Singapore's Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong could have been in the position of the man he is shaking hands with — UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Maybe the thought did not occur to him when he gave a dinner in honour of the UN chief in Singapore last night. But Mr Goh was seen as a possible successor to the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan three years ago.
Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, however, said at the time that Mr Goh was not interested in the job. Singapore's Straits Times newspaper reported in April 2006 that Mr Lee was asked by a reporter: "Rumours have it that Senior Minister Goh Chok is considering taking up the post of the United Nations secretary general. Would you support him?"
Mr Lee replied: "I think you've got to ask him that. All I know is that he is not interested in the job. Answering to five masters and often unable to satisfy two or three at any one time… it is a tough job.
"From what I've understood from him, I think it's not a job that would add to his happy years after office."
The "five masters" Mr Lee sarcastically mentioned are the five permanent Security Council members – all of whom backed Mr Ban in his bid for the post.
South Korea spared no expense to have Mr Ban elected in October 2006. The Times reported days before the election:
The South Koreans have been waging an aggressive campaign on behalf of Ban Ki Moon, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the front-runner to replace Kofi Annan as UN chief at the end of the year. The inducements range from tens of millions of pounds of extra funding for African countries to lucrative trade agreements in Europe…
Mr Ban announced his bid in February and has since been criss-crossing the globe trying to win support. A month later South Korea announced that it would treble its aid budget to Africa to $100 million (£53 million) by 2008… Seoul’s generosity seems to have worked. Yesterday Elly Matango, the Tanzanian Ambassador to Tokyo and Seoul, said that his Government had decided to support Mr Ban.
This month President Roh and Mr Ban headed the most senior South Korean delegation since 1961 to visit Greece, another Security Council member. Overseen by hundreds of South Korean businessmen, the countries signed agreements on trade, tourism and maritime transport.
Now Mr Ban is in Myanmar seeking the release of the the democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Interestingly, Mr Goh, also visited Myanmar recently.
I admire Mr Goh — he would have made a good UN secretary general. With his ability to connect with people, he would have possibly been less low-key than Mr Ban. And he would have been equally diplomatic, a good mediator. There is also his proven skill in crisis management, seeing Singapore through the Asian financial crisis.
But, as Mr Lee said, he did not want the job. A pity. For there is no denying the importance of the United Nations. As the 2006 election showed, countries vie for the honour to fill the UN secretary general's post. The opportunity comes but rarely. There have been only eight UN secretary-generals so far.
Mr Ban is already in the middle of his five-year term. But the next UN chief is unlikely to be an Asian.