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November 30, 2000

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Pondering the Next Lap

Singapore's premier charts future directions on the road to full development

WHEN GOH CHOK TONG became prime minister in late 1990, he faced an unenviable challenge: how to step out of the giant shadow cast by his predecessor, Lee Kuan Yew. But these days, Goh is very much his own man. In late 1992 he took over one influential position from Lee: secretary-general of the ruling People's Action Party. Goh, who turns 55 on May 20, recently discussed Singapore's future directions -- including his platform for elections due by April 1997 -- with Asiaweek Editor Ann Morrison and Correspondent Santha Oorjitham. Excerpts from their 90-minute conversation:

In 1984, the government said it wanted Singapore to be a developed country by 1999, with living standards equivalent to Switzerland's in 1984. The OECD recently reclassified Singapore as a "more advanced developing economy." Are you on track for 1999?

In 1984, when we talked about the Swiss standard of living, I was using a simple measure of per capita income. By 1999, we would like to achieve the 1984 per capita income of Switzerland. Are we on track? If you look at most of the economic indicators, the answer is yes.

But per capita income is not the only measure. To be a developed country, we must have depth. What we lack is the critical mass which would allow us to maintain our prosperity in case something goes wrong with the world economy. For example, we don't have enough research scientists. In terms of percentage, we can churn out many graduates and post-secondary students. But in terms of numbers, if we compare ourselves against Korea, Japan and, later on, China -- and, of course, the United States -- we are far behind.

How will you catch up?

We will continue to emphasize our basic strengths. I would single out three important ingredients which have enabled Singapore to achieve today's standard of living. One is the principle of meritocracy. That allows Singaporeans to strive, to compete and to be rewarded in accordance with their performance. That enables us to have the best people in politics, in the civil service and in the corporate world. It's not based on relations, on nepotism or on who you know. It's based on what you know and how much you contribute. The second is investment in people. We've spent a lot on our young and on retraining older workers. The third factor is the high savings rate.

What about entrepreneurship? How are you encouraging it?

We are trying to identify some 100 to 200 promising local enterprises. They can be small, but if the Economic Development Board [EDB] is confident that the man behind it has got the vision to take the company further but hasn't got the capital, they'll find ways to help him to grow.

Only a few companies contribute to the bulk of Singapore's exports and earnings in terms of income and contribution to GDP. In that sense, [the economy] is quite narrowly based. Our companies are not multifaceted and don't have the wide-ranging skills we see in multinationals.

So we have told our government-linked companies to try to grow into multinationals. What we're encouraging is corporate entrepreneurship. We get able people to be leaders of the company. If one or two of them have the extra entrepreneurial drive, they can recruit other people to join the company, and they can grow quicker than if there were no sustained efforts. The signal has been given.

Why does the government have to show the way?

If we don't send the signal, government companies won't venture forth. The original agenda for government-linked companies was to invest and stick to a particular sector. These are civil servants. They stick to their articles of association very closely. Also, it is not the business of government departments and statutory boards to be promoting investments outside. The EDB is supposed to be promoting investments into Singapore. Nobody would say, 'Let's go outside,' because they would get the rap. But when we gave the signal, they began to create a new external wing in their organizations -- to sell their expertise to those who needed it outside.

You've said that to be fully developed, Singapore must look beyond economic success. In what ways?

I am seized with the social side. I do not want Singaporeans to be known just for economic efficiency -- cold, disciplined, efficient, with a high standard of living, but everybody looks like a robot. I want to make Singapore a more rounded society. What are we as people? Have we got the social graces? What's our personal development? Do we read? Do we listen to music? When we meet friends from outside Singapore, do we only talk business? Or are we able to discourse on world affairs, regional affairs, literature? There must be a certain layer of Singaporeans who have that intellectual curiosity. So the first angle is personal development.

The second angle is social behavior of the population as a whole. We can be very gracious in the home, to friends but when it comes to common property which is not ours, we treat it as something we can abuse. You go to the home of many Singaporeans and it's beautiful, but outside they litter. They take great care of their own car, polishing it, but they may not mind scratching someone else's car.

But one joyous thing about running Singapore is that when we set out the direction to go and we argue the virtues of that move, we find that the people respond. While we are laughed at by some journalists, who make fun that we are a "fine" society -- if you do well you get a reward, if you do wrong you get fined -- it works.

