Singapore political succession not just an ‘internal PAP problem’, but a national issue, says Goh Chok Tong

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who touched on the subject of political succession at the launch of both the first volume of his biography, in November 2018, and the second volume, on May 7, 2021. — TODAY pic
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who touched on the subject of political succession at the launch of both the first volume of his biography, in November 2018, and the second volume, on May 7, 2021. — TODAY pic

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SINGAPORE, May 7 — The issue of political succession is not one that just concerns Singapore’s ruling party, but the entire nation, said Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.

“Some people think that political succession is an internal PAP (People’s Action Party) problem. They cannot be more wrong. It is a national issue,” said Goh today.

Goh, 79, was speaking at the National Gallery Singapore for the launch of the second volume of his biography, Standing Tall: The Goh Chok Tong Years, Volume 2 by Singapore Literature Prize winner Peh Shing Huei.

In his speech, Goh touched on the “hiccup in the political transition” to the fourth-generation (4G) of PAP ministers.

On April 8, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat, who had previously been picked by the 4G ministers as “the first among equals”, said that he was taking himself out of the running to become the next prime minister.

Goh said this is part of the process of transition, and recalled how there were similar hiccups before the old guard passed the baton to the second-generation of leaders.

He also commended Heng for his self-sacrifice in stepping aside as 4G leader.

“It takes courage and selflessness to do this when one is only a step away from being prime minister. He has put the interests of Singapore first, like a good leader should,” he said.

Goh had also touched on the broader question of political succession in a speech at the launch of the first volume of his biography, Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, in November 2018.

“The intricacies of political succession are underappreciated and underestimated,” Singapore’s second prime minister said back then.

“The mentors are often more exasperated than they let on publicly. And the understudies are like swans — calm on the surface but paddling furiously below.”

The 366-page second volume, published by World Scientific, recounts Goh’s 14 years as Prime Minister from 1990 to 2004. The titles of both volumes allude to Goh’s 1.9m height.

At today’s launch, Goh said Singapore needs people of ability and integrity to serve the nation, and while many have answered the call, he said more must do so.

Looking ahead to Singapore’s 100th anniversary, he said that good leadership is the only way to keep the nation “growing and glowing to SG100 and beyond”.

“In 2065, will the world write about the miracle of a Singapore century of stability, growth and prosperity?

“Or will they use us as a case study of how an outstanding nation became an ordinary country like any other, or worse, a failed state?”

As a city-state, he said if people fail to step into the political arena or do not signal strong support for good leaders, Goh said Singapore’s drop will be more precipitous than its rise.

Political transition hiccups

Goh said he does not believe that good leaders will automatically emerge in a democracy, nor that the whims of elections can guarantee a slate of the best to govern the country.

“For democracy to work, ours anyway, we must offer the best candidates possible for the people to choose,” he said.

He added that the PAP scours the country for a diversified slate of the most suitable candidates from each generation to helm the country as Members of Parliament and ministers.

“Contrary to what some people believe, the PAP does not seek to perpetuate itself. It seeks to perpetuate good governance, values, institutions and practices,” he said.

Goh also urged Singaporeans to give the 4G leaders time to decide on their “primus inter pares” (Latin for first among equals).

“This is an important decision for Singapore’s next lap. The leader so chosen will have to lead his 4G peers like the captain of a football team,” he said.

“They will have to work together to produce the best results for the people, just as a football team has to click to win matches for its fans. The whole must always be greater than the sum of its parts.”

Handing over a strong team

Also present at the book launch was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong who similarly spoke about leadership succession, and how he had inherited a strong and experienced team from Goh, providing him with support and advice.

Lee said he aims to hand over a strong team to his successor.

He said the 4G ministers have accumulated experience in a wide range of portfolios and have established themselves.

They have been battle-tested by the generational crisis that is Covid-19, which required them to make tough decisions, he added.

“One thing they have yet to do, after DPM Heng stepped aside as their leader, is to settle on someone from among themselves to lead them, as first among equals,” he said.

As they consider their choice, he said they can have no better template than Goh and his team.

“Whoever will be prime minister must first and foremost be someone who can bring the rest together. Pull them together, make the most of the strengths of each minister, and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.

“That was the secret of Chok Tong’s successful premiership.”

On the second volume of Goh’s biography, Lee said it was able to capture Goh’s story in an “interesting, fast-paced, enjoyable read”.

The book, he said, recounted how Goh dealt with several major crises during his term, such as the hijacking of Singapore Airlines Flight 117 in 1991, the Asian financial crisis in 1997, and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003.

“I worked closely with Chok Tong, supporting him as his Deputy Prime Minister, in most of these events,” he said.

“As a participant, reading the book brought back many memories and I was also pleasantly surprised to learn some new things too.”

Members of the media were requested to attend the event virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic. — TODAY

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