Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore
Publication Year: 2009
Published by: NUS Press Pte Ltd
Title Page, Copyright
I met Mr Goh Chok Tong for the first time in the spring of 1991 during an interview for World Link, the magazine of the World Economic Forum. This was just a few months after his nomination as Prime Minister of Singapore. ...
When Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, stepped aside in 1990, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) missed an opportunity to publish a book assessing his 35 years as the first Prime Minister of Singapore and the impact of his administration on all aspects of life in Singapore. I was determined not to repeat the same mistake when the second Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, passed the baton of leadership to Mr Lee Hsien Loong in 2004. ...
Southeast Asia at the turn of the 21st century was on the cusp of change, and change was occurring decisively and quietly in Singapore. In 2004, the country’s second Prime Minister was turning over the mantle to his successor, after 14 years at the helm. Key junctures such as these are moments for reflection. Unfortunately, the moment passed without significant scholarly attention, although many organisations and individuals thanked Goh Chok Tong for his leadership and tenure. ...
Introduction: A Redefined Singapore
Singapore’s second prime minister Goh Chok Tong came into office in 1990 without fanfare.1 The lanky technocrat took the oath of office surrounded by his People’s Action Party (PAP) colleagues, with many expecting nothing more than continuity. It was predicted that he would only be a “seat warmer”, holding offi ce until Lee Kuan Yew’s son Lee Hsien Loong, then deputy prime minister, took the reigns of power in the near term.2 In ...
1 Succeeding Charisma
In November 1937, a Calcutta journal, Modern Review, published a withering portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru. He was not prime minister of India then, but was already widely accepted as Mahatma Gandhi’s choice to lead a free India. Jawaharlal, as his name suggests, was the “jewel of India”, the Mahatma had pronounced. ...
2 A Journalist’s Note on a Quiet Rebel
One sad aspect of life in Singapore is the paucity of intelligent and meaningful literature that connects the dots on a political canvas. If done with some courage, this would reveal a far more vibrant nation. One such dot occurred a few years ago at a private dinner at the Istana.1 It was to mark Chap Goh Mei, the last day of the Lunar New Year, when the prime minister gives one of his two most important speeches of the year, the other being ...
3 Re-Imagining the Nation: Goh Chok Tong’s Singapore
Sir Stamford Raffles, who landed on Singapore island in 1819, famously imagined it as the Manchester of the East. By the middle of the 19th century, Singapore earned its right to another ascriptive piece of colonial symbolism: the Clapham Junction of the Eastern Seas. A thriving metropolis, it became a junction in the timetables of itinerant trade and power that kept British imperium on course. But Raffles’ tropical Manchester had no Britain in which to anchor it. In his island entrepot, a host of migrant peoples gathered fitfully for ...
4 Public Administration: Change in Style and Continuity in Policy
Goh Chok Tong succeeded Lee Kuan Yew to become Singapore’s second prime minister on 28 November 1990. Contrary to expectations of a short tenure, his term of office lasted for nearly 14 years. Goh not only continued with the policies introduced by his predecessor, he also introduced some new policies and, more importantly, transformed the authoritarian style of policy-making to a more consultative one. On 29 April 1991, Goh commented on ...
5 Goh’s Consensus Politics of Authoritarian Rule
It would be overstating the case to depict Goh Chok Tong as having transformed the nature of authoritarianism in Singapore during his time as Prime Minister and leader of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) between 1990 and 2004. Yet Goh did significantly refine the regime through his “consensus politics”. Goh’s predecessor, Lee Kuan Yew, had presided over the systematic obstruction of political opposition and the decimation of civil society. ...
6 Electoral Battles and Innovations: Recovering Lost Ground
Goh Chok Tong led the People’s Action Party (PAP) in three general elections (GEs) in 1991, 1997 and 2001. Like his predecessor Lee Kuan Yew, Goh won all three GEs, and in fact won all on Nomination Day when the opposition did not field enough candidates to win even a majority. During this period, Goh also introduced new electoral innovations that further cemented the PAP’s rule and made it almost impossible for the opposition to win. Th is essay ...
