October 24, 2002
By Pana Janviroj
More Lee-way for Singapore NATION
YOUTH has always been an asset rather than a liability to Singapore. In Lee Kuan Yew's own words, "I involved myself with trade unions and politics, formed a political party, and at the age of 35 assumed office in 1959 as the first prime minister of an elected government of self-governing Singapore."
And today, Singapore can boast that it has one of the youngest diplomatic corps and youngest cabinets in the world, many in their early 40s.
Goh Chok Tong, 61, the prime minister, is preparing for make way for a new generation of leaders. He does not want to leave them with any handicaps, and has said he will retire once Singapore's economy is back on track.
But preparations are being made now to bring in a new generation of policymakers, with Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, son of Lee Kuan Yew, expected to succeed Goh Chok Tong.
"We have to understand the aspirations of the younger generation," said Goh. "So what we do is in fact to bring the younger ones into government itself, so that the elder civil servants and ministers would be in touch with the younger generation through these people in their midst."
And the results have been forthcoming.
"So in the cabinet, we have younger ones. Right away, we understand what they are like, because they are right in the cabinet arguing with us."
While the elders stay relevant, the potential of the younger policymakers is also tapped. They are placed in the sub-committees of the Remaking Singapore Committee.
"And we involve younger ministers, civil servants and members of the public, and the emphasis would be youth," said Goh. "We actually went out of our way to look for people who we know have different views from ours."
"We don't want to be looking for clones," Goh added. "I can tell you, not only are they arguing with me, they also argue with Senior Minister Lee, who has a formidable presence."
Lee Hsien Loong, 50, articulated the challenges ahead:
"To be a minister 20 years or 25 years ago, the challenges were difficult but the jobs not complicated. But now if you are in charge of telecom, economy, defence or transport, each of these is a very complex portfolio. You can't just be a politician, you have to understand the job. You need good people."
And the deputy prime minister would want an even younger team in their 30s if he could find suitable candidates from the 3.5-million population. He recalled that he came into politics in 1984 at the age of 32.
The idea is still to recruit people with management background into politics. Before, Lee said the organisations were not so mature, and people reached senior positions faster and in their 30s, their potentials could be more easily detected. Now, the people in their 30s are seen as not quite exposed in their potentials.
"So, it's more difficult and so it takes longer. I supposed it's inevitable but it's something we try to tackle (in the recruitment).
Ask what ought to be the focus for the new leaders of Singapore during this trying time, Lee stressed that it should be the people who needed to be energised, united, mobilised and enthused with new objectives.
"The policies, we can do, because I think we have a good civil service, we have ministers who are competent. But setting the tone, taking the lead, that's the political job of the prime minister."
He was confidence that the people of Singapore are prepared to move forward, although they may not have fully absorbed the implications of the situation. He was unsure whether the second and subsequent generations of Singaporean, who did not have to fight for survival as the first generation did after the independent, would feel that they have to continue to fight and move the country forward.
The idea of the new Singapore is that the people would become more versatile, able to change jobs and take on new challenges at the age of 40-something.
"I think we have a better chance than the others in getting people to see this because we are small and the world is here on our doorstep all the time," said Lee.