By Dr Yuen Chung Kwong
Succession is always a tricky issue. Even in otherwise smooth transitions, tensions can linger. For example in 1988, after it had already been decided that Goh Chok Tong would be the next Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew publicly said that his first preference was Tony Tan, who turned down the job, and that GCT had a wooden TV speaking manner, such that once LKY advised him to see a psychiatrist about improving it, to which GCT merely replied that psychiatrists are for curing madness, not for speech therapy. If he felt any irritation at being asked to see a shrink, he did not show it.
Shortly after being confirmed, GCT was asked about his own succession plans, and readily identified Lee Hsien Loong as the most promising of the young Ministers. Despite LHL’s suitably modest reply that the decision was up to the Cabinet and the party, to everyone it was a given that LHL will be GCT’s successor, and indeed the view “GCT is only a seat warmer” dogged him through much of his premiership. With no world wide web as propagation tool, the view was mostly heard as snide commentary and crude jokes in coffeeshop conversations, and any media comments along the line were vigorously countered. Even a commentary like this by Catherine Lim was seen as suggesting that he was not really in charge, and drew an immediate rebuke.
Simply by staying in office till 2004, GCT proved the seat warmer characterisation incorrect, but it certainly impacted the political scene for quite a long period. 20-odd years on, with the kind of loud buzz we constantly find circulating around the Internet, it is hard for everyone to remember the tense atmosphere of the first GCT years.
Shortly after taking over, he called an early general election in 1991 (the previous GE was in 1988) hoping to benefit from a favorable reception of his new style, but the PAP vote percentage went down instead, with opposition parties gaining Nee Soon Central and Bukit Gombak, in addition to holding Hougang and Potong Pasir, displacing PAP incumbents Seet Ai Mee, a Cabinet Minister, and Ng Pock Too, a former political secretary of LKY. GCT recovered some moral ground in 1992 by engineering a by-election in his own Marine Parade electorate, winning 72% votes against three opposition parties.
Another setback for PAP related to the 1993 departure from Cabinet of Ong Teng Cheong to run for the Presidency. Although Presidential candidates are non-partisan, the common view was nevertheless that Ong was the candidate favoured by PAP supporters while his rival Chua Kim Yeow represented the non-PAP vote. It came as an unpleasant surprise that Chua, with virtually no campaigning efforts other than a couple of official TV broadcasts, was able to score 41%.
In fact, the issue of Presidential elections was itself related to the issue of succession. When the idea of an elected President was first raised prior to its enactment by parliament in January 1991, it was widely speculated that LKY intended to hold the office to fulfill a “goal keeper” role behind the team led by his PM successor. This speculation was rife enough that he had to quell it by publicly undertaking not to be the first elected President himself. Subsequently, GCT declared that he preferred LKY to fulfill a political role in Cabinet as Senior Minister, rather than a non-political role as President, ending the speculative issue.
Yet another setback occurred in 1992 when S. Dhanabalan and Tony Tan resigned their Cabinet posts, citing “differences within leadership” as reason some years later, without providing any details. A year or so after their resignations LHL had to undergo therapy for lymphoma and both agreed to return as Ministers, one for a brief period to tide things over and the other coming back in 1995 for a much longer period.
The above cited article includes a curious mention by GCT, during his 2003 national day rally speech, of a rumour, whose truth he denied, concerning LHL and Dhanabalan – what purpose did it serve? Perhaps GCT wished to advise LHL to be conscious of image and presentation, knowing that people circulate that kind of stories about him? I myself heard at least three different versions of this story, one involving files being removed from another Minister’s office, one involving discussion about religion at a community event. I doubt we will ever discover what might have happened to cause Dhanabalan and Tony Tan to resign, in view of the absence of concrete accounts.
By the time of the 1997 general election and afterwards, GCT had been PM long enough for the “seat warmer” issue to be largely forgotten, while greater opposition activism generated dominated the political chatter. Names like JB Jeyaretnam, Tang Liang Hong and Chee Soon Juan kept appearing in the news in connection with defamation lawsuits and other court cases. The 9-11 terrorism attack in the United States actually produced a national rallying, with PAP gaining 75.3% vote in the 2001 election. One wonders whether GCT would have felt secure enough to talk about the LHL-Dhanabalan rumour in the absence of such a result.
I would point out a publicly known but little noticed event: When salaries of Ministers, parliamentarians and senior civil servants were revised during GCT’s term, he announced that, to show his approval of the salary increases was not for selfish reasons, he would himself forgo the hikes. Now, his PM pay happened to be slightly below the increased pay of LKY as Senior Minister, which I took to be a show of deference to his predecessor.
Thus, I found GCT’s handling of various tricky succession issues, relating to both predecessor and successor, to have demonstrated considerable wile and subtlety. This can hardly be called a “wooden” performance.
If anything, GCT might have demonstrated a good ability to manage intra party politics, keeping up a smooth appearance in what could have been tumultuous times. Even if LKY considers him a second choice, credit must be given to the man who demonstrated more tact in passing the baton than his predecessor might have expected.
Dr Yuen Chung Kwong completed his PhD in Computer Science from Sydney University in 1972 and worked in Australia and Hongkong before joining NUS Computer Science Department in 1983; he was department head from 1985 to 1993 and retired in 2007.