Monday, September 14, 2009

Goh between the Lees

Sep 12, 2009

When Goh Chok Tong became Prime Minister in 1990, many Singaporeans were concerned about the power configuration between him and Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. How did it work out?

The Banyan and the Tembusu

AUGUSTINE TAN, a PAP MP from 1970 to 1991, probably spoke for many Singaporeans when he said, in response to a question during an interview for this book: 'When Chok Tong took over, I must confess, in retrospect, that I had misgivings because of course, consciously or unconsciously, I was comparing him with Lee Kuan Yew. But it turned out my misgivings were wrong and he had actually proven himself to be a very good prime minister.

'I was also nervous or apprehensive that the power configuration might not be the best for Singapore. I was apprehensive of potential conflicts because Lee Kuan Yew was still around. His son would be there and Chok Tong would be in the middle. But thank God, it had worked out well.'

Tommy Koh, Singapore's best-known diplomat, shared Tan's view that the power configuration had worked out well. At a press conference at the end of a civil society conference organised by the Institute of Policy Studies in 1998, he likened the period under Lee to a banyan tree. The tree, revered in Asian culture, is deep-rooted and strong and has a large canopy that casts a big shadow. It was a metaphor borrowed from the seminal civic society speech that George Yeo made in 1991 when he was acting minister for information and the arts.

Yeo, who was the only candidate in the 1988 general election to have been installed as a minister almost immediately, made the case for a strong civic society which involved as many people as possible. In involving them, it would help them form an emotional attachment to the country. Otherwise, Singapore could just be a hotel with revolving doors, especially for those with portable skills. But because the first phase of nation-building was a centralised one, the government did not pay attention to the building of that civic layer between state and family.

'The problem now is that under a banyan tree, very little else can grow,' he said. 'When state institutions are too pervasive, civic institutions cannot thrive. Therefore, it is necessary to prune the banyan tree so that other plants can also grow.'

Tommy Koh took the tree metaphor further and suggested that the era under Goh was like the tembusu tree. It is as tall and firm a tree as the banyan but with only a small canopy, it allows more plants below to grow around it. 'As advances in information technology make knowledge the driving force of the world economy, civil society will expand and become more powerful as the role of the state shrinks,' he said.

Over lunch at the canteen in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building six years later, Koh said the point he wanted to make in that 1998 speech was 'that there had been a gradual transition from the banyan tree to the tembusu tree and that the transition had actually gone quite smoothly'.

Credit should go to Lee for making that transition possible, he said.

He recounted how when Goh asked him to chair the Censorship Review Committee in 1992 - he was then also the chairman of the newly formed National Arts Council - he went to see Lee about it. 'Do I have your support for this?' he asked. 'I'm going to propose liberalisation.'

Lee replied: 'Oh yes, this is very important for the prime minister. The times have changed. We have a new electorate. It's important for the prime minister to be seen to be his own man. Yes, it's very important. You should do this.'

Goh himself had used the tree metaphor as early as 1985 when he spoke in an interview with The Asian Wall Street Journal about how Lee was making way for the second-echelon leaders. 'The prime minister's such a giant. Fortunately for us, he is aware that his presence will prevent others from coming up. So the prime minister has consciously started pruning branches. Otherwise, we'll never get through.'

It is not surprising that Goh had used a tree metaphor. As he said at a National Day Rally in 1999, he - and Lee before him - were possibly the only prime ministers in the world who monitored the work of a National Parks Board gardening committee whose job was to plan, implement and track projects to beautify the island. Singapore is a 'garden city' because the meticulous manicure of its trees and shrubs and flowers had the attention of the prime minister, no less.

In his office in 2004, when asked how he managed what Augustine Tan had called the power configuration, Goh said it was principally Lee Kuan Yew who made sure that it worked. As senior minister in the PMO, Lee observed protocol strictly, whether publicly or in private, he pointed out. If there was a function where both he and Lee had been invited, Lee would make sure he showed up before him, no matter how informal the function. Likewise, in private, when the two men had something to discuss, Lee would insist on going up to his third floor office in the Istana Annex which was a floor above Lee's own.

The Istana, which is Malay for 'palace', was built in the 19th century by British Indian convict labour to house the governor. Hidden behind a thick cover of mature trees off Orchard Road and nestled deep inside the sprawling 100-acre grounds, it is a statuesque building, with its classical European columns and deep tropical verandahs. It is where the president receives and entertains state guests.

One could not, however, describe the unadorned offices of Goh and Lee in the annex as grand. Their rooms were functional, the furniture simple and spare.

Yes, Lee kept his old office but (J.B.) Jeyaretnam had heard incorrectly about Goh being told to set up his office 'somewhere further down the corridor'. As Goh related it, Lee had insisted on giving up his office to him when he became the prime minister but it was he himself who suggested that Lee stayed put. All he had to do was to convert the disused floor above Lee's into his office.

