Can Singapore's new leader fill his father's shoes?

What the foreign papers are saying.
Aug. 12 2004 4:49 PM

Turning Leeward

Can Singapore's new prime minister fill his father's shoes?

At a ceremony on Thursday, Lee Hsien Loong became Singapore's third prime minister in 39 years. The son of the nation's first leader, Lee Kuan Yew, Hsien Loong studied at Cambridge and Harvard before joining the Singaporean military and later its political apparatus. Hsien Loong—whose name means "Illustrious Dragon," in honor of his auspicious birth on the 15th day of the first moon in the year of the dragon—has waited patiently during the 14 years since his father handed over power to Goh Chok Tong, and his accession came as little surprise to Singaporeans, who have heard about his every success and advancement through the years. Lee the younger faces the challenge of keeping Singapore ahead of an increasingly competitive Asian market while holding together the city-state's complex multiethnic society.

The press reaction within Singapore's government-moderated media to Lee's appointment was, unsurprisingly, positive. Several articles took pains to introduce the human side of Lee, who has a reputation as a stern, uncompromising manager. A long profile in the Straits Times gave his career highlights and explored his fitness to run Singapore. The piece quoted some of Lee's old classmates, who related some truly tepid schoolboy hijinks: "Another time, they asked him to stand beside a short staff member on stage, hoping thus to juxtapose the tall Hsien Loong's height with the shortness of the former. He gamely did, and the boys chortled." However, even this government-monitored publication wondered at the economic challenges facing Lee: "The bigger question is whether he has the political clout—and the emotional pull with people—to rally them to go along when restructuring causes so much pain."

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In his parting speech, reprinted in Singapore's Business Times, Prime Minister Goh reminded his successor of his own consensus-building style of government: "In other countries, the politicians exploit the divisive forces in society to get elected and, in the process, pull their countries apart. I call this the 'politics of dissension and divergence.' " Goh also made the point that Singapore must move toward a more open society to parallel its freewheeling business climate. Lee himself advocated this approach in a speech last January, saying "the Government will have cut the apron strings and leave more matters to the private and people sectors. Nanny should not look after everything all the time."

Lee's credentials got more critical scrutiny in international papers. An irate columnist in the Australian Age asked, "What is Singapore? A country or a child care center? When it comes to local media, Singaporeans are fed a diet of mush and only the occasional solid." Despite Lee's claims, an op-ed in the Guardian doubted his commitment to easing these cultural controls in Singapore, the city that "has made a virtue of dull predictability." The article suggested that Lee will have to choose between his father's stern helming of the state and Goh's more flexible approach: "The choice before Mr Lee Jr is whether to follow the tested ways of his father or continue Mr Goh's process of loosening the strings gradually. That choice will determine Singapore's future."

On a simpler level, nearly every commentator wondered at Lee's family connections. A Sydney Morning Herald op-ed explored the charges that Lee is part of a "political dynasty" that includes not only his father but his wife, who runs the government's far-reaching investment arm, and his brother, head of Singapore Telecommunications, another quasi-governmental entity that is also the region's largest phone company. The Herald noted that Lee said he would "rebut or even demolish" political opposition and suggested that Goh's reign in between the two Lees was a deal to ensure the son's eventual ascension. "In Singapore the three leaders are sometimes irreverently referred to as the Trinity: father, son and holy Goh."

Ed Finn is the director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and the Department of English at Arizona State University.

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