'I knew we would have differences from time to time': ESM Goh on keeping Lee Kuan Yew as senior minister

SINGAPORE - When Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong took over as prime minister from Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 1990, he decided to keep Mr Lee in the Cabinet as a senior minister so that any differences between them could be resolved internally.

"You know Lee Kuan Yew; if things were to go wrong, even from the grave he would get up. If I were to do something wrong as PM, I would expect him to say something in public," Mr Goh said on Tuesday (June 4).

"It would divide Singapore if people thought there was a fight between us. I knew we would have differences from time to time, so it was better to have him on the inside rather than outside."

He was speaking on a panel at the launch of the Chinese-language edition of his biography, Tall Order: The Goh Chok Tong Story, at Capitol Piazza.

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Mr Goh himself took up the position of senior minister, after handing over the premiership to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2004.

"So, as senior minister, you would not interfere, but as a minister in Cabinet, you give your view," Mr Goh said.

"If you think that they (other ministers) are very wrong, then you state your view very clearly and robustly. You say, I think you are wrong, and you try to persuade him (PM Lee) and persuade the other ministers to come around. But in the end, they decide."

Mr Goh said the arrangement worked for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, himself and PM Lee.

"Whether Lee Hsien Loong will be the senior minister to (Deputy Prime Minister) Heng Swee Keat depends on their interactions. If one party is not comfortable, then it may not work," he added.

That said, Mr Goh hopes PM Lee will remain in Cabinet after he steps down so the next generation of leaders can tap on his many years of experience. PM Lee has said he plans to hand over to his successor by the time he turns 70, which will be in 2022.

Said Mr Goh: "I think the next PM will be wise enough to keep (PM Lee) in Cabinet."

Currently, two former DPMs - Mr Teo Chee Hean and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam - hold the post of senior minister.

"Will there be three senior ministers? That is not for me to say, it is for Mr Heng Swee Keat to decide," Mr Goh added.

The Marine Parade GRC MP also recounted how he had sent the completed manuscript to PM Lee, who requested only one change: a word Mr Goh had used to describe Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

"I used the term 'domineering personality', and (PM Lee) scribbled on the side, 'Do you mean dominant personality?' That was the only change he made."

Mr Goh also commented on what role Singapore can play in the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.

"As an independent country, we give our views quite honestly, and do so through an ASEAN voice, which carries more weight," he said.

The event was part of the Singapore Book Fair 2019 organised by the Chinese Media Group (CMG) of Singapore Press Holdings.

The panel comprised Mr Goh, author of the biography Peh Shing Huei, who is a former Straits Times news editor, and Ms Lee Huay Leng, head of the CMG.

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.