SINGAPORE – Hiccups are to be expected in the political transition process, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said on Friday (May 7) of Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat’s surprise decision to step aside as leader of the People’s Action Party’s fourth-generation team.
He added that there were similar hiccups when the pioneer generation of PAP leaders handed over the reins, and commended Mr Heng on his decision.
“It takes courage and selflessness to do this when one is only a step away from being Prime Minister,” said Mr Goh at the launch of Standing Tall, the second volume of his two-part biography. “He has put the interests of Singapore first, like a good leader should.”
The topic of leadership was a central theme in Mr Goh’s speech, in which he stressed that a country’s future depended on its leaders.
Good leaders should possess five qualities, he said – integrity, iron, intelligence, and the ability to be inspiring and impactful.
“I do not believe that good leaders will automatically emerge in a democracy nor that the whims of elections can guarantee a slate of the best to govern the country,” Mr Goh added. “For democracy to work, ours anyway, we must offer the best candidates possible for the people to choose.”
Contrary to what some believe, the PAP does not seek to perpetuate itself, he said. Instead, it seeks to perpetuate good governance, values, institutions and practices.
In his book, the 79-year-old elaborates on the difficulty of persuading “good, capable Singaporeans” to enter politics in the lead-up to last year’s general election.
These potential candidates included top civil servants and private-sector individuals, some of whom he met more than once and believed would make good ministers. Many turned him down.
“The 4G leaders are among the best in their cohort we could enlist,” he wrote in his reflections on a chapter about ministerial salaries and the difficulty of attracting the right people to enter politics.
“There could be others as good as, if not better than them, who can strengthen the team. But who are they, where are they and how do we find and persuade them to sacrifice their careers, interests, income and personal privacy to serve in the fishbowl of politics?”
And when those with the requisite qualities say ‘no’ when the country calls, Singapore has a problem, he added. “Some people think political succession is a PAP problem. They are wrong. It is a national and existential challenge for Singapore.”
Standing Tall was written by former Straits Times news editor Peh Shing Huei, now a partner at content agency The Nutgraf.
Mr Goh also stresses that a leader cannot be reluctant, and should be at least prepared to step up if asked. “In the case of the 4G leaders, some are more than prepared; they want to do it,” he added.
When it is put to him that this could potentially be problematic, he replies: “The more you widen the group of selectors, the greater the risk of campaigning and factionalism, as we see in many other countries. In-fighting could be politically destabilising. But that is politics. It is inevitable.”
In his view, the key is to have a strong centre, with the entire party, including the individual’s peers in Cabinet, rallying around him when a choice is eventually made.