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ON THE COUCH: innovation & change in Singapore

Goh Chok Tong has had a long, distinguished career in politics and public policy in Asia, including a crucial period as the Prime Minister of Singapore, succeeding founding PM Lee Kuan Yew.

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At a recent ANZ event in Singapore, ESM Goh sat down with BlueNotes to chat about the outlook for the region. In this second of our two-part series, we began by asking him about the structure of Singapore’s education system and the right way to deliver what the country needs.

"Investing outside Singapore will be a very big move which we will encourage."
ESM Goh, ex-Singapore PM

ESM Goh: We are still making changes. We have been very good at absorbing what is taught to us and then regurgitating back in examinations. 

When our students go overseas they are still very good because examinations, which are focused on the performance-related study attitude, stand them in good stead.

But we know going forward we have to prepare for the unknown and be innovative. So over the years, we have been changing the system, making it more flexible, with more open-ended kind of questions, and more emphasis on doing things on your own.

People tell us our engineers are technically very good but if there is a problem outside the manual they don’t know how to fix it.

We were producing very good maintenance engineers but not engineers who can create, like in your Google, Facebook or Silicon Valley.

So we know it. But ‘how’ is a bigger question. The education system is being changed every now and then to try and produce people with innovative abilities.

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SINGAPORE - JULY 26, 2016_The Hive, called Dim Sum Baskets Building, at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Source: Shutterstock/artzenter.

Now they have entrepreneur classes in school. They have funds for innovation in schools – just try, learn through trial and error which is the best way to create the new kind of Singaporean for the future economy.

Andrew Cornell: Can you point to some particular sectors you think you would like to see develop more or you think will drive growth?

ESM: We used to spot sectors – financial services, pharmaceutical, nanotechnology and so on. I think going forward, from what I understand, they think spotting sectors will be wrong. Because then you are not being creative.

You cannot spot sectors. Just create the environment, create the kind of people and let the market sort out where Singapore will be.

But the financial sector – we are still growing that. I think there is still potential for growth for the financial sector. So we are going to support the financial sector very much – do more infrastructure financing, foreign exchange trading.

The digital economy, I think will also play a big part. Then, as I said just now, investing outside Singapore will be a very big move which we will encourage.

AC: You referred earlier to the need to be more external in thinking and one of the questions is about ASEAN. What role do you see Singapore taking in ASEAN going forward, considering its roles in business but also considering it is one of the most developed economies in ASEAN? People look to Singapore for a leadership role. Does it need to do more with that bloc?

ESM: We always have to be very careful in not leading ASEAN. We are a very small country and we would not expect big countries to follow us.

What we tried to do, which I have done, and what I think the Government will do, is to provide ideas.

We share them openly with the ASEAN leaders and try to build consensus on the ideas. We will not hold forth as leaders but share ideas for discussion and secure consensus for them.

I think if indeed trade is going to be less free because of the US, we have to get the ASEAN leaders together and bring in Australia and New Zealand. We are for free trade, you see.

Let us find a way, where we try, together with Europe, with the UK – because with Brexit, Britain now must be even more of a free trader.

All these countries together, let us find a way to try and keep the trade routes open internationally.

That role we can play in ASEAN – take care of our fellow members. We got to strengthen the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). And for TPP, do not let it die, but let us try and find a new format.

Secondly Singapore can play a very important role in providing capital for the countries in the region. We can persuade banks, like ANZ, to lend more for infrastructure in the region. We can be a catalyst, provide connectivity, between ASEAN and other countries.

AC: Is the era of multi-lateral trade deals over?

ESM: No, but I think there will be two tracks. The US will take a bilateral route but many other countries, smaller countries, will still pursue multi-laterals.

AC: What have been your most challenging and most rewarding periods in government?

ESM: I’ve never actually sat down and thought about this. I can’t think of one particular moment.

Maybe, since you force me to think, my most rewarding moment was the day I decided to step down from Cabinet. Seriously. Because I never aspired to be in politics. I was invited into politics.

Well, I decided to join because for somebody who has shown no interest in politics to be invited, there must be a reason for it. And the reason was they were looking for a younger generation leaders who could succeed Lee Kuan Yew.

So I came in. I was amongst many young ministers who were brought in and finally the young ministers chose me to lead them. And when I took over, my own motto was a simple one, my mantra – keep Singapore going.

That was my mantra after Lee Kuan Yew because someone remarked there would be no Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew. In other words, Singapore could exist only because we had a very great man to hold this place together.

I was determined to prove other people wrong. Singapore could be kept going. I did my share. I kept it going for about 13, 14 years. To be frank, I was at my political peak – 63 years old and having just won a General Election decisively. 

But I decided to step out of Cabinet because my Deputy Prime Minister was getting old. He was about 50. Had I gone on to 67, which was the age Lee Kuan Yew stepped down, my deputy would be about 54, 55. Then his runway would be short.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong could of course govern Singapore. But for him to prepare the fourth generation team, the runway would be too short. In our case here, we prepare people way in advance. So I decided to step down.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was surprised; Mr Lee Hsien Loong was surprised. I gave the reason to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I said I am still young but my Deputy Prime Minister was getting old! Having spent some 14 years as Prime Minister, being able to plan my succession and exit at a time of my own choosing, that was rewarding.

AC: The succession process, for Australia at least, seems incredibly civilised. We favour the Game of Thrones approach.

ESM: In Australia, almost every Member of Parliament wants to be the Prime Minister. In Singapore, no one wants to be prime minister!

I have met many of your leaders. They are all very able men and there is always somebody who can step in as Prime Minister, mind you. Politics is a profession in Australia. In Singapore, people are reluctant to volunteer but they see the need to serve.

But we are still not able to induct many qualified people from the private sector. There are qualified people who will make good ministers but most are reluctant to come in to politics. The Cabinet therefore could be blindsided, as it would not have that input from the private sector.

We have office-holders from the armed forces. We have a lot of top civil servants turned politicians. The Cabinet is aware of the risk of group think. You do need a maverick within the system to challenge you.

AC: What more for Goh Chok Tong?

ESM: I have been trying for the last few years to achieve contentment. At this phase of my life, you have no need to think of more achievements.

Contentment does not mean not doing anything. I still play a fairly active role in in helping the foreign affairs ministry engage with certain countries where I have built up goodwill.

In my constituency, I focus on social work. So I spend time raising funds for charities within the community and outside and get to understand the problems from a woman’s eye point of view.

I am used to macro policy – I can see statistics; I can see the big picture. Now I spend more time on to the ground to see the individual picture and extrapolate them into policies.

When I have lunches with MPs or ministers or PM, I can give them some feedback which may help them in their policy formulation.

Those are simple tasks – no heavy responsibilities. That is the meaning of contentment, no responsibilities but doing some useful work!

Andrew Cornell is managing editor at BlueNotes

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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