Transcript of speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the launch of 'Standing Tall', the second volume of ESM Goh Chok Tong's biography, on 7 May 2021.
Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong and Mrs Goh, colleagues and friends, a very good evening to all of you.
I am very honoured to be invited by Chok Tong, once again, to launch the second volume of his biography, “Standing Tall”. I also launched his first volume, “Tall Order” in 2018 that became a national bestseller, and I hope the second volume will be just as successful.
Those who have read the first book will have high expectations for the second. Having read both volumes, I can assure you that you will not be disappointed. I commend Peh Shing Huei, Chok Tong’s biographer, and his team for once again capturing his story in an interesting, fast-paced, enjoyable read.
This second volume is about his time as Prime Minister. In it, Chok Tong recounts how he dealt with several major crises during his term, including the hijacking of SQ 117 in 1991, the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, and the SARS outbreak in 2003. Younger readers will learn much about these landmarks in Singapore’s recent history, and perhaps better appreciate how Singapore got here today.
For those who lived through these events, Chok Tong’s accounts and reflections will give you a first-hand perspective. He explains the choices and trade-offs he had to make as PM. That should help you to understand developments and decisions that may have puzzled you at the time. I worked closely with Chok Tong, supporting him as his Deputy Prime Minister, in most of these events. As a participant, reading the book brought back many memories, but I was also pleasantly surprised to learn some new things too.
Chok Tong’s account of the SARS outbreak is particularly timely in the midst of COVID-19. SARS was less infectious than COVID-19, but deadlier. Singapore was one of the first countries to be hit by SARS. At first, no one knew what the new disease was, or how long the outbreak would last. The government had no playbook for dealing with such a crisis. Chok Tong mounted a maximum national response to stem the spread. He marshalled the whole government machinery, temperature taking, contact-tracing, quarantining of contacts, screening protocols at our borders and public spaces, mobilisation of medical resources in hospitals, school closures to reassure parents; all were part of the strategy to “detect, isolate and contain”. He also rallied the nation behind him and his team. He wrote a personal letter addressed to every Singaporean, he explained the situation to Singaporeans, calmly and clearly, what we needed to do, individually and together. People understood what was at stake, took heart, and played their part to win the fight.
Chok Tong was driven by a deep concern for the safety and well-being of Singaporeans. In private, he shared his worries and fears with close confidantes, He was anguished about each SARS death that occurred, particularly those of the brave medical workers. One of his Marine Parade activists recalled him exclaiming “My people are dying! They are my people!” But SARS strengthened his resolve to do his duty, and to keep Singaporeans safe.
SARS did not break Singapore either. Instead, it made us stronger. So that when COVID-19 hit us 17 years later, we were better prepared. We adapted the measures that worked for us in SARS, but COVID-19 is a new and different disease, and has demanded fresh thinking and responses from us. But the SARS experience gave us a baseline to work from, and a head start in bringing COVID-19 under control. We are far from out of the woods yet, right now we are working hard to stamp out two big clusters, which is why we have had to tighten up our restrictions again. But having overcome SARS once, we are confident that despite all the twists and turns, we will overcome COVID-19 too.
New social compact
The period when Chok Tong was PM was something of a golden age for Singapore. Globalisation was picking up steam, international trade and investments were growing rapidly, our economy grew strongly. Incomes and standards of living rose year after year. This process was changing Singapore society. A younger generation was coming of age. They were different from their parents who had lived through and fought for independence. They had different values, wider ambitions in life, and a distinct view of what they wanted Singapore to be.
The times called for a new leader, with a fresh approach and touch, a leader very different from Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Milder, gentler, and more personal than Mr Lee, yet no less clear headed and steady. Chok Tong was the right leader, at the right time. He set out to forge a new social compact with Singaporeans. He established connections with people in his own way, to walk in his own shoes, as he put it. The change of gear suited that period in Singapore’s development. The “kinder and gentler Singapore” that Chok Tong talked about resonated with the new generation.
Chok Tong’s team pursued policies which reflected this shift. They sought to share economic gains more inclusively across society, spread opportunities more widely and equitably, extend a greater helping hand to the lower-income and vulnerable, level up our society and leave no one behind.
In education, Chok Tong introduced Edusave to motivate students across the whole spectrum of abilities, to strive for excellence. In housing, HDB upgrading enhanced the value of HDB homes, and gave Singaporeans bigger stakes in our country’s success. Upgrading rejuvenated older housing estates too, including Marine Parade, his own constituency. Chok Tong lavished care and attention on Marine Parade, and tested many new ideas there to implement nationally across Singapore.
