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Remembering Dr Toh Chin Chye

~by: Dr Wong Wee Nam~

I cannot forget his kind gesture. It was the morning after the 1997 General Election. I had come back at 2 am after the results had been announced that my team had lost. I went straight to bed. At 8 am, the phone rang and woke me up. At the other end was the familiar voice of Dr Toh Chin Chye.

For the next 45 minutes, he consoled me, gave a lot of encouraging words, and suggested some ideas for the way forward.

It was really thoughtful of him. After all, who was I that the founding chairman of the PAP should call me up and console me? It further confirmed my impression of him — a very down-to-earth man, with no airs. When he shared an opinion, he would do so as an equal and not as a hectoring lecturer. This is quite unlike many minions of the party whom I know who have always boasted that they could give me tuition on how to fight elections.

When I was in primary school, I had already heard of Dr Toh Chin Chye. This was because he was representing Rochor, a constituency adjacent to the place I grew up. Furthermore, there was the epic battle between him and the chairman of Barisan Sosialis, Dr Lee Siew Choh, where he won by a mere 89 votes. This had generated a lot of discussions in coffeeshops.

However, it was not until I went to University and he became the Vice-Chancellor that we met. When he was first posted to the University, there was some disquiet amongst the university community. Why was a minister of the ruling party, especially a party that had introduced the suitability certificate, sent to be the head of the University?

His appointment prompted me to write an article to the student’s satirical newspaper, The Yakkity Yak. After the publication, I had expected a call from the university administration but none came. Dr Toh was not as intolerant as we thought he would be. The fact that he had even put up with the rebellious Professor Enright said a lot about him.

Once, a madcap student ran round the corridor below the Administration block and bumped into Dr Toh who was walking to his office. The diminutive Dr Toh was sent flying down with a crash. The student’s face turned green. However, Dr Toh just got up, picked up his briefcase, nodded to the student and carried on walking. He might have been stern but he accepted people.

In subsequent meetings with him, I found him to be a very open and forthright person. He would not evade difficult and embarrassing questions and would give straight and honest answers on politics, policies, his government’s authoritarianism and even his working relationship with his colleagues. Never did he try to impose his arguments on others by speaking down to them.

Thus he would not blindly defend any position but would want you to see the difficulty of a position. He would then go on to explore the problem patiently, sometimes taking more than half an hour to do so and explain the rationale behind his thinking. It was not tiresome to listen to him because his thoughts were clear and his reasoning logical.

In my experience with him, there was not the short fuse that he was reputed to have. Even when he had to put someone down, he did so with finesse. Once, a friend asked him what it would be like to meet Lee Kuan Yew. Dr Toh in his soft voice gently told him, “Lee Kuan Yew doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” In the course of the conversation, this friend had clearly irritated him by his inconsistencies and flip-flopping of opinions.

His reading of people was uncanny. There was one occasion I had lunch with him and two other friends to tap his expertise on contesting the 1997 General Election. Towards the end of the lunch, he turned to the most vocal celebrity and told him straight, “The other two have already teed off and you still have not put your ball down.”

People often commented that Dr Toh was a bitter man after he left the PAP and that was why he often spoke out against them. As far as I know, he did not come across to me as such a person. To me, he had never attacked any of his old comrades and when he spoke out against certain policies, it was not because he was bitter but because he sincerely felt they were, in principle, wrong. And he would go at length to explain why.

Neither did he run down those political opponents of the PAP like J.B. Jeyaretnam and Dr Chee Soon Juan. To him, they had every right to be in politics. He also had great admiration for the late Lim Chin Siong. The moment he started speaking, Dr Toh recalled, the crowd would go into frenzy. That was Lim’s impressive oratorical skill.

Thus when he went round meeting politicians of all shades and colours, his intention was not to overthrow or inflict vengeance on a party he had founded. Politics was in his blood and he just loved and enjoyed a good political discussion with anyone.

To Dr Toh, politics is about principles and should not be personal. For him, it was not that we were of different political persuasions but that we were speaking with different voices for Singapore. It is this that reminds us of the founding spirit of Singapore.

In my years of association with him, I found him a storehouse of political wisdom.

“To be a politician, you must think and feel like a businessman.”

“When you corner a person, give him a way out. Even a rat will turn and bite you if there is no way to run,” are some of the political gems.

I once paid him a visit and he printed a copy of an article from a Fish Farm Forum for me. The article had nothing to do with the fishing industry but was a critical analysis of the ministerial salary when it was first introduced. That is Dr Toh for you — keeping abreast and always willing to share.

He might be a national leader but he could be very comfortable on the ground. He once went to a friend’s office to taste his wine. My friend told him that he should not have gone there because the office was an abattoir and the stench was terrible. He told my friend it was alright and it was good to try and taste wine in any surroundings.

Dr Toh Chin Chye might have been a stern man but he was a nice person. This is a man who is known to be calm under critical conditions. We should be thankful to him for his great captaincy, especially during the turbulent times with Malaysia.

Dr Toh, may you rest in peace.