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