SINGAPORE: In his first comments on the appointment of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) first assistant secretary-general, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said that Mr Heng and Mr Chan Chun Sing, chosen as his deputy, have complementary strengths.
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia on Monday (Nov 26) to discuss his newly published authorised biography Tall Order, Mr Goh noted that while Mr Heng’s strengths lay in his strong experience in governance, he “hasn’t quite been exposed to the mobilisation of people, working with the PAP, the NTUC (National Trades Union Congress), and working with the PA (People’s Association)”.
“Chan Chun Sing has that,” Mr Goh added.
The former prime minister recognised that Mr Chan would have "experience in running some ministries, but his strengths so far have been exposed in those mobilisation areas".
“So, the two will work very well, they’ll complement one another,” Mr Goh said.
Mr Goh’s comments came days after Mr Heng was appointed as the PAP’s first assistant secretary-general, in a move that indicates the finance minister is the clear frontrunner to replace Mr Lee Hsien Loong as Prime Minister. Mr Chan was appointed second assistant secretary-general, with Mr Heng choosing Mr Chan to be his deputy.
READ: PAP assistant secretary-general appointment a precursor to becoming Singapore’s next PM, analysts say
Mr Goh’s comments echo those of Mr Lee, who said the two new assistant secretaries-general have “complementary strengths, and make a strong pairing”.
Asked if he felt the younger fourth-generation (4G) leaders may have made their choices for the PAP’s new leadership based on this complementarity between Mr Heng and Mr Chan, Mr Goh demurred.
“That’s not quite so,” he said.
“The ministers and office holders decided on who should be leading the team. So Mr Heng Swee Keat was chosen to be the leader, and Mr Heng, in my view, quite wisely chose to complement himself.”
In his interview with Channel NewsAsia, Mr Goh was asked if the party’s eventual decision to back Mr Heng could simply have been delayed, given the stroke that he had suffered in May 2016.
“I would think so,” he said. “I think without the stroke they would probably have come to a decision earlier, maybe about six to nine months earlier.”
UNDERSTANDING LEADERSHIP TRANSITION
The issue of timelines in the PAP’s leadership transition was one that Mr Goh had himself raised, most specifically in his public intervention on Facebook on New Year’s Eve last year.
Writing at the time, Mr Goh had said that: "One urgent challenge I would like to see settled is our fourth-generation leadership.
"Every succession is different, but one thing remains the same: Each cohort will have to pick one amongst themselves to lead, and support him. I hope the current cohort will do so in six to nine months' time.
"Then PM can formally designate their choice as his potential successor before 2018 ends."
Asked why he had chosen to intervene at that point, Mr Goh brought the issue back to his early political experience, where he was first introduced to “managed political succession”, first to introduce candidates to politics, and thereafter to manage transitions between leaders.
Mr Goh added that by his calculations, based on Mr Lee’s intention to step down by the age of 70, the current transition had at that time “taken a little longer”.
Nonetheless, with the party’s decision having since been taken, Mr Goh said: “I am very happy that they have decided now to pick the leaders. Obviously, the team players are very good, the individual players are very good.
“But they were a team under Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. So now they have to be a team, under a new leader.”
THE PAP APPROACH TO “TEAMWORK”
In his remarks following the announcement of his appointment, Mr Heng had pointed to the importance of the overall PAP leadership team in delivering on governance for Singapore.
"I'm deeply conscious of the heavy responsibility I'm taking on, leading the party and governing Singapore are massive and complex tasks," he said.
"No one person can do it alone, not even Mr Lee Kuan Yew who had the help of able, stout-hearted colleagues. I'm heartened that I have the backing of a strong team."
These were comments echoed by the 32 younger political leaders who endorsed Mr Heng as their leader. In their statement issued following the leadership announcement, the group referenced the strong group dynamic, and pledged to “continue to work cohesively as a team”, and being “united in our purpose of serving Singaporeans to the best of our abilities".
Asked to explain the underlying PAP psyche in highlighting the ultimate importance of the team, Mr Goh said: “To run the country, you need the whole team, and of course if there are many people who could form a Cabinet and there is a strong man, it’s good; that means there is a strong leader.
“But strong leaders need a team to get things done,” he added.
“So Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a strong man, but he needed core members to help him: Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam, Othman Wok, they were the core members of his team, but beyond them, we had a larger team: Ong Pang Boon, Toh Chin Chye, Chua Sian Chin, the other ministers. So you do need a team to run a country.
"No matter how good a man is, your reach cannot be that wide to understand the issues, cannot be comprehensive, cannot be total. You need a team.”
READ: Political experience, likeable character put Heng Swee Keat in good stead to be PM, analysts say
Using the analogy of a football team, Mr Goh said: “You can have a brilliant striker, but he himself would not be able to win. You need teamwork.”
With the analogy of the football team, Mr Goh was asked whether the PAP could, at some point in the future, have a personality within the party who states at the outset: “I want to be captain one day. I know I can be captain, and I know I can rally the team around me.”
“Well, I think so,” Mr Goh replied. “I think there must come a time where somebody says I want to be the leader.
“But they cannot command that. To be a leader, people must support him.”
Looking at individual strengths, Mr Goh said Mr Heng has the ability to deal with a crisis, raising the example of when Mr Heng was the managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and himself the chairman.
“I saw how he worked,” said Mr Goh, referencing Mr Heng’s work during the global financial crisis. “I think he could take crisis, and he could manage crisis.”
More from the interview with Mr Goh Chok Tong will be published this weekend.