Singapore — After running Singapore virtually singlehandedly for the 25 years of its self-rule, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew finally appears to have a viable successor. He is Goh Chok Tong, an American-trained economist and technocrat. As defense minister since 1983, Mr. Goh is now also first deputy prime minister, taking on an increasing amount of the day-to-day running of the government. Lee has pledged repeatedly that he will step aside when he reaches the age of 65 in 1988.
Goh uses soccer terms to describe his role: ``My colleagues have chosen me to be the striker in the government team. The prime minister will now be the goalkeeper.'' The ``striker'' is the center forward.
As yet Goh does not have Lee's formidable presence. Lanky, balding, and bespectacled, he comes across as an easy-going type, lacking charisma but projecting a quiet self-confidence. In his first press conference he seemed more at ease and less abrasive with the press than his political mentor.
Goh demonstrated considerable humility in admitting that the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) misjudged the mood of the electorate in the recent election. The opposition gained two seats and 35 percent of the popular vote in the worst setback for the PAP in almost two decades.
While careful to pay tribute to the old guard who helped create a viable nation out of virtually nothing, Goh spoke confidently of the new era that was opening up for the PAP and Singapore with a fresh, young team of highly educated technocrats in place. He only came into politics eight years ago, after a successful business career in shipping. But he has been carefully groomed for a leading role from the start.
Now, he says, ``I'm ready for more responsibility.'' He was managing director of Neptune Orient lines when he was persuaded by the PAP to contest the 1976 election. He won his constituency by more than 10,000 votes.
Within a year he was appointed senior minister of state in the Finance Ministry, working under his mentor, the late finance minister, Hon Sui Sen. Two years later he was minister of trade and industry, presenting Parliament with the budget on behalf of Mr. Hon, who gave him a virtual free hand in the briefing process with full approval of Prime Minister Lee.
His meteoric rise continued with the addition of the health portfolio in 1981 and an appointment as second defense minister. It is quite customary in Singapore for one man to have involvement in several ministries, part of Lee Kuan Yew's testing process to ``stretch'' a man to see if he can cope with responsibility and go on to greater things.
Goh Chok Tong passed the test and was given full authority at the Defense Ministry in 1983. There he developed a Swiss-type civil defense, stressing ``total defense'' in which every citizen -- not just the armed forces -- is involved.
He is a firm believer in the idea that Singapore's survival depends on high technology, promoting the concept in both the military and private industrial sectors. He has played a leading role in the government's plan to phase out lower value industries in favor of high-tech types, pursuing a high-wage policy that encourages manufacturers to switch from persons to machines.
In 1983 he was the prime mover of a health plan that reduced state subsidies -- a highly unpopular move that brought strong protests.
Despite his lack of grass-roots following and political expertise, Goh has risen fast within the PAP. He has kept the party machinery well-oiled, mapping out the plans for the last two general elections. The fact that PAP didn't do well in the last vote has not dimmed his star.