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In his recent article, Mr John Burton of the Financial Times asserts that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong is trying to curb the powers of his successor Mr Lee Hsien Loong before he leaves office. Unless he knows something that Singaporeans dont, chances are that Mr Burton is engaged in wishful thinking rather than hard-edged analysis.
One of the examples that the writer cites as Mr Gohs attempts to rein in Mr Lee Hsien Loongs power is that the PM wants PAP MPs to vote for who they want as their next leader.
Unless an MP has a masochistic streak, no one in their right mind would vote for anyone else other than the one Mr Goh himself indicated that he wants to see as the next PM (if you’re thoroughly confused at this stage, it’s a good bet that your absolutely normal).
So why then the charade of requiring PAP MPs to choose their PM?
The same charade that the PAP puts Singaporeans through once every four years when it knows very well that with everything under its control, there is no earthly chance that Singaporeans can vote for another government. Its called legitimacy: When one goes through the physical act of casting a ballot no matter how dubious the process is, the victor can claim the mandate. This will help to reduce the shrillness of the criticisms and it certainly makes for good PR when it comes to how the international community views the PAP (small hint, Mr Burton).
What would make Mr Burtons observations much more credible is if Mr Goh presents an alternative candidate to Mr Lee and (this conjunction is crucial) insists that the two competitors hold public debates, and state clearly the direction they want to take Singapore and why they should be the PM. You see, without this process Singapores next PM will be as elected as Mr S R Nathan who became the elected President of Singapore (prior to 1993 Singapore’s president was appointed by the cabinet) without a single vote cast for or against him – because he didn’t have an opponent.
The writer also cited that Mr Goh was reshuffling the cabinet to retain his influence over the cabinet when he eventually steps down. If that really is the case, then the PM sure has a funny way of showing it. In the more than 10 years that Mr Goh has been the PM, Mr Lee Jr has become the Deputy PM, Finance Minister, Chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and Deputy Chairman of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (of which Mr Lee Kuan Yew is the Chairman and Mr Goh isnt even on the board of directors) all at the same time!
Besides, whats to stop Mr Lee Hsien Loong from re-shuffling the re-shuffle after he becomes PM?
Recent events also suggest that Mr Burtons conclusions may be way off mark. Take the SIA pilots unions recent run-in with the Government. It wasnt the PM but SM Lee Kuan Yew who threw the proverbial gauntlet at the pilots, threatening to break skeleton. The SM also wanted the Trade Unions Act amended so that in future, management (read government) can disregard the views of union members. Unsatisfied, he also wanted Captain Ryan Gohs PR status revoked all because the hapless pilot wanted his fellow union members to elect their own representatives. (This reminds us of Mr Goh Chok Tongs promise of a kinder and gentler style of government. Seems like eons ago when Mr Goh sent Singaporean hearts a-fluttering, doesnt it?)
Can Mr Burton imagine someone else in Mr Tony Blairs cabinet going on such a rampage without the British PM so much as giving out a squeak? Isn’t this Uniquely Singapore?
The question that screams for attention is: Did the Prime Minister approve of his Senior Ministers words and deeds? If yes, then how does one tell the difference between the PM, who according to Mr Burton, leads the socially oriented grassroots wing of the PAP, and Lee Kuan Yew and son, who supposedly head a more conservative technocratic bunch.
If the answer is no, then whats all this fuss about Mr Goh Chok Tong trying to clip Mr Lee Hsien Loongs wings? Incidentally, the last time Mr Goh did any wing-clipping was when he introduced the concept of an elected president: In introducing this (elected-president) Bill, the present Government is, in fact, clipping its own wings. Once the constitutional amendment is effected, this Government will have some of its powers checked.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew brought the PM up to speed (again can Mr Burton imagine a scenario where a member of the British cabinet overrules the PM and serves up a lesson in semantics to boot?): No, if youve to clip your wings, then you are in trouble, you cannot govern…I cannot remember [what PM Goh said] but I would not have used that phrase because the executive powers of the Government should not be clipped. Ouch!
Another incident is the recent jaw-dropping amendment to the Constitution to enable the Government to transfer the countrys financial reserves to statutory boards and government-linked companies. Again (it seems trite to say it but this is a major and dangerous step for the country to take), if Mr Goh was a party to this amendment, then how is he different from the Lees? Mind you, the amendment will concentrate even more power in Mr Lee Hsien Loongs hands.
But if he opposes it but says and does nothing about it, then doesnt it confirm what all Singaporeans already know that PM Goh does not have the political clout to head off any parliamentary maneuvering?
If truth be told, the current PM is quite powerless to curtail Mr Lee Hsien Loongs increasingly broad grip on power. If anything, Mr Lee will be a much more powerful prime minister than Mr Goh had ever been. On this score, the Singapore Democrats would dearly love to be proven wrong and for Mr Burton to be proved correct in his assessment. But one can dream, cant one?