Tensions between Goh and Lee Jr: Report

August 18, 2003
Singapore Democrats

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By John Burton and Sumathi Bala
Financial Times
18 August 2003

Goh Chok Tong, Singapore’s prime minister, on Sunday said he would delay the handing over of power until the city-state’s economy recovers as he voiced some veiled criticism about his successor.

In his annual national day speech, Mr Goh, 62, confirmed that his successor would be Lee Hsien Loong, the deputy prime minister and son of the city-state’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.

Mr Goh, who has been prime minister since 1990, said at the last general election in 2001 that he would step down before his term ended in 2007. But he has suggested on several occasions since then that he would not depart until the economy improves.

Singapore last week reported its worst quarterly performance since independence in 1965, with the economy shrinking by 4.2 per cent in the second quarter from a year ago.

The government cut its economic forecast for the year to between zero and 1 per cent because of effects from the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome.

“Ideally I would like to give my successor at least two years to establish himself as prime minister before he fights the general election. But I am not stepping down yet. My immediate priority is to get Singapore out of the economic gloom,” Mr Goh said.

“As for the new team leader, I have taken quiet soundings from ministers and MPs on whom they would choose. The clear consensus is Hsien Loong. He is also my choice.”

In spite of his endorsement of Mr Lee, the delay in the transfer of power and Mr Goh’s pointed remarks in the speech about Mr Lee’s leadership style is likely to revive talk about tensions between the prime minister and his deputy.

“I know that some Singaporeans are uncomfortable with Loong’s leadership style. Loong’s public persona is that of a no-nonsense, uncompromising and tough minister,” said Mr Goh about the former military general.

“Singaporeans would like Loong to be more approachable. They have gotten used to my gentler style. But it is not fair to expect him to be just like me. I’ve told Loong to reflect on his softer side.”

Mr Goh was initially considered a short-term prime minister when he assumed power nearly 13 years ago. His duty was seen as allowing Mr Lee to gain more government experience before taking over.

The succession plans were delayed when Mr Lee was discovered to have cancer in 1992. He has since recovered and been appointed to some of the most powerful posts in the government.