Dr Toh had much in common with the rest of that core group: born in colonial Malaya, educated in Britain, they had a shared vision of a multiracial, united Malaya, and they eventually came together in 1954 to form the PAP. As Mr Lee’s deputy when the latter became the Prime Minister in 1959, he would play a pivotal role in the foundational events that shaped the nation: holding the fort during the race riots of 1964 when Mr Lee was on an overseas visit, for example, or taking over many of the departments that had previously come under Kuala Lumpur's control when Singapore became independent in 1965.
Even his leadership methods closely resembled those of his peers: like Mr Lee or Dr Goh he could be autocratic and intolerant of criticism. As vice-chancellor of the University of Singapore in the late 1960s, he provoked student boycotts and rallies during his attempts at reforms. Memorably, he derided the Straits Times’ reporting during a heated Parliamentary session in 1978 as “tub-thumping…ballyhoo”, going so far as to suggest that the paper’s “monopoly” needed to be redressed by setting up a second English-language daily. As Health Minister in 1979 his suggestion that schizophrenic parents should undertake voluntary sterilisation to prevent transmission of the illness anticipated the government’s attempt at eugenics (the much criticised “Graduate Mothers’ Scheme”) just a few years later.
Yet he was the first to be eased out of the ruling select. The post of deputy prime minister was abolished in 1968 for a few years when he headed up the University of Singapore. Rumours that he would be dropped from the party abounded as early as 1976, but it was following the 1980 general election that he resigned as party chairman. While Dr Goh and Mr Rajaratnam had similarly resigned their party positions, they retained their ministerial posts, but Dr Toh was never to feature in the Cabinet again.
According to Mr Lee, Dr Toh had been given less important portfolios and then eased out of Cabinet because some of his colleagues had lost confidence in him after he “panicked and called a curfew straightaway” during the September 1964 riot while Mr Lee was out of the country. That seems ungenerous: given that the September riot had followed the bloody July 1964 riots during which Mr Lee had declared a curfew immediately on the outbreak of violence, Dr Toh’s response seemed to be the logical one to take; furthermore, Mr Lee appeared confident enough at that time in his deputy’s handling of the disturbances to return only after the disturbances had subsided.
The more likely reason for Dr Toh’s early exit was a difference in politics. Unlike his colleagues, he was always more of a party animal: if Mr Lee used the PAP as a vehicle for his rise to power, and the technocratic Dr Goh and Mr Rajaratnam saw it as a base for enacting reforms, Dr Toh felt that the party was “a national political institution” that was crucial for the functioning of parliamentary democracy. Mr Lee sought to take politics out of governance – his idea was to have a generation of technocrats succeed the party founders, with traditional party functions (such as grassroots organisation) being taken on by the state; Dr Toh, a party organiser by nature, believed that the PAP had to be strengthened rather than hollowed out, with internal democracy essential to its development.
Mr Lee prevailed, setting in place policies that would define political transitions in the party and country for the next three decades. But Dr Toh might yet be proven right, particularly in the context of the PAP’s relatively poor performance in the 2011 polls. He had lamented in 1980 that the party’s constitution and structure, originally framed to keep a tight leash on discipline, were inhibiting the growth of the party, observing that party members have "gradually withdrawn into private life since they have no function to perform in the party.” The party was criticised in 2011 for a neglected party organisation and grassroots leaders who did not appear particularly driven. In 1984 Dr Toh advocated for MPs and grassroots leaders who could speak their minds and even question the party establishment. That was exactly what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for in 2011 after the poll setback.
Above all, Dr Toh scented the danger of the ever expanding administrative state, particularly in stifling the emergence of political leadership and dampening accountability. The trade unions – "traditional training ground for politicians" according to him – were rendered somewhat superfluous by their absorption by the state. As early as 1977 he said that Parliament should reassume the important decision-making that had been ceded to faceless, bureaucratic statutory boards. Political leaders had to accumulate experience in grassroots politics and campaigning or they could not be effective: “Technocrats, who are picked, are not natural leaders,” he had said in 1984. That seems to sum up the problem that the PAP faces today.
Shorn of his ministerial and party roles in 1980, Dr Toh went back to his roots as a social democrat, providing a sorely needed independent voice in a Parliament largely devoid of an opposition. Some of his opinions showed his leftist leanings: opposing the introduction of Medisave in 1983 on the grounds that it shifted the burden of providing healthcare from the government to the individual, for example, that “Health care is a social responsibility and not an individual one…It is also a measure of civilisation.” Some of his dissents seemed curious in view of his earlier position as a member of the Cabinet, such as warning about the effect of government’s merger of two rival newspaper houses to form Singapore Press Holdings in 1984 on press freedoms.
But what matters is that he has been proven prescient on most of these issues, something which even the younger Prime Minister Lee acknowledged in his eulogy on 7th February 2012. Unfortunately when Dr Toh retired in 1988 there was no one of a comparable stature to take his place. The PAP was probably poorer for it: his long-held Rochor constituency – at that time thought to be increasingly vulnerable to the opposition – was absorbed into one of the earliest multi-member Group Representative Constituencies, a move that was aptly symbolic in more ways than one. Three decades ago commentators had argued that Dr Toh was carving himself a place as the party's conscience: it is difficult to say for sure since he was silent on his motives, but what seems clear is that the party needs a similar voice of conscience today more than ever.
Pictures from Channel Newsasia.