7 Constructing a “Constructive” Opposition
After leading Singapore and the People’s Action Party (PAP) for over 30 years, Lee Kuan Yew was neither able to secure support for his choice of successor nor retain his characteristic strong-man trademark in governing Singapore. Officially appointed as Singapore’s second prime minister on 28 November 1990, Goh Chok Tong was aware of Lee’s preference for Dr Tony Tan as heir and of Lee’s paternalistic, authoritarian ways of governing the Republic. Goh ...
8 Pruning the Banyan Tree? Civil Society in Goh’s Singapore
The one feature that would distinguish Goh Chok Tong’s administration from that of his predecessor would be its impact on civil society. This essay discusses if this was indeed the case. ...
9 Negotiating Boundaries: OB Markers and the Law
During Goh Chok Tong’s time as prime minister of Singapore, the law was in ferment. It was during his tenure that Yong Pung How was appointed as Chief Justice, and the present Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong was appointed Attorney General. Both of them made significant changes to the Judiciary and the Attorney General’s Chambers respectively. ...
10 Forging New Frontiers: Goh Chok Tong’s Foreign Policy Legacy1
In 1990, Goh Chok Tong succeeded Lee Kuan Yew as the second prime minister of Singapore. At the time of that transition, I had tried to sum up Lee Kuan Yew’s foreign policy legacy. I wrote that “Singapore’s relations with other countries, both within and outside the region, are excellent. This happy state of affairs is due to the collective efforts of an extraordinary crew but, especially, of its illustrious captain, Lee Kuan Yew”.2 ...
11 Goh Chok Tong the Multilateralist
Since independence, the nature of Singapore’s diplomacy has ranged on a continuum between go-it-alone power politics and the idealistic strands of what has been labelled as multilateralism. Unlike power politics, the latter posture embraces the pursuit of cooperative relations between states on a win-win basis. On the one hand, Goh’s foreign policy officially adhered to the familiar refrain that a balance of interested powers’ presence ...
12 Connecting the Dot: Singapore in ASEAN
Singapore’s leadership transition from Lee Kuan Yew to Goh Chok Tong in 1990 coincided with important international realignments. Regionally, Southeast Asia was adjusting to the conclusion of the Third Indochina War following the withdrawal of Vietnamese occupation troops from Cambodia in September 1989. The United Nations-led peace talks and subsequent initiatives effectively ended nearly half a century of military conflict in the ...
13 Confronting the Weight of History: Singapore and Key Neighbours
Singapore’s bilateral relationships with its immediate neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, are central in the strategic thinking of its foreign and security policy makers. An acrimonious separation from Malaysia in August 1965, and Indonesia’s diplomatic and paramilitary aggression expressed in President Sukarno’s policy of Confrontation against the Federation of Malaysia (of which Singapore was a part from 1963 to 1965) that preceded it, ...
14 Shooting Rapids in a Canoe: Singapore and Great Powers1
Singapore’s strategy toward the great powers is the story of how a vulnerable Lilliputian state has endeavoured to combine the use of astute stratagem and skilful diplomacy to manage its asymmetric relations with the big powers. By borrowing the strength of the political heavyweights to manoeuvre through the swift currents, the city-state reduces the risk of capsizing in the rough sea of international relations. ...
15 Goh to America: Mirrored Contradictory Images
For most Americans, Goh Chok Tong’s name does not ring a bell. In fact, Singapore itself is largely undefined in the American popular imagination, as few have visited or even are familiar with the city-state. Yet, during Goh’s 14-year tenure as prime minister (PM), Singapore became more concrete to more Americans, and arguably its international image became sharper. In this context of a changing international perception of Singapore, Goh emerged ...
16 Maturing the Singapore Armed Forces: From Poisonous Shrimp to Dolphin
The Goh Chok Tong administration remains probably the most important period in the growth and development of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) into a credible conventionally structured, jointly oriented armed forces, plausibly the most modern and most well-trained armed forces in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s defence postures have evolved from its inception from “poisonous shrimp” to “porcupine” to “dolphin”, signifying a shift from a ...
