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Goh Chok Tong: Finally, being his own man

ASIAWEEK. December 3, 1999

Extracts of an interview. Goh Chok Tong on Singapore, Asia and himself.

Precisely nine years ago, in November 1990, Goh Chok Tong acceded to the Prime Ministership of Singapore. He had been -- and continued to be -- the butt of pejorative wisecracks. That his predecessor, Lee Kuan Yew, publicly said Goh was not his first choice to take over did not help matters. Of course, Singapore's tough and visionary founding father was always going to be an impossible act to follow. Even so, Goh was widely derided as a mere seat-warmer in the premiership, passing the time until Lee's brainy son, "B.G." Lee Hsien Loong, took over.

Goh's first years, with their share of mishaps, appeared to validate the naysayers. A bill to introduce an elected presidency was passed amid widespread skepticism about its merits which continues to this day. And when Goh rashly decided to call a snap poll before he had completed a year in the job in order to get the backing of the people, the decision backfired badly. The governing People's Action Party (PAP) saw its percentage of the overall vote drop, and it lost an unprecedented four parliamentary seats. As the results came in, Goh and his team looked as if the universe had caved in. There was soon talk of the fledgling PM resigning, and Goh was obliged to issue a rebuttal. It was his lowest point.

Since then, Goh has clawed his way back. In the next election in 1997, he turned the tide, regaining seats and pushing up the PAP's vote share. Goh hasn't ignored the economic front either -- growth figures are back up. Now he basks in the kind of glow that even Lee Sr. might envy.

Not only is Goh admired, he is actually liked -- rare for any politician who has been long in office. Singaporeans have a genuine affection for the man. As well, he has a solid grip on his own party and is one of the region's senior statesmen. Not bad for a mere seat-warmer.

On Nov. 19, back from the Commonwealth leaders' conference in South Africa, Goh, 58, met with Asiaweek to discuss what he thinks the agenda for the coming ASEAN summit in Manila should be. A confident and relaxed Goh also proved remarkably forthright about his country, its neighbors and other leaders.

Here are some expanded excerpts from their interview:

How can ASEAN'S tarnished image be restored?

First, ASEAN is nothing if it's not an economic dynamo. So at our summit in Manila, we should concentrate on the economic aspects. Each country should be able to show it is now on the track of economic recovery. If growth is there over the next one or two years, ASEAN's vigor will be seen to be back.

Secondly, member countries must show they can respond to new challenges.

One new challenge is the entry of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO). That will have economic implications for this region. How will we compete with China and respond to this new challenge?

Thirdly, can we move faster on various programs, like advancing the date of tariff reductions for the ASEAN Free Trade Area. If we can send these signals, we can reverse a perception that ASEAN is going downhill.

But there have been wavering commitments to the tariff reductions. Even the present deadlines, never mind advanced ones, look doubtful.

Oh, it's going through. There are adjustments because of the economic crisis which countries faced. But having sorted out all these nitty-gritty problems, by and large the train is on track.

But you think China's accession to the WTO might have a negative impact on this region?

It is a matter of concern -- because China will become a very attractive market for investments and unless we are able to compete, it is going to divert investments from the region. So we've got to live with that and get our act together. That will be a primary message which I will take to Manila.

Your ambassador-at-large, Tommy Koh, has proposed that ASEAN should emulate the EU in the longer term. Do you agree?

As a long term goal, I'd say yes. Right now, I don't think we are ready. A few years down the road, it is possible that the economies will be at more or less a similar level of development and so can be harmonized. But that will be a long time away.

Does Singapore remain opposed to changing the group's non-interference principle?

Yes. Non-interference in each other's affairs is a fundamental principle of ASEAN. It is also, I believe, a tenet of the United Nations. Do we want to interfere in the affairs of our neighbors? More importantly, have we the ability to carry through with any interference to put things right in neighboring countries? Look at Myanmar, for example. Regarding human rights, has ASEAN got the capacity to interfere in Myanmar's internal affairs? Can it move Myanmar to put things right? If it doesn't have the ability, I think it is better not to interfere. Also countries will engage in tit for tat interference. That's going to divide ASEAN. So we are not crazy about the idea.

