BBC's HARDtalk interview Singapore's PM Goh

  British Broadcasting Corporation
September 23, 2003


How has Singapore been affected by the troubles facing the region?

In a HARDtalk interview on 23 September, 2003, Tim Sebastian talks to Goh Chok Tong, Singapore's Prime Minister.

Singapore's economy, once one of the region's richest, has suffered a series of setbacks. The Sars epidemic devastated the island's tourist trade, unemployment has been growing and the government is talking about wage reforms.

But the economy is not the country's only concern. The government has recently released a white paper on terrorism. It has revealed details of alleged plots to attack western interests in Singapore.

Is the country doing enough to tackle the problem? And is it happy with what its neighbours are doing? Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong talks to Tim Sebastian.

Transcript of Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's interview with Tim Sebastian of the BBC programme HARDtalk broadcast on Sept 23, 2003.

Mr Sebastian: "Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, a very warm welcome to the programme."

Mr Goh: "Thank you."

Mr Sebastian: "You have been in the past and you remain a potential terrorist target here in Singapore. To what extent is Singapore bracing itself for an attack?"

Mr Goh: "We have prepared our people to expect the worst because we were the ones who exposed the Jemaah Islamiah terrorists in Singapore. It's quite clear that we remain a very prime target for them."

Mr Sebastian: "You remain a prime target for them. Are you satisfied with the efforts of other countries in the region to prevent their rise and to prevent the radicalisation that you've talked about…"

Mr Goh: "I would say at this stage, I'm more satisfied because the countries are aware that we have to cooperate. But of course, there are weak links in the fence."

Mr Sebastian: "What are the weak links?"

Mr Goh: "Well, the borders, for example, of some countries. The terrorists could get through quite easily..."

Mr Sebastian: "Which countries are you talking about?"

Mr Goh: "I think Philippines, for example, and Indonesia. People could move around quite easily across the borders."

Mr Sebastian: "Are you saying those countries should do more?"

Mr Goh: "They are doing quite a bit, but it's (Indonesia) a huge country and the borders are long, so it's difficult for them to actually track the movements of all the so-called terrorists."

Mr Sebastian: "But to some extent, the countries of the region were in denial for a long time about the potential threat, weren't they?"

Mr Goh: "Unfortunately, I think a few were."

Mr Sebastian: "Were you in denial here too?"

Mr Goh: "No, never, never. We are realists. We recognise the problem; we were never in denial. It's an important problem. You just can't deny this. Sooner or later, even if you're in denial, you will be hit by the terrorists."

Mr Sebastian: "Do you think some states in the region have ignored what Douglas Hurd, the former British Foreign Secretary, talked about as creeping fundamentalism in the region?"

Mr Goh: "The awareness was not quite there initially. Just take the case of Singapore. We never expected that the terrorists would be here so soon, and we never expected that Southeast Asian Muslims could become radical jihadis, or to become suicide bombers. So in that sense, I think some states would not be fully aware of this creeping fundamentalism."

Mr Sebastian: "But why didn't you notice it? Because there's a marked difference which Douglas Hurd pointed out between the first Gulf War and the second one. He said during the first Gulf War, no Singapore Muslims were interested in the Palestinians. None wore the veil or even wanted religion to play a decisive role in politics. That isn't the case any longer, is it? You didn't notice the change?"

Mr Goh: "We noticed the change in our people, that they were becoming more religious."

Mr Sebastian: "More radicalised?"

Mr Goh: "No, not in the case of Singapore. They're becoming more religious. They're putting on headscarves but that does not equate to becoming radical or to becoming a terrorist."

Mr Sebastian: "Despite the fact that the extremist groups in the region have become more radicalised, haven't they?"

Mr Goh: "That is after the event. We knew that there were problems at that time in Malaysia and the Malaysians had actually arrested quite a few people belonging to some small groups, but the governments over here did not realise that that (Jemaah Islamiyah) network existed."

