PM Lee & ESM Goh talk about political leadership transition at book launch: Full speeches
S'pore political leaders should read the two speeches.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong spoke at the launch of Goh’s authorized biography at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy on Nov 8.
The book, Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong story, was written by Singapore Literature Prize-winning author and former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei.
More than 100 people, including former president Tony Tan, current and former Cabinet members, diplomats, academics, first generation Minister Ong Pang Boon and Tan Cheng Bock attended the event.
Both PM Lee and ESM Goh spoke about the importance of leadership transition and political succession in Singapore, leadership self-renewal and the leaders bonding as a team.
Here are their speeches in full:
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s speech
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, colleagues and friends, ladies and gentlemen, good evening to all of you.
I am very honoured that ESM Goh has asked me to launch this book, “Tall Order – The Goh Chok Tong Story”.
I have known Chok Tong for more than 40 years. We first met socially around 1978. He was then a new MP, having been first elected just two years earlier. I knew he had built a strong reputation, having turned NOL (Neptune Orient Lines) around. A snippet of our dinner conversation has stayed with me all these years. Chok Tong recounted how in Parliament he made it a point not to make speeches about shipping, but instead to talk about other issues, which is what we did that night.
Soon after, I went to Fort Leavenworth in the US to study at the staff college. As a foreign student, I was required to make a presentation on Singapore. My mother asked Chok Tong whether he had any pictures of community activities which I could use. Chok Tong kindly sent some slides of a kite-flying competition in Marine Parade, then a new housing estate still with lots of empty spaces. The slides helped to liven up my presentation, and I wrote to thank Chok Tong for them.
I asked Chok Tong if he remembered these interactions, he said yes, my mother was sitting with him at dinner and asked him and he rustled up some slides. But even though we recall these brief encounters, I am sure neither of us expected that we would go on to have such a long engagement, spanning more than half our lives.
After I returned to Singapore, I was sent to command an artillery battalion. A few months later, Chok Tong was appointed Second Defence Minister. One of his familiarisation visits – I am not sure; I still do not know if it was by chance – was to my unit – the 23rd battalion of the Singapore Artillery. We did a field demonstration for him, and showed off a little artillery calculator we were developing.
Chok Tong and I worked more closely after I was posted to the General Staff in 1981. MINDEF would hold headquarters meetings every Monday morning, to discuss the many issues involved in running and growing the SAF – planning for budget and manpower, building up new capabilities, raising the three services and getting them to work together. Chok Tong chaired these meetings after he took over as Defence Minister in 1982. He did not have a background in defence matters, but he brought a clear and open mind to bear on the issues. He listened to arguments put up by the professionals, and asked the right questions. When he was satisfied that we knew what we were doing, he trusted and empowered us, allowing young officers who proved themselves to make major decisions and break new ground. In the years that he was Defence Minister, the SAF made considerable progress.
It was while I was working under Chok Tong in MINDEF that he asked me if I would join politics. I agreed, and that set me on a different course in life and a long partnership with him. We became colleagues in Cabinet. Then I was his deputy for 14 years, after he succeeded Mr Lee Kuan Yew as Prime Minister in 1990. When I took over from Chok Tong as PM in 2004, I asked him to stay on in Cabinet as Senior Minister. And even after he retired from Cabinet in 2011, we continued to meet regularly for lunch.
It has been a long relationship, productive and harmonious. Chok Tong began as my mentor; we became comrades; we remain lifelong friends. We have somewhat different temperaments and instincts, but we complemented each other well. We developed a strong partnership, not just between the two of us, but across our whole team.
As a leader, Chok Tong does not make up his mind in a hurry. But having made a decision he is firm and steady, so his Ministers know where they stand and what we are trying to achieve.
Another of Chok Tong’s strengths is the ability to get capable people to join his team and work for him. He nurtures and holds the team together. He considers and takes in their views, and gets the best out of the team. In the early 1980s, when we first started seriously on leadership renewal, he personally identified and brought in many new MPs and Ministers – I myself was just one of them.
As Prime Minister, he assembled some of the strongest Cabinets Singapore has had. Mr Lee Kuan Yew had some outstanding lieutenants who played multiple roles in his Cabinets, like Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Lim Kim San but Chok Tong’s Cabinets had heavyweights in many ministries. The task of governing Singapore had become more complex, and it was no longer possible to run the whole government by relying just on a few key ministers. Each minister had strong views, they discussed issues vigorously, but all worked cohesively together. We often had different opinions, but there were no factions in the Cabinet. Everyone saw themselves as part of one team, striving to achieve the best for Singapore.
