George Goh Sings A Different Tune For The Presidential Song and Dance
All images by Stephanie Lee for RICE Media 

Mr George Goh takes a measured step into The Intan Peranakan Home Museum along Joo Chiat Road. He scans his surroundings curiously, as if looking for something he lost. 

“The media team hasn’t reached yet?” Mr Goh inquires out loud. The non-response from the museum’s visitors tells him all he needs to know. His voice has a rich, booming timbre—the man is an opera singer, after all. 

He shrugs. No big deal. He wastes no time and makes it a point to shake the hands of everyone in The Intan. Two different groups of visitors are milling inside the museum today. Both groups are strangers to each other—the RICE Media team and a separate media crew running a photoshoot for The Intan.

“It’s okay,” Mr George Goh remarks, noting the awkward silence. “We’re all on the same team working to improve Singapore.” 

The 63-year-old presidential hopeful is next in line for a museum tour. Why this place in particular? His mother and grandmother are Peranakan, he admits. 

Every corner of the private museum is filled with ornate Peranakan ceramics. Intricately designed ceramic wares sit precariously on the steps of a staircase in the house.  

Just in front of the museum’s entrance are two imposing wooden chairs. The Intan’s owner cheekily suggests that Mr George Goh should sit on a chair for good luck in the upcoming elections; he does so for good measure.  

He’ll need the good fortune. Mr Goh is, after all, not a typical presidential hopeful. 

In the last Presidential Election in 2011 (the contested one; we don’t talk about that reserved edition), all four candidates were previously affiliated with a political party before running for office. Tan Kin Lian, Tan Cheng Bock, and Tony Tan were former members of the People’s Action Party; Tan Jee Say hailed from the Singapore Democratic Party. 

No Strings Attached

Mr Goh holds no official political affiliations. He has not been a member of any political party. 

His low public profile is not surprising. Mr Goh’s only stint in public service was an ambassadorship, where he served as Singapore’s non-resident ambassador to Morocco between 2017 and 2023. Few Singaporeans recognised him when news first broke of his bid for office. 

His potential opponent, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, a popular (but improbable) pick for Prime Minister, is a household name. An uphill battle awaits Mr George Goh, the businessman with political ambitions. 

But the lack of flashy associations with the government is his main selling point. Mr George Goh has leaned into the absence of political baggage; what was first a potential weakness is now deftly turned into a weapon. 

When he collected his application form for a certificate of eligibility outside the Elections Department on June 13, Mr Goh distanced himself from the establishment during the media doorstop. “An independent candidate”, he branded himself.

Still, the eligibility criteria to run for President are highly restrictive. Few citizens qualify, let alone are allowed to run for the President’s office. Singaporeans note that merely having the choice to run for presidency suggests that he is more closely linked to the establishment than he imagines. 

“I’m not a member of any political party, whether incumbent or opposition. I’ve never participated in grassroots organisations, Government-linked corporations or statutory boards. Neither have I received any investments from sovereign wealth funds,” he rattles off. 

“At the time, my focus was my career. I mean ‘independent’ to be ‘neutral’. I’m in a neutral position.” 

His media team arrives—one of whom is Bertha Henson, former Associate Editor of The Straits Times. The 58-year-old veteran journalist is now a close advisor to Mr George Goh. 

The Starting Line

Mr Goh will need the experience of seasoned media professionals to put up a respectable fight against his potential opponents. The public has little insight into who George Goh is as a person. 

And to contest for the presidency—an appointment typically seen as a national unifying figure—without cultivating familiarity with the public is like bringing a parang to a gunfight. 

Mr Goh’s public profile is growing, slowly but surely. However, questions have been raised about whether it’s too little too late for him. Casual political observers claimed that Mr Goh had already lost the presidential race before touching the starting line. 

Such comments do little to shake his confidence; he remains unfazed, and the work to build his image continues. He acquaints himself with everyone at The Intan, ensuring no hand remains unshaken. I ask why he’s getting into politics so late in the game. 

“At the age of 63, it’s too late to be a member of Parliament,” Mr Goh offers.

“I would consider it if I’m 30. I’m not considering it now. Now, I’d prefer to serve the people at the national level rather than the policymaking level. Always remember your strengths and weaknesses,” he opines, gazing upon an impressive wooden shelf of Peranakan vases. 

Announcing your political ambitions with little warning begets scepticism. Naturally, the question arises: Is his sudden switch to politics an attempt to add another prestigious credential under his belt? 

