The decision by Singapore’s second (1990-2004) Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, to retire from politics when he is not much older than a man bidding to be the American president is significant because it is marked with grace, and thus entirely in character with the politician he was as he grew to the top job in the shadow of one of the 20th century’s towering statesmen.
Announcing his decision not to contest the forthcoming Singapore parliamentary election, Mr Goh wryly suggested that the prospect of becoming an octogenarian next year was a reason for his decision although he still felt fit.
Mr Goh’s stewardship of Singapore was perceived by many as an interim arrangement crafted by his predecessor, the legendary Lee Kuan Yew, to ensure he was not accused of nepotism if he anointed his son, the present Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to succeed him.
Indeed, expressing anger at the way Mr Goh had dealt with a crisis in the late 1980s when he was officiating as Prime Minister, the senior Lee was reported to have said, “If Loong were not my son, I would have asked him to take over from you now.” But notwithstanding this and other put-downs by his mercurial and occasionally abrasive predecessor, Mr Goh did assume office as Prime Minister in 1990.
And even as some quipped that he was the Holy Goh between father and son, over the next 14 years he wrought his own transformation on Singapore, nearly doubling per capita GDP and enhancing development partnerships around the world. India should have special reason to recall Mr Goh’s contributions.
As Prime Minister of Singapore, he unleashed an “India Fever” in his country. A frequent visitor to India, he was instrumental in enhancing bilateral ties. As his successor wrote on Thursday while accepting Mr Goh’s decision not to contest this election after having been an MP for 44 years, “In India, without the trust and goodwill you built up over many years, I could not have signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) in 2005.”
After stepping down as Prime Minister, Mr Goh remained a frequent visitor to India, and even his sartorial style reflects his affection for the country. Often seen wearing an India-made Nehru jacket, which he found appropriate for Singapore’s air-conditioned spaces, he once quipped, “Maybe I will now start an India Fashion Fever.”
In 2016, it was Mr Goh who advised India to strive to be a global manufacturer, to enact strong economic reforms, to link India with the world through strategic partnerships and to physically connect with the world by enhancing road, rail, sea and air connectivity.
Asked once by an interviewer to analyse himself, Mr Goh said he had learned early in life that a person has three selves ~ who he thinks he is, what others think he is and who he really is ~ and that therefore “you will never know who you are.” That self-effacing admission sums up the life and political career of a remarkable man who did much for his country and the world.