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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

I N T E R V I E W
Finally, Being His Own Man
Goh Chok Tong on Singapore, Asia -- and himself

Page 1 | 2 | 3

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.

 
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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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