The theme of leadership renewal again came to the fore as Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong launched the first volume of his memoirs Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story on Thursday evening (8 November).
Both Goh and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was the guest of honour at the event, addressed the topic at length with many members of the Cabinet present. They included the three men thought to be the frontrunners to be the next PM: Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat.
“When Chok Tong decided to retire as Prime Minister, we made a similarly uneventful transition,” said Lee, alluding to how Goh succeeded the late Lee Kuan Yew in 1990. “My colleagues and I are doing our best to ensure that this changing of guards will be just as smooth and sure-footed.”
“The next team is shaping up,” Lee told an audience of about 100 at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which also included Goh’s old friend and former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock. “They are taking charge of sensitive issues and tough conversations with Singaporeans, making themselves and their convictions known to the people, developing rapport with voters and winning their confidence.”
There has been much speculation in recent years about the identity of Singapore’s next leader. PM Lee told Reuters in 2017 that he was ready to step down in a couple of years, but his successor has not been identified. In a dialogue session on Wednesday, he also spoke of the possibility of bringing the next General Election, which must be held by 2021, forward by two years.
By contrast, Goh was anointed as the late Lee’s successor a full six years before he became PM. In a recent interview, Goh also said that he expected the identity of the next PM to become more evident after the ruling People’s Action Party holds its internal elections on Sunday.
At the book launch, Goh noted that “the intricacies of political succession are under-appreciated and underestimated”, with both mentors and understudies tested.
“We are now in the midst of another generational political transition. It requires painstaking preparation and testing in all aspects – in policies and politics, in taking hard decisions, in fighting and winning elections, in winning the minds and hearts of people, in forging good relations with leaders of other countries and in bonding as a team.”
Separately, Lee also praised Goh as someone who was “always most reluctant to claim credit for or crow about his achievements”, despite his ability to nurture and hold a team together.
Tall Order author Peh Shing Huei, a former Straits Times journalist, concurred. “(Other people) were actually better at claiming credit for ESM Goh.”
He told Yahoo News Singapore that he was also struck by how Goh was unafraid to answer questions about “politically sensitive” and “things which were, frankly, not flattering to him”. Peh noted, “But at no time (did) he say, “No, don’t include that.'”
Asked when the second volume of Goh’s memoirs will be released, Peh said that he tentatively hopes to complete the project by late 2020.