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The subtleness of Mr Goh Chok Tong

by: Ravi Philemon/

Who shaped the 90s?  As I pondered hard on this question, I realised that I can give credit for this to only one man - Mr Goh Chok Tong.

Even before he took over as Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had already warned him "even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up".

Under the watchful eyes of Mr Lee Kuan Yew who continued to remain in Mr Goh's cabinet as Senior Minister, Mr Goh (it seems now), had no choice but to go about stamping his own vision of Singapore in a subtle manner.

If the repression under Mr Lee Kuan Yew was obvious, the repression under Mr Goh was 'soft'.  For example, when Catherine Lim suggested in her column in The Straits Times that the People's Action Party (PAP) is out of touch with the people, she was suspended.

Mr Goh then publicly reprimanded her by saying, "If you land a blow on our jaw, you must expect a counterblow on your solar plexus". To this, Mr Goh added that Ms Lim must enter the partisan political arena if she wants to continue airing her views. Ms Lim subsequently apologised.

It was under Mr Goh's watch that Medisave contribution was made compulsory for self-employed people; the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system was expanded when the country was under Mr Goh's care; the vehicle quote system and the Elected Presidency were also enacted during his tenure in this decade.

It was Mr Goh's belief that Singaporeans must increase their assets so that they would have a larger stake in the country.

Towards this, Mr Goh's government implemented the Share Ownership Top-Up Scheme in 1993. The scheme gave $200 to every Singaporean aged 21 an above who had contributed $500 to his CPF account during a six-month period.  With the money, members could buy Singapore Telecom shares at a discount. About 1.4 million Singaporeans (many of whom had no clue what holding shares meant) became shareholders when Singapore Telecom was first floated.

To enhance the people's assets, Mr Goh also advocated the upgrading of public housing flats. This upgrading was to enhance the value of the flat, which would result in a windfall when the owner of the flat sold it.  The upgrading was of course tied to you voting his Party in with a strong majority in the General Election. Constituencies which did not vote for his Party, he threatened would turn into slums.

It was also the Government under Mr Goh Chok Tong which relaxed the stricter yester-years immigration policy of Singapore.

Mr Goh justified the need to import foreign talent in his National Day Rally speech of 1998 citing the contributions of foreign talent to Microsoft, the French World Cup football team, and the Singapore team (that included Permanent Residents) which scaled Mount Everest.

He said then, "while we attract foreign talent and welcome foreigners who contribute to our economy, Singapore must always have a hard core of citizens, cohesive and totally committed to the country, around whom we can attract other talent and build a nation."

Despite his subtleness, Mr Goh certainly did leave an indelible mark in the decade of the 90s. His subtle messages of enhancements and inclusivity which were lost to many in that time period, were however so profound that they continue to impact the lives of many Singaporeans even today.


This article is part of a series where contributors were asked for their personal take on who shaped the decades.