"THE STRAITS TIMES", 24 Jan, 2001

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FACING changes,
changing FACES


STUDENT Marcus Tan, 12, wanted to know for certain who would be the next PM.
Market analyst Lee Wai Tuck, 34, is concerned how Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong would ensure a smooth transition, while other readers, such as Mr Goh Ann Long and Mr G.K. Singam, asked him to quit talking about stepping down. Stay on, they said.
For 90 minutes last Friday, going past the scheduled one hour and keeping his lunch guests waiting, Mr Goh dealt patiently with these questions, and many more, from readers in his spacious office in the Istana.
Sliding to the edge of his armchair, he put the record straight: In fact, he spoke of stepping down after the year 2002 only once, in 1998, and this was to signal to younger Singaporeans that "they must come forward to take over the baton because I'm not going to be there forever."
Since then, however, the media has bombarded him with queries on the matter.
"People think I keep on repeating but, in fact, it's because I can't duck the question," said Mr Goh with characteristic earnestness."
Then he decided to narrow the window - because "after 2002" can be a long time - and so, he added that he would step down before 2007, to make way for his preferred successor, Brigadier-General (NS) Lee Hsien Loong.
"By 2007, I will be about 66. So I would like to see a fresh team in charge at that point of time with fresh ideas, strong enough, young enough to attract support and carry on my goals for Singapore."
ASKED if BG Lee is ready for the job, he responded with a laugh: “I  think he is prepared to take over. I'm not ready to give up yet."
Why? "Because my task is not yet done. That includes getting team members and setting on course the things which I have been doing."
He knows the value of a good team. Singapore has been buffeted by various challenges successively, with the most severe being the Asian financial crisis.
Mr Goh's Cabinet has worked like a Dream Team to sail over the rough waves.
"I think I'm lucky. I would say, unlike most prime ministers who may keep things close to their chest, and may carry the burden on their shoulders, I don have a team which helps me to carry the burden," he said.
Now the team is gearing up for new challenges.
He highlighted three.
1. The first challenge is to avoid Singapore being pulled under by the troubled neighbourhood.
"Never before have you seen so many countries around Singapore having political problems at the same time. The Asian leaders - Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines and, to some extent, also Malaysia - are under siege."
2. The second challenge is to get Singaporeans to focus on the fast-changing world and to seize opportunities in the next phase of our economic development.
"Now, competition is getting tougher and we have to make this leap into the knowledge economy."
3. Third is a longer-term challenge: How to sustain Singapore's growgh for the new 25 to 40 years.
"That boils down to having a sufficient pool of talent in Singapore. For the future, Singapore has to depend on knowledge and ideas, creativity, innovativeness."
"It's a challenge because for three million people to compete against talent in China, in Germany, in Ireland, even in Malaysia, it's tough. So we just got to have that pool of talent which will enable us to create a group of Singaporeans to sustain our prosperity."
Juxtapose these big-picture concerns with the daily worries of the older workers, struggling to find jobs in the new economy, or of skilled citizens, up against waves of foreign talent in the job market, and the challenges become stark.
Turning to the burdens of the small man, Mr Goh dealt with their concerns with empathy, such as stress in schools, and the slights perceived by older workers and singles.
But, distilled, his replies have a hard pragmatic edge, always with one bottom line: Singapore's constraints as a small state, with its limited space, and its constant need to make changes at breakneck speed to beat the competition.
Dealing with such joyless realities is "Singapore's fate".
"It is our fate in Singapore where people are your only resource. You can't sit back and just watch the rice grow or the oil being pumped out from the bottom of the sea."
It is also Singapore's fate that its fortunes are intertwined with those of the world.
The Government is watching the US slowdown closely. At the moment, Mr Goh is not overly worried about its effect on Singapore as he dose not expect it to descend into a recession.
HE STUCK with the official forecast of 5 to 7 per cent growth for this year, which is in line with the country's long-term sustainable growth rate.
"Of course, you can't compare to last year's 10.1 but that's very livable - 5 to 7 per cent growth rate."
To offset the slow growth in the US, Singapore will have to emphasize its financial services, do more for tourism and to find new markets, he said.
But being a huge economy, a US slowdown will also affect Europe, Japan and China. "These countries will also be guying less, so all these have been factored in to produce a 5 to 7 per cent forecast."
Midway through the list of questions, he paused to ask his press secretary to let his lunch guests know he would be late, and to offer his apologies.
As the discussion turned to his premiership, he unfolder his lanky frame and sank gently into his seat.
He warned up as he spoke about the Edusave scheme, set up to encourage less well-off students.
Less well-known to the public is his move to display local art by young artist on the walls of his foyer. Every quarter, different artists yet their day in the PM's office.
This time, it is Raymond Lau, 32 who had once nearly given up painting due to financial and personal woes.
Putting up such works for display - and sale - is Mr Goh's quiet way of exposing Singapore talent to his visitors.
But if there is one work of art he champions to the hilt, it is to build a Singapore nation out of different racial and religious colours.
But getting them to blend beautifully is tricky.
He appeared worried at the assertiveness of some Malay-Muslims in highlighting their differences.
"That's a big problem, how to build a Singapore nation and getting our differences to be acknowledged and, at the same time, for us to move closer together, be more integrated."
Wrapping up the interview, Mr Goh noted that many readers had written to this newspaper with their requests. He suggested that they channel them to their MP or the relevant agencies.
"I'll make sure that the ministries consider their requests and give them a reply," he said.

Website about Singapore Artist Raymond Lau