Ex-Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong's new book recalls speech tips to Jiang, golfing with Clinton

Former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Standing tall: The Goh Chok Tong years is the second part of former Singapore prime minister Goh Chok Tong's biography.

Goh took over from founding leader Lee Kuan Yew in 1990 and as the book puts it, many - from within and outside the country - wondered aloud if the country would survive without Lee at the helm.

Goh led Singapore for 14 years before handing over to current leader Lee Hsien Loong, and was known for introducing some of the country's most controversial policies while expanding Singapore's stature globally.

Standing Tall, written by Singaporean author and journalist Peh Shing Huei, is available on Amazon.com and in major bookstores across Asia. Here are excerpts of the book and selected Q&A with Goh.

Chapter 13: Ichigo Ichie

[The chapter begins with Washington's displeasure with Singapore over the caning of American teenager Michael Fay for vandalism in the city state in 1994. Singapore was concerned about the impact on bilateral defence, economic, cultural and political relations and Goh was thinking of what to do. Help came from businessman and former Arkansas state senator Joe T. Ford, who told US leader Bill Clinton that Goh had been trying to get a meeting with him.]

The Japanese have a term to describe such precious moments - Ichigo ichie, or one encounter, one chance. Months later, in November 1997, it was the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit again, this time in Vancouver, Canada.

Goh received a message from an aide of Clinton: the US President would like to invite him to play golf. Goh knew right away that Ford must have spoken to Clinton. Clinton had cleverly bypassed his gatekeepers.

Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien joined the duo at the Shaughnessy golf course amid a drizzle. But it wasn't enough to put a dampener on Goh's spirits. The US blockage was over. "That is diplomacy," said Goh with a big smile.

The White House visit followed in September 1998. Goh had a good meeting with Clinton, discussing several international issues, including the Asian Financial Crisis.

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The breakthrough in ties between Goh and Clinton carried significant impact on not only bilateral relations, but also Singapore's economic survival in the new millennium.

[Singapore was keen to sign a bilateral free-trade agreement with the United States, but knew some in Washington did not feel the same way as its economy was small and open. But warm relations between Goh and Clinton allowed the former to state Singapore's case.]

When they were slated to meet again in Brunei in November 2000 for the annual Apec summit, it was the opening Goh had been waiting for to broach the FTA affair. Clinton had two months left in his presidency and this was the last chance. One encounter, one chance.

"There was no Plan B," said Goh. It would turn out to be his most outstanding act of statecraft and diplomacy.

His plan centred on a game of night golf at the Royal Brunei Golf and Country Club in Bandar Seri Begawan. Goh, like his officials and ministers, had done his homework for years.

He found out that Clinton "preferred informal ways of transacting difficult business with other leaders", said his press secretary Ong Keng Yong.

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Goh had also studied Clinton during summits and true to media reports, the American leader liked his hamburgers, Coca-Cola and was a late-night sleeper.

Goh arrived at the Apec dinner banquet at Brunei's International Convention Centre ready. He brought along his golf bag and change of clothing in his car. And after almost a decade of Apec summits, he knew that leaders arrived alphabetically and also departed alphabetically but in the reverse order.

That meant Singapore and the US were close, separated only by Thailand. He would have a chance to talk to Clinton without his staffers present.

Goh asked: "Bill, I'm thinking of playing golf after the banquet. What about you?"

Clinton replied: "I was looking for someone to play with."

"Let's play."

Clinton's delegation had no idea that their president had agreed to a golf game with Goh. It seemed that Clinton, like Goh, had brought his golf clubs and change of clothing with him. When word reached the US officials in the banquet, they were shocked.

Former US President Bill Clinton.
PHOTO: Reuters

"How did I know Clinton would play golf at midnight? To be frank, I did not know," said Goh with a shrug. "It was instinct, a hunch. I just knew he would. Earlier in the day, I had drawn his attention to the night golf course at Jerudong. His curiosity was piqued."

[But as Goh was waiting for his turn to leave the banquet for golf, a fierce thunderstorm erupted. Confident that it was a tropical storm that would pass by the time the leaders reached the golf course, Goh set off, only to ride into the loudest thunderclap he had ever heard, that led shaken US Security Service officers to call the game off.]

Goh's aides pleaded for a few more minutes. Miraculously, after about 10 minutes, the rain suddenly went from a torrential downpour to a drizzle. When Goh reached the course, the storm clouds had cleared and the course was ready to be played!

