Need to entrench culture of leadership self-renewal

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touched on the importance of leadership renewal and team cohesion in Singapore's politics in his speech at the launch of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Yong's book Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story yesterday.

I have known Chok Tong for more than 40 years. We first met socially around 1978. He was then a new MP, having been first elected just two years earlier. I knew he had built a strong reputation, having turned (shipping firm) NOL around. A snippet of our dinner conversation has stayed with me all these years. Chok Tong recounted how in Parliament he made it a point not to make speeches about shipping, but instead to talk about other issues, which is what he did that night.

Soon after, I went to Fort Leavenworth in the US to study at the staff college. As a foreign student, I was required to make a presentation on Singapore. My mother asked Chok Tong whether he had pictures of community activities which I could use. Chok Tong kindly sent some slides of a kite-flying competition in Marine Parade, then a new housing estate with lots of empty spaces. The slides helped to liven up my presentation, and I wrote to thank Chok Tong.

I asked Chok Tong if he remembered these interactions. He said yes. Even though we both recall these brief encounters, I am sure neither of us expected that we would go on to have such a long engagement, spanning more than half our lives.

After I returned to Singapore, I was sent to command an artillery battalion. A few months later, Chok Tong was appointed Second Defence Minister. And one of his familiarisation visits - I'm not sure, I still don't know whether it was by chance - was to my unit, the 23rd battalion of the Singapore Artillery. We did a field demonstration for him, and showed off a little artillery calculator which we were developing.

Chok Tong and I worked more closely after I was posted to the General Staff in 1981. Mindef would hold headquarters meetings every Monday morning, to discuss the many issues involved in running and growing the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces). Planning for budget and manpower, building up new capabilities, raising the three services and getting them to work together.

Chok Tong chaired these meetings after he took over as Defence Minister in 1982. He did not have a background in defence matters, but he brought a clear and open mind to bear on the issues. He listened to arguments put up by the professionals, and asked the right questions.

Mr Goh Chok Tong being sworn in as prime minister in 1990.

When he was satisfied that we knew what we were doing, he trusted and empowered us, allowing young officers who proved themselves to make major decisions and break new ground. In the years that he was Defence Minister, the SAF made considerable progress.

It was while I was working under Chok Tong in Mindef that he asked me if I would join politics. I agreed, and that set me on a different course in life, and a long partnership. We became colleagues in Cabinet. Then I was his deputy for 14 years, after he succeeded Mr Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister in 1990. And when I took over from Chok Tong as PM in 2004, I asked him to stay on in Cabinet as senior minister. And even after he retired from Cabinet in 2011, we continued to meet regularly for lunch.

It has been a long relationship, productive and harmonious. Chok Tong began as my mentor; we became comrades; we remain lifelong friends. We have somewhat different temperaments and instincts, but we complemented each other well. We developed a strong partnership, not just between the two of us, but across our whole team.

As a leader, Chok Tong does not make up his mind in a hurry. But having made a decision, he is firm and steady, so his ministers know where they stand and what we are trying to achieve.

Another of Chok Tong's strengths is the ability to get capable people to join his team and work with him. He nurtures and holds the team together. He considers and takes their views, and gets the best out of the team. In the early 1980s, when we first started seriously on leadership renewal, he personally identified and brought in many new MPs and ministers - I myself was just one of them.

 Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his swearing-in ceremony in 2004.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at his swearing-in ceremony in 2004. ST FILE PHOTOS

As prime minister, he assembled some of the strongest Cabinets Singapore has had. Mr Lee Kuan Yew had some outstanding lieutenants who played multiple roles in his Cabinets, like Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Lim Kim San. But Chok Tong's Cabinets had heavyweights in many ministries. The task of governing Singapore had become more complex, and it was no longer possible to run the whole government by relying just on a few key ministers. Each minister had strong views, they discussed issues vigorously, but all worked cohesively together. We often had different opinions, but there were no factions in the Cabinet. Everyone saw themselves as part of one team, striving to achieve the best for Singapore.

I think I have given enough preview to whet your interest in Volume 2 of Chok Tong's book, when it comes out. And I hope, and encourage (author Peh) Shing Huei, to make it come out soon.

Volume 1 covers the significant episodes in Chok Tong's life, from his childhood years to his career in the civil service and private sector, his entry into politics and his eventual succession as prime minister.

