Transcript of speech by ESM Goh Chok Tong at the launch of 'Standing Tall', the second volume of his biography, on 7 May 2021.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Mrs Lee
Thank you, PM, for doing me the high honour of launching both volumes of my biography, Tall Order in November 2018 and Standing Tall, today.
Peh Shing Huei, my biographer, has done a marvelous job in capturing the highs and lows of my political life, the tough, and sometimes painful, decisions I had to make as a 2G leader and Prime Minister, in a fast-paced narrative that is easy and enjoyable to read. Thank you Shing Huei and your team in Nutgraf.
The dialogues I had with Shing Huei, with Han Fook Kwang present, required me not just to recollect but also to reflect. Hence my reflections after each chapter in Standing Tall to share with readers the important lessons on Singapore politics and governance which I have distilled from my life’s journey.
My main objective of doing my biography is to encourage present and future generations of able Singaporeans to serve their country. My concern is that many have assumed that their good lives will continue indefinitely and have not fully understood that the complex task of keeping Singapore going requires an effective pipeline of good, dedicated and inspiring leaders.
My call is even more pressing today. We are in the midst of another political transition.
Carefully managed political succession has been the hallmark of Singapore politics since Independence. It has given us political predictability, stability and good governments.
Let me illustrate from my empirical observations. Hindsight is always clearer than foresight. I have always found it useful to learn from retrospection.
The government sent me to study Development Economics in Williams College, USA, in 1966. It was a special course for young officials from developing countries. My class of 20 came from 16 countries.
After the course, I tracked the fortunes of my classmates through the fate of their countries.
Three of the 16 countries broke apart into smaller states: Pakistan, Yugoslavia and Ethiopia. Three were convulsed by revolutions or violence: Philippines, Egypt and Liberia. Others had patchy performance: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Bolivia, Colombia and Honduras. Malaysia, India and Mexico did relatively well. Singapore was the only one which became an advanced high-income country.
So I wrote in one of the reflections in Standing Tall, “I have watched the fortunes of many countries. I have long concluded that it is the competence, iron and the ethical values of political leaders which ultimately determine the fate of countries.”
This is the primary lesson which I want to transmit through my biography: the future of a country depends on its leaders. Good leaders institute good governance. Good governance delivers a safe, secure, stable and conducive environment for its people to grow, compete, succeed and flourish. Therefore, leaders impact our lives and our future, for better or for worse. Just see how the fortunes of my classmates in Williams College were impacted by their leaders.
Good leaders should possess Integrity, Iron, Intelligence; and be Inspiring and Impactful. I call these attributes the 5 “I”s.
I do not believe that good leaders will automatically emerge in a democracy nor that the whims of elections can guarantee a slate of the best to govern the country. For democracy to work, ours anyway, we must offer the best candidates possible for the people to choose.
Indeed, we scour the country for a diversified slate of the most suitable candidates from each generation to helm the country as MPs and Ministers. Contrary to what some people believe, the PAP does not seek to perpetuate itself. It seeks to perpetuate good governance, values, institutions and practices.
There has been a hiccup in the political transition to the 4G. It is part of the process. There were also hiccups before the Old Guard passed on the baton to the 2G. I recounted them in my first volume, Tall Order. I commend DPM Heng Swee Keat for his self-sacrifice in stepping aside as leader of the 4G. It takes courage and selflessness to do this when one is only a step away from being Prime Minister. He has put the interests of Singapore first, like a good leader should.
The process of orderly political transition continues. My advice to the 4G is: Continue working closely as a team to set the agenda for Singapore. Show confidence and leadership as a group. Hone your political skills and prepare yourselves to take over the reins from the 3G. Deliberate carefully who amongst you should be the leader, and band together to support the leader once a decision is made.
To my fellow Singaporeans: Give the 4G team some time to decide on their primus inter pares. This is an important decision for Singapore and for our next lap. The leader so chosen will have to lead his peers like the captain of a soccer team. They will have to work together to produce the best results for the people, just as a soccer team has to click to win matches for its fans. The whole must always be greater than the sum of its parts.
Some people think that political succession is an internal PAP problem. They cannot be more wrong. It is a national issue. We need people of ability and integrity to serve the nation. Many have answered the call, and more must do so. Good leadership is the only way to keep Singapore going, growing and glowing to SG100 and beyond.
Will Singapore be glowing in SG100? In 2065, will the world write about the miracle of a Singapore Century of stability, growth and prosperity? Or will they use us as a case study of how an outstanding nation became an ordinary country like any other, or worse, a failed state? Singapore is a city state, not a big country. If able people fail to step into the political arena or if we do not signal strong support for good leaders, Singapore’s drop will be more precipitous than its rise.
I hope readers will enjoy reading Standing Tall, understand the challenges of keeping Singapore going, and appreciate the importance of good national leaders.
Thank you all for coming to the book launch. All of you are here because you have played a part in my premiership.
I want to thank in particular my colleagues who had served with me – Tony Tan, Jayakumar, Wong Kan Seng, Dhanabalan and others who are here today, as well as those who are not. Let me add that Ong Teng Cheong was an invaluable member of my team. We had regular Pre-Cabinet meetings and lunches. We enjoyed good camaraderie. Our warm personal relations allowed us to speak frankly and debate issues thoroughly, often with some good-natured bantering. We might have had different points of view but once a decision was made, all of us rallied behind it. We trusted each other. We worked as a team, with members looking out for one another. We had a shared sense of purpose. We were united. Without this team, I would not have succeeded as Prime Minister. Nor would Singapore have grown and flourished.
Lastly, of course, I thank PM for being an indispensable member of my Cabinet. One day, you have to write the sequel to my story and to the Singapore Story of Lee Kuan Yew.
Let us all do our part to keep Singapore “Standing Tall”.
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