GE2020: Singapore's changing of the guard gathers pace as former prime minister Goh Chok Tong retires from politics

SINGAPORE – The man who served as Singapore’s second prime minister from 1990 to 2004 is retiring from politics as the city state gears up for an election campaign in which leadership transition is a key issue, specifically a planned handover to the PAP’s fourth generation of leaders since Singapore’s independence in 1965.

Mr Goh Chok Tong, 79, has been a Member of Parliament for 44 years. He stepped down from Cabinet in 2011 and has been known as Emeritus Senior Minister since then.

Even as he departs the political stage, he has signalled his continued preoccupation with Singapore’s future, asking in a cryptic Facebook post on Tuesday (June 23), the day the election was called: “Parliament dissolved. Quo vadis, Singapore? Quo vadis, me?”

“Quo vadis” is a Latin phrase commonly translated as “Where are you going?” or, more poetically, “Whither goest thou?”

Mr Goh announced his decision to retire in a letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (June 24). Mr Lee has accepted his decision and thanked Mr Goh for a lifetime of distinguished service.

Born into a working class family in 1941, Mr Goh worked in the civil service and shipping company Neptune Orient Lines before being inducted into politics in 1976. He rose swiftly to helm several ministries, including Trade and Industry, Health and Defence before being appointed Deputy Prime Minister in 1985. Five years later, he succeeded Mr Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister.

Growth and renewal

When he was sworn in as prime minister on Nov 28, 1990, he pledged to make sure “Singapore thrives and grows after Mr Lee Kuan Yew”.

During his 14 years at the helm, Singapore’s per capita gross domestic product grew from $21,950 in 1990 to more than $38,000 in 2004. A web of free trade agreements (FTAs), including with major economies like the US and Japan, expanded the island nation’s political and economic space overseas.

Mr Goh played a key role in regional integration, working to narrow the development gap between the original Asean five and the newer member states of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. This was done through the Initiative for Asean Integration(IAI) launched in 2000.

He sparked off an “India fever” in Singapore in the 1990s, making multiple trips to the country, urging it to forge closer ties with the region, and pushing for the conclusion of the India – Singapore Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca).

He also led Singapore’s efforts to grow links between world regions through the Asia-Europe Meeting, the Forum for East Asia-Latin America Cooperation, and Asia-Middle East Dialogue. These cemented Singapore’s cultural, economic and political relevance to the world.

As prime minister, it also fell to him to secure a team to succeed himself and his peers in Cabinet.

During his tenure as Minister for Defence, Mr Goh talent spotted a young Lee Hsien Loong, then a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) leader, and persuaded him to enter politics and stand for election in 1984.

Prime Minister Lee himself spoke of Mr Goh’s ability to get capable people to join his team and work for him, when he launched the latter’s biography Tall Order in 2018.

Mr Lee said of his predecessor: “He nurtures and holds the team together. He considers and takes in their views, and gets the best out of the team.”

It was Mr Goh who brought in key third-generation leaders, including Mr George Yeo, Senior Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, as well as Mr Lim Hng Kiang, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim and Mr Lim Swee Say. In his speech, PM Lee observed that Mr Goh had assembled “some of the strongest Cabinets Singapore has had” at a time when the task of governing Singapore had become more complex.


Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong (second from right) with fellow PAP members (from left) S. Jayakumar, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Yeo Ning Hong and George Yeo at a rally at Fullerton Square during the general election in 1988. PHOTO: ST FILE

Kinder and gentler

At home, the Goh years were about renewing the bond between people and government on terms that the second generation PAP leaders believed in – a kinder, gentler nation, a government that listened and paid attention not just to material well-being but also matters of the heart, or “heartware”.

Mr Goh set up the Feedback Unit for Singaporeans to share their views on policies. He launched two national engagement efforts to tap the views and ideas of thousands of Singaporeans – the first in 1997 called Singapore 21, the second in 2001 called Remaking Singapore.

He used budget surpluses to set up endowment funds that to this day provide financial support to less well-off Singaporeans. These range from the Edusave scheme that awards grants and scholarships to students, Medifund which helps poorer Singaporeans foot their healthcare bills, Lifelong Learning Endowment Fund to enhance workers’ employability, and Eldercare for those needing nursing homes and other long-term care services.

It was also during Mr Goh’s tenure that the Government first started redistributing budget surpluses to citizens in the form of Central Provident Fund (CPF) top-ups.

At the grassroots level, Mr Goh set up community development councils, Inter-Racial Confidence Circles and Harmony Circles to promote social bonding and cohesion among different racial and religious communities.

He oversaw political innovations such as government parliamentary committees which give backbencher MPs a platform to scrutinise policies, as well as the Nominated MP scheme, which remains a key channel for independent, non-partisan individuals to contribute their views in Singapore’s Parliament.

Despite his stated goal of nurturing a kinder, gentler Singapore, Mr Goh could be tough in political contests and towards his critics. In 1994, he censured writer Catherine Lim for her article on an “affective divide” between the Government and Singaporeans due to its top-down approach to governing. Dr Lim had gone “beyond the pale”, Mr Goh said, adding that those who wished to comment regularly on politics should enter the political arena.

When it came to electoral battles, Mr Goh fought hard to win, leading the ruling party to victory in three general elections in 1991, 1997 and 2001. The last campaign saw the PAP win 75 per cent of the votes in the midst of an economic crisis due to the fallout of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Throughout those years, he stood firm in the face of criticism against the government policy of placing opposition wards last in the queue for HDB estate upgrading.

No guarantees

Having dedicated his life to serving Singapore, Mr Goh naturally worries about the sustainability of its success.

In recent years, he has voiced concern about the lack of diversity among ministers and the resulting “groupthink” that might affect the quality of leadership. His concern stems from the growing share of PAP ministers drawn from the ranks of the public service, including the armed forces. At the same time, he has noted that it is increasingly difficult for the PAP to attract talented people from the private sector into politics.

Another concern is the sustainablity of PAP rule – unbroken since 1959.

In 2017, at a dinner to mark his 40 years as MP for Marine Parade, Mr Goh reminded PAP activists not to take voters’ support for granted.

The PAP won 56.6 per cent of the votes in Marine Parade GRC in GE2011, on the back of a national slide in the party’s vote share, and improved this result with a 64.1 per cent showing in GE2015. But Mr Goh’s appeal meant it consistently got a higher percentage of votes in his Marine Parade ward.

“Going forward, we must not assume that we will always poll more than 70 per cent in our Marine Parade ward. We should not even assume that we will always win,” said Mr Goh.

Younger voters have a “less instinctive, and more transactional” bond with the party, he added, compared with the Pioneer Generation who lived through Singapore’s early struggles. As for the opposition, he said he hoped to see one that was “intelligent, constructive, critical”.

While no longer an MP, Mr Goh has set himself one more political task, and that is to complete the second volume of his biography, entitled Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story.

That at least provides part of the answer to one of the two questions he posed this week. As for the other, “Quo vadis, Singapore?”, the answer is a work in progress, though the outcome of the upcoming campaign may provide some clues.

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