Adding value

Yawning Bread
January 2004

Sociology Professor Chua Beng Huat was reported by the Straits Times to have said, at a seminar organized by the Institute of Policy Studies earlier this month, He should just go.

He was Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

No one else picked it up. No follow-up commentary in the press. Yet I am sure Chua spoke for a great majority of Singaporeans.

Without detracting from his great achievement when he was Prime Minister for three decades 1959 1990, today, Lee has become a liability.

Two gaffes last September were widely noticed by the public, though once again, the media were too restrained to call them gaffes.

Nearly a diplomatic incident

His wife, Mrs Lee, had a stroke while in London. She was rushed to hospital, but was put in a queue for a brain scan. Lee phoned Tony Blair to ask for his assistance, and later, on his return to Singapore, publicly expressed thanks to the British PM for helping her jump the queue.

Blairs office was aghast. They denied that he or his staff did any such thing. There would have been uproar from the British public if they thought their Prime Minister participated in an act that could be described as an abuse of power.

The thought never seemed to have occurred to our Senior Minister.

Nearly a domestic incident

The Singapore doctors who rushed to London to attend to Mrs Lee had some disagreement with the British doctors. (The Straits Times was later to quote the Singapore doctors casting aspersions on the competence and professionalism of the UK team). They decided to fly her back to Singapore as soon as she was stabilised.

A Singapore Airlines flight was chosen, and all its first class and business class passengers were asked to take another flight [1]. The plane was then converted into a flying hospital to take her back.

On his return, Lee publicly praised Singapore Airlines for being so prompt and efficient in converting the aircraft and responding to an urgent need. The mainstream press duly carried his praises and once more cheered the flag carrier.

On the bulletin boards, some upstart asked, well whos going to pay for that flight? Why should Singapore Airlines, a publicly-listed company with quite a few private shareholders, bear the cost?

After a few days, the Senior Ministers Office said that Lee would pay for the flight. Payment had been offered before the talk appeared on the bulletin board, it claimed. True or not, we dont know. Believed or not, is another matter.

Blind spots

Both instances were serious blind spots, easily attributable to being in power, and having his way, for too long. The perks of rank, which would be unacceptable in other democracies, are quietly allowed to slip through. This is what happens when a towering figure dominates the political scene, when opposition parties are nearly snuffed out, and worse, when he has neutered the media.

We came close to a diplomatic accident with Britain. We nearly stepped onto a landmine exploding in the face of the entire government for abuse of priviledge, and this, at a time when the governments credibility was already stretched thin by the continuing economic gloom.

Undermining the institutional legacy

In September too, Lee suddenly announced that even after his son Lee Hsien Loong became Prime Minister, and after Goh Chok Tong had retired, he would still remain as Senior Minister.

At one stroke he damaged a political institution that of cabinet government. The right thing to say would have been, whether I stay in the cabinet or not is not for me to say, but for the future Prime Minister to decide if I can be of help.

Diplomatic politesse it certainly is, but it at least preserves the figleaf of the primacy of the PMs position. But, no. Lee decided he would stay and said it out loud.

Reminding all of the impossibility of change

The style of the announcement aside, the fact that he stays on is the grosser liability. It is very difficult for anyone to believe that anything will really change in Singapore if he sticks around.

Perceptions and sentiment are very important.

For example, look at Thailand. Thaksins program is far from complete. Hindsight might even judge his fiscal policies reckless. But through style alone, he has turned economic pessimism to hope. And theres a buoyancy that is giving that country a rare, rare thing a virtuous cycle.

Singapore? Most observers think we need some really drastic changes, some paradigm shifts, if youd forgive an overused term. But most observers also think, its not happening. Nothing is going to change down here, except most grudgingly, always too little, too late, because nothing changes up there.

Adding value

Once in a while, the press reports of some intervention by Lee in important matters of state. One is supposed to get the impression, that if not for him, such matters would not be well handled.

A few years ago, the Singapore government was getting the short end of the stick in the Suzhou Industrial Park venture, beaten at its own game by the Suzhou municipal authorities. At the height of the impasse, there was much trumpeting that Lee communicated directly with Jiang Zemin, and got Jiangs commitment to rein the municipal brats in.

As far was we, the public, can tell, nothing resulted. And are we to be surprised? Jiang was running a country of 1.5 billion people poised precariously between economic boom and social catastrophe! He had his own mountain of a problem to deal with: his own succession. What was Suzhou Industrial Park compared to all that? Who was Lee compared to all that?

Then there was Malaysia, Mahathir and the water supply problem. Lee wrote notes to Mahathir. Mahathir wrote back, and then changed his mind. The problem was the personality of Mahathir, and there was nothing that Lee could have done about that.

Now we have Lee saying he is personally taking on the Singapore Airlines pilots, to make sure they dont stand in the way of needed restructuring by the airline, in the face of low-cost competitors. Dont we have another cabinet minister whose portfolio includes air transport? Are we saying the other ministers are incapable of handling the situation? If they are, then whats with all the boasting about getting the best and brightest to serve as the PAP team?

I am looking hard to see where Lee adds value today, not yesterday. I cant find it. I hardly need to look where he subtracts value.

How to add value then? There is more dignity in going than hanging on.

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