20 August 2003
Hit by one of its worst-ever economic slumps, Singapore has promised sweeping changes in how it does business – but no surprises in the way it conducts politics.
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong says he’ll step down within a few years to make way for his current deputy, Lee Hsien Loong, the son of the city-state’s still-influential founding father Lee Kuan Yew.
The younger Lee has long been expected to take the prime minister post, which Goh has held since the senior Lee stepped aside in 1990.
Media in tightly controlled Singapore have hailed the succession announcement, but members of the minuscule and ragtag political opposition say the transition at the top won’t change much in the island nation, which has been run by Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party since breaking from neighboring Malaysia in 1965.
Goh has said Lee Hsien Loong would take over at least two years before the next general elections, which must be called by 2007.
Leading opposition figure Chee Soon Juan said Goh’s handover plan is “way short of solutions for a troubled nation.”
Battered by SARS, terror threats, the Iraq war and competition from other Asian countries in its vital manufacturing sector, Singapore’s once-booming economy shrank 4.2 percent in this year’s second quarter from the same period last year.
Unemployment is at a record 4.5 percent in a country which enjoyed virtually full employment during much of the 1980s and 90s.
Singapore’s leaders in recent years have announced wide-ranging economic changes – opening sensitive sectors like telecommunications to more competition, urging companies to cut wages and trying to make the country a worldwide hub for ultramodern biomedical industries.
But Chee said Singapore was unlikely to see much political change under Lee Hsien Loong. “With the kind of political system we have, Singaporeans are unable to generally express their views at elections,” Chee said in a statement faxed to The Associated Press. (For the full statement, see ‘Singaporeans asked to sacrifice again for the PAP’ in the Press Release section in this website.)
Opposition members hold just two of the 84 parliamentary seats in this country, which is often criticized for its airtight controls on political activities and the media.
Chee has been jailed three times for breaking public speech and assembly rules and is appealing a defamation suit by both Goh and Lee Kuan Yew over remarks he made during a 2001 election campaign.
“Is there no talent outside of the Lee family? I can’t believe that. If so, then I feel very sad for Singapore,” said veteran opposition leader J.B. Jeyaretnam.
Jeyaretnam lost his place in Parliament after he became bankrupt following a series of defamation lawsuits by members of the People’s Action Party.
Singapore law bars bankrupts from holding seats in the legislature.
Goh, 62, said he won’t step down until he brings Singapore out of its current economic slump, and said the younger Lee would win Singaporeans over in a matter of time. Lee is generally viewed as being less popular than Goh.
“From my experience, it takes a few years and a couple of crises for a leader to win the trust and the confidence of the people and bond with them,” Goh said.
“Having secured that trust, you want him around for several more years,” he said, explaining why he wanted Lee in office before the next elections.
Goh said that his successor was competent, and that it was important that “foreign leaders and investors respect him.”
Lee Hsien Loong, 51, holds degrees from Britain’s Cambridge University in Britain and Harvard University in the United States.
His wife, Ho Ching, is a senior official at Temasek Holdings, the government’s domestic investment arm, which owns stakes in many of the country’s largest companies.