After all, Mr Goh revealed in a press statement that he had owned more than 100 companies in the last 40 years. Seven of those companies are publicly listed on stock exchanges in Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Australia. 

He disagrees with the sentiment. According to Mr Goh, he has considered running for President since 2017. 

The Intan’s owner serves kueh to guests. 

Beyond Faith and Sexual Orientation? 

The tour ends. The interview with our team begins. Mr Goh sits on another antique wooden chair. A round of tea and kueh arrive. 

When he first arrived at the museum, Mr Goh had already revealed his vision of being a president inclusive to all Singaporeans. The stance was not new; politicians frequently espouse inclusivity. Such rhetoric works as an easy way to gain support. 

His message of inclusivity could have been more explicit for some discerning Singaporeans. One of Mr Goh’s media appearances was on Salt & Light, an online publication catered to Christians in Singapore. 

Of course, politicians have the right to have their own faith. But first impressions matter. The public questioned how Mr Goh, who wears his faith proudly, would ensure a separation of religion and official presidential duties. 

Salt & Light has published views which strongly support the definition of a marriage between a man and a woman. His message of inclusivity is inevitably muddled because of this association. 

“As a President, you have to serve the entire nation and people, including those that have been marginalised,” he clarifies. “We must also respect other people’s religion. If we don’t, that will create many problems for society.” 

Sharing the same online space with discriminatory views doesn’t necessarily mean he supports them. It seems Mr Goh intends to be an inclusive president. 

Penniless to Prosperous 

His eyes occasionally dart towards his media team when he answers questions. Sitting in our peripheral vision, his team members cue him during his response. There are signals and gestures to be more concise or elaborate when necessary. 

Mr Goh is still familiarising himself with the media landscape. He has yet to step into the role of a politician fully. 

Being a businessman his entire professional life, the public spotlight can be unnerving. An amusing misstep is carved into the history books and replayed for laughs. 

His most recent slip-up was mispronouncing ‘change’ as ‘chain’. Nevertheless, he has taken that mistake in his stride. 

The penchant for entrepreneurship was carved out of necessity. Mr Goh barely contains his emotions when recalling his rags-to-riches story. 

“I had nothing when I landed in this country,” he answers. 

Born in Negeri Sembilan, Malaysia, his childhood was without creature comforts. “There was no tap water. There was no electricity. The floor was clay. I lived in a jungle with my brother.” 

Mr Goh remembers going hungry in primary school. His father, a truck driver, could not afford to give him pocket money. Money was spread too thin in the household of nine children. In fact, money was spread so thin that his parents had to give his two sisters away to survive. 

His classmates rushed to the canteen for recess while he spent his time looking at their food. His first stream of income came from the humble sugar cane. He helped roadside vendors sell sugar cane for five cents an hour. On busy days, he returned home satisfied with 15 cents. 

Occasionally, he spent his time in landfills. Towering piles of trash contained tin cans, and each tin can was worth five cents. More tin cans collected meant more money to spend during recess in school. 

From Shoe Factory to the Istana 

His entrepreneurial streak continued into his teens. At 16, he left school to work at a shoe factory and became an apprentice shoemaker.

“I bought tea for my master first thing in the morning. and earned about $15 a week as an apprentice. Most nights, I ate bread only. The roadside bee hoon was my favourite; it cost a dollar, and I couldn’t afford that.” 

He was an apprentice for six years before deciding to strike out independently. With his siblings, he started DeClassici Shoe Manufacturer in August 1982. The company produced about 30 leather dress shoes monthly. 

“At 22, I dreamt of being an entrepreneur. In 14 years, the shoe company was worth $120 million. I’d never imagined running a company worth that much,” Mr Goh answers. 

Yet, he wasn’t satisfied with resting on his laurels. His next commercial venture would be his claim to fame. In 1990, Mr Goh co-founded Ossia International Limited with his brothers. It’s an investment holding company specialising in marketing and distributing lifestyle goods. 

Nine years later, he struck gold with Australia’s Harvey Norman Holdings in a $33 million joint venture with Ossia International. Harvey Norman Ossia (Asia), the consumer electronics retailer, thus began its ascent in Asia, thanks to Mr Goh. 

He never thought that one day he’d have to say goodbye to the company he built to further a different dream.

Mr Goh shows us the unit where he manufactured shoes—a unit located in an industrial park in Geylang.

The Tightrope Between Profit and Politics 

Switching from the public to the private sector has its challenges. Singaporeans, now extra sensitive to conflicts of interest, wonder how Mr Goh might deal with them if he became President. A CEO who’s also a president of a country is a conflict of interest waiting to happen. 