Mr Sebastian: "There are efforts by some political parties, political movements, politicians in Malaysia to turn it into an Islamic state with Islamic law, Syariah law. How much would that concern you if that took place in Malaysia?"

Mr Goh: "If it's done openly and they win the elections, well, then that is not a big cause for concern. It's just that the country has become more Islamic. And if they are not radical and they are not encouraging terrorism, that is a matter which we have to accept."

Mr Sebastian: "But you're not worried, for instance, that they've had to close down some of the religious schools, the madrasahs for instance?"

Mr Goh: "The Malaysians are worried."

Mr Sebastian: "You're not worried?"

Mr Goh: "We leave it to the Malaysians to worry."

Mr Sebastian: "Do you think they are doing enough then?"

Mr Goh: "I think they are doing as much as they can."

Mr Sebastian: "One of the ways that you've coped with the people you've arrested, you had detention without trial here. Are you happy to try to achieve stability at the price of freedom and the price of human rights?"

Mr Goh: "Well, we've got to have a fine balance. We will not do things against human rights but when your own security is threatened, you have no choice, and the justification for us is that even the US now recognises the importance of preventive detention."

Mr Sebastian: "Why is that a justification for you? Does it matter what another state does? If another state does something wrong, is that a justification for you doing something wrong?"

Mr Goh: "No. What I'm saying is they are now realising that under certain circumstances, when their security is threatened, you have to do it. We have always defended our position on the Internal Security Act and we have always challenged the opposition parties, if they disagree with it, to take it to the electorate."

Mr Sebastian: "One of the things that Geoffrey Robertson, the international human rights lawyer, talks about is your "obsession", as he put it, with crushing dissidents in this country instead of actually watching out for the really dangerous people."

Mr Goh: "No, that is..."

Mr Sebastian: "The Islamic extremists groups who presented a real threat to the society and others in the region."

Mr Goh: "No, the first statement is not accurate. We are not obsessed with crushing dissidents. You can disagree with us. We will accept the arguments. But when somebody poses a threat to our security, we take very stern action against them and when you're dealing with terrorists, it takes a long time. It requires intelligence networks, to cooperate with one another, to know who they are and then you have just got to arrest them to prevent a bomb from going off. You can't work like the police - let the bomb go off first and then you catch them and put them on trial."

Mr Sebastian: "It depends how you define a threat, doesn't it? He says one of the great ironies is how Singapore's Internal Security Directorate concentrates on prosecuting liberals instead of worrying about the people who are running unlawful arms and explosive shipments which would cost hundreds of lives in the region."

Mr Goh: "No, that's not so. The Internal Security Act has not been used against the liberals. I mean, you have so many of them running around in Singapore. They are free to air their views. They are not persecuted."

Mr Sebastian: "They are not free to air every view that they want, are they?"

Mr Goh: "No. They are (free)."

Mr Sebastian: "You need to get a police permit for more than five people to assemble."

Mr Goh: "Within the law, within the law, yes, you have to do that."

Mr Sebastian: "And the permits are often turned down."

Mr Goh: "Yes."

Mr Sebastian: "Aren't they?"

Mr Goh: "Yes."

Mr Sebastian: "So that's not exactly freedom of expression, is it?"

Mr Goh: "No. That's freedom because it depends on your definition. In our case, the laws have been there all the time and it is for the parties concerned to change the laws if they win the elections. So they've got to convince the people that we are wrong and they are right."

Mr Sebastian: "I want to talk more in a moment about your internal policies. Before we leave the threat to the region, you will have seen the results of the trial of Abu Bakar Bashir in Indonesia. Do you think the trial was botched?"

Mr Goh: "Well, it's a matter which we've got to leave to the Indonesians. I will not want to air my view over here on this."

Mr Sebastian: "But you will have noted in the trial of a man who was accused of being the leader of Jemaah Islamiah, the extremist group in Indonesia, that the judges produced a contradictory verdict. On the one hand, they said he was guilty of treason. Elsewhere in the verdict, they said he wasn't. How impressed are you by that?"