Are you comfortable with the new leadership in ASEAN's biggest member, Indonesia?

Yes, I think the team of President Wahid and Vice-president Megawati is the best you can get, given the circumstances in Indonesia. Their parties won sizable support in the elections so they have the moral legitimacy to govern -- that's very important. I've met President Wahid. He's got a lively mind. I think he knows where he's going. Given some time, he should be able to inspire confidence in Indonesia.

If I say Indonesia has been Singapore's paramount concern in the recent past, would you disagree?

No, I would not disagree. I think we were quite seized with developments in Indonesia. I mean, there's nothing much we can do, but we were very keen observers of events. It's the largest country in ASEAN. It's a huge anchor -- if that anchor is lost, then ASEAN will be very much diminished. So we were very much concerned with the political stability of Indonesia -- and its aftermath if there is no stability.

Looking back, were you shocked at the sudden political downfall of President Suharto?

No, we expected it. He made several mistakes when the economy came under IMF supervision. We knew that he was losing control of the situation. So when he had to step down, it was not a shock. We carry on with whoever is the leader of Indonesia, and as can be seen now, we are resuming the very close cooperation.

That cooperation seemed shaky during President Habibie's term?

Yes. We had our views on Habibie and his ability to govern Indonesia. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew expressed a view that caused some strained relations with Habibie personally and also with those around him.

You are glad Habibie's gone?

I would think that in our view, it's better for Indonesia. Because instability is never good for Indonesia. And most Indonesians regarded him as a transitional president.

Relations now seem on an upturn and you are helping out Indonesia?

Yes, but I think it's important to moderate expectations. It is not possible for Singapore to produce wonders for Indonesia. That would be deluding the Indonesians and ourselves. But we can function as a catalyst. Take Batam and Bintan, if we can expand our project there to bring in more investments, that can serve as a demonstration of what is possible in other parts of Indonesia. Regarding the free trade zone, it was President Wahid who proposed one for Batam. I suggested that he consider expanding it to Bintan. Once the islands are designated as free trade zones, they will be on a par with Singapore, where we have no duties on most imports. So the important components will not be subject to duties. It will make the exports much more competitive.

So it is going to go ahead?

I'm not so sure. It has got to clear the IMF and they will be concerned over the loss of import revenue and will need to see whether it is consistent with what the IMF is doing for Indonesia.

Some Indonesians are not happy about Mr Lee being an adviser. Are you worried that his role might be seen as interference?

No, no, because he did not angle to be an adviser to Indonesia. In fact, he was quite wary about it. But he was invited by President Wahid -- and how can he turn it down? What role he will play depends very much on the president. I don't think he will be the only adviser. He will be on a panel of advisers.

You said recently that what Indonesia will be like in four years is difficult for us to say at this stage. Are you concerned that Indonesia might break up?

At the moment, we do not quite know what it will be like -- because President Wahid is not in the best of health. So, even though we think he can carry on for quite a while, we do not know what the leadership position will be like after four years. That's a concern. And of course, even with President Wahid, the possibility of Indonesia disintegrating is one of the risks which is real. It is not something we would like to see. The so-called Balkanization of Indonesia would not bring about stability for the region. If Indonesia begins to break up, which I hope it will not, and Aceh, Riau, Irian Jaya, Moluccas, Sulawesi separate, we are going to have general instability in the whole region for many years to come.

In East Timor, how did you feel about sending troops into what was then a fellow ASEAN country?

We agreed to help. So ASEAN forces were sent in at the invitation of both the United Nations and Indonesia. It's not a dangerous precedent. It's just exceptional. It's a special situation.

