Singapore leaders striving for smooth transition: PM Lee

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at yesterday's launch of Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, which PM Lee said is particularly timely as a major theme in it is leadership renewal, and the next team to lead
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at yesterday's launch of Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, which PM Lee said is particularly timely as a major theme in it is leadership renewal, and the next team to lead Singapore is shaping up.ST PHOTO: GAVIN FOO

Need to entrench culture of renewing ranks, teamwork, he says at ESM Goh's book launch

Singapore's leaders are doing their best to ensure the ongoing leadership transition will be as smooth and sure-footed as previous changes of the guard, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

This culture of leadership self-renewal and cohesive teamwork needs to be entrenched in the Republic's political norms, he added.

"It is not just about finding the right successor: We need to assemble the right team to lead Singapore," he said yesterday.

PM Lee was speaking at the launch of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's authorised biography, which details, among other things, the transfer of power from Singapore's first generation of leaders to its second, as founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew handed over the reins to Mr Goh in 1990.

The book, Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, is particularly timely as a major theme in it is leadership renewal, PM Lee said.

Its launch comes three days before the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) holds its biennial party conference, where cadre members will elect the next central executive committee, the party's decision-making body, and a clearer picture of the core team that will take Singapore forward is expected to emerge.

PM Lee noted that it was not easy for the second-generation leaders to fill the shoes of Singapore's founding fathers, "who loomed larger than life in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans".

 
 
 
 
 

Many, including some members of the Old Guard, doubted whether these "technocrats" had "fire in the belly" and the political charisma to mobilise the nation, he added.

But Mr Goh, now 77, wisely resolved to be himself, said PM Lee, and not try to be a copy of Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

"Quietly but confidently, he established his own leadership style, one that resonated with a new generation of Singaporeans," PM Lee said.

"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."

Singapore made a similarly uneventful transition when Mr Goh decided to retire as prime minister in 2004, PM Lee said.

"This is something that rarely happens elsewhere, and we should not believe that it will always happen in Singapore," he added.

He noted that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had to retire many comrades when he brought in Mr Goh and the other second-generation leaders.

It was a difficult and painful task.

The 2G leaders were then put into key ministerial positions, he said, to learn to work together, develop their own leadership styles, and earn the confidence and trust of Singaporeans.

Mr Goh was on the lookout for young leaders long before he took over, and as prime minister continued to bring in new people, PM Lee said, adding that he has done the same and tested the younger ministers in different portfolios.

"The next team is shaping up," he said. "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."

Speaking before PM Lee, Mr Goh said the intricacies of political succession are "underappreciated and underestimated". "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."

Singapore, he noted, is in the midst of another leadership transition. "It requires painstaking preparation and testing in all aspects - in policies and politics, in taking hard decisions, in fighting and winning elections, in winning the minds and hearts of people, in forging good relations with leaders of other countries and in bonding as a team."

PM Lee also shared anecdotes of his interactions with Mr Goh and lauded the elder statesman, whom he has known since 1978.

"It has been a long relationship, productive and harmonious. Chok Tong began as my mentor; we became comrades; we remain lifelong friends," PM Lee said.

The book launch at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore was attended by more than 100 people, including current and former Cabinet ministers such as Old Guard leader Ong Pang Boon and former president Tony Tan. Former presidential candidate and ex-PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock - Mr Goh's close friend - also attended the event.

The book, published by World Scientific, is the first of two volumes. PM Lee said he read it in one sitting, and hoped Mr Goh would not take too long to finish the next volume.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2018, with the headline 'PM: S'pore leaders striving for smooth transition'. Print Edition | Subscribe