Through this volume, Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, will discover the human being behind Chok Tong's public persona. Readers will understand how the personal hardships he experienced shaped his worldview and character, and imbued him with a strong sense of duty and service. The stories he tells are relatable, not least because they describe the journey of many Singaporeans of his generation: men and women who resolved to improve life for themselves and their families, seized the opportunities that opened up as the country progressed, and having succeeded, gave back to Singapore.

This book is particularly timely as one major theme in it is leadership self-renewal. Leadership self-renewal is not exactly a secret sauce, but it is what enables our system to work, or in Chok Tong's words, how we "keep Singapore going".

When Mr Lee and his team brought in Chok Tong and other 2G leaders, he had to retire many comrades who had fought side by side with him through the darkest days of our history. It was a difficult and painful task. Some of the stalwarts felt that they still had much to contribute, and should continue in harness for a while longer.

But ultimately, they agreed to step aside. They accepted the broader objective of bringing in fresh blood early, and understood that a new generation needed to be trained and tested.

The 2G leaders were put into key ministerial positions. Not just to master the intricacies of government policies, but more importantly, to learn to work together, develop their own leadership styles, and earn the confidence and trust of Singaporeans. Having been brought in to politics from other careers, they were described by some as technocrats. Many, including some members of the Old Guard, doubted whether they had "fire in the belly", and the political charisma to mobilise the nation.

It was not easy to fill the shoes of our founding fathers, who loomed larger than life in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. It was particularly daunting for Chok Tong or anyone who had to succeed Mr Lee Kuan Yew. But Chok Tong wisely decided not to try to be a copy of Mr Lee. He resolved to be himself.

It was not easy to fill the shoes of our founding fathers, who loomed larger than life in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. It was particularly daunting for Chok Tong or anyone else who had to succeed Mr Lee Kuan Yew. But Chok Tong wisely decided not to try to be a copy of Mr Lee. He resolved to be himself.

Quietly but confidently, he established his own leadership style, one that resonated with a new generation of Singaporeans. And over time, Chok Tong showed that he had the ability and political gumption to make difficult decisions and carry the ground. The early doubts faded away, and Singapore carried on steadily in a new era.

When Chok Tong decided to retire as prime minister, we made a similarly uneventful transition. Again there was change, but there was also continuity. This is something that rarely happens elsewhere, and we should not believe that it will always happen in Singapore.


It is perhaps useful to recall these precedents now, as we approach another generational change in the political leadership. My colleagues and I are doing our best to ensure that this changing of the guards will be just as smooth and sure-footed.

We need to entrench this culture of leadership self-renewal and cohesive teamwork in our political norms. It is not just about finding the right successor: We need to assemble the right team to lead Singapore. Chok Tong was already on the lookout for young leaders long before he took over, and as prime minister continued to bring in new people. Many in my team - George Yeo, Teo Chee Hean, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Khaw Boon Wan, Lim Hng Kiang, Yaacob Ibrahim, Lim Swee Say, Vivian Balakrishnan and of course myself - were brought in by him.

Similarly, I have inducted many younger ministers over the years and tested them in different portfolios. They started off as young ministers, and they still are younger ministers. But time has passed.

The next team is shaping up. They are taking charge of sensitive issues and tough conversations with Singaporeans, making themselves and their convictions known to the people, developing rapport with voters and winning their confidence.

I am glad that Chok Tong finally relented to the urging of his grassroots leaders and friends and published his biography, in collaboration with Shing Huei. Telling your own life story, even to an author, is no easy feat. You have to relive and reflect upon the ups and downs in your life, and open yourself up for the public to read and judge. You have to be accurate and objective, and yet it has to be your story: what you have lived through, what you have done, what has been most meaningful and satisfying in your life.

Those of us who know Chok Tong well know how much more difficult this task must have been for him, an unassuming and down-to-earth person. He will readily agree, even volunteer, to do an after action review after a policy is implemented. And you can expect from him an honest review and a willingness to take responsibility for any shortcomings. But he is always most reluctant to claim credit for or to crow about his own achievements, as you will discover when you read this book.

I am sure Singaporeans will enjoy the book as much as I did. I sat down and read it in one sitting. It has many captivating stories to tell, many life lessons to impart, and many insights into different aspects of our nation-building. So I hope Chok Tong will not take too long to finish the next volume! It will be another page-turner.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2018, with the headline 'Need to entrench culture of leadership self-renewal'. Print Edition | Subscribe