Skip to main content International
The Web      Powered by

Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong's TalkAsia Interview Transcript

Story Tools

January 24, 2004


Lorraine (under VO): This week on TalkAsia, one of Asia's longest serving elected leaders. A prime minister who's striving to change the face of Singapore, and maintain his island nation's competitive edge.

This, is TalkAsia.

Lorraine (on cam) Welcome to a very special edition of Talkasia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Singapore's Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, is our guest this week.

Lorraine (under VO) Life in politics began almost 30-years ago for the prime minister. In 1976, he was elected as a member of parliament for the district of Marine Parade. Various ministerial posts followed, culminating in the premiership in 1990. But some analysts had speculated his time in that office would be short-lived. And that the son of Singapore's founding father, Lee Kwan Yew, would soon take over. But 13 years on, the 62 year old leader is not only in control, but is leaving an indelible mark. Observers say that -quote- "straitlaced Singapore" has "loosened up" under Prime Minister Goh's leadership. And he's steered the island through some of its toughest moments including the Asian economic crisis, terrorist threats, and the SARS outbreak. The Prime Minister strongly supports bilateral trade agreements. And Singapore has become the first Asian country to sign one with the United States. Prime Minister Goh is also one of the most vocal and experienced leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian nations or ASEAN. For his efforts to forge stronger ties between India and the ASEAN region, he will be this year's recipient of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Award.

Lorraine (on cam) We're going to spend the next half hour getting to know Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong a little better. Not just his role as prime minister. But as a son, husband, father, and grandfather.

We conducted the interview at the Istana Singapore, where the Prime Minister's office is located. I began by asking him how he would describe his tenure thus far.

PM Goh: I find it satisfying, my main mission when I became Prime Minister, was to keep Singapore going and Singapore has been kept going. So, I'm happy with what I've done for Singapore.

Lorraine: What was the hardest part in terms of following the foot steps of somebody like Senior Minister, Lee Kwan Yew. I mean he must have been a pretty tough act to follow.

PM Goh: Well, when I was sworn in as a Prime Minister, I made it clear that I am not going to wear his pair of shoes. His shoes size, 13, 14, 15. Mine is only size 9, so I'll wear my own pair of shoes and I walk comfortably.

Lorraine: How is your approach though been different from him?

PM Goh: Basically, it's a personality difference. In terms of policies no disagreement but generally, in terms of attitudes, values, I won't see any differences. But in terms of style, that's where the differences is.

Loraine: How so? Give me an example?

PM Goh: Well, err... I think his own character, his own historical experience makes him a very firm leader and a no nonsense leader and he's very much top down. So he has an image of being a very authoritarian. Whereas my style is softer, I would say a gentler and probably a more in keeping with the mood of the day.

Lorraine: But you obviously grew.... I wouldn't say grew up as such.. but you grew in politics

PM Goh: Yes...

Lorraine: As him as sort of founding father, did he not influence you in anyway, or...

PM Goh: Oh, he influences me tremendously, err.. just by working with him, we get to know his thinking, the way he works and you're bound to be influenced by it. Consciously or unconsciously. I would say he makes a worrier out of me. As a prime minister, you worry a lot. And of course you still worry a lot about Singapore so having gotten into the job, I now begin to worry, every day about Singapore.

Lorraine: You have said quite publicly that when the economy is stable, you will step aside. What do you mean by stable, is Singapore stable now?

PM Goh: Well, last year, we had a very bad patch, almost went into recession for the whole year. We grew only by 0.8 percent. This year the expectation is 3 to 5 % so when I see signs of growth and the growth can be sustained, that's the time for me to decide when to quit.

Lorraine: Under your leadership, Singapore has sort of loosened up, you know we're hearing homosexuals allowed in civil service, we hear of bar top dancing, in some areas of Singapore which we haven't seen yet. How do you balance this sort of loosening up of Singapore but still maintain the order?

PM Goh: Well, law and order will always be very important for Singapore and I believe it's good to have some regulations in order that society can function smoothly. But at the same time, as people grow up and they want more freedom, it's on an individual basis, children want to have more freedom, you've got to allow that, so how do you balance it. I would say let it evolve, move as quickly or slowly as people would like to move.

Lorraine: But why... why now? Why in the last some years? Was this feeling that it was important to ease up?

PM Goh: I felt that we have a very good product in the people's action party, the policies are good, the results are there, but how is that we are losing support, I was referring to the period in the early eighties. And I was determined to sell the product better, package it in a more gentler way. And people want to be consulted, they want to participate in the affairs of the state, I support that, to give them a stake in the country.

Lorraine: What do you think is the biggest challenge now for Singapore, not only as a city state but also for it's citizens?

PM Goh: The biggest challenge on the economic side is how do we reckon with the new world. We now see the emergence of many countries following the open start of Singapore in attracting foreign investments, China, now India and the eastern European countries. So basically the model that we used to develop Singapore, it's also the model being used by the many other countries with of course modifications so how do we carve for ourselves, a niche in the world to sustain our high standard of living. That is the biggest challenge for Singapore.

Lorraine; In your tenure, you've signed a number of FTAs, agreements, free trade agreements, particular the United States, why did you decide to do this?

