Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong said that getting good people into politics is not just a People’s Action Party (PAP) problem but a national problem, at the Marine Parade National Day Dinner that took place on Saturday (17 Aug) at Roland Restaurant.
Speaking to a crowd of about 950 people, the former Prime Minister said that it is getting more difficult to convince dedicated, able and honest individuals to join politics. He asserted:
“People think this is the PAP’s problem. It is not. It is a national problem. If the PAP cannot persuade honest, dedicated and capable people to serve Singaporeans, and neither can the opposition, it will have grave consequences for everyone.
“If people who lack honesty, dedication and competence run the government, the sun must surely set on Singapore.”
ESM Goh said that Singapore needs to have an innovating economy, an enterprising populace and a strong Government that can unite the people, plan for the long term and deliver on their promises, in order for the nation’s future to be safe, stable, just and fair.
He said: “If our politics is divisive and our people are disunited, the result will be a fragile government. This will leave us vulnerable to foreign interference in our domestic politics.”
To achieve this, ESM Goh said that Singapore needs to attract good, dedicated leaders. He, however, added that this task is increasingly difficult:
“Governing is an onerous and underappreciated task. Many able people who have been approached are not prepared to give up their stable and successful careers for an uncertain and unglamorous political future.”
While that joining politics would result in a loss of privacy for individuals and their families, especially given the rise of social media, ESM Goh urged Singaporeans who are asked to serve to consider the invitation as a call of duty:
“Regard it as a call to do more national service for the country. Singapore has shaped you to become who you are. Pay it forward for your children and country, even if it means making personal sacrifices.”
He added that the fourth-generation (4G) PAP leadership is honest, dedicated and able but it can be strengthened if more people from the private sector join it.
Even though the 4G team, led by Heng Swee Keat and Chan Chun Sing, have yet to even take over from PM Lee Hsien Loong, ESM Goh expressed his desire for a strong fifth-generation (5G) leadership to carry the PAP even further into the future as he said:
“We need a well-rounded Cabinet with diverse expertise, knowledge and experiences. We also need younger people to join them now to form the core of the 5G team.”
This is not the first time ESM Goh has talked about political leadership and political succession. In an interview with the national broadsheet last December, ESM Goh said that he wants to play a part in ensuring the strength of the team that comes after the 4G team.
He had said: “The last bit that I want to do is make sure that there is a strong 5G team to lead Singapore over the next 20, 30 years. After that, I won’t be around.”
Asserting that he is a “strong believer in managed political succession,” ESM Goh said that nations, like companies, need leadership succession plans. Likening elections as a “throw of the dice,” ESM Goh further said that political succession cannot be left merely to elections:
“Our lives are being governed by that throw… I believe each time we throw the dice, it must come up with ‘6’ (the highest number on a dice), which means that political succession is very important for us.”
Almost exactly a year before he made this statement, ESM Goh had urged the Government to choose the 4G leaders among themselves within 6-9 months time, calling this an “urgent challenge” for the nation. PM Lee responded sharply 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.”
ESM Goh retaliated with what many saw as two passive-aggressive social media posts that indicated he was “watching things” like PM Lee said he is. Netizens responding to the unusual exchange speculated 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”.
ESM Goh later indicated that he is very much loyal to the PAP and that he has no plans to “do a Mahathir”, when wrote on social media: “Though retired from Cabinet since 2011, I continue to work for Singapore in various capacities and use my stature to help raise awareness and funds for different groups of disadvantaged Singaporeans.
“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. Moreover, I have no plans to do a Mahathir!”
ESM Goh’s remarks at Saturday’s dinner that it is difficult to attract talented individuals into politics follow his comments a year ago when he asserted that ministers “are not paid enough” and that their million dollar salaries should not be slashed since high pay would purportedly attract talent into politics.
Speaking to grassroots leaders and Government partners at an event in August last year, ESM Goh that it is “very populist” to demand that ministerial pay be slashed as he responded to a question on whether an elderly pensions fund can be created by cutting high ministerial salaries.
Sharing that he would have applauded the man who asked the question if he had suggested that elderly pension could be funded by hiking the Goods and Services Tax (GST), ESM Goh responded:
“…you said cut ministers’ salaries. That’s very populist. I’m telling you the ministers are not paid enough. And down the road, we’re going to have a problem getting people to join the Government. Because civil servants now earn more than ministers. Are you aware of that?
“And where do we get future office holders from? From the private sector? I tried for the last election. Two of them – one earning $5 million and one earning $10 million a month. To be minister for $1 million?
“So where do you want to get your ministers from? From people who warn only $500,000 a year? You’re going to end up with very mediocre people who can’t even earn a million dollars outside. Is it good for you or is it worse for us?”
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