When Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, 78, wrote in Facebook about feeling his age, I could not help thinking to myself: How has Dr Mahathir Mohamad, 93, been managing since he came back last year to be PM of Malaysia for the second time? And how did Lee Kuan Yew , who died at 91, cope when he was an active PM and Senior Minister at an age more advanced than Goh’s?
Of course, Goh was simply voicing out the physical limitation of any elderly person. Every step becomes more taxing. It is a legitimate observation. In high-rise living Singapore, we have always expected our politicians to visit every HDB flat. I don’t think that is possible or even realistic. Seasoned politicians will tell you they have stopped doing that for some time. The visits have to be more selective.
Goh’s comment, however, reminds us of a number of things.
Leaders of the calibre of Lee Kuan Yew and Dr Mahathir are driven personalities. The Malaysian leader said he returned to politics to get rid of former PM Najib Razak and to put the country back on track. He seemed to be now revelling in his role of saviour and not showing any sign of physical decline. He is also enjoying another status – that of Asian elder statesman making pronouncements on the region, the Third World, Islam and alleged Western hypocrisy on such issues as the environment and Israel.
The late first Prime Minister of Singapore spent at least the last two decades of his life being an interlocutor between East and West, mainly to offer advice on China and how the world should cope with its inevitable rise. To help him do that he had a whole phalanx of foreign affairs civil servants at his service who later went on to make a name for themselves as regional affairs experts.
What about Lee’s Tanjong Pagar MP duties? I believe the main bulk was covered earlier by a long-serving MP and then later by a team of which Chan Chun Sing and Indranee Rajah are members. Founding father status certainly had its privileges.
Without such founding father status and privileges to pass his duties to (or did Tan Chuan-Jin have to bear some of the burden?), perhaps the best role Goh can give himself now is act as conscience of the party – and the country. There had been some signs that that he was itching to do just that. Earlier on, he openly advised the 4G team to hurry up and name their leader, the person who would be taking over Lee Hsien Loong ASAP, definitely by end of last year. The 4G-ers demurred at first and did not follow his deadline but eventually had Heng Swee Keat named as Deputy PM “in good time”. Encouraged, Goh has publicly said he wants to ensure that that a good 5G team is in place. He is showing he is not without clout – and possibly has a big role in a future Singapore, for as long as his health holds up.
Lee Hsien Loong, 67, himself cannot be expected to step down and disappear into the sunset. I speculate that other plans are being considered.
For a moment, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, who is re-entering politics at 78 with his Progress Singapore Party, almost threw a spanner into the works in the 2011 presidential election. If he had been elected, Singapore politics might have taken a different direction. As it turned out, the Malay-only election was needed to buy some time to think through how the system could be adjusted.
Remember natural aristocrats, people who are said to be naturally qualified to govern? A strengthened Presidential Council of Advisers is already place. The next logical move – a Senate? And if we have a Senate of wise men and women and an elected President with co-opted ministers, the country would not have to be distracted by elections and would be less prone to unnecessary changes.
With half a century gone, the results seem clear. The natural aristocrats must have come to the conclusion that Singapore did not arrive by chance. And it shall not be subject to political whim and fancy, if the ruling party can help it
The government, I strongly believe, has enough financial incentives to persuade Singaporeans – now and the immediate future – that major needs will be taken care of provided there is continuity. I have seen enough to come to this conclusion. Singapore already has one of most impressive infrastructures in the world. And the Pioneer and Merdeka packages are vote-buyingly timely. Someone has even spoken about the next scheme – the Majulah package.
One by one, many hot potato problems are being taken care of – influx of foreigners, healthcare, public transport, education, housing, jobs. These are what really matter to voters in the heartland.
Political retirement will be merely in name –whether you are 67, 69 or 78, 80. But will younger Singaporeans buy the new koyo? As the Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.