SINGAPORE – Singapore's leaders are doing their best to ensure the ongoing leadership of the transition will be smooth and sure-footed as the previous changing of the guard, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
He said on Thursday (Nov 8) that the country has had a culture of self-renewal and cohesive leadership teamwork in its political norms.
"It's not just about finding the right successor: We need to assemble the right team to lead Singapore," he added.
PM Lee was speaking about renewable leadership at Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong's authorized biography, which details the transfer of power from Singapore's first generation leader, as founding prime minister Lee Kuan handed over the reins to Mr. Goh in 1990.
The book, Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong renewal leadership, PM Lee said, even as the current 4G leaders are being groomed to take charge in a few years' time.
Its launch comes three days before the ruling People's Action Party holds its biennial party conference, where cadre members will choose the next central executive committee (CEC), the party's decision-making body.
PM Lee noted that it was not easy for the 2G leaders of Singapore's founding fathers, "who loomed larger than life in the hearts and minds of Singaporeans".
Many, including some members of the Old Guard, doubted whether they had "fire in the belly", and the political charisma to mobilize the nation, he added.
But Mr. Goh, now 77, wisely resolved to be himself, said PM Lee, and not try to be a copy of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.
"Quiet but confident, he established his own leadership style, one that resonated with a new generation of Singaporeans," PM Lee said.
"Over time, Chok Tong showed that he had a strong ability and political consumption to make difficult decisions and carry ground. The early doubts were dropped away, and Singapore was carried on standard in a new era."
Singapore made a similarly uneventful transition when Mr Goh decided to retire as prime minister in 2004, PM Lee said.
"Again there was change, but there was also continuity. This is something that rarely happens elsewhere, and we will always happen in Singapore," he added.
He noted that Mr. Lee Kuan had returned to many posts when he was brought in Mr. Goh and the other second-generation leaders.
It was a difficult and painful task.
"Some of the stalwarts feel that they still have a lot to contribute to, and should continue to harness for a while longer," PM Lee said. "But ultimately, they agreed to step aside. They accepted the broader objective of bringing fresh blood early, and understood that a new generation needed to be trained and tested."
The 2G leaders were then put into key ministerial positions, he said, to work together, develop their own leadership styles, and gain confidence and trust of Singaporeans.
Mr. Goh was on the lookout for young leaders before he took over, and as prime minister continued to bring in new people, PM Lee said.
Besides PM Lee, those Mr Goh brought into politics include former foreign minister George Yeo, Deputy Prime Ministers of Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, and retired ministers Lim Hng Kiang, Yaacob Ibrahim and Lim Swee Say.
PM Lee said he too has inducted many younger ministers and tested them in different portfolios.
"The next team is shaping up," he said. "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."
PM Lee also shared an example of his interactions with Mr. Goh, which he has known for more than 40 years.
He recounted how Mr. Goh sent him slides of a kite-flying competition in Marine Parade during his studies at the college staff in Fort Leavenworth in the United States. PM Lee then wrote to Mr. Goh to thank him.
"I am not sure Chok Tong remembers these brief interactions," he said. "But even if he does, I am sure we would expect that we would have more engagement, spanning more than half our lives."
PM Lee said he worked more closely with Mr. Goh when he was posted to the General Staff in the Ministry of Defense (Mindef).
As defense minister, Mr Goh would chair HQ held every Monday morning meetings, issues involved in running and growing the Singapore Armed Forces.
The SAF made progress in the years that Mr. Goh was defense minister, PM Lee said.
"It was while working under Chok Tong in Mind that he asked me if I would join politics. I agreed, and that set me a different course and a long partnership with him," he added.
PM Lee was Mr. Goh's deputy for 14 years from 1990, before he took over as Prime Minister in 2004. Before leaving the cabinet as a senior minister, before retiring in 2011.
"It has been a long relationship, productive and harmonious. Chok Tong began as my mentor; we became comrades; we remain lifelong friends," PM Lee said.
"We have different different temperaments and instincts, but we complemented each other well. We developed a strong partnership, not just between the two of us, but also across the team."
He said that as a leader, Mr. Goh does not make his mind mind, but is firm and steady when a decision is made.
Another of Mr. Goh's strengths is the ability to get capable of people to join his team and work for him, PM Lee added.
"As Prime Minister, he assembled some of the strongest Singapore Cabinets," said PM Lee of Mr Goh.
"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 on just a few key ministers."
"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."
The book launch at the National University of Singapore's Bukit Timah campus was attended by more than 100 people, including current and former Cabinet members.
The biography, written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei and published by World Scientific, is the first of two volumes.
PM Lee said that through this first volume, readers will discover the human being behind Mr. Goh's public person and understand how the personal leadership he experienced in his world view and have a strong sense of duty.
"I am sure Singaporeans will enjoy the book as much as I did. It has many captivating stories to tell, many life lessons to impart, and many insights into different aspects of our nation-building."