George Goh highlights need for independent President to safeguard against ‘real danger of groupthink’

Screenshot of CNA video of Mr George Goh's doorstop interview

SINGAPORE: In response to a recent CNA interview with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, where PM Lee discussed Singapore’s national reserves, Presidential hopeful George Goh expressed an even stronger conviction regarding the significance of having an independent President without any prior ties to the Government.

“If everyone involved in shaping our reserves policy is from a small circle of those in power, there is a real danger of groupthink, ” Mr Goh warned.

Goh concurred with the Prime Minister’s perspective that, as a small and vulnerable nation, Singapore must diligently accumulate reserves as a safeguard for potential challenges, such as another crisis akin to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, he stressed the critical need for an independent President, as a defense against groupthink.

“This is already a concern among many people about the political leadership, that they all think alike. If even the President was from this circle, it is doubly dangerous.”

In a press statement shared on social media on Thursday (17 Aug), the 63-year-old entrepreneur asserted that Singapore must include individuals from diverse backgrounds outside this influential circle. He emphasized that fresh perspectives and varied viewpoints are essential, especially for unresolved aspects of reserves policy.

Goh highlighted several pertinent issues within reserves policy, citing examples such as the computation of land sales as past reserves, the investment strategies of sovereign wealth funds for enhanced reserve protection, and the desired level of transparency to ensure accountability to the public.

Drawing attention to DBS Bank CEO Piyush Gupta’s proposal to allocate more reserves for expanding Singapore’s presence in emerging sectors, Goh stated, “An independent President who has had no previous association with the Government’s reserves policy will be better able to view these issues with a fresh pair of eyes.”

The CNA documentary also shed light on the involvement of late President Ong Teng Cheong in investment returns utilization, which Goh found particularly intriguing.

Ong had contested the utilization of returns and suggested a 50 percent cap, thus laying the foundation for the 50/50 ratio now known as Net Investment Returns Contribution.

Highlighting Ong’s contributions, Goh asserted that Ong’s background as a private sector architect enabled him to offer fresh perspectives in his presidential role.

“He was Deputy Prime Minister but he was never immersed in financial policy making, with the Finance ministry MAS or the sovereign wealth funds.”

“The most important quality you need to exercise real independence is not knowledge about the matter or experience, even though they are important. ”

Mr Goh added that It is ultimately about political courage to challenge the Executive whenever necessary in the interest of the country, and President Ong had this quality.

Aligned with his campaign’s central pillar (“One Chance for Change”), Goh concluded that greater transparency and accountability from the President are imperative.

“It would have been better to hear from a President the workings of the presidency and some of the issues concerning the reserves, just as we have heard from the PM in the CNA documentary.”

“There are two keys in our system. The PM holds one key. The President holds the second key. It is a different key, not a duplicate key, ” he asserted.

DBS CEO urged the Singapore government to deploy its massive reserves to bolster regional presence

During an exclusive interview with Singapore media outlet CNA, PM Lee highlighted that Singapore currently possesses reserves deemed sufficient for “most circumstances.”

However, he emphasized that it would be a “significant misconception” to assume this state will persist, given that the nation’s spending requirements are already surpassing the rate of revenue growth.

PM Lee stressed that the fourth-generation (4G) political leadership of the People’s Action Party (PAP) acknowledges the escalating spending demands and the necessity for Singapore to address them in a sustainable manner.

In a contrasting perspective, Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Group Holdings Ltd., presented an alternative stance on Singapore’s reserves to the PAP government on Monday (14 Aug).

Historically, the PAP government has been cautious about utilizing these extensive reserves, especially concerning welfare disbursements.

However, Piyush Gupta emphasized the need for Singapore to utilize its vast reserves and enhance its regional investments.

He indicated that Singapore has not entirely recognized its standing as a prosperous country. He highlighted the importance of tapping into the city-state’s significant capital resources to gain a competitive advantage.

Gupta proposed that the administration should contemplate deploying these reserves to address societal issues, expand Singapore’s foothold in new sectors, and cultivate stronger relationships with neighboring nations.

Drawing a parallel with Japan’s sustained investment strategy in regional countries, Gupta suggested that Singapore could adopt a similar approach to reshape current perceptions. “Our neighbors perceive us as a self-centered nation,” he remarked.

Mr Gupta made the above remark at the “Reinventing Destiny” conference on Monday which commemorated the 100th birth anniversary of the late founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

Having led DBS for over ten years, Gupta is no stranger to expressing opinions on pressing economic issues. He has, in the past, touched upon the possibility of increasing taxes on Singapore’s affluent segment and has praised China’s drive towards shared prosperity.

Despite PM Lee’s insistence that the reserves cannot be revealed, the Singapore Government had previously disclosed a total of S$1.4 trillion in financial assets in the Government Financial Statements Report for the financial year ending 31 March 2021.

This report, published by the Ministry of Finance. The reserve, over a trillion, was referenced by Gupta in his address.

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