17 Hardening National Security: Emergence of an Agile Scorpion
When Goh Chok Tong became prime minister in 1990, Southeast Asia was arguably at its most secure point in the post-Second World War era. Vietnam had withdrawn from Cambodia in September 1989, and had begun to open its economy. Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhaven had declared ASEAN’s intentions to “turn battlefields into marketplaces”. While there was some concern about the US military withdrawal from ...
18 Transforming the Engines of Growth 1
Goh inherited an economy that had already achieved a relatively advanced state and was primed for further growth. Singapore’s per capita income of USD14,637 in 19902 was close to, or even higher than that of many Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. The economy had weathered a severe recession in 1985–1987,3 caused by domestic over-investment as well as a sharp downturn in ...
19 The Economist Prime Minister
The first prime minister of independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, was a lawyer by training. He used his legal training to obtain political power through debates in Parliament and in making Singapore into an administrative state. Together with Goh Keng Swee, a trained economist, they built up Singapore into an efficient growing economy with a per capita ...
20 Spreading the Benefi ts of Growth and Managing Inequality
The Singapore economy faced several challenges in the 1990s: increasing labour costs resulting from a maturing economy after strong growth in the 1980s; competition from developed countries with better technologies and human capital; and competition from developing countries with lower labour and land cost. Singapore managed to overcome these challenges through sound economic policies. As a result, economic growth achieved in ...
21 Educating the Next Generation
Goh Chok Tong’s tenure as prime minister (1990–2004) was marked as much by continuity as by change. Goh sought to establish himself as a leader in his own right, with a distinct vision, a more open and consultative style, and a desire to engage all Singaporeans in the nation-building project. At the inaugural National University of Singapore Students’ ...
22 Prescribing New Economic Medicine for Healthcare
Born in 1941 to a humble background, Goh Chok Tong experienced a difficult early childhood during the years of the Japanese occupation. In a parliamentary speech, he recalled growing up in the Pasir Panjang area in a rustic house without modern sanitation that was home to many families, and admitted that his two children were much better off than he was when he was young.1 Goh’s father died when he was very young and his mother worked as a teacher in a Chinese school to support him and his sister. He was raised by his mother with the help ...
23 Bolstering Population Growth: From Babies to Immigrants
In the late 1980s, Singapore went where few had dared to tread in population policies. The government, led by then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, announced that Singapore would reverse its highly effective fertility control policy and replace it with a selectively pro-natalist one. This was a bold move since few countries had tried pro-natalism and fewer still had succeeded. Th e announcement of the new fertility policy was followed soon after by the announcement that the government would relax its immigration ...
24 Reshaping Urban Space: From a Tropical to Global City
Colourful brochures, bold graphics, miniature replicas, and built-to-scale models of buildings are a frequent sight in Singapore’s public spaces. These eye-catching displays, which often appear in large shopping centres, symbolise the important role that the transformation of the urban terrain plays in Singapore’s past, present and future. The government of Singapore is renowned for the public exhibitions of its Development Guide Plans (DGPs). Designed to attract comments and feedback from the public about new building proposals, ...
25 Moving from Survival to Sustainability in the Environment
Unruly crowds, buildings teeming with activity, urban filth and infrastructure bursting at the seams are images often associated with the idea of a city. Singapore defies this conventional image. The city-state’s policies, vision, and leadership have combined to resist the challenges of concentrated living. In fact, the island is synonymous with “garden city”, a modern and green metropolis. Singapore’s densely concentrated population has managed to function in tandem with tropical greenery. The garden city ideology continues to cement ...