Aren't you concerned that Singaporeans will wait for the government to arrange everything for them?

Yes and no. It's not just Singapore. In most countries, people have to be led. If they didn't need to be led, you wouldn't need government. If you expect someone from the ground level to say, 'Let's make Singapore a gracious society,' he will be ignored. Of course, there is concern that if they depend on the government for everything, they won't have initiative.

What is your idea of a politically mature Singaporean?

One who can look at the big picture and weigh the odds for himself, in the long as well as the short term, and then decide what's best for him. A voter would also be looking not just at ideas but at the party or the man behind the ideas. If someone says, "Let's have good public values," is he the kind of man who believes in it? Between elections, the measure of maturity is if they understand the system that makes for a better society, if they are alert to efforts to erode certain key values and how they ensure those are not eroded.

How do they get concerns across?

Through the [government's] Feedback Unit or by making their views known publicly or even joining the opposition. I have nothing against that. If ever the PAP becomes inept or corrupt, if we begin to use all kinds of unfair means to abuse power, for goodness' sake join the other side and throw us out.

Rapid development in some countries has created an underclass left behind by the boom. Can that happen in Singapore too?

I don't see it happening.We have policies in place to prevent the creation of an underclass. We have spread out lower income groups through various constituencies so that we do not have a critical mass of people who then do not have others to help them. Then we would have ghettos. It is not cosmetic. We don't spread them out so nobody knows there's an underclass.

We find ways to help them. The emphasis is on education. The young have to study and acquire skills. For the parents, it may be a little too late. But we don't give up. We have to teach them the importance of bringing up children, inculcating values and so on. We reach out to them through a community-based system. We supported the establishment of four community-based organizations -- one to help the Malays, one to help the Chinese, one for the Indians and one for Eurasians. It's not because we want to divide the races. But we find that when we want to reach out to people at the bottom, we need people from the same community. A Chinese can't reach out to a Malay family to advise them how to bring up children. That would be an insult to them. They need a Malay leader, recognized by the Malay community, who is genuinely interested in helping these families do better.

Singapore is warmly embracing the infotech revolution. What opportunities and challenges does this present?

The opportunities are quick access to information and the ability to communicate with others very quickly in Singapore and internationally. Productivity increases. For example, all our young officers in the government will be on e-mail in time to come and they'll have to learn to type, so they won't need a secretary. Management is supposed to set an example but some are slower than others -- including myself. Senior Minister [Lee Kuan Yew] is very quick but I get caught up with a lot of work. I can use it but it's not my most efficient method of communicating.

There are two main challenges. The first is how to prevent information overload. Most people are bewildered by the dazzle of the devices and the quickness with which you can reach others, and they spend a lot of time reading trash. The second challenge is undesirable information. By that, I do not mean political -- that's not a problem for us. The fear is information that may corrupt society -- access to pornographic literature, for example. Or it could be deviant religious teachings which could offend other people. The conservative groups will reply and there could be warfare on this. Some may not be able to think for themselves and may get influenced by deviant teachings. That would create difficulties for a multiracial society.

You must hold general elections by April next year. What will the issues be?

The issues as seen by the people can be brought down to one single group of factors: daily cost of living. It's not that the cost of living is high; it's that the aspirations are very high. When you own a five-room [Housing Development Board] flat, you aspire to own a private apartment. If you have a private apartment, you aspire to own a landed property. People don't have much liquidity. They have computers; they travel. There is never enough money.

But the government believes we've survived because our economic policy is right. We go into the next election with a track record. We do not subsidize services other than health, education and housing. It's a very market-oriented philosophy, which means that when costs go up and companies have to raise prices, they do so. Even government departments have to raise prices. This irritates people; they think the government is taking money from them and not giving back. We have to explain our philosophy, that at the end of the road, we are better off.

I also want to have a vision for the 21st century, because it's not only a new century but a new millennium. How do we build a better home for Singaporeans? What are the opportunities for them? How do we ensure that it's the best place for them to bring up their children? It's an elaboration and enhancement of 1984. It's not going to excite many Singaporeans because it's something in the future. The 1984 vision never excited them. They said it was so far away. But we have to proceed at two levels -- what the leadership is able to do, with its ability to see far, and at the same time satisfy the immediate concerns of the voters.

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This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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