Mr Goh: "The prosecutor, as far as I understand, is going to take the case to the higher court or to the Supreme Court and Abu Bakar Bashir is going to appeal. So at this stage, I don't think I want to get involved in their own internal legal system."

Mr Sebastian: "But you are worried about it, right? You are worried about the trial?"

Mr Goh: "No. We are concerned that Indonesia should be taking action against the terrorists. The trial, the verdict, we leave it to the Indonesians."

Mr Sebastian: "And it does seem to have been hopelessly mismanaged, isn't it, the trial? I mean, witnesses during the proceedings said that Abu Bakar Bashir was the head of Jemaah Islamiah?"

Mr Goh: "And then they turned the story after that."

Mr Sebastian: "And they turned the story after that."

Mr Goh: "But what can we do?"

Mr Sebastian: "Who did you believe?"

Mr Goh: "In Singapore, based on the evidence that we have, we believe that he is the head of the Jemaah Islamiah. That's the intelligence that we have from the people arrested in Singapore."

Mr Sebastian: "So, therefore, you're deeply unimpressed with the way that the trial is handled? For the wrong results, then?"

Mr Goh: "I would say the result is what they have decided."

Mr Sebastian: "But given what you have just told me, it is not the result that you would like to see?"

Mr Goh: "It's not the result which we would like to see, but it's a result which we have got to accept."

Mr Sebastian: "You are involved, Prime Minister, your country is involved at the moment, here in Singapore, in remaking Singapore. This is the new campaign. Is it time to admit that the old ways haven't worked?"

Mr Goh: "Well, the old ways have worked but we're always looking to the future. In the future, you have a new generation with different aspirations. So when we are remaking Singapore, we are actually getting the younger generation to decide for themselves what kind of future they want."

Mr Sebastian: "If you're remaking something, by definition, the old version hasn't worked, has it? Otherwise, you wouldn't need to because it wouldn't need replacing."

Mr Goh: "It's a contradiction in words. But sometimes, to remake, as they themselves have noted, you would lift a stone up and very often, you put the stone back."

Mr Sebastian: "The fact is, your society based on the rules that have been established over the last 20-30 years has not sufficient flexibility to change with the times, has it?"

Mr Goh: "We have not changed radically but if you look at Singapore today and compare it with Singapore, say, 15 years ago, it has changed."

Mr Sebastian: "But my point to you is the old Lee Kuan Yew model has failed, hasn't it?"

Mr Goh: "No."

Mr Sebastian: "It's time to admit it. I realise that's dangerous political ground for you to admit it."

Mr Goh: "No, I don't think so."

Mr Sebastian: "That remaking Singapore in itself is an admission that the former system, the old system, hasn't worked."

Mr Goh: "No. When you say remaking Singapore, I'm remaking it after 13 years in the government. So it's not remaking Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore. In a sense, it's my Singapore which I am trying to remake and I'm doing that because I'm leaving the scene, so I thought the younger generation should decide…"

Mr Sebastian: "You're handing over actually to Lee Kuan Yew's son."

Mr Goh: "Yes."

Mr Sebastian: "Who presumably is going to perpetuate the system of his father which has been proved to have failed?"

Mr Goh: "No, Lee Kuan Yew's son…"

Mr Sebastian: "What is the point of that?"

Mr Goh: "Lee Kuan Yew's son is not Lee Kuan Yew."

Mr Sebastian: "He's the son of Lee Kuan Yew."

Mr Goh: "He's the son of Lee Kuan Yew but he's not Lee Kuan Yew."

Mr Sebastian: "You're telling me he's not going to be influenced by his father?"

Mr Goh: "I don't think so."

Mr Sebastian: "You're telling me that this isn't some sort of just dynastic continuation in Singapore?"

Mr Goh: "No, no."

Mr Sebastian: "Do you think people are going to believe that?"

