Analysis

Singapore’s political life without Lee Kuan Yew

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SINGAPORE’S founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, unexpectedly resigned from the Cabinet on May 15 after more than half a century in power. He stepped down together with fellow former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong.

Their resignations came after the worst election result of their People’s Action Party (PAP) since independence in 1965. They said in a joint statement that the “time has come for a younger generation (to take over).”

“Young people want more involvement in decisions that will impact directly to them,” they said. “After a watershed election, we decided to exit from the Cabinet and submit fully to the team of younger ministers to connect and engage with the younger generation as well.”

Lee, 87, was prime minister from 1959 to 1990, after which Goh took over until 2004. Lee served as minister mentor, while Go was senior minister since 2004. Both won parliament seats in the May 7 general election.

Their retirement, however, merely ceded power to the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew, and provided “a fresh clean slate” to the prime minister and his team.

“The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation,” the statement said.

Authoritarianism over

With Lee’s retirement, the era of his authoritarian rule came to an end. But the polls returned the PAP in control, although with a reduced majority in parliament.

The PAP won only 60 percent of the vote, down from 67 percent in 2006 and 75 percent in 2001. The opposition Worker’s Party won six seats, the most it has held since 1965.

The PAP won 81 of 87 parliamentary seats but was reported to have been clearly shaken by an increase in the total opposition vote to 39.9 percent from one-third in 2006.

The opposition captured the five-seat constituency at Aljunied, unseating Foreign Minister George Yeo of the PAP. The opposition described its win as a political landmark.

More open government

The prime minister said the election result “marks a distinct shift in our political landscape,” adding that “many (Singaporeans) wish for the government to adopt a different style and approach. Many desire to see more opposition voices in parliament to check the PAP.”

He said his party would undergo some “soul-searching” and expressed willingness to work with opposition MPs.

Political observers said the younger Lee’s statements foreshadowed a more open and politically tolerant environment, departing from the stern and restrictive government of the elder Lee, who in his long term, had sent some of his opponents to jail and curtailed political criticism in parliament and in the news media.

BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent Rachel Harvey said this development had opened up greater space for debate in a country where traditional platforms—TV, radio and newspapers—are strictly controlled.

As founder member of the PAP in 1954, the elder Lee, according to Financial Times (FT), “is regarded as the architect of modern Singapore,” setting it on a free market course designed to attract investment that has given the tiny island-state the second-highest living standard in Asia, after Japan.

In the last 10 years, the PAP has had steadily declining support. In 2001, its support was still at 75 percent. In the 2006 general election, it dropped to 67 percent. Now, it stands at only 60 percent.

Transition to new era

FT reported that the retirement of the two elder statesmen had few implications for policy since the government had already undertaken measures to address issues such as high immigration, income disparity and the price of government-subsidized housing.

The newspaper reported that, according to Eugene Tan, a political specialist at Singapore Management University, the changing of the guard suggested the PAP was serious about its promises to reconnect with the younger voters.

“Government policy is seen as bearing the imprint of (Lee Kuan Yew) … The fact is that the announcement comes a week after the general election and the voters did not take kindly to what some might say was negative campaigning by (the elder Lee),” Tan said.

“We are transitioning toward a post-Lee Kuan Yew era, and many did not expect it to come so soon. But it is not a revolution. That is not the way government is conducted in Singapore.”

Rising urgency

According to Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the Workers’ Party benefited from good timing.

“This election coincided with growing discontent with PAP economic policies,” WSJ said. “New media allowed discontent to bubble up to the surface. A greater number of talented candidates joined the opposition ranks, boosting their party’s credibility with the voters.”

Apparently shaken by the poll result, Prime Minister Lee reshuffled his Cabinet, giving greater responsibility to Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in a move to regain voters’ confidence, according to WSJ.

The report said the reshuffle indicated “a rising urgency within Mr. Lee’s inner circle to shake up the country’s political establishment and cut ties with leaders seen as too old or too resistant to new ideas.”

Open to reform

According to some analysts, the personnel changes will result in greater authority for the younger Lee after years in which his father was seen as having significant influence.

Tharman will assume the role of deputy prime minister and become chair of the Central Bank, WSJ said. K. Shanmugan was named foreign affairs minister, besides retaining his post as minister for law.

Tharman is reported to be “more tolerant of a broader point of view,” including a more vigorous opposition, and more open to reform than some other politicians.

Prime Minister Lee said at a news conference that he was aiming for “a comprehensive reshuffle, not just incremental changes.” He said the ministers “will have a free hand to rethink and reshape policies.”

According to WSJ, analysts generally don’t expect major policy changes.

“Its main policies have included an emphasis on free trade, efficient infrastructure and clean bureaucracy—all of which helped make the wealthy city state a hub of the world’s most important financial centers,” the newspaper said.

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