Predictably chewing gum cropped up in a media dialogue during PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Washington trip. But thankfully, not all the discussions were so stuck in the early 2000s. At least two or three more newsy and relevant Singapore issues came up for public airing – not for the first time also but still very much worth our close attention.
Well, here it goes – again. I quote from the dialogue PM Lee had with David Rubenstein, President of the Economic Club of Washington DC, on 23 October 2017:
“Rubenstein: Singapore, years ago, received some international attention. I think your father was against chewing gum.
PM Lee: Yes, he was – impeccably.
Rubenstein: He did not want anybody chewing gum in Singapore, and you could be fined for that. Is that still the policy?
PM Lee: No you cannot be fined for chewing gum. What we did was to ban the import of chewing gum, and fortunately, we are not a native producer.
Rubenstein: Oh, so how do you get it then?
PM Lee: Well, some people smuggle it in.
Rubenstein: Oh okay. I thought his concern was that people were picking on buses and putting it under the bus chairs.
PM Lee: I think that the final – I am not sure if it was the final straw or the final wad – was when somebody took a lump of chewing gum, stuck it on the train door and the train stalled. So he decided that that was a good reason to pursue the matter, which he had wanted to do for a very long time.”
Goodness gracious, there are so many important problems facing the world and we are still talking about chewing gum. My sole contribution to this scintillating exchange is that the MRT has been stalling for more reasons than train doors being jammed by Spearmint, Trident or Wrigley’s. Ask Khaw Boon Wan or Desmond Kuek.
Fortunately, Rubinstein went on to other more serious matters. Those that the DC people as well as Singaporeans should be more interested in – the Singapore political leadership transition and, as a slightly touched on but still significant aside – the PAP’s dominance and will it end?
Who will be the next PM?
Rubinstein brought this question up, among others:
“Now you have announced, I think publicly, that after the next election, you probably will not stay for a full term? Is that correct?”
PM Lee: No, I do not want to stay the whole term. I have said that soon after the next election, I strongly hope that there will be a successor ready, and in position to take over from me. And I really should not be Prime Minister beyond 70 if I can help it at all.
“So, when you do step down as Prime Minister, what might you consider doing?”
PM Lee: I will think about it then. I hope I will still have something valuable to contribute.
Christine Tan of CNBC asked the same leadership question in an earlier interview. Briefly, PM Lee, 65, said: “I am ready (to step down). What I need to make sure of is somebody is ready to take over from me…I think it is very likely that he is in the Cabinet already. But which one? That will take a while to work out.”
Moderator Evan Osnos of the New Yorker asked him again at PM Lee’s dialogue at the Council of Foreign Relations on 25 October.
The PM’s reply: “My aim is not to be Prime Minister beyond 70. I’m trying very hard. I have got a strong team in Cabinet. I have got strong people in the team, and, among themselves, they have to take a little bit of time to sort out who should be the next leader.”
My very humble response, which probably many Singaporeans would share with me, is:
With all due respect to their obvious capabilities, are Chan Chun Sing, Ong Ye Kung and Heng Swee Keat the best that we have to be the next PM? If, by simple analysis and deduction, they are the three most likely.
The best or, by default, the best that the PAP are literally throwing at us.
And is there a glimmer of hope in an ever so subtle nod to the inexorable cycle of human history that power does not last forever for anyone, in the exchange between PM Lee and Osnos? PM Lee said in an earlier part of his interview to a question about American politics: “In politics, no party stays in power forever, and at some point, another party will come in and another mood will take over and you will have another president who will pursue a different approach.”
As a party shot, Osnos brought this point right back at the end of his dialogue: “Earlier you said, no party stays in power forever. Does this apply to Singapore?”
PM Lee: “I’m sure it does. I do not know when it will happen but I will not make it happen sooner than it needs to be.”
Oh dear, the thought of having so many more years of group think is not very appetising nor healthy for this country.
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.