Lee Hsien Loong


This article was first published on 29 Aug 2014

It has been 10 years since Lee Hsien Loong became prime minister of Singapore, yet his style and achievements are hard to put a finger on, as Singapore grapples with a maturing economy, a population mix that throws up questions about national identity and inequality and a citizenry that has suddenly been let loose by a vibrant and raucous online world.

There was no mistake about what founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his successor, Goh Chok Tong, stood for very early in their leadership years. Pushed to the wall by racial and ethnic riots, separation from the Federation of Malaya, and the withdrawal of British troops, the best and worst of LKY came out. He was bent on building an economic miracle, even if it meant he had to put his opponents behind bars.

After 31 years of LKY’s reign, which saw Singapore punching above its weight as a regional economic powerhouse but receiving international ridicule for its human rights record, Goh identified a sweet spot to position his prime ministership as one that would make the country a caring one. Although there were instances that made him take a hard line, generally his reign was a gentler and kinder one.

But Singapore’s third prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is still struggling to make a mark for himself. In short, he is suffering from an identity crisis. Three factors have made his job a very tough one.

A huge hurdle is his cabinet, the weakest when compared with those of his predecessors. LKY was blessed to have path-breakers such his deputy, Goh Keng Swee, who should actually be remembered as the real architect of Singapore. His credentials were impressive and his contributions were groundbreaking, with many of the country’s present institutions still bearing the trademark of that loyal lieutenant.

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Goh started the army, transformed a wasteland in Jurong into one giant industrial estate, set up the Monetary Authority of Singapore and the Economic Development Board and played an influential role in the formation of the Singapore Zoo and Singapore Symphony Orchestra.

The brains behind the second prime minister’s cabinet was none other than Lee Hsien Loong, the deputy who masterminded Singapore’s escape from the recession of 1985. A former civil servant who had dealings with him said: “Once I sent Lee Hsien Loong a position paper; within 30 minutes, I got a response with questions and comments that revealed his grasp of details and his acute  understanding of world affairs.”

Now that Lee is prime minister, that kind of cabinet talent is missing.

Second, he and his team have been dealt the cruellest card in the form of a political game-changer called the Internet. For a leadership brought up on a command-and-control culture, the influence of the online world was something with which it was unable to deal. The result was a humiliating election result that took the ruling party’s share of popular vote to a historic low of 60.1 per cent three years ago – a per cent that would be the envy of ruling parties in most other countries, but which signalled an erosion of public support in Singapore’s traditionally monolithic political culture.

LKY and Goh had it much easier with just one voice – that of His Majesty, LKY — drowning out every other voice in town.

Third, and this is a little speculative, Lee Hsien Loong must have found it very difficult to move out of  the shadow of his father, the first and founding prime minister, and act decisively when he needed to. Act tough, and the accusation that he is his father’s boy would prevail.

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Early into his leadership eight years ago and during the heat of a general election, the prime minister snapped: I will have to spend my time fixing the opposition if they win too many seats.

That had his father’s brutal temperament and strong language written all over it. The prime minister understood the folly of his statement and apologised immediately.

In fact, it is his lack of decisiveness – especially against his ruling team — that has highlighted a major part of  his leadership years. His 10-year reign has seen him moving from one crisis to another, with the prime minister being put on the backfoot and displaying a palpable reluctance to call a spade a spade.

Among the notable developments on his watch: the escape of terrorist Mas Selamat  from a maximum security prison, the first labour strike in 26  years, the first riot in 40 years, sex and corruption scandals involving  two top civil servants and finally the major strategic error of bringing too many foreigners into the country when the infrastructure was not there to handle the crush.

Even today, it is a mystery why such a forward-looking  government that displays its scenario-planning skills on its sleeves with great pride never saw this storm coming. Lee Hsien Loong and his government are still paying the price for that misstep. The housing and transport  building programmes, which kicked in soon after the disastrous 2011 general election results, will take a while to show results.

But for those who closely examine Lee’s recent policy shifts, it may well be that his lasting legacy will be more forgiving than contemporary judgements of him, because he has taken steps to steer Singapore toward a series of policies that represent a break from the city-state’s past. For these, he may well be remembered for having succeeded, precisely because he departed from the legacies of his father and his father’s successor, Goh.

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Lee’s biggest achievement  has  been in helping to launch a peaceful and beneficial relationship with Singapore’s closest neighbour, Malaysia. The personal warmth established with Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has taken the sting out of 50 years of acrimonious relations with Singapore’s closest neighbour. The railway land deal, which eluded both his predecessors, was signed and delivered under Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership.

He has also pushed hard to level the playing field for the slow learners by establishing special schools for them and taking a personal interest in showcasing industrial training colleges that cater for those who fall through the examination cracks.

Signs are also emerging that the prime minister will plant his personal flag on a couple of welfare policies. Universal insurance coverage and a generous health package for the pioneer generation are kicking in, with the prime minister taking a personal interest to make sure that schemes are not hijacked by critics waiting to scuttle his plans.

He is at the half-way mark of his prime ministership and the chances are that his move to shift Singapore away from a nothing-is-for-free country to one that is prepared to take some bold steps towards semi-welfarism will succeed. Until then, the identity crisis will continue to haunt a prime minister who came to power after a charmed entry into politics 30 years ago.


This article first appeared on The Edge Review.