Opinion One Lee steps up, another Lee to step down

One Lee steps up, another Lee to step down

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Toh Han Shih

The Singapore General Election on July 10 shows one son of Lee Kuan Yew arising in the political arena, while another son of the founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, is expected to step down as Prime Minister.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang, the youngest son of the late leader, joined the Progress Singapore Party (PSP) and played a major role campaigning for it during the election season which ended on July 10. He described his role as a “catalyst” for political change.

In this election, the People’s Action Party (PAP) returned to power as it has done since 1959, while the PSP failed to win any seat.

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Nonetheless, Mr Lee Hsien Yang will continue to be a political player. This is indicated in his Facebook post on July 13 quoting the words of the Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE): “Now that elections are over, can we stop talking about politics? No we shouldn’t, and we cannot be complacent. Building a democracy based on justice and equality is an ongoing civic process that we all have a part to play in. Let’s sustain our energies that have emerged this election into strengthening our democracy and co-creating our future together!”

CAPE is a non-partisan student organisation based in the Yale-NUS College in Singapore that studies local and global affairs.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest child, had earlier said he would retire before turning 70 on Feb 10, 2022. However, his retirement may possibly be delayed, given his statement on July 6 that he would see his nation through the Covid-19 crisis before handing over the premiership to presumably Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat. This casts some uncertainty over Singapore’s leadership transition, since it is not known when the pandemic will end.

Prime Minister Lee’s departure may possibly be prolonged slightly beyond 2022, but it is doubtful if he will remain in office for many more years. If he does, it will look bad, given his predecessor, Mr Goh Chok Tong, handed to Prime Minister Lee his letter of total  retirement from politics on June 24. The 79-year-old former Prime Minister said on his Facebook on June 28 that he believes in political succession and knows when to retire. Prime Minister Lee would not want to be accused of muddying the succession by staying in power too long.

Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s future retirement may perhaps be affected, if Mr Lee Hsien Yang and his sister Dr Lee Wei Ling make public accusations against their brother in future as they had done since June 2017.

After their father died in 2015, Lee Kuan Yew’s children had a public falling out, where the younger siblings allege Prime Minister Lee does not wish to honour the patriarch’s wish for the family house to be demolished. Mr Lee Hsien Loong has denied any wrongdoing, but has not sued his siblings for libel for the sake of their late parents.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang recently said he will not use his party as a platform for his family quarrel. But now that the election is over, he may possibly remove his PSP cap and as Lee Kuan Yew’s son, make further accusations against his brother.

Another possible factor that may hasten Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s retirement is his health. I am not a doctor, let alone his personal physician, so I am not qualified to comment on his health with full authority. However, the latest photographs and videos of Prime Minister Lee, who is 68, showed him looking thinner, older and more haggard than before. He is a cancer survivor, having survived prostate cancer in 2015 and lymphoma in the early 1990s.

In contrast, Mr Lee Hsien Yang, who is 62, appears healthier. Mr Lee Hsien Yang contributed substantially to the performance of his party, which won 40 per cent of the vote in the wards it contested. This is evidenced by the rock star welcome he received when he walked the ground, as shown in photographs and videos of many Singaporeans greeting him.

It is quite likely Mr Lee Hsien Yang will play a bigger role in the PSP. After unsuccessfully running as a candidate in the recent election, the party’s 80-year-old Secretary-General, Dr Tan Cheng Bock, may not contest in the next election due to his age. As Dr Tan gets older, he may delegate more of his functions to younger people in his party, so Mr Lee Hsien Yang may possibly take on more roles within the PSP.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang may not be a candidate in the next election, since he said on his Facebook on June 30 that he had chosen not to run in the last election as “Singapore does not need another Lee”. However, the intriguing question arises as to whether Mr Lee Hsien Yang will replace the ageing Dr Tan as party Secretary-General in future.

The irony is Singapore’s founding father expected his eldest son but not his youngest son to join politics.

The younger Lee previously opted for a career in business instead of politics, having been Chief Executive Officer of Singapore Telecommunications from 1995 to 2007. While helming the country’s major telecommunications carrier, he had to defend the former monopoly against competitors like StarHub, while the nation’s telecommunications market was liberalised through the 1990s to 2000.

Now Mr Lee Hsien Yang is the political insurgent, while Mr Lee Hsien Loong is defending the PAP’s political near-monopoly. A Singaporean source told me that Lee Kuan Yew became a keen champion of corporate competition, after seeing how much consumers benefited and the quality of service improved with competition in Singapore’s telecommunications sector. Likewise, greater political competition will benefit Singaporeans and improve the quality of government service.

Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong. The opinions expressed in this column are his own.

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