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By John Burton
26 April 26 2004
Goh Chok Tong confirmed he would step down as Singapore’s prime minister this year but not before placing potential checks on the powers of his successor.
The moves come amid concerns about the increased concentration of power among family members of Lee Kuan Yew, modern Singapore’s founding father.
Mr Goh is expected to be succeeded by Lee Hsien Loong, Kuan Yew’s son, while his wife, Ho Ching, is already head of Temasek Holdings, the powerful state investment agency that controls most of the city-state’s leading companies and is emerging as a formidable investor in the region.
Mr Goh told Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper that he wanted to introduce a system where members of parliament affiliated to the long-ruling People’s Action party (PAP), which holds all but two parliamentary seats, must first approve the prime minister before he takes office.
This would represent a step towards the democratisation of the PAP, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, since the party has maintained a top-down Leninist structure that reflects its leftwing origins.
Although the party presents a united front to the public, there are indications of internal differences between a socially oriented “grassroots” wing headed by Mr Goh and a conservative technocratic wing led by Mr Lee.
A widening income gap between rich and poor and increased unemployment have provoked a debate on whether the government should focus on social issues or cut wages to improve the business environment to attract foreign investment.
Mr Goh has been popular in Singapore, but informal internet polls suggest that public support for Mr Lee is lukewarm because he is regarded as an aloof figure who lacks a populist touch.
The prime minister said he would conduct a cabinet reshuffle before he resigned, which some analysts believe indicates that he wants to retain influence in the new government under Mr Lee.
Mr Goh is also expected to be appointed to the advisory post of senior minister in the new government, a post that is also held by Lee Kuan Yew.
Mr Goh refused to name a handover date, since he said he still had “important jobs” to complete, including a series of meetings with foreign leaders such as President George W. Bush in the next few months.
“If I give a date now, when I go overseas they will say, ‘Oh, you’re in your last week of your prime ministership’,” Mr Goh was quoted as saying by the pro-government Straits Times.
Mr Goh, prime minister since 1990, said in December he would hand over power to Mr Lee if the economy expanded by at least 3 per cent in the first quarter of 2004, which would signal a long-awaited recovery. The economy grew by 7.3 per cent, according to the latest government data.
The younger Mr Lee is now deputy prime minister, finance minister and central bank chairman.