europe Meeting and the Asia-Middle East Dialogue to boost ties and build goodwill between Asean and other regions, earning him the respect of world leaders.
His extensive international network saw PM Lee asking him to help develop Singapore's links abroad as Senior Minister, a task he did with aplomb.
Mr Goh was also approached to consider running for the job of United Nations secretary-general, but decided not to enter the fray despite appeals from many quarters.
He continued tilling the ground in his Marine Parade ward, as he had for 35 years.
On Polling Day, the Marine Parade GRC team he led in what is likely his last election pulled in 56.6 per cent of the votes, below the national average of 60.1 per cent.
'I was expecting, to be frank, a slightly better result,' he admitted. 'It's a new situation. There is a sea change in the political landscape.'
When Mr Goh handed over to PM Lee in 2004, he said he was 'very happy' to be leaving the office 'at a time of my own choosing'.
This time, Mr Goh again made the choice to leave Cabinet, albeit prompted by the tide of political change. Time will tell if this move will be able to hold back this tide.
'The Prime Minister (Lee Kuan Yew) will be retiring next year. He can do so only because he has prepared others to take over his responsibility. Prepare others to take over from you. This is applicable not only in your workplace, but also in the context of your family.
'We have to prepare our children to take over our family responsibility. If they are ill-prepared and irresponsible, we cannot enjoy a happy old age.'
In October 2001, before the GE that year
'When Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down, he stood for elections, he wasn't leading it (the PAP).
'So when I say 'step down', I should not lead it. Of course I will still play a very important part. Otherwise, what do I do? Go and make money for other people?
'I left NOL (Neptune Orient Lines) so that I can make money for Singapore, not for a company.
'Likewise, when I retire, I would want to continue to play a more important role for Singapore.'
A recollection from Marine Parade grassroots leader S. Puhaindran, published in 2002
'Many residents have come up to tell (Mr Goh) that he should not step down as PM, that he should continue. I have also passed him this feedback myself.
'He would always reply that we all have to retire one day.
'He always tells us to look at it from the point of view of what is good for the country, that there must be people in place who are able to take over, so that there would be no disruption.
'It was not just a matter of stepping down, but of ensuring continuity for the country and what is good for the country.
'Singaporeans now are getting more demanding and he has to make sure that the people who take over are ready to do so, not only in getting things done but also to be able to talk to them in their language.'
In May 2003, on retiring older ministers, just before he handed over the premiership to Mr Lee Hsien Loong
'I would like to have a seamless transition. The older ministers who are with me would be happy to make way for the younger ones ... But it doesn't mean they will be allowed to go by my successor, because my successor will need such people, trusted, experienced ministers. The successor PM will tell them to please stay on for a little longer. So we've got to work out a way where some will go, some will stay.'
Goh Chok Tong: 35 years in politics
1964 to 1969: Administrative Officer, Singapore Administrative Service
1969 to 1973: Leaves public sector for private sector; Planning and Projects Manager in Neptune Orient Lines
1973 to 1977: Managing director, Neptune Orient Lines
1976: Enters politics; elected MP for Marine Parade
1977 to 1979: Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Finance
1979 to 1990: Holds various portfolios as Minister for Trade and Industry, Minister for Health and Minister for Defence (right)
1985 to 1990: First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence
November 1990: Takes over as Prime Minister promising to build a 'kinder, gentler society' (concurrently Minister for Defence until 1991)
1991: Introduces White Paper on shared values to bind Singaporeans together and preserve Asian heritage
1991: Contests his first General Election as PM. The opposition used by-election strategy for the first time. People's Action Party (PAP) returned to power with 77 out of 81 seats and a vote share of 61 per cent, lowest then since 1965
1992: Contests a by-election in Marine Parade GRC. Brought Mr Teo Chee Hean into politics. Won in a four-cornered fight with 72.9 per cent of votes
1993: Introduces Medifund, a health endowment fund for the poor
1994: Introduces the Goods and Services Tax at 3 per cent so that corporate and personal taxes can be lowered to maintain Singapore's global competitiveness
1994: Michael Fay vandalism case. Fay's sentence reduced from six strokes to four strokes after plea by US President Bill Clinton
1994: Introduces pegging of ministerial salaries to top private-sector earners
1995: Launches PS21 (Public Service for the 21st Century) to improve service standards among public servants
1996: Sets up National Education committee to educate the young on Singapore's history
1997: Contests his second General Election as PM. PAP uses upgrading as an election strategy for the first time. PAP returned to power with 81 out of 83 seats and a vote share of 65 per cent
1997: Sets up Community Development Councils (CDCs) to promote community bonding
1997-98: Asian financial crisis
2000: Speakers' Corner opens at Hong Lim Park in a move towards greater openness
2001: Political Donations Act comes into effect, banning political associations from accepting foreign funding
2001: Contests his third and final General Election as PM, less than two months after the Sept 11 attacks on New York and Washington. PAP returns to power with 82 out of 84 seats and a vote share of 75.3 per cent, its best showing since 1980
2003: Outbreak of Sars in Singapore
2003: Signs US-Singapore free trade agreement (FTA); idea first mooted in talks held with President Bill Clinton
August 2004: Steps down as Prime Minister. Becomes Senior Minister in Lee Hsien Loong's Cabinet
2004 to date: Chairman, Monetary Authority of Singapore