Mr Goh: "Well, they may not want to believe it but I'm here and I'm not going to be a pushover, just to hand over to Lee Kuan Yew's son because he happens to be the son."

Mr Sebastian: "Who takes responsibility for the serious situation that this country is in at the moment, the economy? Where does the buck stop in Singapore?"

Mr Goh: "The buck would have to stop in Cabinet and I'm the Prime Minister."

Mr Sebastian: "So the buck stops with you?"

Mr Goh: "It stops with me."

Mr Sebastian: " So you take the blame for the situation?"

Mr Goh: "I will take the blame."

Mr Sebastian: "You're happy to take the blame for it?"

Mr Goh: "I have to. It's not a question of happiness. I'm in charge, I've got to take the blame."

Mr Sebastian: "How serious are you in changing the kind of boarding school rules that have persisted for so long in Singapore? Fines for not flushing toilets, fines for selling chewing gums - that sort of thing. How important is it to change those kind of nanny rules?"

Mr Goh: "You've got to understand the objective - it is to have a cleaner city and the fines are necessary so long as they are necessary. In other words, I would change the rules, I would drop the signs when Singaporeans are able to do things on their own without the threat of fines."

Mr Sebastian: "So you have very little trust in your own people, do you?"

Mr Goh: "Certain habits take a long time to change."

Mr Sebastian: "Very little trust then?"

Mr Goh: "No. I think certain habits... for example, spitting, it's an old Asian culture, you just spit as you like. And they will throw things out of the window and even if they live in high-rise flats, they will still throw things out. So you require education, threat of fines to stop the habit."

Mr Sebastian: "But this is governmental intolerance, isn't it?"

Mr Goh: "For certain issues, we're intolerant."

Mr Sebastian: "You're intolerant of free speech from time to time, aren't you?"

Mr Goh: "No, not at all."

Mr Sebastian: "Geoffrey Robertson points out that he acted a few years ago for some women playwrights who were detained without trial for two years on a charge of singing progressive songs and performing plays which exaggerated the plight of the poor and the inadequacies of the system. Is it right that people should be charged?"

Mr Goh: "Who is this? Jolt my memory on this."

Mr Sebastian: "It's Geoffrey Robertson, he is talking about some women playwrights who were detained without trial for two years. You have no recollection of this case?"

Mr Goh: "Which one is that?"

Mr Sebastian: "He didn't mention the names of them."

Mr Goh: "I would not speculate because I cannot pin this thing down."

Mr Sebastian: "But you know that these charges are made against people and have been made from time to time? This isn't foreign territory for you, is it, Prime Minister?"

Mr Goh: "No. If it's against the law and security, we will detain. We have never made a secret of that. "

Mr Sebastian: "It is ironic that people should have been charged for highlighting the inadequacies of a system that you now want to bring forward and correct?"

Mr Goh: "I would not worry about that. But I do not at this stage remember exactly what this case is."

Mr Sebastian: "I come back to the point that you need to trust your people, don't you, if you expect them to trust you. Don't you need to trust them with more information about what is going on?"

Mr Goh: "Not a problem, not a problem. I agree with the point. You have to trust the people for them to trust you because trust has got to be mutual. So that's not a problem but if you're talking about…"

Mr Sebastian: "Who's the servant here, who's the servant and who's the master?"

Mr Goh: "We have no servants and have no masters, we work together."

Mr Sebastian: "No, no, in a democracy, the government is supposed to be the servant. This is public service you're in, isn't it? You don't own the country."

Mr Goh: "No, we work on the basis that we are equal. We don't own the country, I agree. I regard myself as a trustee of the people. So..."

Mr Sebastian: "So, you're the servant, then?"

Mr Goh: "If you want to put it that way, but I prefer the word trustee."

Mr Sebastian: "I asked why you didn't give them more information. Why don't you publish the numbers of people that are executed in Singapore?"