PM Goh: The best route for us is to have WTO getting a new round of negotiations started and then we have lower tariffs all round on a global basis. Singapore needs to have an open economy internationally for us to do well because we are trading nation. So we came to the conclusion that new round is not going to come about so quickly. They met in Doha, they met in Cancun. It didn't come about. So the alternative therefore is to pursue a freer trading regime through bilateral agreements. That's the rational for our pursuit of FTA's.

Lorraine: Prime Minister, people seem to respect you but they also like you, that's quite unusual for a politician, don't you think ?

PM Goh: Well, I think it's a quality, which is important for a politician. But as we all know, you must gain respect, in some instances you have to feared to get your policies true. So there must a combination of fear, respect, and of course if you can, popularity.

Lorraine: So, you think Singaporeans fear you as well?

PM Goh: I think they respect me. ( they laugh) See, if I can get my policies true, when they respect me, that's enough.

Lorraine: Up next on TalkAsia: How a young boy from humble beginnings became a prime minister.


Lorraine (on cam) You're back with TalkAsia and our special interview with Singapore's Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong. He says some of his earliest memories are playing by the seaside, and swimming in the ocean with his friends. In the second part of my interview with him, Prime Minister Goh openly talks about his childhood, and some intimate moments with his late father.

PM Goh: I would say, I came from a working class family. My father died very young unfortunately for him and for the family. Some deprivations, but not too much.. and it's the context of extended family which I treasured. I grew up with my uncles, my grandmother, aunts and so on.

Lorraine: Would you say then that your mother would have been the one that basically raised you?

PM Goh: I would say it's my grandmother because my mother had to teach. And she taught at that time, in today's context it's quite near-but in those times in the remote village quite far away, so she stayed away for a week and would come back for the weekend. So it's a combination of grandmother and mother.

Lorraine: Do you remember much about your father?

PM Goh: (pauses)-I would say, not too much. But the memory of him dying on his death bed-I mean that's vivid.

Lorraine: Would you share some of that with us?

PM Goh: Well I think-the day he died...he called me to his bedside. My mother and my grandmother say see your father...he's dying. So the last words were-"look after your mother, look after your brother and sisters". And then that night, he passed away.

Lorraine: He should have said "look after your country" because did he expect that this little boy would become prime minister?

PM Goh: He did not expect it (laughs)

Lorraine: Did you?

PM Goh: Neither did I, no. It was never in my ambition or my dream.

Lorraine: What did you think of doing-as a young child? A pilot? A doctor?

PM Goh: I wanted to become a writer. (laughs) I enjoyed reading as a child. So of course as a child when you read good books-you just imagine that you could write such beautiful books. And I thought to be a writer-and why a writer-because I a writer could influence people with these ideas. That was my basic motivation. And I nearly became a journalist...

Lorraine: That's dangerous!

PM Goh: That's dangerous for other people because I'd be interviewing others! (they both laugh)

Lorraine: I wouldn't even want to think about that Prime Minister! Who or what do you think has shaped you as a young man to the man you are today?

PM Goh: I would say the person who influenced me as a young man would be my uncle, about 4 years my senior. The youngest brother of my father. So we were more like friends. He introduced some books for me to read-I think in that sense influenced me as a young man. But later on the event which influenced me on looking back was the fact that I was given a bursary (scholarship) in school to help me finish my school and university I was also on bursary. So because of that event, when I was approached later on to take part in public politics, I could not say no. So in that sense there's a linkage between what I received from my country and what I decided to do later on.

Lorraine: Prime Minister when the People's Action party was formed in 1954-it was basically set up middle class, English educated people, correct? How did you manage to fit in? Obviously you came from humbler beginnings? Was it tough?

PM Goh: You see, that's the beauty of the system. People's Action Party goes out to identify people whom they think can serve the country by way of character, motivation and capabilities. I was working in the shipping line at that stage. And the former minister-he has passed away-for finance recommended me to Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew. So that's how I was inducted into politics.

Lorraine: Has the premiership then changed you at all?

PM Goh: I would say yes-tremendously. First as I told you, makes me a big worrier now, otherwise in the past you just do your job, you worry about your family. But now you've got to worry in a bigger context, not just about tomorrow but it's about the future as well. Because basically Singapore is a vulnerable country. Small, dependant on others for the living. And I would say the personal way, much more confidant as a person. And of course, I've now got a much bigger world view, then I would have if I had remained in the private sector.

Lorraine: With your job comes a lot of heartache-what do you think has been the hardest part?

PM Goh: I would think the most worrying points would be when SARS broke out in Singapore. It was something new, something strange, something very dangerous. And we could see nurses, doctors were affected and some died. And SARS was spreading through the community. So that was a big worry. So that was I would say a frightening moment for me as Prime Minister. Because if we can't control that, well we have to be blamed because we are in charge. But the main thing is lives were being threatened.

Lorraine on cam: Despite being one of the countries hardest hit, Singapore was commended for its handling of the SARS crisis. Led by the Prime Minister, the government imposed strict quarantine measures and kept its citizens informed from the beginning. And they've remained vigilant till today.