This gesture of deference was very much in keeping with Goh's personality. He said: '(Lee) was the one who risked his life to build this place. He had stepped aside willingly. You inherited his place. How could you not respect him now just because you had become the prime minister?

'It's in my nature. I'm just as respectful of people like Lim Kim San and Goh Keng Swee.'

Lee might not have to give up his room for Goh but he gave him room to grow as the leader of the country. In Goh's initial years as prime minister, he deliberately kept himself out of the front sections of the papers. He made few speeches on domestic matters, choosing instead to comment on international issues, away from the country, and for audiences outside it.

As a statesman whose track record that even his harshest critics could not disregard, Lee was helping to project Singapore on the world stage in a new era of globalisation. Said Goh: 'I did not have the reach yet so it was very useful for Singapore.'

In order that Goh could build up his links with the other Asean leaders, Lee did not visit any Asean country for some time. It would take him 10 years to go across the Causeway to Malaysia.

Lee made his first major speech as senior minister in Parliament only in January 1994 when he felt compelled to argue for the case that ministers' salaries be raised and pegged to top professionals.

It was when he was confident that Goh could hold his own that he began to voice his views on issues that exercised him. Lee being Lee, he could not speak less than vigorously. In some instances, as in a Singapore Airlines management union dispute in 2004, he seemed to just charge in and intervene.

But Goh maintained that Lee cleared every one of his moves with him. In the Singapore Airlines case, for example, it was 'old business'. Lee had intervened in a similar dispute when he was the prime minister and Goh felt he was the best man to deal with it.

In the Cabinet, Lee's role was largely that of a tutorial master, Goh said.

As prime minister, Goh would begin his weekly Cabinet meetings with what he called a 'pre-cab' session, when the ministers and the ministers of state would exchange their views freely on the issues of the day. Lee would not be present at these sessions.

The senior minister would join the team only after the pre-cab session for the Cabinet meeting proper, during which decisions on policy issues were taken. Goh directed the meeting and only occasionally would Lee give his views on certain issues. The Cabinet would hear them out and discuss them. Goh was still the one who made the final calls. As prime minister, the buck stopped with him.

When the meeting was over, Lee would share with the ministers whatever matters he thought were useful and where he could, he would bring his own experiences and wide reading to bear. 'They were storytelling sessions,' Goh said. 'He had a lot of historical experience, he had more time to read and he would share his wisdom and insights. That was the principal value of having him among us in Cabinet meetings. If we had kept him upstairs, we would have lost out on a lot...the younger ones, especially, would have lost out on a lot.'

In persuading potential office-holders to come on board early when they had indicated that they preferred to sign up at a later time, Goh found that it helped to tell them: 'You'd better come in when Mr Lee is still around. You sit in Cabinet, you listen to him and you'll learn a lot.'

It worked invariably.

IN HIS OFFICE below Goh's, Lee said it did not make sense for him to undermine his successor. 'To undermine him after working so hard for the succession would have been to defeat myself,' he said. 'It worked because it was not planned but at each stage, we adjusted...or I adjusted.

'I said: 'You are the boss; you decide.''

He recounted how he managed the transition of power: 'First, I was the pilot and he was the co-pilot. Then, between '88 and '90, even when I was the pilot, I was leaving the controls to him. He was at the back but actually piloting the plane. I was the master control. I could take over at any time.

'After that, he was in front and I was at the back. And after two, three years, when he had found his feet, I just left him alone. But from time to time, I just said: 'Oh, watch that meter.' The relationship stabilised and he was comfortable with me, and he knew I was helping him to succeed.'

Lee's contribution to Goh's government was, of course, more than just that of a tutorial master and co-pilot. Cherian George, a Straits Times journalist whose often thoughtful and trenchant coverage of the political scene in the 1990s made him a known name before he left to pursue an academic career, says in his book, Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation (2000): 'Lee Kuan Yew remained Singapore's long-range strategist. Ironically, the Cabinet's oldest member was frequently its most visionary and boldest thinker...He remained Singapore's most influential leader.

'People knew the government really meant business when he invested his moral authority behind a policy.'

George cites as an example of Lee's several critical initiatives, the massive reform of the financial sector after 1997, although the work was carried out by Lee Hsien Loong. The senior minister's hand was also apparent in firm positions taken in the problematic dealing with the Malaysian government, he notes.

If there were Singaporeans who wished Lee had stepped down altogether, there were certainly many others, including expatriates who worked here, who were grateful that he was still around. He received letters regularly from expatriates who had enjoyed their stints in Singapore and wished to thank him personally.