At about midnight, the two leaders teed off. Contrary to the story which has since entered Singapore diplomacy folklore, Goh did not talk about work with Clinton during the game.

"You never spoil a golfer's game by raising business matters," said Goh, with a cheeky smile. As they stepped off the course after nine holes at 1.45am, the Singapore leader asked Clinton if they could discuss some business. The US President agreed.

Over drinks, Goh made a simple, short but sharp pitch for an FTA. Apec was losing steam in its push towards an FTA. A bilateral FTA with Singapore would signal US' strategic interest in Southeast Asia, said Goh, a position which was important to both countries.

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Once it was done, US could and should move on to negotiate an FTA with Asean. But with 10 member countries, a deal with Asean would naturally be more complicated and take a longer time.

An FTA with Singapore was a quick, fast and painless way for Washington to send a clear message to the world of its enduring interest in Southeast Asia. Clinton listened intently and said: "It's doable."

He suggested doing an FTA modelled on the lines of the US-Jordan FTA. Goh had opened the most precious door for Singapore. Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo called a stunned US Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky to tell her that "they have agreed".

The next day, Singapore drafted a press release to announce the decision to the rest of the world. Goh passed it personally to Clinton during the morning summit session.

Clinton made one edit on the completion date of negotiations. He struck out "as soon as possible" and replaced it with "by the end of the year". He wanted to conclude it before he left the White House.

Chapter 14: Great small nation

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, former South Korean President Kim Young-sam and US President Bill Clinton take a boat ride in Seattle during a meeting with Apec leaders on Nov 30, 1993.
PHOTO: Reuters 

[The chapter begins with details of how then Chinese President Jiang Zemin spoke at the Apec Economic Leaders' Meeting in Seattle, the US, in 1993.]

Understandably, Jiang was a little excited. He was surrounded by many of the world's top leaders, including host US President Bill Clinton. When it was his turn to deliver a speech to the other leaders, Jiang read his prepared script in a rush.

His interpreter could hardly catch up. The other leaders, including Clinton, signalled to Jiang to slow down, gesturing with their palms facing downwards. But Jiang was too absorbed by his script to notice. He never looked up from his text.

A somewhat amused Goh Chok Tong went up to the Chinese leader during the coffee break, and complimented him on making a good speech. But unfortunately, Goh added, most of the other leaders could not follow him fully in English because the interpreter could hardly keep up.

"I told him I could understand because I was listening to him speak in Chinese as well," said Goh with a smile. "I explained that it took fewer syllables to explain an idea in Chinese than English, and I gave him the example of 'economic development' - eight syllables - compared to jing ji fa zhan, four syllables."

The Singapore prime minister had met Jiang a few times before Seattle and he figured the Chinese leader wouldn't mind a helpful suggestion. "So try to slow down," said Goh.

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Later in the day, Jiang made another speech. He slowed down. When the session was over, he came over to Goh, beamed, and asked: [ke yi ma / Is that OK]?" Clearly, he had taken Goh's advice on board and was eager to return the banter.

"I knew then that he had taken it in the right spirit," said Goh with a smile. "Some people might not show their offence, but they might be offended. 'How dare you, you from a small country come and tell me whether I was speaking fast or slow?' But he knew that I was being helpful."

[Goh on former Chinese Premier Li Peng]

I visited Beijing in 1993 and stayed in Diaoyutai. Li Peng hosted me to a game of tennis. He invited Li Lanqing, who was then the Vice-Premier, to join us.

I think this tennis diplomacy was unheard of. I have not heard of any Chinese leaders inviting other foreign leaders to play a social game. We played doubles. Li Peng and his wife played against me and my wife.

Then Li Peng and his wife stopped, and Li Lanqing took over with a Chinese pro, I believe. Lee Boon Yang replaced my wife and was on my side.

Li Peng wrapped himself with a bathrobe and watched us. It was getting chilly as the sun set. We were enjoying ourselves and we went beyond just one match. Looking back, we should have stopped when Li Peng stopped. I did ask him if he was cold, and he said "you carry on, you carry on".

A few days after my return to Singapore, I read in the papers that Li Peng had a heart attack and was hospitalised! He was out of action for quite some time. Did our tennis game cause his heart attack?

In 2019, when I visited Shenzhen, the city's party secretary said to me: "I've always wanted to ask you and find out the truth about this. Is it true that you caused Li Peng to have a heart attack? In China, it is well known that Goh Chok Tong was the person who gave Li Peng a heart attack!"

