Lee Kuan Yew’s son faces a changing Spore

Wall St Journal
March 27, 2015

BY  Jake Maxwell Watts  

HE has been prime minister of Singapore since 2004, but Lee Hsien Loong was inevitably overshadowed by his celebrated father, Lee Kuan Yew, who died this week.

The younger Mr Lee faces the task of carrying forward his father’s legacy in his own style at a time when Singapore confronts social and economic challenges that have seen support for the governing People’s Action Party erode more than at any time since it came to power in 1959.

The younger Mr Lee has appeared to be a more conciliatory leader than his father, who retired from government in 2011 but remained a lawmaker until his death. The prime minister has attempted to appeal to younger voters through public dialogue and social media, compared with his father’s paternalistic style, dispatched through impassioned oratory. State funeral services for the elder Mr Lee, who was the city-state’s founding prime minister and governed for 31 years until 1990, will be held Sunday.

“Lee Hsien Loong has worn his own shoes for a long time,” said Linda Lim, professor of strategy at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and a Singaporean who was a contemporary of the younger Mr Lee at the University of Cambridge. “They may be like his father’s shoes, made of the same material perhaps, but designs and colors have changed since 1990.”

US ambassador to Singapore Kirk Wagar said the son shares his father’s pragmatism.

“It’s safe to say he learned a thing or two around the dinner table with his father,” Mr Wagar said in an interview.

Lee Hsien Loong is a high achiever in his own right. Before entering politics in 1984, he was a
brigadier-general in the Singapore Armed Forces, studied mathematics and computer science at the University of Cambridge and earned a postgraduate degree in public administration from the Harvard Kennedy School.

Mr Lee is widely expected to maintain much of the political model put in place by his father—clean and efficient government, business, friendly economic policies, and an emphasis on maintaining social order.

But the younger Mr Lee has also been recalibrating some long-standing policies of his ruling People’s Action Party, part of efforts to shore up support ahead of a potentially bruising general election due by January 2017, his third poll as leader after seeing his ruling party’s vote share decline in two consecutive elections.

Complicating these efforts is the question of leadership succession, an issue that obsessed the senior Mr Lee during his years in power. His son, 63, has said he will hand power to the next leader before he turns 70, though no clear front-runner has emerged.

Few expect the PAP, which has won every general election since taking power in 1959 under the senior Mr Lee, to relinquish its dominance in Parliament in the coming vote. Even so, the younger Mr Lee must continue to grapple with shifting demands and perspectives of a younger electorate, which doesn’t share personal memories of Singapore’s turbulent early years as an independent nation.

“What is changing is the appeal of greater political and social pluralism, especially with the
emergence of what is now firmly a post-independence generation of Singaporeans,” said Gillian Koh, senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies in Singapore.

The party has accepted it needs to change. In late 2014 at the PAP’s 60th anniversary rally, the younger Mr Lee said the party has already “changed the way we govern by involving people in the decisions affecting their lives; encouraging community initiatives; getting people together to solve problems without waiting for the government.”

Today, Singapore barely resembles its guise in 1959, when the elder Mr. Lee became prime minister of  a self-governing city still under British colonial rule. Gross domestic product per capita—a measure of wealth—soared almost 30-fold during Mr Lee’s tenure and was US$56,284 in 2014.

But in recent years, the rapid pace of development in Singapore has created a groundswell of  discontent among locals, who lament widening income inequality, rising housing and transport costs,  and an influx of foreign labor. The city-state’s Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, is 0.463 (zero is perfect equality), compared with an average of 0.31 for countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in the latest available figures.

The younger Mr Lee has begun to tackle these issues, but officials and analysts have said these
measures take time to bear fruit, and it isn’t clear if they would prove sufficient to arrest the
partial erosion of support for the ruling party. It won around 60% of the popular vote in the 2011 election, although it won 81 of 87 seats in Parliament, now 80 after a by-election loss in 2013.

Ms Lim, of the University of Michigan, said that in the next general election, she expects a
dwindling majority of mostly older Singaporeans to vote in favor of the PAP’s past record, while she  believes many younger Singaporeans will choose the opposition “because, unlike their parents and grandparents under Lee Kuan Yew, they don’t see their own futures getting a whole lot better.”

As of late Thursday, nearly 150,000 people had paid final respects to the elder Mr. Lee, whose remains lie in state at the country’s Parliament.

“We won’t see another man like him,” his son said in a nationally televised speech this week. “Let us dedicate ourselves as one people to build on his foundations, strive for his ideals, and keep Singapore exceptional and successful for many years to come.”