No Memoirs Please, I’m Goh Chok Tong

“I don’t write memoirs,” said Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s former Prime Minister, at the 22nd Nikkei Future of Asia Conference in Tokyo earlier this week. His reason: “At the age of 75, I don’t look backward.” What fuels him is “the future of the next 50 years,” and how he can “try and get the Presidents and future leaders to understand that we must work together for our common future.”

At first glance, the comment comes across as humble, heartfelt. It’s a voice that eschews self-aggrandizement, and one that seems to be making the point: “No, I’m just not that sort of person who’d cash in on my name and status.” 

No leader worth his salt would look backward, but no leader of foresight would dismiss the lessons of the past either. This is where Mr. Goh—more frequently referred to as ESM Goh in his home country, short for Emeritus Senior Minister—could give the whole memoir matter a rethink.

Memoirs, it’s true, have that tendency to glorify one’s life, playing up the ego to the hilt; or it could even go down that maudlin, sentimental path. But a memoir can equally be a gift to the world, celebrating the life of its writer, chronicling the trials and triumphs, sorrows and soaring moments. To read a memoir is to dig into the rich lessons and experiences of its author, and to live that life viscerally.

Mr. Goh could well be humble about his past which he now considers “backward,” but he equally fails to realize that the act of not writing a memoir is a missed opportunity to share his insights with the world, especially the present leaders and citizens of the country he had led for 14 years. In such a case, one could accuse him of being selfish. But if it’s because he lacks the will or energy to write, would that then make him lazy?

No, it would be unbecoming to assign such adjectives to him. Surely, he must see that a book about him by him would be of value to his people. Fourteen years at the helm certainly proved wrong that unfair, longstanding Seat Warmer epithet. If it’s a skilled pen he’s concerned about—because writing a book can be tough—that should be the least of his concerns. There’s the Singapore Press Holdings. He can easily gain access to the top cadre of writers. Here, I’d slip in a good word for one, and only one: Ravi Velloor.

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