Would Singapore offer to provide the commander for the UN peacekeeping force?

No, we cannot do it. To do that you must have a sizable troop presence. Ours is a token presence -- which given the size of the country is not bad. We have about 250 people there. Mainly medical personnel and logistics.

Turning from Indonesia, your other ASEAN neighbor to the north, Malaysia, has also had a pretty turbulent time over the past two years. How are your relations with KL these days?

I think they are correct and they are cordial. At the moment our relationship is moving horizontally -- not up, not down. For the time being, given their preoccupation with domestic politics and the elections, we are quite happy with that. After the elections, we can look for ways to resolve bilateral issues like the railway station and water for Singapore and so on.

Has the sudden demise of former DPM Anwar Ibrahim affected your perceptions of Malaysia?

Well, it came as a surprise. The way events unfolded. Because we did not expect things to turn out this way. But our relations carry on as before. We regard it purely as an internal matter for the Malaysians.

Why did you recently chastise a Singapore newspaper for writing that it was perhaps time for Malaysia's PM, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, to make way for new faces?

I thought it was not wise. This is something which is very sensitive in Malaysia. And you don't go around stepping on the sensitivity of neighbors. As I said just now, our relations with Malaysia are moving horizontally, so there's no need for us to have them move downwards because of comments from newspaper editors.

Yet there is often robust criticism of Singapore in the press in Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.

They have a different press. We don't believe in that. We are surrounded by much bigger neighbors. We have good relations with them which we conduct on the basis of principles and sensitivities. There are many things which they do that we would not do in Singapore; but that's the way they run their society. Why comment on that unnecessarily -- and create difficulties for us?

Given their political and economic status, wasn't the admission of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia into ASEAN over the past five years too fast?

One can argue it was too fast. Certainly by admitting them, we are weighed down by having to integrate these economies with our own. So the pace of development will be slowed down somewhat, because they are slower in opening up their own economies. But if you take a long-term view, it is right that they should come in. ASEAN members meet frequently. We interact, we get to know each other better. So these new members get to know how the other countries run their economies -- and also their politics.

Three of the newer members recently met in Vientiane, causing some to fear a subgroup has formed.

This is something that we intend to monitor. Because it's not good for ASEAN if, before each summit, subgroups meet. The Indochina states plus Myanmar meet. Then the other six meet. That's not good. For the moment, we recognize that we have a two-tier ASEAN. We hope over time, the four countries can develop and move nearer the other six, so that the two tiers become one.

Will the democratization process in Indonesia impact on the politics of other members?

I don't think so. Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, have their own model of democracy so the Indonesian democratization process will not affect them. As for the four newer members, I don't think they are going to be affected either. They are going their system the way they think they should be run.

ASEAN's image is not helped by having Myanmar as a member. Singapore is the biggest investor there, can you not persuade them to change?

Myanmar is a very complex place. From the outside, you think it is one country. But when you visit them, you realize there are many nations within one country, many ethnic groups. Until recently, there were insurgencies. Now they are in the process of trying to bring those insurgents into the mainstream so that they will have peace in Myanmar before they make the next move politically. So it's complicated. We can only talk to them and tell them how things are done elsewhere. Open up their eyes. Then they have to decide where they want to go. I don't see change coming in the short term. I thought change was possible five, six years ago, but now I think they are going to take their time.

Your own country, Singapore, has been changing but it is still seen as a relatively conservative place lacking the entrepreneurial drive of Hong Kong. What do you say?

I think that's true. We have entrepreneurship, but not on the same scale as Hong Kong. Singapore is very good for trading activities, buying, selling, and so on. That's entrepreneurship. But we are less good in building things. Traditionally, Singaporeans have shied away from manufacturing. Because that requires capital. And capital comes out of fixed assets. You can't move as quickly as you can in trading. So I would say Hong Kong has more entrepreneurial drive than Singapore. I think that's a fact.

What else do you admire about Hong Kong?

