Revisiting the succession question

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong says he intends to stay in office for 10 more years. If he does, it will result in a record father-and-son tenure as prime minister.
  Star, Malaysia
October 6, 2012

INSIGHT: BY SEAH CHIANG NEE

FACED with a host of tough problems that challenges his government’s ability to resolve, the prime minister has made it clear that he intends to stay in office for 10 more years.

The 60-year-old Lee Hsien Loong told an interviewer that he would prefer not to lead beyond then and “definitely not till 80”.

His comments were, however, made in reply to a specific question rather than as a deliberate statement.

“I do not see myself as prime minister in 20 years’ time,” said Lee to the current affair website Singapolitics. “I think if I am, something has gone seriously wrong.”

If he steps down at 70, he would have outdone his father, Lee Kuan Yew, who quit the post in 1990 at the age of 67.

However, Lee Senior had led for 31 years, a much longer period compared to his 18 years if he lasts that long.

One obstacle could be his party’s declining popularity, and the other his health.

But if he pulls it off, it would result in a combined father-and-son tenure as prime minister for a total of 51 years, a record not matched in any other country.

Singapore would have established a new world leadership record that will not be easily beaten.

By indicating he would step down in 2022 Lee has slightly put it back by two years. In 2011, Lee had said that he hoped a new man could take over in 2020.

Whatever the deadline, the road will be strewn with hidden mines, the biggest of which is a changing electorate with aspirations that his ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) may find hard to meet.

A rising number of Singaporeans have grown discontented during the past six years over the mass influx of foreigners, particularly mid-level and high-wage professionals.

It contributed to a host of problems – rising cost of living, especially in public housing, over-crowdedness and the widening rich-poor gap.

And now adding to these is a dark cloud, a deepening social friction between Singaporeans and foreigners that could worsen into a more serious conflict if it is not resolved.

How much longer can Lee’s party beat back voter unhappiness to retain power is a large crucial question.

He became prime minister eight years ago but the PAP has ruled this city even before independence in 1965.

The possibility of it being defeated in the next election in 2016 is probably minimal, but for the one thereafter anything goes.

A second worry is his health. PM Lee successfully fought off cancer in 1992 after undergoing a three-month chemotherapy treatment, but fear of relapse remains given his high pressure work.

For him to pronounce a long leadership intension could suggest that he believes a relapse is slim.

Of late he appeared very active, being involved in a spurt of activities that belied this faith in his health.

Helped by a pro-government press, Lee has hardly spent a day without hitting the daily headlines.

He initiated a “National Conversation” to discuss the future, addressed two TV forums, paid a hectic visit to China, and spoke on a wide range of subjects from education to public housing, from prices to the plight of the middle class.

“It is good to see him so active and in good health,” said a school teacher, whose profession just received an 8% pay rise.

But for every piece of good news, there were one or two bad ones.

His remarks that Singapore could hold six million people, a hint that the unpopular immigration policy would continue, has gone down badly with Singaporeans who were worried about their future.

Lee’s intended stay-on for 10 more years has come as a surprise to many Singaporeans.

Of late, doubts had been expressed whether the PM’s father, Kuan Yew, would contest in the 2016 election. If he calls it a day, it would be the real end of the Kuan Yew era.  

o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com
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