For more than a year, Goh Chok Tong had a risky idea in his head. When he called the General Election in 1991, veteran opposition politician J. B. Jeyaretnam could not contest the snap polls because he was serving out a disqualification. It led the Workers’ Party (WP) leader to accuse the Prime Minister of running scared, of holding the election unusually early so as to exclude him. In response, Goh promised in 1991 that a by-election would be held once Jeyaretnam’s ban was lifted. While Goh did not reveal where the by-election would be, he had been toying with the idea of holding it at his political home base of Marine Parade. It was a high-stakes game with the ultimate political bait of the Prime Minister as sacrificial lamb. But Goh had no intention of being an offering. After the defeat in Anson in 1981 by Jeyaretnam, he wanted a rematch and a victory.
It was a decision which Lee Kuan Yew was not fully comfortable with. Over and over, he asked Goh whether he was sure. The idea that his successor could lose it all in a by-election, however slim the odds might be, unravelling years of carefully planned leadership succession, unsettled Lee. After all, the People’s Action Party (PAP) had been on a 10-year unbroken slide in votes since Anson. “He kept asking if I was sure I would win,” revealed Goh with a grin. “In any other place, it would be a tremendous risk.”
Given the stature of Jeyaretnam as the opposition leader, Goh did not want to put someone else in the PAP to the sword. “I could not offer a by-election and then get somebody else to go for it. That person might not win. In a single seat, the PAP candidate would be unlikely to win. With a GRC, it was still dicey,” he said. “That would not be a mark of a leader – that you call for a by-election and you sacrifice a lamb.”
When Lee knew he could not convince Goh to change his mind, he assured his successor that he would not stand idly by if the voters should do the unimaginable of throwing out the Prime Minister. In typical fighter mode, he said to Goh that the party would wage non-stop electoral battles to make sure Goh would remain as the Prime Minister. “He told me, ‘If you lose, we will call another by-election elsewhere’. He said Singaporeans should understand the importance of political succession! In other words, he would not accept the idea of me losing. He was fully behind me as his successor.”
But Goh was confident he was more lion than lamb. In early December 1992, he called for a by-election in his own Marine Parade GRC, a four-seat ward. The polls came just two months after he told Singapore that both his deputies (Lee Hsien Loong and Ong Teng Cheong) had cancer. Goh was playing a lethal game and he was not afraid to brand it as such. At a press conference, he said: “The issue is clear. The stakes are very high. The issue is whether the Goh Chok Tong government continues, and the stakes are what follows after the 19th (of December, on Polling Day) – whether we have certainty of government or whether we enter a period of uncertainty… If I lose, there may be a PAP government but there will be no Goh Chok Tong government. So my views, my policies, my philosophy, my values, may or may not be continued by somebody else.”
The argument was part of a strategy he had been formulating since the 1991 polls, turning the opposition’s “by-election effect” on its head. Instead of offering voters the luxury of a local election with no risk of changing the government, he flipped it around. He called it the “general election effect”. While he had placed his head on the chopping board, he also had his hands firmly on the guillotine. Goh was no reckless political leader and his plan worked beautifully. At his home ground of Marine Parade in 1992, he would transform into a shrewd political strategist, even as he began a decade-long tussle with a fresh opposition rival.
On Nomination Day, the man for whom the by-election was called made a farce of his political party. One of the candidates, the chairman of the WP, did not turn up, leaving Jeyaretnam with an incomplete team and unable to contest. “The veteran oppositionist appeared extremely agitated at first, but left the centre in smiles, leaving witnesses clueless about whether he was indeed let down by his comrades, or if it was all an elaborate ruse to back down from the fight,” wrote political journalist-turned- observer Cherian George in Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation. The PAP was clear in its verdict, saying in its post-mortem that WP “chickened” out. It also believed Jeyaretnam, also known by his initials JBJ, would no longer be a formidable opponent: “This effectively closes the chapter on JBJ. Even if JBJ were to stand again, he would be much diminished.”
In the place of the WP and Jeyaretnam was the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), and a fresh chapter in Singapore politics was opened on its new star candidate Chee Soon Juan. It would prove to be a story which overlapped with Goh’s, albeit one which never vaguely came close to political parity. Chee would spend years sufficiently irritating Goh by the margins across more than a decade, always more a sideshow than the main act.
Their hate-hate relationship began in Marine Parade, where Chee made his electoral debut as a National University of Singapore psychology lecturer. It drew plenty of attention from the media and the public, stunned that an academic from a state-run university would join the opposition. Goh, not surprisingly, was hardly impressed, and did not hide his disdain for the man. Asked for his first impressions of Chee, he replied dismissively: “He was a man not to be trusted. He would say anything to win elections.”
Chee’s rhetoric on class divide found a receptive audience, as he played up his poor background versus the PAP’s new candidate Teo Chee Hean’s wealthy family. The crowds to SDP’s rally swelled from about 5,000 on its first day to over 15,000 at the mid-way point of the election. “Dr Chee was a hit,” admitted the PAP in its post-mortem.
The talk was that Chee would win a straight fight against Teo. At the halfway mark, the bets among bookies were almost all for a PAP win below 60 per cent, said the report. “Even in Marine Parade ward, there were indications that the ground was becoming unsettled.”
Such feedback was worrying the PAP. Goh’s team had won the Marine Parade GRC by 77.25 per cent of the valid votes just a year ago. A slide to below 60 per cent would be abysmal and a clear vote of no confidence in Goh as Prime Minister. Worse, the PAP could lose the election…
On Polling Day of the by-election, the result surpassed almost everyone’s expectations, including Goh’s. His team won 72.9 per cent of the valid votes, with SDP managing 24.5 per cent…
The final score was fantastic, he said, adding that it was the mandate he sought when he called the General Election a year earlier. It may have been belated by 15 months, but finally, the boost he wanted had arrived. “It gave me confidence,” he replied, when asked how the by-election shaped his premiership. “I knew I was accepted by the people. My style was accepted.”
Standing Tall, Volume 2, of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s authorised biography, is published by World Scientific and available at all major bookstores.