A typical example was Mrs P. Cattheral, an Englishwoman, who wrote him a letter in 1998 as she prepared to leave the country where she had spent 12 years. She came first as a dependant with her husband and later set up her own business. She said in her letter to Lee: 'During my husband's frequent extended absences on business, I have been able to live here, even to go out alone in the evenings, feeling completely safe and comfortable, a basic human right which is unfortunately not now available to women in many countries...

'Singaporeans are most fortunate to have had as visionary a leader as you, Mr Lee, and also to have had a government that has enabled the implementation of your vision. The success of Singapore sets an example for the rest of the world.'

German radio journalist Carsten Peters, who had visited the country more than 10 times, felt compelled to write to Lee in 2004: 'Looking at the present situation in my home country, I sometimes wish we would, and could, learn something from your model...Our ex-chancellor, Helmut Kohl, was right when he called you 'a great statesman'.'

Three-in-one: A Winning Combination

GOH CHOK TONG said he had never felt uncomfortable with Lee Hsien Loong as his deputy. 'I appointed him,' he said. It was a choice between Lee and Ong Teng Cheong. Goh canvassed views from his team before he made his decision. After all, as his potential successor, Lee had to have the support of the team. In the end, he chose Lee because he wanted a deputy who was younger than he was, not older. Ong was five years older than he was while Lee was a good 11 years younger.

'It would not reflect well on our self-renewal drive if I picked someone older than I. That might mean I was protecting my position. As it turned out, he (Lee) was a very good deputy,' Goh said.

After he had recovered from his cancer, Lee worked tirelessly as the second-in-command. He took on a variety of challenging tasks, especially economic ones. Because he was the more articulate of the two, Lee would also often be the one who spoke on behalf of the government. When it came to election broadcasts on television, it was Lee who spoke for PAP.

Goh pointed out that in Cabinet, Lee the son had disagreed with some of the views of Lee the father. 'Loong had different experiences. They looked at things differently...At home, he might listen to his father's advice but in the end, he made his own decisions. I took comfort in passing over to him,' he said.

In his office in the main Istana building in 2005, a year after he had become the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong said the power configuration had proved to be an effective one. Lee Kuan Yew provided advice and the benefit of his years of experience; and Goh, as the prime minister, set the direction of the country and held a strong team together to work in that direction. 'He set the tone, the pitch and the political presentation.

'And me, working with Mr Goh, knowing what he wanted to do and putting the pieces together to achieve the political objective which he as prime minister had decided on. So together we settled on the right directions, designed policies which worked, and then made sure that Singaporeans accepted and supported them,' he said.

Certainly, the three men had very different temperaments. So when they approached a problem, they would bring to the table three different perspectives but the younger Lee said 'our perspectives complemented one another's'.

'Once we had agreed on a direction to take, (Lee Kuan Yew) would often start with the political objective: what was it that you wanted to achieve? Mr Goh would look at it from the point of how to present it to the public, how it would go down. I would look at the details: what was the best way to do it, what were the problems that needed to be solved and what changes needed to be made?'

Lee Hsien Loong said: 'Mr Lee, as senior minister, was supposed to be in semi-retirement but not actually in retirement at all. And all of us were working on different aspects. You could not have done it with just one person. It was not a matter of abilities but the scope, the amount of work.'

His view of the power configuration was: 'There was a job to be done and I think we had a team which could do it better than any single one of us could...I think if any one of us had been missing from that team, something would have been lost.'

On his working relationship with Goh, Lee pointed out that he had known Goh for a long time even before he entered politics. When he was director of the joint operations and plans directorate and chief of staff of the general staff in the army, he reported to Goh, who was the then defence minister. 'So there was already a good degree of understanding of each person's temperaments and mindsets, and how to adapt and work with one another,' he said. 'We didn't always agree completely on issues.

'With big decisions, we had to debate them: which way to go, whether to go quickly, slowly, whether to negotiate harder or what concessions to offer. These are things reasonable people disagree over. So we had thorough discussions. Usually, we would discuss it with a group of ministers and reach a consensus.'

But was Goh in any way constrained by Lee Senior's presence, as some critics had charged? Could bar-top dancing, for example, which Goh allowed in August 2003, have been introduced much earlier if Lee Hsien Loong were the prime minister?

'I don't know...Maybe...I'm not sure!' Lee said, and laughed.

'No, in the end, the prime minister sets the tone because he appoints the ministers and he has to carry the responsibility. The ministers can make all kinds of recommendations but if the prime minister doesn't agree with the thrust or doesn't agree with the way the proposals are presented, it cannot be done. Because, he has to stand up and defend the policies. And if he doesn't believe in them, it will show straightaway.'

The PAP government had to cut CPF contribution rates and make changes to the system during the recession of 2002 following the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Lee said: 'If the prime minister didn't agree that we had to reform the CPF, then when he was asked a difficult question in an election rally or an interview, everyone could see immediately that he was not his own man.'

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