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    Southeast Asia
     May 25, 2011


Old wine, old bottle in Singapore
By Clifford McCoy

For the first time since Singapore achieved independence, national founder, former prime minister and until now mentor minister Lee Kuan Yew is not among its cabinet line-up. His surprise resignation this month and the composition of the new cabinet announced over the weekend are the result of the ruling People's Action Party's (PAP) worst electoral showing since 1966.

Both Lee, 87, and Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, 71, announced their decision to step down from their ministerial posts on May 14. Announcing their move in a joint e-mail, they said, "The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation." Their resignations are believed to signal a realization by Lee and the ruling PAP that a disconnect has grown between Lee's strong style of government

 
and a more politically and socially aware generation of younger voters.

His son, Lee Hsien Loong, held onto the prime ministerial post at the general election but it's not clear to many that he is an agent of reform and change.

The foundation myths of Singapore's expulsion from Malaysia in 1965 and Lee's subsequent weeping in public over the separation do not resonate as strongly with younger voters as those who remember the island as an undeveloped backwater. Lee oversaw Singapore's development into a global manufacturing and financial hub, made education and home ownership policy priorities and implemented economic policies that boosted per capita gross domestic product (GDP) to the second highest in Asia, trailing only Japan.

Those substantial gains, however, are now being weighed against current concerns of soaring housing costs, an increase in foreign workers and rising inflation. With a repressed mainstream media and limits on free expression, dissatisfaction with Lee's style and legacy have bubbled up on social media like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, including in the run-up to this month's elections, which were held on May 7.

In particular, there was widespread criticism of Lee's threatening remarks that the Aljunied group representation constituency (GRC) would "live to repent for five years" if they voted in opposition candidates. Nonetheless, the opposition Workers' Party of Singapore won Aljunied, representing the first time a GRC had been won by an opposition party. Goh Chok Tong's block in the Marine Parade GRC managed to garner a mere 56.6% of the vote.

Lee was the country's first prime minister and remained in the position for three decades. Goh took over from Lee in 1990 and held the seat until 2004. Even after leaving the leadership, both men continued to exert considerable power and influence over government in their respective positions of mentor minister and senior minister. Significantly, they both have retained their seats in parliament, ensuring their influence will remain strong even if they are not apart of the new cabinet.

Lee has also stepped down as chairman of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) to become the multi-billion dollar state investment vehicle's senior advisor. Likewise, Goh has moved from chairman to senior advisor of the Monetary Authority of Singapore.

Lee has publicly stated that he fears a younger generation of Singaporeans may take his achievements for granted and allow them to slip away. He has expressed worries about the dangers of increased political openness and a freer exchange of ideas, especially if it leads to a possible shift towards race-based politics in this ethnically mixed state.

Lee's authoritarian streak is known to have been influenced by Singapore's 1964 race riots, where at least 23 people were killed and hundreds injured as Chinese and Malays attacked each other.

Nowadays, Singapore's electoral process has been criticized for gerrymandering of districts and a group representation constituency system where voters must choose a block of candidates from a single party rather than individuals. Under the system, the PAP was able to secure 81 out of 87 contested seats despite winning only 60.1% of the vote during the May 7 polls.

Still, it represented the smallest percentage of popular votes the PAP has received since independence, although the party's popularity had been sliding for the past two elections. In 2001, the PAP won 75% of the vote but slipped to 67% in 2006.

While Singapore's politics may see gradual change with Lee's departure, there is little concern among economists and investors about a dramatic change in economic policy. The Singaporean dollar is at a near record high and the economy grew by a record 14.5% year on year in 2010. Singapore's per capita domestic product is US$48,745, according to the statistics department, ranking second only to Japan in Asia. The World Bank currently ranks Singapore as the world's easiest place to do business.

Cosmetic change
Against this strong economic backdrop, the PAP has touted the elections as a "watershed" for bringing in a new generation of leaders. Prime Minister Lee, Lee Kuan Yew's son and nominal national leader since 2004, pledged in the wake of the elections to change the way the PAP rules. His government has faced pressure to be more responsive to criticism and the younger Lee has said his party will engage the population more in the decision making process.

His new cabinet line-up saw nine past ministers step down, including the previous ministers of internal security, transport and housing who were widely criticized before the polls. Eleven of 14 ministry portfolios will be headed by new ministers. Popular foreign minister, George Yeo, lost his seat in the Aljunied constituency and was replaced by law minister K Shanmugam, who will hold both portfolios.

The most notable promotion was that of finance minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who will serve as both deputy prime minister and minister for manpower, an important position in the current climate of worry over the fast influx of foreign workers that has seen the island state's population grow by about a fifth since 2005. Shanmugaratnam was also named chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the country's central bank.

Three completely new faces have been brought into the cabinet, two of whom are first term members of parliament. Heng Swee Keat, a former managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, was appointed minister of education, the first time a new parliamentarian has been appointed a full cabinet member since 1984. Former army chief Chan Chun Sing was appointed acting minister for community development, youth and sports.

Some analysts view the new lineup as an indication the PAP is serious about responding to public criticism and rejuvenating the party. They note that the overhaul is a departure from the usual incremental generational change seen in previous reshuffles. Premier Lee has said the smaller and slightly more ethnically diverse cabinet is to provide a "fresh start". Lee has already said that the cabinet lineup will be reviewed over the next two years, pre-empting criticism that the new line-up lacks experience.

During this weekend's swearing-in ceremony, Lee announced the creation of a new committee to review ministerial salaries. Singapore's ministers earn some of the highest salaries in the world, collecting over the local equivalent of US$1 million per year.
The government has claimed the salaries are based on those of top corporate executives and are necessary to attract and retain talented individuals as well as to prevent corruption. The controversial rises were announced before the popular backlash in the West about excessive executive salaries, particularly on Wall Street.

The high salaries were only one of the major complaints raised during the elections. The committee is also expected to address other pressing issues from the elections, such as rising health care and housing costs, and rapid immigration. Overall, however, it is unlikely there will be many major changes in policy or strategic direction. What will be different, analysts predict, is how the government packages and communicates its policies to the population.

More importantly, perhaps, the long-held belief that Singapore needs a strong ruling party to survive as a small and vulnerable island city-state remains strong in many influential quarters. There are many here who still see virtual one party rule as the best way to maintain the country's enviable economic position. Without a viable opposition, the PAP can quickly pass bills into law without a lengthy debating process.

The flip side is that if housing costs continue to rise, putting at risk the long-held "right" of Singaporeans to home ownership, and inflation continues to rise while incomes remain stagnant, more Singaporeans may choose political activism to make their voices heard.

The political temperature is clearly rising in cyber-space, contributing to the PAP's comparatively poor showing at the recent elections. While the new PAP government may allow for more dissent and venues for political expression, it's not clear yet that repackaged policies and the senior Lee's retirement will be enough to satisfy the expectations of a new generation of voters in Singapore.

Clifford McCoy is a freelance journalist.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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