I think I have given enough preview to whet your interest in Volume 2 of Chok Tong’s book, when it comes out and I hope I have encouraged (Peh) Shing Huei to make it come out sooner. Volume 1 covers the significant episodes in Chok Tong’s life, from his childhood years to his career in the civil service and private sector, his entry into politics and his eventual succession as Prime Minister.
Through this volume, Singaporeans, especially the younger ones, will discover the human being behind Chok Tong’s public persona. Readers will understand how the personal hardships he experienced shaped his worldview and character, and imbued him with a strong sense of duty and service. The stories he tells are relatable, not least because they describe the journey of many Singaporeans of his generation: men and women who resolved to improve life for themselves and their families, seized the opportunities that opened up as the country progressed, and having succeeded, gave back to Singapore.
This book is particularly timely as one major theme in it is leadership self-renewal. Leadership self-renewal is not exactly a secret sauce, but it is what enables our system to work, or in Chok Tong’s words, how we “keep Singapore going”.
When Mr Lee and his team brought in Chok Tong and other 2G leaders, he had to retire many comrades who had fought side by side with him through the darkest days of our history. It was a difficult and painful task. Some of the stalwarts felt that they still had much to contribute, and should continue in harness for a while longer. But ultimately, they agreed to step aside. They accepted the broader objective of bringing in fresh blood early, and understood that a new generation needed to be trained and tested.
The 2G leaders were put into key Ministerial positions not just to master the intricacies of government policies, but more importantly, to learn to work together, develop their own leadership styles, and earn the confidence and trust of the Singaporeans. Having been brought in to politics from other careers, they were described by some as technocrats. Many, including some members of the Old Guard, doubted whether they had “fire in the belly”, and the political charisma to mobilise the nation.
It was not easy to fill the shoes of our founding fathers, who loomed larger than life in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. It was particularly daunting for Chok Tong or anyone who had to succeed Mr Lee Kuan Yew. But Chok Tong wisely decided not to try to be a copy of Mr Lee. He resolved to be himself. Quietly but confidently, he established his own leadership style, one that resonated with a new generation of Singaporeans. Over time, Chok Tong showed that he had the ability and political gumption to make difficult decisions and carry the ground. The early doubts faded away, and Singapore carried on steadily in a new era.
When Chok Tong decided to retire as Prime Minister, we made a similarly uneventful transition. Again there was change, but there was also continuity. This is something that rarely happens elsewhere, and we should not believe that it will always happen in Singapore.
It is perhaps useful to recall these precedents now, as we approach another generational change in the political leadership. My colleagues and I are doing our best to ensure that this changing of guards will be just as smooth and sure-footed. We need to entrench this culture of leadership self-renewal and cohesive teamwork in our political norms. It is not just about finding the right successor: we need to assemble the right team to lead Singapore.
Chok Tong was already on the look-out for young leaders long before he took over, and as Prime Minister continued to bring in new people. Many in my team – George Yeo, Teo Chee Hean, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Khaw Boon Wan, Lim Hng Kiang, Yaacob Ibrahim, Lim Swee Say, Vivian Balakrishnan and of course myself – were brought in by him.
Similarly, I have inducted many younger Ministers over the years and tested them in different portfolios. They started off as young Ministers and they still are younger Ministers, but time has passed. The next team is shaping up. 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.
I am glad that Chok Tong finally relented to the urging of his grassroots leaders and friends and published his biography, in collaboration with Peh Shing Huei. Telling your own life story, even through an author, is not an easy feat. You have to relive and reflect upon the ups and downs in your life, and open yourself up for the public to read and judge. You have to be accurate and objective, and yet it has to be your story: what you have lived through, what you have done, what has been most meaningful and satisfying in your life.
Those of us who know Chok Tong well know how much more difficult this task must have been for him, an unassuming and down-to-earth person. He will readily agree, even volunteer, to do an After Action Review after a policy is implemented. And you can expect from him an honest review and a willingness to take responsibility for any shortcomings. But he is always most reluctant to claim credit for or crow about his achievements, as you will discover when you read the book.
I am sure Singaporeans will enjoy the book as much as I did. I sat down and read it in one sitting. It has many captivating stories to tell, many life lessons to impart, and many insights into different aspects of our nation-building. So I hope Chok Tong will not take too long to finish the next volume! It will be another page-turner.
Thank you very much.
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong’s speech
Thank you, PM, for honouring us with your presence, your speech and launch of the book, Tall Order. You were a stout-hearted comrade-in-arms and very much a part of my story. We worked very well together. Hence, we were able to forge a tightly-knit Cabinet to keep Singapore going. As I said in the book, my success as Prime Minister was due to my generation of Ministers working collegially as a team. Many of them are here. I thank you as well as those who are not here.
