By Gabriel Choo
SINGAPORE — Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong announced on Wednesday (24 June) that he would be retiring from politics after 44 years as Member of Parliament (MP) for Marine Parade. The 79-year-old made the announcement in a letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
As Singapore gears up for the 10 July General Election (GE), where leadership transition for the People’s Action Party (PAP) government becomes a more pressing issue, Yahoo News Singapore takes a look back at the various events and key policy changes that happened during Goh’s tenure.
Goh joined the government service in 1964 and was the managing director of Neptune Orient Lines – Singapore’s national shipping company from 1973 to 1977.
He entered politics in 1976, becoming MP for Marine Parade in the GE that same year. He also served as Minister for Trade and Industry, Health and Defence, and was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister in 1985.
In 1990, Goh succeeded the late Lee Kuan Yew as Singapore's second prime minister and led the PAP to victory at the GEs in 1991, 1997 and 2001.
New policies as PM
During his 14-year service as PM, Goh’s administration oversaw the introduction of several major policies in Singapore such as Medisave, Non-Constituency Members of Parliament and Government Parliamentary Committees and are still key institutions today.
Other national initiatives that Goh oversaw include the birth of community development councils such as the ‘Inter-Racial Confidence Circles’ and ‘Harmony Circles’, which aim to help bond Singaporeans of different racial and religious backgrounds.
In April 1999, Goh formed the ‘Singapore 21’ committee, which proposed a new vision to strengthen the “heartware” of Singapore in the 21st century. Singaporeans were able to give feedback on national policies in Singapore as a three-way partnership between them, the public sector and the private sector to build greater social cohesion.
The late 1990s was when housing shortage became an issue and Goh introduced asset enhancement schemes to renew aging estates and market deregulation measures to establish an integrated land-housing supply. These HDB estate upgrading measures sparked criticism from the public, but Goh stood firm, saying in a speech at an event that he is “convinced that the upgrading programme is the way to share some of our country’s wealth with you (Singaporeans)”.
As part of further financial support for Singaporeans, Goh also introduced endowment funds such as Edusave schemes for students, and Medifund for Singaporeans who cannot afford their healthcare bills.
Leading through crises and controversies
One of Goh’s notable achievements during his PM years was when he led Singapore out of the 1997-1998 Asian Financial Crisis, by implementing a slew of measures ranging from lowering business costs to providing relief to individuals and households. This was when the government first started redistributing budget surpluses to citizens in the form of Central Provident Fund (CPF) top-ups.
Singapore faced an economic slowdown again in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the 2003 SARS outbreak. Goh introduced the New Singapore Shares scheme to maintain the city-state’s position as an attractive investment hub in order to spur the creation of jobs for Singaporeans.
In 2001, Singapore was facing terrorism threats such as the plot to attack several embassies and public infrastructure by Jemaah Islamiyah. To manage any potential fallout, Goh encouraged schools and workplaces to promote understanding between the different racial and religious communities through inter-racial confidence circles. He also held dialogues with leaders of the Muslim community.
During the 2003 SARS outbreak,Goh set out to promote community spirit and encourage social responsibility. In a letter to Singaporeans, Goh said, “To succeed in containing SARS in Singapore, everyone must cooperate and play his part. We can overcome this latest crisis if we work together, as we have done in previous crises.”
In the same year, Goh announced that the government was openly employing homosexuals despite sex between men remaining illegal under the Penal Code. This received a strong backlash from certain segments of the public and religious groups alike but he argued for a tolerant society.
In 1994, the Singapore government had to deal with harsh criticisms from the US when Michael Peter Fay, an American teenager living in Singapore, was sentenced to six strokes of the cane for vandalising cars. The sentence was later reduced to four strokes of the cane. Despite intense pressure from US media and officials calling on Singapore not to cane Fay, Goh remained firm on his stance that Singapore’s laws must be respected by everyone.
Supporter of regionalisation
Goh was a keen supporter of fostering closer bilateralism and multilateralism with Singapore’s external partners.
Under the Initiative for Asean Integration (IAI) launched in 2000, Singapore worked with four other original Asean members, or the Asean-5, to narrow the development gap between them and the newer member states of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.
The India-Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) was also established under Goh, in an effort to strengthen bilateral trade and forge closer ties between India and the region. He also led Singapore's efforts towards globalisation through various initiatives such as the Asia-Europe Meeting and the Asia-Middle East Dialogue.
Goh was also involved in the long-standing water agreement issue with Malaysia, where he sought to clear the decks of outstanding bilateral issues. He wrote a letter to Malaysia’s then PM, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, saying that Singapore would supplement the water agreements by producing its own Newater for the sake of good long-term relations.
After 14 years as PM, Goh relinquished his post in 2004 to Lee Hsien Loong and remained in the cabinet as Senior Minister until 2011. After GE2011, Goh was appointed as senior adviser to the Monetary Authority of Singapore and given the honorary title of Emeritus Senior Minister.
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