More than a year had lapsed and Goh Chok Tong was getting increasingly worried. After the caning of American teenager Michael Fay for vandalism in Singapore in 1994, the White House had closed its doors to the Singapore Prime Minister. It was payback for Singapore’s refusal to cave to American pressure. Despite US President Bill Clinton’s personal appeal to the President of Singapore, Goh’s government would only reduce the sentencing from six strokes of the cane to four.
The White House would retaliate by denying requests for Goh to visit Washington. The intel which reached Goh’s ears was that, in order to show displeasure, the White House staff would not let Clinton receive Goh. Such was Singapore’s unpopularity in Washington over the caning of an American boy.
Goh did not believe the decision was made by the US President. “I had met Clinton at the Apec summits,” he said, referring to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. “He was friendly. I knew he would be willing to receive me at the White House. I suspected that my request to see him at the White House was blocked by his gatekeepers, probably someone from the National Security Council. I believed that my request never reached him.”
Regardless of the reason, the rebuff was bad for Singapore. “If we could not call on the US President, Americans, our neighbours and others in Asia would have noticed,” said Goh, knitting his eyebrows. “This was not just a matter of image. We would lose a lot. Americans would take directions, their readings from the President. So, the consequences for defence, economic, cultural, political relations would be quite damaging for us. I was concerned and was thinking of what to do.”
Help would arrive through a most unlikely source – a US businessman and former Arkansas state senator. In October 1995, Goh made a private trip to the southern state of Georgia. He was invited to play golf at the Augusta National Golf Club, among the most famous and exclusive golf clubs in the world. The annual US Masters, one of the four golf “majors”, is played at Augusta. Goh’s host – the club’s billionaire chairman Jack Stephens, who was a friend of S R Nathan, then Singapore’s ambassador to the US – could not join the Singaporean. He asked a friend and fellow club official to step in. The friend was Joe T. Ford, a fellow tycoon who founded and ran the communications firm Alltel.
A few months later, Ford and his wife visited Singapore and Goh hosted them to dinner. During the course of the conversation, Ford asked Goh curiously: “Mr Prime Minister, have you met with President Clinton yet?” The answer was no. Goh explained that his request to do so was probably blocked by Clinton’s White House staff. Ford was befuddled. “You are the Prime Minister of Singapore and you cannot get a meeting with him?” he asked, recalling the anecdote in his memoirs An Ordinary Joe: An Extraordinary Life. Goh speculated the reason and Ford was shocked. “I cannot fathom their thought process in that regard. I would do something about it.”
Goh wondered how and did not think further about the matter. Little did he know that Ford was an influential man, with close ties to Clinton. He was from the same state, Arkansas, as the President, and Alltel was headquartered in Little Rock, the state capital. “He was a very distinguished and serious man,” he said. “I believed him but did not chase him about it.”
Soon thereafter, Ford was invited to sit in the chancellor’s box at an Arkansas Razorback game, the football team of the University of Arkansas. Clinton, a big fan of the team, was there too. Ford leaned over and said: “Mr President, Goh Chok Tong, the Prime Minister of Singapore, has been trying to get a meeting with you but your staff will not arrange it.” Clinton was incredulous. “I cannot believe that. Why would they do that?” he said. Ford replied: “Well, Mr President, you have the power to find out.” It was a fleeting encounter, a rare opening, and Ford grabbed it. 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 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. After the meeting, Clinton pulled Goh aside to speak privately. He asked if Singapore could make a financial contribution to Kedo (the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organisation founded by the US, South Korea and Japan in 1995 to provide for the financing and construction of two light-water reactors to replace North Korea’s indigenous nuclear power programme). He was looking for international support. Goh said yes. Two days later, Singapore confirmed its contribution to the US State Department. The decisive response and immediate follow-up was the primary reason behind his good ties with Clinton, said Goh. Clinton had raised the request privately after the formal meeting as he had no prior indication of how Goh would respond. The Singapore leader’s decisive response made clear to Clinton that here was a man he could do business with.
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. By the late 1990s, after the Asian Financial Crisis, it became increasingly clear to the Singapore government that the multilateral trade order was floundering.
It was clear to Singapore that to protect free and fair trade, it had to find its own way. Singapore had to try for regional and bilateral free trade agreements or FTAs with its strategic partners.
Some headway had already been made. The Asean Free Trade Area was signed in 1992. It was Lee Kuan Yew’s idea, pushed by Thai Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, and shepherded by Goh. Singapore’s first bilateral FTA was with New Zealand and it was inked in 2000. The country was also courting Australia, Japan and Chile. “Some people remarked that Singapore was promiscuous in looking for FTA partners,” said Goh with a laugh. “But our intentions and behaviour were virtuous, not adulterous.”
The partner Singapore wanted to bed most was the United States. It would have a major signalling effect to other countries and greatly boost Singapore’s chances to secure more FTAs. But some in Washington were not keen because Singapore was such a small and open economy.
By the year 2000, relations between Goh and Clinton had grown warmer following the Singapore leader’s White House visit in 1998. 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 . 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.
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.