Seah Chiang Nee
Despite his advancing age, the world’s longest surviving national leader has become more assertive at home and abroad in the last two years, averaging one overseas trip every two months.
WITHOUT any official fanfare, Singapore has just crossed a historic mark that few Singaporeans are even aware of.
The Lee Kuan Yew “era” reached its 50-year mark on June 5, making Lee the longest surviving national leader in the world.
It was on this day in 1959 that the Cambridge-trained lawyer was sworn in as the first Prime Minister of a self-governing Singapore.
Lee is, of course, no longer the head of government after having given up the post in 1990. He now serves as an “advisor” in the Cabinet, with the title “Minister Mentor”.
For the last half-century, Lee has been Singapore’s undisputed force, shaping events, irrespective of who the designated leader is.
Whoever the Prime Minister – be it Goh Chok Tong (1990 – 2004) or the present Lee Hsien Loong – no one in Singapore doubts that it’s Lee Kuan Yew who still calls the shot.
At 85, this national leader has outlasted all others by a wide margin.
He shared the record with President Fidel Castro who led Cuba for 49 years until Castro retired last year.
The next nearest, President Omar Bongo Ondimba, had ruled Gabon for 42 years until his death recently in Paris.
Lee’s historic half-century, however, has not come at the best of times. Singapore is in the middle of one of its worst recessions – and Lee is getting more public brickbats by the day.
Economic hardship to the middle class, the bedrock of his support base, and huge losses of public money in several ill-timed global investments are causing discontent – and are being partly blamed on him.
“I think public confidence in the government has sapped somewhat in the past few years,” one commentator said.
It is evident that Lee is very worried. Since the crisis, he has become more assertive at home and abroad, often displaying energy of someone half his age.
Locally, he has adopted an active public role, commenting on almost every facet of life in the country.
Despite his advancing age, Lee has been making an average of one overseas trip every two months, the last being a hectic eight-day official visit to Malaysia in June.
A month earlier, he spent three days in Japan before flying off to China for four days.
For the whole of 2008, he travelled to seven countries, including China, Britain, France, and some Arab nations.
The globe-trotting habits of leaders here are based on Lee’s perception of Singapore’s survival needs.
Minister Mentor Lee explained it this way: Singapore has got to where it is today by riding every tide that comes its way, and using the world as its hinterland.
With Internet, satellite, and air travel, growing interaction between countries and people was not a world that he could have imagined – but one that his country had to be part of, he said.
So why is the image-conscious government so reticent about Lee’s political longevity?
Party insiders say it is because he is bent on avoiding doing anything that will promote a personality cult.
“There’s been no road, statue or street named after Lee Kuan Yew,” a community leader noted.
Critics, however, give a different reason. One said the government would rather not mention the subject for fear it would renew calls for him to leave.
In a Yahoo online poll, 53% of Singaporeans said they wanted their founding father to quit politics either immediately or very soon – and that was five years ago.
In 2004 when he celebrated his 80th birthday, he told an interviewer that he would remain a senior minister for as long as he could contribute to the nation.
“You don’t have to tell me. I can feel it when I am no longer making a contribution,” Lee said then.
In recent years, the political icon has become noticeably slower both in speech and movement – but his global perceptions remain sharp.
It is the younger Singaporeans who want him to go. Unlike the previous generation, they are not beholden to him for his contributions to the republic.
Still, some admirers believe the nation should listen to his advice, but only after he has left the Cabinet or Parliament.
One such admirer, Tracy Tan, said: “Lee Kuan Yew is an exceedingly strong leader and a very intelligent man. These qualities have made him a strong asset – as well as a liability – to Singapore.”