The resilience of the Hong Kong people. When the British were there, the government did not take care of people the way the Singapore government does of its own people. There were very few welfare schemes, public housing was not emphasized, so Hong Kong people were more or less on their own. That built a certain amount of independence and resilience. They look to themselves to solve their own problems, rather than to the government.

Whereas in Singapore, if things are right, yes, people thank the government; but if things are wrong, they blame the government. In Hong Kong they blame themselves. If they don't do well in life, it's their own fault, nothing to do with the government.

Senior minister Lee once said that Hong Kong needs to worry about Shanghai more than Singapore.

I think that's true. Over the longer term, Shanghai is going to be much more of a competitor for Hong Kong. And also for Singapore. It's a financial center. If China needs one financial center, it will either be Shanghai or Hong Kong. And I think Shanghai will have an advantage. In the long term, about 15-20 years, you will see Shanghai emerging as a financial center for that part of Asia.

You've been PM of Singapore for almost a decade, what has been the key event of your time in office?

The defining moment was the 1997 general election. As you know, I was handed the premiership by Lee Kuan Yew when he stepped aside in 1990 -- though, of course, I had been selected by my own peers. The following year, I called an election just to show that I'm my own man. Of course, I was re-elected, but the votes for the party came to about 61per cent, which was slightly lower than the previous election. But then in 1997, I was able to reverse the trend and increase the percentage of support by 4 per cent and also recover two seats from the four which we'd lost in 1991. So it was a defining moment, because I felt that I had bonded with the people. I'd shown I was a prime minister in my own right, not a prime minister because I'd been given it on a silver platter.

You've just announced 6.7 per cent growth for the 3rd quarter, 5 per cent forecast for the whole year, and up to 6.5 per cent as the estimate for Singapore's growth next year. So the boom times are back, right?

I would say we are on track. I would not be so elated as to say the boom times are back and therefore we can relax. I would still sound a note of caution because already we can feel the wage pressure right away. I would just say we are back on track and that we should make sure that our course won't get out of hand.

People say they like you, they perceive you as having done a good job.

They tell you, but they haven't told me.

What's the secret?

Just be yourself. I don't try to be a Lee Kuan Yew. If my personality is what the people like, then I'm lucky. Most importantly, I have a good team, who have produced results for Singapore.

Having said that, many also say Singapore remains an authoritarian, disciplined society. People have democracy as long as most of them vote PAP. Is that true?

No. I share the view expressed by Lee Kuan Yew that if, because we become incompetent and corrupt, there is a change of government to another party, then we will live with it. We would not cry over the demise of the PAP if it happens that way. So there is democracy, we allow others to compete with us; but we set out to be the best. And given our efficiency, and the small size of Singapore, and the fact - which people do not understand - that every constituency is actually a microcosm of Singapore, then if we do well as a government, we are likely to win most of the seats. It's not like a big country where you have local factors. There are very few local factors at work in Singapore. So you either win overwhelmingly or you lose the government.

Under your genial exterior, you are pretty tough and hard.

I would say firm and disciplined. While there's always a logical mind at work, I show a more human side of government. But the PAP is not going to become soft and effete under my leadership. If the party were getting soft underneath, you can be sure I would not be here talking to you. I would be pushed out.

Yet Singapore society has loosened up amazingly in the 1990s, are you prepared to let this laxity continue?

I am pondering over the word 'laxity.' It seems to suggest slackening. But certainly we've got to recognize what the aspirations of a younger population will be. We've got to move with the times. Of course, we've also got to bear in mind the needs of older Singaporeans. We have to balance these two segments of the population. So as Singapore changes, we move along with it. In politics, in the arts, we have to be in tune with the times.

You said Singapore should be a fun place to live in -- not something Mr. Lee would ever have said.

