Politics aside, the story of Singapore’s ‘improbable prime minister’ has leadership gems

June 11, 2019 By 0 Comments

Tall Order – the Goh Chok Tong Story was a delightful weekend read.

Panchalee Thakur

Political biographies are often too salacious or too staid, and I was inclined to believe this book about Singapore’s second prime minister would fall into the latter category. But it surprised me with charming stories about Goh’s childhood and adolescence in kampong(rustic) Singapore that we are not familiar with today, and nuggets (I’m tempted to say ‘juicy’, well almost) from his political life that give you a peek at his days as the chosen one for the big job and his early days at the Istana (prime minister’s office).

As writer, Peh Shing Huei, says, Goh was an “improbable prime minister” but unlike the “accidental prime minister” of my native country, Goh rose from the shadow of his mentor Lee Kuan Yew, consolidated his position and left his own signature mark on policies and governance. The writer raises some questions that must be on every Singaporean’s mind: was he a “seat warmer” for LKY’s son, the current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong; did LKY pull the strings even when he had left Goh to run the country; how did Goh handle a second Lee in the cabinet? Well, read the book for the answers.

It is no doubt a political biography with leadership transition and Singapore’s drive for meritocracy in politics as important sub-texts. But there are some management gems hidden in Goh’s story. It’s about leadership by example, leadership by sheer conviction and strength of will, and leadership by taking criticism in your stride and willing to learn and change. The most memorable one comes from Goh’s openness to work on his “wooden” expression at public meetings and TV appearances after LYK’s open criticism. Then there is this instance that shows his sense of conviction: since NOL, the shipping company that he was heading, was not profitable, he decided to fly economy class. Then someone suggested he flew business class, since it showed the company in a bad light. To that, Goh said people only asked him in which hotel he was staying and nobody ever asked him how he flew. So it didn’t matter if he flew economy.

It’s a light read, written with a journalist flair. Peh adopts a reporting style without much of a commentary and brings Goh directly into the story by way of Q&As. As a writer, one thought kept coming to me. Peh and his team would have had to do a lot of digging around since the main subject had a tendency to play things down. And I can tell you from experience that the writer’s job is easy when the subject is colourful. In this case, Goh asked the team often if they felt his story was worth telling. Now that’s a difficult writing assignment. But, well done.