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I laughed and told him that it was the opposite. I was the person who probably saved Li Peng! He was surprised. I said, had I not played tennis with him, he would not have discovered that he had a heart condition.

See, because of that game, he had chest pains, he went for a check-up, and was saved. Otherwise, it could have happened any time and he could have gone. So, in a way, I saved his life. (laughs)

Anyway, after Li Peng had stepped down as Premier and I as Prime Minister, I called on him when I was in Hangzhou. He took me and my delegation out for lunch. We went out in two boats on the West Lake.

My boat had no media people and officials. He was there with his wife and I was there with my wife. He also had another man there, the party secretary of Zhejiang.

So, I talked to the party secretary, a few words, out of politeness. He did not talk very much. The party secretary was Xi Jinping. No Ichigo ichie this time. (laughs)

Chapter 17: The invisible enemy

[This chapter looks at Singapore's efforts to fight Sars in 2003 under Goh and how as he dealt with a ballooning domestic crisis, he also focused on diplomacy to ensure Singapore's external front was guarded as well.]

Q: In the midst of an outbreak, you decided to hold a special Asean summit on Sars. Why would you think of other countries at a time when Singapore was struggling?

A: Outside Hong Kong, Singapore was the centre of the Sars crisis. I was very worried that it could spread to our neighbours - Malaysia and Indonesia. They might not be prepared to deal with the problem.

So, before it happened, we called the special summit to alert them about Sars in case it became a big problem for the whole of Asean. I wanted to talk about what we could do together to prevent it from spreading, to isolate and contain it.

We wanted to discharge our responsibility as a responsible member of Asean. We were at the centre. We had to alert our neighbours to let them know what we were doing.

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Also, I thought it was important to signal to the world that Assean was working together on this common problem. When we issued a joint declaration, it was a strong political message to the world of Asean solidarity and unity.

Q: Since the other Asean leaders were not really affected by Sars, how keen were they to have the summit?

A: Oh, they understood that they could be affected. They agreed that we had to fight Sars as a transnational issue like drugs and terrorism.

Q: It was also at this meeting that you met Wen Jiabao for the first time?

A: It was the first time I met him as Chinese Premier. He told me he had met me twice before, as part of Jiang Zemin's delegations. But my attention was on Jiang on those occasions.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) never pointed out to me that Wen could be the next Premier. Just like MFA never pointed out to me that Xi Jinping was on the boat in Hangzhou with Li Peng and me! (laughs)

Patients wait to be screened for Sars at a screening centre outside Tan Tock Seng hospital in Singapore on Sept 9, 2003.
PHOTO: Reuters

Q: You cancelled a trip to China during Sars and it was said that the Chinese were not pleased, because it was seen as a lack of confidence in their handling of Sars. Did you talk to Wen about this?

A: My doctors told me not to go. If I were to go to China, which also had Sars cases, I could run the risk of getting infected while there. Singapore had also issued a travel advisory against going to China. My going would send a wrong signal to Singaporeans.

Of course, I considered the likelihood that China would be most unhappy. A foreign leader cancelling a trip could suggest a vote of no confidence in China's handling of Sars.

The other reason was that my delegation and I could unwittingly transmit Sars to the Chinese leaders. Our country was also grappling with Sars. I might have caught Sars in Singapore. Then we might go down in history for knocking off somebody important in China! I was very fearful of that. My reason for cancelling was for the health of both parties.

When I met Wen in Bangkok, I explained our position to him sincerely. He was not offended. He was very gracious. He understood and invited me to come to China any time.

That was a very important signal. My cancellation might have caused some unhappiness amongst the Chinese officials, but that dissipated after Wen's remarks.

Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
PHOTO: Reuters

Q: But the awkward part was that you went to India and the US during this period of Sars outbreak. Wouldn't that be seen by China as being inconsistent?

A: There was indeed a risk of misunderstanding. We knew that. But India and the US were not Sars-infected countries. Now, the question would then be, would these two countries be happy to have me? I informed them about Sars in Singapore and asked if they would rather I postpone the trips.

The Indians appreciated our considerate gesture, thought it over and replied that they would like my visit to proceed.

During my visit, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and I launched the negotiation for the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement. One encounter, one chance, as you had put it earlier. It was an important visit for both countries.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.