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Singapore contemplates the end of the Lee political era

By Karishma Vaswani

There are fewer things more stable than Singapore politics. The island-state is known for its top-rated civil service, efficiency of government, and business-friendly policies. It has also had one party in power since independence in 1965.

Among the establishing members of the People’s Action Party, or PAP, in 1954 was Lee Kuan Yew, known as the founding father of the nation.

It was his positioning of Singapore as an oasis of predictability in a chaotic neighborhood that has helped to consistently secure the PAP a victory at every election since independence.

Leadership transitions are rare, and when they do happen, they are telegraphed.

The current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of Lee Kuan Yew, announced last weekend that he would be stepping down before the next election, which must be held by November 2025, handing over to his deputy Lawrence Wong.

Lee signaled the transition could come as early as next year — the announcement itself was widely expected, it was simply the timing that caught many on the island off guard.

Singaporeans don’t like surprises, and have become accustomed to the managed handing of power from leader to leader. There have been only three prime ministers since independence in 1965: Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and the younger Lee. Stability is highly prized.

“Externally, there is a high level of change and uncertainty influencing us, so internally it must be clear there is a steady set of hands at the wheel, guided by a predictable governance framework and policies, proven wisdom and experience,” Gillian Koh, a senior research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, told me.

Tearing up during his speech, in a scene reminiscent of his father’s now famous press conference announcing Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965, Lee talked about the privilege of serving, and how he stands ready to serve again — if it is indeed what the new leader Wong wants. Regardless of whether he does end up in Wong’s cabinet, this is the end of a political era for Singapore.

The Lees, both father and son, have been defining forces in the creation and governing of this small island, transforming a speck of land at the bottom of the Malay Peninsula from third world to first, to borrow from the title of Lee Kuan Yew’s book.

It leaves the global business hub and international trading port at a crossroads: The Singaporean leader’s adieu as head of state is, for many citizens who have grown up with either the first or the second Lee as their prime minister, an entirely novel phenomenon.

Can Singapore thrive and survive with a Lee-less PAP? “The party has continued to rely on the Lee brand to ensure its longevity,” Chong Ja Ian, associate professor at the National University of Singapore, told me. “That is somewhat limiting. As the world and Singapore change, the PAP has to go beyond the Lees, and if it can’t do that, there will be limitations in how it reaches out to Singaporeans going forward.”

Speaking to Bloomberg News Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum on Wednesday evening, Lee addressed this new phase for his country and fellow citizens. When asked whether he would be serving as a senior minister in Wong’s cabinet, Lee was coy but also revealing. “It’s a very delicate thing to be overwatching but not overbearing, and to be able to give advice and a helpful nudge,” he said. “I am at the disposal of my successor, I have said whatever he wants me to do, I will do to help him succeed. So you have to ask him what he will be doing with me.”

Like his father before him, 71-year-old Lee is extremely popular, a vote-winner at the polls. Citizens will be comforted by the fact that it is highly likely he will continue to campaign for a parliamentary seat in his constituency, and also perhaps serve as a senior minister, or minister mentor, the way previous prime ministers have. (Although they later stepped aside for new talent to join the cabinet.) But that makes the new leader’s job in some ways even more difficult: To carve out an identity for himself that is distinct from the Lee brand, and yet still appealing to the next generation.

Wong is a well-respected and competent politician. Speaking to me during the height of the pandemic in Singapore, when he led the Covid-19 task force, it was clear even then that he was destined for something big. His vision for the city-state centers on a more compassionate approach, exemplified in a strategy called Forward SG, which is ambitious in scope if somewhat lacking in detail.

Still, these are unusually difficult times for Singapore. It has to navigate a trifecta of challenges ranging from the economy to immigration to allegations of elitism within the party. Recent scandals among members risk tarnishing the party’s reputation, something that Lee himself warned, saying the commitment to honesty and incorruptibility is “absolutely non-negotiable.” And that is simply the domestic environment. Externally, Singapore needs to manage the increasingly competing interests of a divided US and China.

Wong does not have Lee’s foreign policy experience, although it is apparent that he’s trying to build up his profile, making a trip to the US recently, ostensibly to cement ties with his American counterparts. All of these issues will weigh heavily on him as he takes on the role of running Singapore. Not least the fact that he will always be compared to his predecessor, both in terms of popularity and execution. He has his work cut out.

(Published 09 November 2023, 06:00 IST)

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