Singapore’s Minister Mentor steps down but not out

Mark MacKinnon
Globe and Mail

After five decades as the unrivalled centre of Singapore’s tiny political universe, Lee Kuan Yew tried to cast his decision to step out of the limelight as another one of his characteristically forward-thinking manoeuvres.

A “younger team of ministers [should] connect to, and engage with, this younger generation in shaping the future of Singapore,” he said last week as he stepped down from his omnipotent-sounding post of Minister Mentor.

But it would be closer to the truth to say that – for one of few times since he pulled Singapore out of its brief union with Malaysia in 1965 – Mr. Lee wasn’t in full control of events. It was Singapore, the city-state he helped turn into one of the most affluent societies in the world, that had left Mr. Lee behind, not the other way around.

The 87-year-old’s resignation came on the heels of an election result that – although it returned the governing People’s Action Party with another massive majority – marked a watershed in Singapore’s history. While the PAP still won a convincing 60 per cent of the vote, that was down from 67 per cent in the 2006 election and 75 per cent in 2001. Mr. Lee personally helped turn voters away from the PAP by warning they would “have five years to live and repent” if they elected opposition members to parliament.

Singaporeans responded to that threat by turning to opposition parties in unprecedented numbers. Though the campaign period (the only time when political demonstrations are allowed) was just nine days long, rallies by the Workers’ Party and Singapore Democratic Party attracted enthusiastic crowds of thousands, while the PAP gatherings were far smaller and quieter affairs.

Now that opposition groups such as the Workers’ Party and the Singapore Democratic Party have finally established themselves as viable alternatives in the minds of voters, many expect an even more hotly contested vote the next time out.

“Politics in Singapore tends to change incrementally. But since the elections on May 7, politics will never be the same again,” said Eugene Tan, an assistant law professor at Singapore Management University. “One issue that arose was the question of what style of political system we should have. Behind the figures was a strong unhappiness. As the Prime Minister said, Singaporeans felt the PAP – the only government they’ve ever had – was out of touch.”

The “Singapore model” that Mr. Lee designed – an authoritarian government presiding over one of the most open economies on Earth – seems to have come to the crossroads that many predicted it must eventually reach. In pushing globalization, Mr. Lee encouraged Singaporeans to be innovative and to interact as much as possible with the outside world. The young people who followed his advice often returned to Singapore wondering why their government tried too hard to control what they said and thought.

“Lee Kuan Yew, I won’t say lost touch, but did not fully appreciate the things that came with globalization, the democratic ideas that would infuse the young,” said Allan Chong, an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Prof. Chong said he could see the change happening among his graduating students, who once sought positions in the PAP but more and more often started their own businesses and openly supported opposition parties.

It was youths – mobilizing themselves online, largely over Twitter – who played the biggest part in Singapore’s tiny electoral uprising. “I voted for the first time today. I am also proud to be Singaporean for the very first time,” Melody Chia, a 23-year-old Singaporean living in Beijing, wrote on her blog after casting her ballot at the embassy there.

Globalization also brought with it a flood of foreign workers, following Mr. Lee’s assertion that Singapore needed to attract as much outside talent as possible to remain competitive. But the sight of outsiders snapping up desirable jobs and university placements – in addition to rising living costs and a widening gap between rich and poor– turned into a wellspring of support for the opposition.

The opposition charge was led by the centre-left Workers’ Party, which won 12 per cent of the vote, and six of 87 parliament seats. It campaigned on the slogan “towards a First World parliament,” a deliberate play on the greatest achievement of Mr. Lee and the PAP, who are credited with lifting Singapore’s economy from the Third World to the First World.

While he will no longer be in cabinet, Mr. Lee retained his seat in parliament and will likely continue to have the ear of his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, even as the latter seeks to stand fully outside his father’s shadow for the first time. The elder Mr. Lee will also remain a senior adviser to the Government Investment Corporation, a role that gives him wide influence over the economic side of Singapore’s development, where his greatest achievements lie.

But it will now be the younger Mr. Lee who will be the new face of Singapore, along with an almost completely new cabinet that he will swear in on Saturday. The Minister Mentor’s retirement from cabinet was matched by that of his successor as prime minister, Goh Chok Tong (who like Mr. Lee had lingered in his own ill-defined post of “Senior Minister”). Three other veteran cabinet ministers were left out of the new cabinet.

Suddenly, the average age of Singapore’s cabinet has dropped to 53 from 59. The 59-year-old Lee Hsien Loong has gone from the fresh face surrounded by elders, to the oldest and most experienced person at the table.

But many Singaporeans doubt whether the retiring Minister Mentor will really be able to stay away from the politics of a state he has spent his life constructing.

“Everybody says [Lee Kuan Yew] is still going to be the power behind the throne. He’s still going to have that clout, that influence,” said Chee Soon Juan, leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, who has been repeatedly jailed for his outspoken opposition to the ruling party and was barred from standing as a candidate in the election because he declared bankruptcy after being convicted of libeling Mr. Lee and his son in a magazine interview. “Nobody expects he’s really going to go away.”

But to the other 60 per cent of Singaporeans, that’s likely fine for now. On the streets, in cafés and on subways, there’s a bit of swagger to the citizens of this tiny country that long lived in an atmosphere of silent fear and compliance. In Mr. Lee’s sterile and orderly Singapore, you couldn’t spit on the streets, let alone speak your mind.

The $300 fine for spitting remains in place, but most here have lost their worries about saying what they think. “We still prefer the ruling party, but in a true democracy you need some opposition,” said Patrick Lee, a retired communications consultant. “Lee Kuan Yew did a very good job in the past. But there comes a time when everybody outlives their usefulness.”

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