Mr Goh Chok Tong would not have handed over the premiership of Singapore to Mr Lee Hsien Loong, if the latter reverted to his father’s stern ways, according to the second volume of Mr Goh’s biography, Standing Tall.
“I told the doubters quite frankly that if I thought Loong was going to go back to his father’s ways, I would not step down. Because that would mean he would undo my work, done over the last 14 years. I had loosened up Singapore, opened it up, and if I knew that he was going to bring Singapore back to his father’s style, I would not do the handover,” Mr Goh told Mr Peh Shing Huei, who wrote the book.
Mr Peh, a former journalist of Singapore’s main newspaper, The Straits Times, asked Mr Goh, “In the months leading up to the handover (in 2004), there was concern among some Singaporeans that Lee Hsien Loong would be a lot more authoritarian leader – closer in style to his father than you. How did you react to such feedback?”
Mr Goh replied, “The media wrote about it. I also heard such remarks first-hand. One prominent, wealthy older Singaporean even said that he would migrate. I assured him and others that they had nothing to fear. I told them that this image of Loong was totally misplaced. He knew that my style was working, and I knew that it was not in his nature to be an authoritarian leader. I was confident that he was not going to govern Singapore like his father. It was a different Singapore and Loong is different from his father.”
The second volume of Mr Goh’s biography recently hit the bookshops. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife, Ms Ho Ching, attended the book launch on May 7. The second volume describes Mr Goh’s tenure as Prime Minister from 1990 to 2004. The first volume, Tall Order, details his youth, working life and the early part of his political career.
The late Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Mr Lee Hsien Loong, was known for his severe ways when he was Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990. The elder Lee introduced stiff fines for littering and banned long hair among men in the Lion City.
Mr Goh recalled, “For television, Lee Kuan Yew told us, ‘When I speak, I do not need any backdrop. I am the backdrop.’”
This statement by Singapore’s founding Prime Minister is reminiscent of the words of Louis XIV, who was king of France from 1643 to 1715. Louis XIV, also known as “Louis the Great” and the “Sun King”, said, “The state? I am the state.”
Mr Goh added, “But times have changed with television. Unless you could own the audience like him (Lee Kuan Yew), the backdrop was important too. Loong’s National Day Rally backdrops are even more colourful than mine.”
Mr Goh told Mr Peh that Mr Lee Hsien Loong as Prime Minister did make Singapore more open and consultative by reaching out to more segments of society, including disabled people.
Mr Goh’s description of his successor echoes his National Day Rally speech on August 17, 2003, his last such speech before handing over the Prime Minister’s post to Mr Lee.
“No one doubts Loong’s competence, his leadership qualities and his commitment to Singapore,” Mr Goh said on August 17, 2003.
“But I know that some Singaporeans are uncomfortable with Loong’s leadership style. Loong’s public persona is that of a no-nonsense, uncompromising and tough minister. Singaporeans would like Loong to be more approachable. They have got used to my gentler style,” he added.
“Loong is aware of the people’s perception of him. We have discussed it frankly among the ministers. I have told Loong that he has to let his softer side show,” Mr Goh said in his National Day Rally speech.
In the second volume of his biography, Mr Goh noted that after Mr Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister on August 12, 2004, he started wearing pink shirts, which Mr Goh believes was Ms Ho Ching’s idea.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy.
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