You would be surprised. He has a very stern exterior, but in fact he also knows that we've got to keep in tune with the place. Back in 1984, I put up the short manifesto for the party. We called it Vision 1999, saying that Singapore should be a fun place to live in. Of course, as PM and head of the party, he vetted the draft. He agreed very much that Singapore has got to be a fun place. Because it must be a home for Singaporeans, not just an economy. Singaporeans want fun and they've got to be able to have it here -- otherwise they will go outside for it.

But you don't let journalists have much fun, you are always berating them -- most recently for critical articles they wrote about the police. Can't you ease up on them?

No, there are certain things which they must learn they should not do. My home affairs minister spoke out because he perceived that the Straits Times seemed to have an agenda in going after the police. So he briefed the cabinet and said that if the respect for the police is eroded through misperception as portrayed by the Straits Times articles, it's going to make the police job much more difficult. So he had my permission to make the critical speech which he made. If there are problems with the police, then of course they have got to be heard. But there were no problems.

Given that there are only two elected opposition MPs out of 81, isn't it important to have a robust press as a watchdog?

I would not agree entirely with that. I mean, if things are wrong, the media can report it. I have no problem with that. But watchdog, meaning that they can investigate every matter, espousing views and setting their own agenda, I would not agree with that. My view is quite straightforward: if you want to set a political agenda for Singapore, then you have to be in the political arena. Otherwise you don't have the accountability and the responsibility of looking after the place. We have got to face the people. If we misgovern, they will chase after us. Our heads will be on the chopping block. The media's head is not on the chopping block.

Journalists sometimes think it is.

Well, when they go wrong, you've got to put them right.

Doesn't this reflect an outdated 'PAP knows best' credo? Singapore now has a very sophisticated, intelligent population, they don't need a nanny any more.

Ha, ha, that's what people think. But you must believe that the PAP knows best. If you don't believe in that, then we have no business being in government. Having said that, it doesn't mean we have a monopoly of views. We know best, but we listen to views from elsewhere. If the views are sensible, we co-opt them as our own -- or make them into our policies. So that's also part of knowing best. But in the end, I believe that we are the people who can make the best judgement of where Singapore should go.

You don't listen to opposition views . You don't even give them much chance to speak. Once again, you recently refused Chee Soon Juan's request for a permit to speak?

No, he can speak. A permit can be given to him to speak in certain places. But the police are against giving permits to speak in public places, because you lose control over traffic, over crowds and so on. He can apply to speak in a hotel or an indoor stadium. He can express what he wants. He can call a press conference and express views. That's not a problem.

Senior Minister Lee says Chee will be annihilated in the next election.

I thought that he had been annihilated already? He will stand again, of course. But he has tremendous character flaws. And I think they will be exposed again to the public. You know, we look at the opposition from two angles. One is the ideas of the opposition member. The other is the character of the opposing party. If the ideas would not do great harm to Singapore, if they challenge ours, then there's a place for the people who express them. But even though people may have fairly sound ideas, if their character is wrong -- in particular, if their integrity is suspect, then we would try and annihilate that person. Because, as I said just now, in another context, you must have the moral authority to govern Singapore.

It seems you find nearly all opposition characters lacking in integrity.

That's the unfortunate part of the opposition parties. They are the people we would not recruit into the PAP. So by definition, you have more good guys with us and more bad guys with them. The PAP is not an ideological party. It is a broad-based party. Many of the people who want to join us don't agree with us on everything. In our interviews of potential candidates, we ask them what are the policies you agree with and what are the policies you disagree with us. And why? Why? We want to know why. If they agree all the time, we are a little suspicious.

But you do investigate opposition politicians pretty closely? Frankly, you are looking for something to get them.

We study them, yes, of course. This is a serious business. If an opposition party makes headway and comprises men or women who we think are going to bring down Singapore, we have to try and keep them out of power. Because once they are in, they are going to build. And they are going to confuse the public through the wrong use of statistics, which makes government much more difficult. Ultimately what's going to be the position of Singapore, that's our concern.