26 Navigating Transnationalism: Immigration and Reconfigured Ethnicity
Tonkichi restaurant is situated on the fourth floor of Isetan, a Singapore branch of one of Japan’s largest international department stores. The facade evokes a Tokyo storefront with a wood-tile overhang above the entrance, red-dyed drapes screening the door, and a brightly lit window display of delicately arranged plastic sushi rolls and bowls of plastic ramen noodles. At midday on a Sunday, the restaurant is crowded with young families. The patrons order from a menu in English ...
27 Sailing a Steady Ship: Goh Chok Tong’s Multiculturalism
During his tenure as prime minister, Goh Chok Tong’s approach to the management of Singapore’s multicultural composition was precisely charted in the speech he delivered at his swearing-in ceremony on 28 November 1990. At the event, Goh asserted that while he had no intention of making significant alterations to the status quo, he was nonetheless determined to pursue his own strategy in order to maintain it. ...
28 Chinese-Singaporean Identity: Subtle Change Amidst Continuity
During Goh Chok Tong’s tenure as Singapore’s prime minister, there were subtle shifts in the relative emphasis on Chinese-Singaporean identity within the multiracial Singaporean-Singapore identity framework. An increasingly confident Singapore felt less inhibited to express the majority ethnic Chinese component within its multiracial composition. As with many other facets of Singapore society, Goh did not start with a ...
29 Dilemma and Anguish of the Chinese-Educated
Th e governance of independent Singapore is rooted primarily in a particular form of multiculturalism, which is paradoxically premised upon heightened racial awareness and reinvigorated ethnic roots, and characterised by intra-ethnic differentiation of the Chinese majority population into English and Chinese-speaking subgroups. The Chinese-educated (huaxiaosheng) is an ambiguous category but it commonly refers to those who did not go to English-medium schools but were educated through the Chinese-medium secondary ...
30 A New Dawn in PAP-Malay Relations?
Relations between the People’s Action Party (PAP) government and Malay community were characteristically fraught with tension during Lee Kuan Yew’s tenure as Prime Minister. For both parties, the brief but tumultuous political experiences of merger and separation engendered disappointment, alienation and insecurity. Malay alienation can be attributed to the PAP government’s minimalist approach towards addressing their persisting socio-economic and educational marginalisation, relative to the other ethnic ...
31 Winning Over the Malay Community: The Politics of Engagement
Coming after three decades of Lee Kuan Yew’s rule, the Goh Chok Tong era from 1990 to 2004 has been widely described as a significant phase in Singapore’s leadership transition, one characterised more by a change in leadership style than in substance. While this is generally a fair depiction of the second phase of Singapore’s nation-building process, a more nuanced assessment of the Goh era is necessary. Goh’s leadership was markedly different from that of his predecessor in his approach to governance and political ...
32 The Man Who Nurtured Indians and Started the India Fever
Th e Goh Chok Tong years and the Indian Singaporean community are inexact boundaries for exact interpretations. Both were part of the Singapore nation building processes since the 1950s. Goh Chok Tong took 14 years from 1976 to rise from the ranks of Member of Parliament to become the prime minister of Singapore in 1990, a position that he held for 14 years. Th us, any discussion of the impact he made on Singaporean Indians should ...
33 Women in the Goh Era: Chartering Empowerment
When Goh Chok Tong became prime minister in 1990, there was already growing frustration among women over socioeconomic policies that were increasingly at odds with the realities of women’s lives. These policies, which directly affected the capacity of women to decide upon and negotiate their roles as traditional homemakers and/or income-earners, had been made without consultation by a patriarchal government. With Goh’s entry, while ...
34 Soft Exterior, Hard Core: Policies towards Gays
On 8 April 2004, the Registrar of Societies, writing to the gay and lesbian group, People Like Us (PLU), said, “As the mainstream moral values of Singaporeans are conservative, it is hence contrary to public interest to grant legitimacy to the promotion of homosexual activities and viewpoints at this point in time”.1 Th is was his justification for refusing to register PLU as a society under the Societies Act. Nothing seemed to have changed since an identical reason was given in 1997, when PLU lodged an earlier application. ...