Just ahead on Talkasia, how a particular golf game made history.

And how Prime Minister Goh hopes to be remembered.


Lorraine on cam: You're back with TalkAsia. Standing at almost two meters tall, Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has always been a keen sportsman. He was a talented swimmer in school. And makes a point of playing tennis and golf every week. But one particular golf game has proven to be especially memorable.

PM Goh: Playing with President Clinton-1st in Canada, Vancouver. Think it was Shaughnessy golf course in Canada. I think I got to know him and he got to know me. That paved the way for another golf game. And that was memorable. That golf game took place at about 11:30 p.m. at night in Brunei. We finished about 1:45 a.m.-just both us-nine holes. And when we finished we sat down and I said Mr. President, could I talk to you for a minute on business. He said yes. And I broached the subject of an FTA with the about 2:00 a.m. in the morning! And he said yes. That seemed to be worth doing for both us. That's how the FTA with the US started. (smiles)

Lorraine: Amazing! So you caught him in a good mood—wait wait wait-who won??

PM Goh: I think he played better than I that night! (they both laugh) He did very well.

Lorraine: Let me ask you about your wife. She's a lawyer I understand. How much support or what sort of support has she given you. Has she just been the role of a wife, a mother?

PM Goh: I think basically that's it. Because I keep politics out of home and I don't discuss politics with my son or daughter. Let them lead their own lives. So she's supportive as a wife, as a home maker.

Lorraine: Are you very close to your children and obviously their children, your grandchildren?

PM Goh: I would say close. Very may be stretching a little bit. But basically I think it's a close family. Now I would say very close to my granddaughters. They come, I play with them-I would say close in that sense.

Lorraine: But now you have the time, don't you prime minister to spend with your grandchildren. Did you have the time to spend with your own children when they were growing up?

PM Goh: Not enough not enough. You see I think when they were growing up maybe about 7-8 yes, I spent a lot of time. But thereafter I would say that's the big regret being in politics. Not sufficient time with them.

Lorraine: If and when you do step down as Prime Minister, what do you plan to do. Do you still see yourself in politics?

PM Goh: I would still be in politics. Basically, the new Prime Minister-has asked me whether I could continue to use my services. Of course if I can be of use to him and to Singapore, I would carry on.

Lorraine: What do you think about this sort of "Lee Dynasty" that many people say is happening here in Singapore. It could be a perception-but how do you feel about that?

Goh: I'm quite easy about this because basically it's a system based on merit. And the Lee family is quite an exceptional family. If you get to know the family members, Mr. And Mrs. Lee, the children of Lee Kwan Yew, the grand's quite a remarkable family. So they are in many places-but they are their on their own merit. Nonetheless it creates an impression that the Lee's are controlling Singapore.

Lorraine: So that's something you just say has just got to be accepted?

PM Goh: It has got to be accepted. Just make sure it's done in a transparent manner. For example, Lee Hsien Loong who will be my successor, his promotion or election is done in a transparent process. And he's selected not by his father, not even by me. He has to be selected by his colleagues, the members of parliament.

Lorraine: Prime Minister how do you though create your own legacy behind this backdrop?

Goh: Just be myself. I did not set out to be the Prime Minister, I did not set out to create a legacy. I just set out to make Singapore gentler. I believe a lot in a gracious society. Courtesy to me is a very important virtue. And if I could contribute to make Singapore a more courteous, gracious society –that's what I wanted to do, you see.

Lorraine: What is the Singapore you envision in the next few years?

PM Goh: Next few years I would think we should be able to continue on the path of being more open. Getting people to be more participative in the affairs of the state. I see my successor doing that.

Lorraine: In what way?

PM Goh: To give Singaporeans a sense-it's more a sense that they can make a difference in Singapore. So that's important cause people thought the PAP is so strong, they don't make any difference, their views don't count. That's the perception. If that is so then we lose the support of the people. I don't mean electoral support. But people feeling that they too can make this place their own home and they can make a difference for Singapore.

Lorraine: When you finally call it quits, how would you like your term as prime minister to be described as when you read the morning newspaper?

PM Goh: I've not bothered about that I think it's for the others to decide. I do not believe in writing my own obituary, In this case of course it's not an obituary, let them write what they think will be my contribution to Singapore.

Lorraine: But how would you like to be remembered? How would you like people to think of you?

PM Goh: Just as Goh Chok Tong. Who has done his little bit to Singapore, or for Singapore.

Lorraine on cam: Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. And that is TalkAsia this week. Be sure to check out our website at c-n-n dot-com slash-talkasia for upcoming guests. And you can let us know who you'd like to see on the show. That address, Talkasia at c-n-n dot-com, Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Lorraine Hahn.

Let's talk again next week.

Story Tools
Click Here to try 4 Free Trial Issues of Time! cover
Top Stories
Iran poll to go to run-off
Top Stories
EU 'crisis' after summit failure

On CNN TV E-mail Services CNN Mobile CNN AvantGo CNNtext Ad info Preferences
   The Web     
Powered by
© 2005 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.
external link
All external sites will open in a new browser. does not endorse external sites.
 Premium content icon Denotes premium content.