The Son Also Rises

  Foreign Policy
The magazine of Global Poilitics, Economics and Ideas
May-June 2002
By Cherian George

Also see:
Singapore’s Big Gamble: Foreign Policy
Open Markets ...But Closed Minds?

TAGGING along on constituency visits as a child, Lee Hsien Loong, the eldest son of former Prime Minster Lee Kuan Yew, seemed destined to walk in his father’s footsteps. Since his entry into politics at the age of 32, however, his parentage has been framed as a liability. If not for the fact that tongues might wag, the elder Lee has said, his son would already be prime minister.

Many Singaporeans would agree that the long wait in line, behind current premier Goh Chok Tong, has done Lee Hsien Loong some good. An early overachiever, he earned a first-class degree in mathematics at Cambridge, learned Russian for its Cold War utility, picked up a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and became a brigadier general in the armed forces by 32.

Less evident now, as he reaches 50, is the fidgety impatience and snappish intolerance that marked his early years—traits that hinted at a nervous intellectual energy but also betrayed a political adolescence.

Personal growth has come at a painful price. His first wife died after bearing his second child. And he himself had to battle with cancer.

Like his father, Lee is both a micromanager and a long-range planner. Also like his father, and despite his facility with three of Singapore’s four official languages, he finds it harder to relate to the ordinary Singaporean than to Harvard-trained administrators, global investors, and the international policy community.

Thus, at one dialogue with teachers some years ago, he prefaced a response to a question with the remark that the answer was “a no-brainer”—only to be told later that the audience, unfamiliar with this American expression, thought he was insulting the questioner as brainless. Lee sent all the teachers an e-mail in which he apologized for any offense caused and tried to explain the finer points of American slang.

In Singapore’s watertight system of joint cabinet responsibility, parsing Deputy Prime Minister Lee’s contribution to policymaking is nearly impossible. Like his colleagues, he is pragmatic to the core. His touchstone is what works for Singapore, which at present points to a “third way” philosophy combining market rationality with social responsibility. Idle speculation about rifts with Prime Minister Goh is a constant, but never in 12 years as the loyal number two has Lee provided any grist for this particular rumor mill.

Given his long cabinet experience, the criticism that dogs Lee Hsien Loong—whether he can claim the premiership on merit—sounds increasingly hollow. More relevant is what “merit” really means. Singapore, Inc. prizes academic brilliance, more than charisma or a high emotional quotient; the ability to meet complex technocratic challenges, more than the savvy to contend with a freewheeling press and strong opposition; and integrity in serving the majority, more than a commitment to protect individual rights. This selective definition of leadership, rather than any dynastic plan, is Lee Kuan Yew’s true legacy. If that remains the role of a Singaporean premier, Lee Hsien Loong is tailor-made to play it dutifully. The long-term question is whether the job description is changing, and whether he will need, and be able, to change with it.

Cherian George, a former columnist at Singapore’s Straits Times, is a doctoral student in the department of communication at Stanford University and author of Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2000).