The passing of
    an old guard

Dr Toh Chin Chye’s departure reminds Singaporeans of the political brilliance of past leaders. Unfortunately, few young people know who he was, let alone his achievements.
  Star, Malaysia
February 11, 2012


THE passing of the PAP’s founding chairman has reminded Singaporeans of the country’s historical achievements under a different breed of leaders. Former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Toh Chin Chye died at 90 in his home, the fourth old guard leader to leave in the past six years.

The others were Dr Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam and Lim Kim San, all men of passion and ability. Only Lee Kuan Yew, 87, remains in politics.

Perak-born Toh had lived a low-profile life until his death on Feb 3.

Like other first-generation leaders, Toh’s departure has recalled for Singaporeans the political brilliance that past leaders Singapore had.

Some are comparing the current cabinet ministers to them and detecting a shortcoming.

The difference was in their passion to help people and a spirit of sacrifice that today’s breed can do with more of.

Actually it’s a bad time for comparison.

Singapore has just gone through bad times with too many things having gone wrong and blamed on poor policies or implementation.

From train breakdowns to floods, from high-level corruption to inadequate public housing, they reflect a lower standard of leadership compared to the past.

All this cost the government serious losses in votes in last May’s election despite Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s apologies to the nation.

Since then, there have been some improvements.

Few young Singaporeans know who Toh was – let alone his achievements.

His most crucial contribution was when the PAP Central Executive Committee was deadlocked in the vote between Lee Kuan Yew and mayor Ong Eng Guan when choosing Singapore’s first Prime Minister.

Toh cast his vote for Lee and set him into the history books. He left the cabinet in 1981 when he was 60 and as MP in 1988.

Since then his name was rarely mentioned in the news.

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew does not think the current crop of leaders, comprising mostly of scholars and technocrats, are worse than the old guard.

The problems the present government face, he said, are different from those of the past, which required a different type of leadership.

In a public talk several years ago, Lee said he did not think they were inferior.

Standards have gone up, he added. “Intelligence, administrative capabilities and political sensibilities” had improved over the years.

What was missing, he said, was the “combat experience” of Singa­pore’s first-generation leaders who went through the tumultuous independence years.

“There’s a vast difference between soldiers trained in actual combat who’ve seen casualty, blood and horror, and soldiers trained in simulation. You can’t recreate the same set of circumstances,” he said.

Despite this, Lee said today’s team “is as good as you can get”.

In his later years, Toh was critical of the PAP.

In a rare public interview over radio in 1997, Toh bemoaned the lack of idealism and creativity among the young and its implications for the future of Singapore.

“I would say the generation of the ’50s and ’60s took the plunge into politics without ever calculating the costs of the risks and the benefits to be gained. They were driven by ideology.

“Today’s generation has no culture and is averse to taking political risks. Really, an interest in politics is very necessary for the future.”

But the former Deputy Prime Minister added: “But I cannot blame the present generation, because they see the heavy-handed response by the government to dissenting views, even though they know that these matters involve their daily lives.

“So the result is that we have produced a younger generation who are meek and therefore very calculating. They are less independent-thinking and lack initiative.”

Would Singapore have been a better place for Singaporeans if it were governed by the first-generation leaders?

To this question, I get mixed answers, but a bigger response is in the affirmative. The reasons: Their better leadership and care for people.

While he was part of Lee’s authoritarian government for many years, Toh is remembered as a critic of the PAP’s strong control in his later years when he was a backbencher.

Some Singaporeans are unhappy with the treatment of silence accorded to Toh after his retirement from Parliament.

He seemed to have disappeared from the earth – until his recent death.

Some bloggers call it hypocrisy.

“Given his talent and experience, why was Toh retired from cabinet at 60?” one asked. “After all, isn’t the government complaining it cannot find enough talent?”

Veteran journalist P.N. Balji reportedly said: “The unfortunate thing about Singapore’s history is that we only remember Lee Kuan Yew.

“There’re other players too. So to many people – especially the younger ones – they may not even remember Toh Chin Chye’s name, they won’t even know who he is.

“This is a sad part of Singapore’s development, that we really don’t have a good knowledge of our founding fathers,” he said.

“And that’s because one man has taken centre stage all the while, from the past to more or less the present.”

Singaporeans poured their feelings during his funeral.

B.T. Ng wrote: “He gave his all for the country and received so little. He was born at the wrong time when million-dollar salaries for leaders were not the norm.”

Another surfer said: “Dr Toh served our country the way only a true patriot can. He worked for the good of Singapore, never crazy for power or crazy for money. We’ll not forget him.”

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website