All images by Eudea Tan for RICE Media
We find ourselves in the middle of a private estate in Holland Road, waiting to be let into Mr George Goh’s private residence for a press conference.
Journalists from various media outlets are waiting alongside us. There’s a light, almost jovial, atmosphere along the desolate road. Inside the 63-year-old’s private residence, the mood is probably much more sombre.
After news broke that he was out of the race for the presidential election, our first few calls to members of Mr Goh’s media team in the morning fell through. They were understandably busy with more pressing matters at hand.
The presidential hopeful only found out at 11 AM today that the Presidential Elections Committee (PEC) found him ineligible as a presidential candidate. Ng Kok Song, Tan Kin Lian, and Tharman Shanmugaratnam passed the checks—Singaporeans will have to choose between them come Polling Day.
The invitation to Mr Goh’s press conference arrived in the afternoon. I asked his team whether there’d be any opportunities to sit down with the once-presidential hopeful for a more personal chat.
There wouldn’t be. This would be Mr Goh’s final comment on the presidential race.
Goh, Going, Gone
A member of Mr Goh’s team lets us journalists in five minutes before the start of the press conference. Five cars—including a vintage automobile that looked like something out of an old movie—sit just in front of the entrance of the private residence before the space opens up to the main building, presumably where Mr Goh and his family reside.
As we walk past the main residence, we spot Mr Goh in a dining room. Clad in red and white with his family members around him, he smiles mid-conversation, paying no attention to members of the press filing into his home for a press conference.
The air is thick with a sense of conclusion. The man announced his bid for the presidential office on July 12 this year, just after frontrunner Mr Shanmugaratnam had done the same.
The next two months were spent walking the ground. Mr Goh attended various interviews with both mainstream and alternative media outlets, visited hawker centres, and appeared in public forums—a lot of effort for someone who had to build support from scratch.
It’s understandable if he needed a moment of privacy to come to terms with the fact that his presidential bid had failed.
Instead, he invited the media into his home and did away with the standard “We ask that you respect our privacy during this difficult time.” Even in his final comment on his presidential bid, he marches to the beat of his own drum.
An Opera Singer With No Song
We’re led into a room separate from the main residence and told to remove our shoes. A large projection screen sits in the centre. The room (larger than RICE Media’s office) is presumably used for entertaining guests.
In one corner lies boxes of merchandise for what would have been his presidential election campaign. Unfortunately, they won’t see the light of day for the presidential election. Flags, tissue packets, and balloons with Mr Goh’s name are laid out in the front.
“No live streams, please,” Mr Goh’s team member announces before his arrival.
There is barely any acknowledgement from the crowd of media personnel. Some rush to set up cameras; others jostle with each other to get as close as possible to where he’ll stand during the conference.
Mr Goh enters the room, shoes on. His family follows him closely behind. Cameras start clicking furiously. He forces a smile as he steps up to the row of microphones which had just been set up.
He repeats what he said at the Elections Department after he collected his eligibility forms.
“We need an independent candidate. We cannot continue the same system. When the first president was elected in 1993 up till now, after 30 years, we are still rejected by the establishment.”
Mr Goh branded himself as the independent candidate for the presidential election. From the get-go, he distanced himself from the establishment. Others questioned whether he was as “independent” as he painted himself to be.
Qualifying criteria for presidential elections are understandably stringent. You’re never too far away from the establishment if you have the freedom to even consider running for office. Not to mention, Mr Goh was once Singapore’s non-resident ambassador to Morocco.
Yet, Mr Goh never relented on his image of “independence”, describing his (former) rivals’ stint in public service either as a politician or as a civil servant. George Goh’s USP: He has no party affiliations or links with the government.
Out of the Presidential Election, but Not Down
For the umpteenth time, he explains how he was confident in meeting the criteria set out in the deliberative track.
The five companies, of which he was the most senior executive, turned a profit totalling $377 million in the past three years; his average shareholder equity in the same period was $507 million. According to him, the information was verified by third-party lawyers and accountants.
Singaporeans have heard it all before.
What we didn’t hear was that Mr Goh relied on a separate team to see whether he would qualify if he ran for the presidential election.
“I have another group of advisors. I have former AGC people; I have [a] former judge; I have a senior constitution professor. I have senior counsel,” he reveals.
“I asked them, ‘Can you do me a favour?’. I worry that [my submission] is not strong enough. I submitted [to] them the whole file so I was very confident I should be qualified.”
However, his team admits that the PEC rejected him on the basis of aggregating his five companies together. The PEC did not provide a rationale for the decision, the team says.
“It’s not a fair decision,” Mr Goh remarks.
Media attention in the wake of a very public defeat is undoubtedly uncomfortable. Yet, there’s a sense of calm in Mr Goh’s demeanour. Perhaps, the news had not fully settled in. Maybe he’s still processing; he described the news as “shocking”.
Interestingly, Mr Goh seems like a different person in front of the press than the one we spoke to a few months before. He answers questions comfortably. Rarely does he stumble. The work he put into reaching out to media outlets for the presidential election has evidently seasoned him.
No Regrets for George Goh
He even cracks a joke to the laughter of media personnel. The merchandise for his presidential election campaign will be sold and all proceeds will go to charity, he admits. “We have a lot of T-shirts. Later maybe take one each, if you don’t mind my name at the back,” he says.
“If you don’t mind, it’s valuable.”
I chuckle along, but I’m also empathetic to Mr Goh’s plight. Here he is, in a very public defeat, standing in front of cameras and making jokes to break the tension in the room. It speaks to his resilience, his ability to bounce back.
His team members, seated behind him, shift uncomfortably in their seats. One of them announced at the start that they intended to keep the session short. Right now, the conference might have extended past its expiration date and into unplanned territory.
We weren’t complaining, though—and it seemed like he had more to say. Journalists around the room urgently pressed on with questions, even though the conference had gone on for about thirty minutes.
This would be his last time in the public spotlight, after all. Unless he harboured other political ambitions.
When asked whether he’d consider joining a political party and running for the next General Election, he explains he’s only focused on letting the upcoming Presidential Election run its course smoothly. His work for the underprivileged will continue in his local and overseas charity work.
A Landmark Moment for the Presidential Election?
The press conference moderator cuts in to end the press conference. It was the second time he tried to do so before getting overwhelmed with an onslaught of questions.
“First, I must say [a] big thanks to all Singaporeans and to all my team members, my family members. I deeply appreciate the past two to three years with me. But I know all of you have put in many hours to stand in this election,” he begins his closing remarks sombrely.
“Nothing can change the fact. Hopefully, the torch will continue to run,” he explains. Mr Goh might be out of the presidential race, but the man believes he has set an example for future Singaporeans intending to run for the president’s office.
Mr Goh describes August 18, 2023, the day he found out he did not qualify as a presidential candidate, as a historical moment.
We’ll have to wait to see whether today will be cited as one that encouraged a future “independent” president to run for an election.
Regardless, even if he didn’t qualify, Mr Goh showed that you can give strong competitors a run for their money. Unfortunately, Singaporeans won’t get the chance to see it in action at the polls.
While Singaporeans were doubtful at the start, Mr Goh will be remembered as the independent candidate who dared to try.
Given the government’s extensive reach in Singapore, it will be difficult to find another willing Singaporean with almost no connections to public service to run again—let alone someone who has a case for meeting the strict criteria for qualifying as a presidential candidate.
George Goh makes his final words.
“Don’t stop. If you stop, I will be very sad. Make history one day.”