Mr Goh: "Not a problem. If Members of Parliament request for the information, they'll get it."

Mr Sebastian: "And it is not published openly? Why not?"

Mr Goh: "I am not aware of that but it's not a problem."

Mr Sebastian: "How many people have been executed in Singapore this year?"

Mr Goh: "Oh, I think probably it will be in the region of about 70 to 80. I do not know the precise number. I stand to be corrected." [See AFP report]

Mr Sebastian: "You really don't know precisely?"

Mr Goh: "I really don't know."

Mr Sebastian: "Why not?"

Mr Goh: "Because..."

Mr Sebastian: "It's a fairly important issue for a Prime Minister how many people in this country have been executed."

Mr Goh: "I have got more important issues to worry about."

Mr Sebastian: "More important than executing?"

Mr Goh: "Each execution comes to the Cabinet and we look at it. If we decide that a certain person has got to be executed, he is executed. I don't keep count."

Mr Sebastian: "This is a punishment described as cruel and unusual by human rights groups around the world."

Mr Goh: "Well, but if you don't punish them and they manage to get their drugs through to Singapore, more people would be punished by their acts."

Mr Sebastian: "What really needs remaking? Wouldn't you agree in Singapore, it's the human rights aspects of your government, the observance of human rights? Human rights groups talk about - this is Amnesty International - the Singaporean Government's history of using civil defamation suit to stifle political opposition. What would you respond to that?"

Mr Goh: "I'll come to that later on. We have disagreements with human rights (groups') observations of many things and we stand by our record. Anybody who comes to Singapore would know that we have more human rights here than Singapore of, say, 30 years ago."

Mr Sebastian: "Prime Minister, the record is, a number of defamation suits is against political leaders in this country, isn't it?"

Mr Goh: "I am going to come to that. I am not going to duck that issue. I am coming to that. It's quite simple. If anybody defames us, the law allows us to (take) them to court so if you don't take it out to the courts, it means that the allegations stand true. Say, somebody alleges that I have, for example, given funds of the government away to somebody else. I have got to stand up and take him to court, not charge him but take him to court. If I don't, that allegation sticks. Then where is my standing in society? And we have a standing rule -- if a minister is alleged to be dishonest plus other things, for example, the minister doesn't take the person who alleges that to court, then that minister would have to face Cabinet and he has got to resign."

Mr Sebastian: "This is part of a pattern, isn't it, of suits that have been used against party leaders? I mean we have had the former Workers' Party leader J B Jeyaretnam, his political career collapsed under the weight of defamation suits, he was declared bankrupt despite the fact that the Privy Council recommended that the Government make amends for his wrongful conviction. Chee Soon Juan, Singapore Democratic Party leader, he faced a defamation suit as well. It's rather a pattern, isn't it?"

Mr Goh: "It is a pattern because there is a pattern amongst the opposition leaders to accuse us of wrongdoing."

Mr Sebastian: "Not a pattern among the government to use these things to crush them?"

Mr Goh: "No, it's a pattern for us to restore the harm that they have done to our reputation. It's a pattern on their side, so it's a pattern on our side."

Mr Sebastian: "One human rights report says the threat of potentially ruinous civil defamation suits against opponents of your party continue to inhibit political life in this country?"

Mr Goh: "It's nonsense. Why should people want to defame the leaders just because they are in opposition? There is no reason to. There is no reason to. You can take us on but you do not have to defame us."

Mr Sebastian: "Ironically, you don't need to use these methods against your opposition, do you? Because you win by a landslide. The party wins by a landslide at each election."

Mr Goh: "And the reason is because each time there is an allegation against us, we safeguard our reputation. So the voters can see that all those allegations are nonsense."

Mr Sebastian: "Safeguard reputation or crush dissent?"

Mr Goh: "Safeguard reputation."

Mr Sebastian: "Depends which side of the fence you're on."