What about those who say you use the judiciary to silence critics?

That's nonsense. What are these critics? There are many critics of the PAP in Singapore. They are not all hauled up before the judiciary. Political opponents, so long as they keep within the law, don't need safeguards. They do not have to appear before the judiciary. But if they've defamed us, we have to sue them -- because if we don't, our own integrity will be suspect. We have an understanding that if a minister is defamed and he does not sue, he must leave cabinet. By defamation, I mean if somebody says the minister is on the take or is less than honest. If he does not rebut it, if he does not dare go before the court to be interrogated by the counsel for the other side, there must be some truth in it. If there is no evidence, well, why are you not suing?

You mentioned recently that consideration had once been given to voluntarily splitting the PAP. Was this a serious proposal, and if so, why?

This thing was serious. It took place after we had lost a couple of seats in 1984, when we felt that the people wanted opposition. They wanted a PAP government, but they also wanted more opposition. So the dilemma was how to accommodate this without a freak election result. We wondered if it would it better to split the PAP to form a genuine opposition -- because if you split, and you're on the other side, you fight to get into government. That way people could see a contest of ideas, decent people with good ideas fighting to be in government. And whoever wins, it doesn't matter to us, because it's the best team in charge. So that's the kind of two-party system which we thought Singapore could have. But it was theoretical. And when we thought about splitting the cabinet down the middle, we all thought that Singapore would be the worse for it.

You mentioned that BG Lee Hsien Loong and Tony Tan might lead the two sides if you had decided to do it.

Because they happen to be deputy prime ministers, not because there's any rivalry between them. In other words, as PM I'd step aside, and then you split. Form your own little faction. But I agree, they are different characters. Tony Tan is quite conservative. He doesn't relish politicking like BG Lee, who, being a younger man, knows you've just got to go out to win people.

Why did say you would not rule out a split in the PAP, although it would be unlikely in the next ten years?

It was just a logical comment. How can I predict whether the PAP will split in the future? You can't predict. It could be on personality or ideology. I only mentioned ten years, because that's as far as I can see. I know Singaporeans, I know what they are like, I know their thinking, so within ten years I'm sure there'll be no split. But after ten years, I do not know who will be in the party.

Will you lead the party into the next election? Yes.

Will BG Lee Hsien Loong be the next prime minister?

It seems to be a given that he will succeed sometime after 2002.

You will step down after the next election? I would not disagree.

And before the next election after that?

Ideally, I should have the luxury of contemplating that.

When you step down, you will remain in cabinet as a senior minister?

Once you step down, you leave it to the next prime minister to decide. It's not for me to decide.

How is your rapport with Lee Kuan Yew these days?

Well, you know, we have, shall we say, a candid relationship. I don't know if that is the right term. An open relationship. He gives his views. I don't take offence. He told me, quite frankly, that I am his second choice as PM; but better that than to have a misunderstanding.

He need not have said it in public.

Well, he's got his agenda. And I think it's better that we're on the level, that he's said all these things publicly. It's better that I'm not seen to be his choice. If I were seen to be his choice alone, and I did not have the support of my colleagues, it would be much more difficult for me to do my job. But if I'm not his choice, and I was chosen by my colleagues, they will support me and they'll see that I succeed in my job.

He spoke recently of PAP veterans being like rare gems. You are having trouble finding new gems these days?

Yes, that's a major problem. We have technical pieces of diamond, but to get a real gem, a diamond of exceptional quality and size, that's rare.

Will the third generation of PAP leaders be up to scratch?

Well, there's a core group -- Lee Hsien Loong, George Yeo, Teo Chee Hean, Lim Hng Kiang. They are the kind of quality you want. They are up to scratch. Potential gems, some of them still being polished. But we haven't got the numbers yet. We must have a team, not just a core group.

Do you still enjoy being prime minister?

You must enjoy the job. I was a reluctant prime minister. But I think I am coping.

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