As a student, I entertained thoughts of being a writer. I wanted to influence people and be a household name. But when I entered university, reality set in. I dumped English and took up Economics.
But Mr Lee Kuan Yew urged me to write. When he gave me his book, “From Third World To First”, he inscribed:
“To P.M. Goh Chok Tong,
You have to write the sequel to the Singapore Story.”
However, even before I became Prime Minister, I had already decided not to write my memoirs. I did not keep a diary of conversations and interactions with people. A memoir would be seeing events through my own eyes. Bias is inevitable.
Moreover, unlike Mr Lee’s fight for independence and struggle to build Singapore, meticulous notes were taken of my official meetings. Sometimes even jokes too. Historians will not be bereft of materials.
Actually, Mr Lee also did not plan to write memoirs. Ironically, it was his younger colleagues who persuaded him to do so. We felt strongly that his memoirs would hold lessons for Singapore’s future.
So he wrote “The Singapore Story”. He penned these words in his book to me: “With my hope that the lessons need not be paid again by the present generation of S’poreans.” It was signed on 15 September 1998, a day before his 75th birthday.
When I reached 75, I became more acutely aware of my own mortality, and the weight of his message. Several friends had also asked me to write my memoir. Still, I said no. Then, five of my senior grassroots leaders suggested an authorised biography.
These long-time grassroots leaders and personal friends – Patrick Ng, Ng Hock Lye, Chua Ee Chek, Kok Pak Chow and Tan Jack Thian – would commission someone to write. The author would do the heavy lifting – the research, interviews and the writing. The idea of someone looking in from the outside, and unlocking my inner memory, appealed to me.
Tall Order tells the story of Singapore’s first political succession. It is told through my eyes and also those of my compatriots, friends and colleagues.
The intricacies of political succession are underappreciated and underestimated. The mentors are often more exasperated than they let on publicly. And the understudies are like swans – calm on the surface but paddling furiously below.
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.
Accountants, architects, doctors, lawyers and many other professionals spend years burning midnight oil to pass examinations. In addition, they must prove their integrity and competence before they get their practice licence. For political leaders, character, motivation, dedication, and sense of duty are salient. Abilities are baseline requirements. I try to bring out the importance of these attributes in Tall Order.
We entrust the fate of our country to elected leaders with our votes. Voters can only pick from what are on offer, based on incomplete information and, sometimes, false branding, as we have seen around the world. News media and manipulated algorithm influence the outcomes. This is a major weakness in democratic elections.
I was not a born politician. But I was fortunate to be mentored by Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam, Hon Sui Sen and Lim Kim San, amongst others. I had my knuckles rapped, more than once. Only when they were satisfied that I could fly Singapore was I allowed to occupy the cockpit. My book brings out the important aspect of political mentoring, and the training and experience needed to run a country.
I hope my story will encourage the present and future generations of “technocrats”, as my colleagues and I were called once, to serve their country.
Today’s occasion belongs to Peh Shing Huei, the writer. I am merely the subject. Several names were suggested as my possible biographers. I chose Peh Shing Huei. I like his easy-to-read, unpretentious, questions-and-answers style.
Peh and his Nutgraf team did the research. I answered his questions candidly. We checked and verified my recall of events as necessary.
I asked Han Fook Kwang to be a member of Peh’s team. I valued his shrewdness and insights of Singapore politics. He proved invaluable.
Peh has done a good job in writing up my life till November 1990, when I became Prime Minister. I am happy with the product. Readers’ feedback is positive. There will be a volume 2.
In working on this book, I was helped by Bernard Toh, my Special Assistant, and Heng Aik Yeow, my Press Secretary. They sat in at all the interviews. They gave useful comments. They chased up on additional materials. They pored through many photographs to select the most appropriate ones for the book. Sometimes what I found interesting, they did not. This reinforces my point that an authorised biography is better than an autobiography.
I will have a separate book launch for charity on 21 November. This will be to raise funds for two groups of disadvantaged children – people with disabilities and disadvantaged students with poor grades. Therefore, I won’t be able to sign your book today. There is a price for the signature.
Lastly, I thank the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy for allowing us the use of the hall for the book launch, and their staff for their support. I chose this place because it held special memories for me. This campus was where I studied. This very hall was where I came to collect my bursary and pay my fees.
Thank you once again, Prime Minister, for your support of this book project. And thank you all, for honouring us with your presence.
Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong story is the biography of Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong telling the story of Goh’s life and political career.
The book is written by Peh and published by World Scientific. The book has already topped the charts for non-fiction category within a week of publication.
You can buy a copy here, or at all major bookstores.