Mr Goh: "No, I would say safeguard reputation. If I may explain, for example, there were accusations some years ago against Mr Lee Kuan Yew for allowing his wife's firm to take advantage of government contracts. If you do not sue the opposition at that point of time, the story will take hold and you are going to lose massive votes."

Mr Sebastian: "What you need to encourage, Prime Minister, surely, is the spirit of entrepreneurship in your people which can only flourish in an atmosphere of freedom and independence? So you need more freedom for your people. You would accept that?"

Mr Goh: "I accept that."

Mr Sebastian: "And it's true that until you create that atmosphere, your economy will continue to stagnate, wouldn't it?"

Mr Goh: "No, I think Singaporeans are entrepreneurial. They can be very free in their economic activities but many of them are not really interested in the so-called human rights, free speech. But you've got to allow people to be creative, to think, otherwise, how can they be entrepreneurial? So I accept that freedom and creativity and entrepreneurship go together."

Mr Sebastian: "Perhaps they didn't think so much about human rights because the standard of living was so high and particularly in government service, salaries have been much higher than in other developed countries. So to a certain extent, you bought their loyalty."

Mr Goh: "But how did it come about? How did the standard of living come about? It's through our method of governing Singapore."

Mr Sebastian: "Didn't last though, did it? Hasn't lasted?"

Mr Goh: "Has lasted 30 odd years."

Mr Sebastian: "Will you cut government salaries now? Salaries in the civil service? People are feeling the pinch, aren't they?"

Mr Goh: "That's the flexibility of our system. See, that's the beauty of the system."

Mr Sebastian: "Flexibility of the system that you have to cut their wages? Now, it's the failure of the old system, isn't it?"

Mr Goh: "No. It's a system when the private sector salaries go up, our salaries go up in tandem. When theirs go down, ours go down."

Mr Sebastian: "A lot of people feel that Singapore's attitude to Burma is unprincipled. That you haven't stood up and criticised the abuse of human rights that is taking place in Burma. On the contrary, you maintain very thorough, very extensive trading links with the country instead of trying to implement sanctions which might change their policies."

Mr Goh: "There are good reasons for this. If I may…"

Mr Sebastian: "Like making money."

Mr Goh: "No. Let me elaborate. First, there is the principle in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, that you don't interfere in each other's internal affairs. Because if you look at ASEAN, there are ten countries at different developmental stages, different cultures, different populations, and politically, if we start interfering in each other's domestic politics, ASEAN will never be together."

Mr Sebastian: "But rights are rights and freedom is freedom and when the opposition is crushed and you see that happening in Burma, you have got to speak up. You're heavily criticised, you and other ASEAN nations, heavily criticised by the United Nations for not taking a tougher stand."

Mr Goh: "So we're criticised by people from outside. But within ASEAN, if we start criticising one another, there will be no ASEAN. So that's principle number one. Two, you may not know it but we prefer quiet pressure and the quiet word on the Myanmar leaders."

Mr Sebastian: "Doesn't work though, does it? Hasn't produced anything in Burma."

Mr Goh: "But neither has the other approach, unfortunately."

Mr Sebastian: "But that approach has been diluted by ASEAN countries who trade with anybody as long as they can make some money of out that."

Mr Goh: "If there are sanctions against Myanmar, we would follow the sanctions but there are no UN sanctions against Myanmar. And would it work?"

Mr Sebastian: "Individual countries have taken sanctions -- the United States which you firmly support has taken sanctions?"

Mr Goh: "Yes, but would it work?"

Mr Sebastian: "It will only work if enough people do it, won't it?"

Mr Goh: "Well, Myanmar doesn't have enough trade with people. And what sanctions do you have? I mean, they are at that bottom level, so it will not work."

Mr Sebastian: "So what you are telling me is that if everybody else will join in, you will join in as well. If they won't, you won't?"

Mr Goh: "Yes, yes, correct."

Mr Sebastian: "Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, it has been a pleasure having you on the programme. Thank you very much."

Mr Goh: "Thank you."