Mr Goh is mindful of what Singaporeans might think. In May this year, Mr Goh announced his intention to resign from his position as a Harvey Norman Ossia board member. 

“It was a painful decision, especially when I’ve spent 41 years in the driving seat. In life, you cannot take both sides. So I must resign,” he recalls, sighing. 

“No other alternative.” 

His resignation from the board should be the least of his worries. Netizens have pointed out that Mr Goh was listed on the Offshore Leaks Database by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). 

The database includes details from the famous Panama Papers, which exposed law firm Mossack Fonseca’s role in helping the rich and powerful to evade taxes through offshore accounts. 

The ICIJ notes that there are legitimate reasons for companies to use these accounts; having your name included in the database does not automatically incriminate you. Though there is no doubt the story of Mossack Fonseca has sullied any other reason for an offshore account. 

“Infrastructure. Political stability. Intellectual property protection,” Mr Goh explains. “Companies set up in different countries to position themselves well.”

“If I were engaged in criminal activity, I would not have the chance to become an ambassador to Morocco. I maintained good relations with the Royal Family there. They checked on my businesses before asking me to be an ambassador.” 

Mr Goh’s former workplace. 

A Two-for-One Deal 

I find Mr Goh falling back on his business experience whenever he responds to a question. 

You can take the businessman out of the private sector, but it’s evidently tricky for him to fully shed his private sector routines. Like how he turned no political affiliations into a strength, he does the same with his private sector experience. 

“When the public sector is in crisis, there is a safety net. In the private sector, when I face a crisis, I must deal with them on my own. I sold my assets, and properties in Singapore and London, to help my company tide over the Asian Financial crisis.” 

If there’s something we can be sure of, it’s that Mr Goh is a seasoned salesman. He reframes crises and weaknesses into opportunities and strengths. When you’re not convinced, he presses on even further. 

He might struggle to find the right words, but he manages to position himself as a two-for-one deal if you vote for him: A president with private and public sector experience. More of the former than the latter. 

Pitching for Presidency 

The Intan is silent after Mr Goh pitches himself as the candidate for the best of both worlds. He gets up from his seat and walks over to a Singapore flag in the corner of the museum. Without hesitation, he picks up and waves the flag, crooning ‘Majulah Singapura’ (operatic tenor version). 

Since his emergence, more hopefuls have announced their bids to be President. While Mr Goh was first written off as a second place to Tharman Shanmugaratnam, he has emerged as a dark horse in this upcoming race. 

Citizens are harping over the age gap between Ng Kok Song and his fiancée. Teo En Ming seems unlikely to qualify, much less enter the compound of the Elections Department. Tan Kin Lian is well…Tan Kin Lian

Even the Goliath that is Tharman Shanmugaratnam has a few concerns to assuage. After the recent spate of political scandals, Singaporeans are questioning whether Mr Shanmugaratnam can stand to be a neutral president, given the deep roots of his past party affiliations. 

Perhaps, Mr Goh separates himself from the rest of the field by singing a different tune. His style is raw and abrasive, yet to be polished by the grating mechanisms of our political bureaucracy. 

At a press conference, after he submitted his forms to the Elections Department, he fields questions without manufactured sheen; the joviality, the slip-ups, and the frankness are just as advertised. 

He tears up when recounting his six-year journey towards the submission. Mr Goh admits he doesn’t want to disclose the names of the five companies that have made a total shareholder’s equity of $1.51 billion for the last three years. His eight panellists aren’t household names, but they’re the “heart of Singapore”, he says. 

Granted, there is a lack of polish. But when manicured speeches are taken to be high-handedness or deliberate attempts to confuse rather than clarify, Singaporeans can rely on Mr Goh to wear his heart on his sleeve. 

What he knows best is the business playbook, and he’ll no doubt fall back on it if he ever gets a chance to handle the national reserves, the integrity of public service, and the people of Singapore. 

His charming salesman disposition never goes away. He thanks the owner of The Intan before warmly bidding us farewell. 

He makes his way to his car. A photoshoot at a factory he used to work at is next on the itinerary.

Mr Goh makes sure to look at everyone in the RICE team. “Have I convinced you about my bid for the presidential role?” 

He smiles, starts his engine, and drives away. 

If you haven’t already, follow RICE on InstagramTikTokFacebook, and Telegram. If you have a lead for a story, feedback on our work, or just want to say hi, you can also email the writer at or at
Loading next article...