In healthcare, MediFund reassured Singaporeans that no one was denied medical care because they could not afford it. This has become a fundamental principle of our healthcare policy. MediFund was a nuanced but significant shift from the government’s heavy emphasis on self-reliance, to also strengthening social safety nets for lower-income and vulnerable Singaporeans. MediFund was one step towards building the compassionate, inclusive society that Chok Tong envisioned. It has since been followed by many more measures. Workfare, the Progressive Wage Model, and Silver Support.
We continue to travel on this journey, which Chok Tong first began. We constantly try to balance the demands for greater social justice and more equal opportunities, with the imperative to keep our schemes financially sustainable, and give our people every incentive to strive and to excel.
Teambuilding and leadership succession
Of course, Chok Tong did not do all these alone, and he always gave generous credit to his team. As Mr Lee once said, being PM is like the conductor of an orchestra. “No Prime Minister ever achieves much without an able team of players”, and therein lies one of Chok Tong’s greatest strengths: his ability to persuade able people to work for him, bring out the best in each of them, and gel them into a loyal and cohesive team.
He personally cajoled, persuaded, pressed, persisted, and more often than not, eventually, prevailed in getting us to make the life changing decision to enter politics. Lim Boon Heng, Yeo Ning Hong, Abdullah Tarmugi, Wong Kan Seng, Lee Boon Yang, George Yeo, Lim Hng Kiang, Teo Chee Hean, Yaacob Ibrahim, Lim Swee Say, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Khaw Boon Wan, Ng Eng Hen, Vivian Balakrishnan, President Halimah Yacob, and of course myself – all of us were brought in by him. With President Halimah Yacob, he succeeded only on the third try!
His peers of his own generation, like Ong Teng Cheong, Tony Tan, Jayakumar, Dhanabalan, and Ahmad Mattar, supported him too and helped him succeed. His Cabinets were strong teams that blended older and younger ministers. They were arguably among the strongest Cabinets that Singapore has had. This meant that when I took over as PM, I inherited a strong and experienced team. I benefitted greatly from their support and advice, and of course, from Chok Tong’s too, because Chok Tong was kind enough to agree to my request to stay on in my Cabinet as Senior Minister.
He was an invaluable source of support and counsel, and still is, long after leaving the Cabinet. He tells one story in the book, about the handover. Chok Tong wanted me to take over as PM soon after National Day, so that I could start my term by delivering a National Day Rally speech straightaway. I agreed.
For my speech, he gave me a piece of advice. He said, spend less time talking about policies, and more time to let Singaporeans know who you are as a person. The important thing is to build rapport with Singaporeans. This was wise advice, which I have since passed on to newer Ministers and MPs. In the same way, I aim to hand over a strong team to my successor.
The 4G ministers have accumulated experience in a wide range of portfolios and established themselves. With COVID-19, a generational crisis, they have made tough decisions in the thick of the fight, and been battle-tested. One thing they have yet to do, after DPM Heng stepped aside as their leader, is to settle on someone from among themselves to lead them, as first among equals. Primus inter pares.
As they consider their choice, I think they can have no better template than Chok Tong and his team. Whoever will be Prime Minister must first and foremost be someone who can bring the rest together. Pull them together, make the most of the strengths of each minister, and make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And, that was the secret of Chok Tong’s successful premiership.
The recent Cabinet reshuffle will give the 4G ministers the chance to work together with one another in new capacities as a team, to strengthen their mutual understanding and teamwork, and to prepare themselves to take over from me and my older colleagues. Only after that has happened, will I have earned the right to think about writing the sequel that Chok Tong spoke about.
Persuading good people to join politics is an increasingly difficult task. It is a challenge that Chok Tong and I share, as PMs. We talk about this often at our regular lunches. In fact, as he said earlier, this is his main motivation in writing his biography, to inspire more people to take the leap into politics, and serve Singapore. Chok Tong writes candidly about these difficulties. The opportunity costs are significant, you probably have to give up a promising career, and you lose privacy for yourself and maybe your family members because you are constantly under scrutiny and criticism, especially now with the social media, and cancel culture. But regardless of how difficult the task, we must persevere, and for Singapore’s sake, we must hope that we succeed.
Singaporeans deserve the best people that can be found and developed to serve and to lead them, as one united national team. It is the only way to maintain the quality of government that Singaporeans have become used to, and the only way to maintain the confidence in Singapore that attracts investments and creates jobs, and the only way to assure the country’s success that secures the future of our children and grandchildren.
Finally, let me thank Chok Tong for a lifetime of selfless and distinguished service. It was always a “tall order” to keep Singapore “standing tall”. And now that we are standing taller, the order has also gotten taller. But you have succeeded, and handed over a better Singapore to your successors, and now your successors must strive to do the same. Thank you, Chok Tong, for giving your all and more in the service of Singapore and Singaporeans.
I wish you good health and all the best.
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