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Did Goh Chok Tong’s dig at Lee Kuan Yew and spark renewed leadership succession talk?

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Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was Singapore’s second Prime Minister (PM) has revealed interesting details about his relationship with the nation’s founding PM and his son, Singapore’s 3rd and current PM, , in his new biography.

Written by author Peh Shing Huei, the authorised biography entitled Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story covers Goh’s life until the point he becomes the nation’s second Prime Minister in 1990. A second part is expected to cover the rest of Goh’s life and career after he succeeded Lee Kuan Yew to become head of Government.

Besides writing the foreword and the afterword for the biography, ESM Goh also answers certain questions the author poses in the biography. Peh Shing Huei, a former journalist, asks the ruling party leader extensively about his speculation that he was a “seatwarmer PM” – holding the seat for Lee Kuan Yew’s son but Goh denies that this was the case.

Reiterating that he was the one who brought Lee Hsien Loong into politics, Goh responded to Peh’s question about whether he was prepared for the public interest in Lee Hsien Loong as such:

“Of course. Surely. He is the son of Lee Kuan Yew. Surely people must speculate. The difficulty was for him to convince the public that he was not there because of Lee Kuan Yew. First, he must convince Lee Kuan Yew’s colleagues that he was not put in there by Lee Kuan Yew. Second, the ministers must be convinced that Lee Kuan Yew was not building a dynasty.
“Lee Hsien Loong – and I have said it before on many occasions – came in because I spotted him. He was a colonel in the general staff office. He was a young man and I was the Defence Minister. At our Monday meetings, he had to make presentations. He was very articulate. I was very impressed by his articulateness, his logical thinking. So, I said, yes, he has the potential. I asked him if he was keen to be involved in politics some time in the future. He said he was.”
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On how he knew he was not a “seat-warmer PM,” Goh said:

“It was interaction and confidence in him (Lee Kuan Yew). If I suspected that he was just putting me to be a seat warmer for his son, and just for two, three years, what is the point? Then I would have said ‘let us find a way for Lee Hsien Loong to take over from you.’ There was no need to have me. There was no point.
But I never worried about the seat warmer joke. In my heart, I knew that Lee Kuan Yew never meant for me to be a seat warmer. Politicians must have some thick skin and be able to laugh it off because in my view, that is not what Lee Kuan Yew regarded me as.
“You must have self-respect. If Lee Kuan Yew used me for his own purpose, then what is the point for me? History would laugh at you, isn’t it? I have the self-confidence. I was prepared to do the job and I knew he was honest with me, with my strengths and weaknesses.”

Goh’s account of his relationship with the Lee father-and-son suggest that the trio shared a warm relationship. Singaporeans, however, began to speculate that an internal conflict may be brewing between Goh and Lee Hsien Loong earlier this year.

The exchange between the top politicians began on New Year’s Eve when ESM Goh urged the younger minister to select the next Prime Minister ideally within 6-9 months time, calling this an “urgent challenge” for the nation.

Later in January, the Prime Minister commented on ESM Goh’s remarks and said that leadership succession will “take a little bit longer” than what ESM Goh had hoped. He added, in what appeared to be a pointed comment, that “ESM (Goh) is speaking with the privilege of watching things rather than being responsible to make it happen. I think we know it’s a very serious matter.”

In response, the ESM took to Facebook and posted a comment that appeared to throw subtle shade at the PM’s “watching things” comment.

Posting about his meeting with former Iranian Minister of Economic Affairs and Finance, Dr Ali Tayebnia, the former PM said: “I recalled my two visits to Iran fondly, the first as Prime Minister and the second, as Senior Minister. Both of us now ‘watch’ things happen, and coincidentally share a common title. He serves as Senior Advisor to his President while I serve as Senior Advisor to MAS!”

ESM Goh made a similar reference to the “watching” comment in a subsequent post. Uploading two photos, one of himself and another of an unidentified man, the ESM wrote: “I watch as he ruminates in the calmness of Learning Forest, far from the maddening (sic) crowd.”

A few hours later, the PM finally responded by sharing ESM Goh’s post and wrote: “‘Watching’ MParader’s posts: Touché!” – LHL”

Netizens responding to the unusual exchange appear to largely feel that there is some sort of strain in the relationship between the nation’s current and immediate past Prime Ministers.

One netizen wrote, “Using FB to get a message across between a former PM and the current PM reflects a strained relationship that requires some patching up. Hopefully, we don’t end up watching more things happening,” while others have criticised the leaders for being “childish”.

Some Facebook photos Goh shared on social media and some comments he made alluding to Malaysian politician Dr Mahathir this year added fuel to rumours that all is not well between Lee and Goh.

Several netizens called on Goh to “do a Mahathir” – referring to the former Malaysia PM’s return to politics to unite the opposition and topple the ruling coalition across the causeway in the watershed 2018 Malaysian election.

Then last month, in the middle of the public uproar over high ministerial pay and the bonus pay package, Goh came out to say that he is not paid a Cabinet Minister’s salary even though he holds the ESM title.

Goh also took the opportunity to throw shade at his predecessor and his successor, as he said, “Instead of threatening to get up from my grave when things go wrong, I prefer to contribute while still alive but without getting in the way of the younger leaders.”

Goh appeared to be referring to the late Lee Kuan Yew’s famous 1988 quote, “Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me to the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.” Lee had said the line two years before he handed the reins of the nation over to Goh, in 1990.

While many pointed out that Goh was making a dig at the elder Lee, some also noted that Goh’s cleverly worded statement could also be a dig at Lee Hsien Loong since he asserts that he will not get “in the way of the younger leaders.”

This could be a jibe at what Goh may believe PM Lee is doing – retaining his prime ministership until the next election even in the face of calls for leadership succession.

Interestingly, days after ESM Goh made the comments, mainstream media was abuzz with renewed leadership succession talk.

First, Law and Home Affairs Minister K came out to say that Singaporeans will get clearer idea of who the fourth prime minister will be in 2019. In the following days, the press interviewed analysts and political pundits who spoke about their observations on how Singaporeans can deduce who the next PM will be.

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