35 Networked Society in an Intelligent Nation: Laying the Foundation
Of all the transformations that Singapore has gone through since the People’s Action Party started governing Singapore in 1959, few can match the depth or breadth of the revolutionary changes that the government has brought about through the adoption and deployment of Information Communication Technology (ICT). As elsewhere in the world, ICTs have affected how Singapore functions as a nation and lives as a society but the approach and ...
36 To the Market: Cultural Policy Amidst Contestation
Singapore’s cultural policy since the 1960s can be divided into two major strands. The first is cultural policy as a socio-political instrument for nation-building, beginning from self-government through independence, to the present day. This politicisation of culture began with Lee Kuan Yew, but Goh Chok Tong held the same view as his predecessor. Both believed that people’s identity and values can—and should be—moulded for the good of the nation state, through education, language, housing and other policies. Indeed, Goh ...
37 Liberalising Culture
In 1989, Lee Kuan Yew announced that, after 31 years as prime minister, he was stepping aside to make way for a younger person. He also let it be known that his successor, Goh Chok Tong, was the choice of the latter’s contemporaries in the Cabinet. Goh became prime minister on 28 November 1990 and, as Goh himself suggested, it was a “non event”.1 ...
38 No News Here: Media in Subordination
For political journalists covering the dawn of the Goh Chok Tong government, its promises of a new governing style provided plenty of grist for the story mill. The new buzzwords of openness and consultation seized the imagination of the chattering classes, raising their expectations. If one had listened closely to the government, however, it would quickly have become clear that the silences were as meaningful as anything that was actually said. And ...
39 Curious Connections: TalkingCock.com and PM Goh
In some ways, satirical website TalkingCock.com’s awkward existence in Singapore’s notoriously controlled culture presents a funhouse mirror image of Singapore’s former prime minister and now Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong. This essay ponders the seeming inconsistencies between Goh’s public image and certain policies under his administration, specifically those pertaining to language. What emerges is a puzzling narrative of someone ...
40 Singapore Sports: Heyday, Hollowness and New Heights
Singapore’s sport policy comprises three pillars: encouraging every citizen to take up sport and exercise, ensuring that its sportsmen achieve glory on the international stage, and using sport to boost the economy. The latter two became important aspects of sport here only during or just before Goh Chok Tong took the helm as prime minister. For that alone, his contributions have played an integral role in shaping the sporting arena to become ...
41 Broadening Horizons: Emergence of Contemporary Art in Singapore
The late 1980s to the mid-2000s, effectively the Goh years, was a highly significant period for the development of the visual arts in Singapore. It was a period characterised by remarkable experimentation, major transition, as well as turmoil. Art during the early 1990s went through a difficult and tumultuous relationship with the state, but emerged in the later part of the decade with a renewed dynamism and energy, resulting in significant changes to ...
42 Redefining the National Museum: New Reflections on Heritage
Reopening a restored National Museum building on 16 November 1990,1 then First Deputy Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong admitted that the old National Museum “was not a top-class museum, but for many years we did nothing to change it. Culture and arts were not of high priority. We had to take care of the economics first”. Goh then went on to announce that “now that we have achieved our economic goals, we can spend some money ...
43 Reviving Singapore Cinema: New Perspectives
Looking back at Singapore’s recent history, one can see that the revival of the city’s feature film production and film culture in a broader sense largely corresponded with the period when the country was led by the government of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. This revival, which produced films such as Eating Air, Money No Enough, I Not Stupid, 15, Be With Me, Th e Maid, Singapore GaGa and many others, brought Singapore back to the international filmmaking community. ...
44 Missed Opportunities for a Humane Style: Singapore Architecture
This essay reviews the effects of the more humane approach as it affects architecture during Goh Chok Tong’s term as prime minister of Singapore, and explains what happened to important building projects when the new dispensation encountered the long-standing administrative procedures and attitudes formed before his time. Underlying all this was Singapore’s desire to catch up with the developed nations and how this eroded the struggle ...
Page Count: 590
Illustrations: 58 images
Publication Year: 2009
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