Stepping aside to corner more power?

Updated - November 17, 2021 05:40 am IST

Published - December 02, 1990 09:49 pm IST

On November 27, after 31 years at the helm of affairs, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew handed in his resignation as the Prime Minister of Singapore. In doing so, he not merely gets an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records but has also set political pundits and observers the world over-examine his legacy, his contribution and on what the tiny island nation is heading for in the Goh Chok Tong years to come. But all this would be to assume that Mr. Lee is leaving the centre stage of politics once and for all. Hardly so. He has not stepped "down" but merely stepped "aside" — the former Prime Minister remains a senior Minister in the Cabinet. More than that he is presumably eyeing for the post of an elected President. After changes have been effected by Parliament, the institution of Presidency will become a strong institution in the political system. And stronger still if Mr. Lee sits in that chair.

Looking at the three decades of what Mr. Lee has, been through, one would come off with a feeling that his career has certainly been one of the most accomplished. Mr. Lee seems to have had a role in almost anything: the fight against colonialism, the heady debates of the Sixties, the separation from Malaysia, problems of independence, ethnic tangle, the initial difficulties of economic development and finally in coping with an industrialised economy that is a source of envy in many parts of the world, particularly in Asia.

In a span of some 25 years after formal independence, Singapore today is one of the major manufacturing, financial and information centres of the world. All this could not have taken place if Mr. Lee had not pursued with vigour what he thought would be in the best interests of the Singaporeans. But this is not going to prevent some critics in asking the question: rapid economic development, but at what political cost?

Born in 1923 in a middle class Chinese family, Mr. Lee entered politics as one of the founding members of the People's Action Party — an organisation that has dominated the body politic to the extent that many really do not try and distinguish between the Party and the Government. At no time has the PAP been out of office; and it is not an exaggeration to say that the PAP has revolved around Mr. Lee, and in all probabilities would continue to be so in the years to come.

For a person who believes that there is nothing like a free lunch, Mr. Lee was instrumental in charting clear cut goals and objectives, all with the intent of putting Singapore on the international economic map. And if corners had to be cut in a political sense, they had to be. And that is the reason why Mr. Lee is more respected than loved or admired. The Raffles College and Cambridge educated barrister was not interested in kissing or naming babies. Nor was he in the running for any domestic or international popularity prize.

Two years ago, the elder statesman remarked, "Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is wrong, I'll get-up. Those who believe that when I have left the Government as Prime Minister, that I've gone into permanent retirement, really should have their heads examined." Mr. Lee probably meant every word of what he said and few have dismissed his statement lightly. Even though Mr. Goh Chok Tong has been carefully groomed and has convinced his senior that he would abide by the policies laid down, Mr. Lee will continue to be a "back seat driver" and may not hesitate to bounce back if things go awry and not according to plans. His commitment and visions for Singapore are clear.

Michael Leifer of the London School of Economics would argue that the concepts of "constant maintenance" and "vigorous innovation" are central to Mr. Lee's approach. In a social sense this would mean that people are constantly told of the need to keep the environment, for instance, clean. But in another sense, it is quite different. Argues Leifer, "The politics of maintenance betrays a lack of confidence in the people of Singapore, who are thought not to have attained sufficient political maturity to appreciate just how vulnerable their material inheritance is. The remedy has been to reverse the conventional relationship which obtains in democracies between Government and people. Instead of the Government being held responsible to the people, the people are deemed to be responsible to a Government which claims an infallible grasp of social priorities."

In his quest for the transformation of Singapore, Mr. Lee has not hesitated in imposing his strong views and laws against foreign media persons and their publications. For the former Prime Minister and his Government, the issue was one of sovereignty, in a political and legal sense; and in another context the resentment of the imposition of western values and culture in an Asian society. The bottomline has been that Mr. Lee has not been too favourable to the idea of foreigners being some sort of "conscience keepers" for Singapore. Mr. Lee was quite precise, when in a recent visit to Hong Kong he maintained,"... regardless of the pontifications of the foreign correspondents and commentators, ultimately it is the values of the elected Government of Singapore that must and will prevail."

What seems to be most intriguing to people is the manner in which Mr. Lee is going to handle himself in the months to come. With this comes another question: how is Mr. Lee's son, Mr. Lee Hsien Loong, going to fit into the new framework? The Junior Lee is already one of the two Deputy Prime Ministers and has been nominated to act as the Prime Minister in the event of Mr. Goh's absence from the country. Mr. Goh — at the age of 49 — is said to be quite popular in the country and is on record saying that he is for loosening the reigns of the Government. But that would depend on a number of things — as for instance in the development of the institution of the Presidency.

Interestingly, the idea of a revamped Presidency was put forth in 1988 and that too only to be a safeguard against future Government "irresponsibility" in frittering away the country's foreign reserves and the accumulations in the Central Provident Fund. Critics charge that the new-styled Presidency would end the Parliamentary system in Singapore once and for all, as according to the scheme of things, the Prime Minister would be responsible to the President and his council of advisors.

The crucial aspect to bear in mind is that the President has veto powers not only on economic matters, but also a role in security matters, especially pertaining to detention and banishment. More than this the new President would have a final say on key appointments, say to the judiciary, police and defence forces. Although Mr. Lee has said that he would not be the first elected President, there are those who argue that the clever politician could find ways of circumventing the provisions.

It would be very naive to rush into conclusions about the future political leadership of Singapore. It is indeed a bit premature to say that Mr. Goh is going to be led around either by the Senior Lee or his son. The same goes of trying to read too much into the future relationship between the Presidency and the Prime Minister. That things are changing, in an institutional context, is quite obvious, but there are the larger aspects of the political process, such as the dynamism of society as a whole and its impact on the development of the polity. Mr. Goh, for instance, has a number of challenging tasks in front of him, the first and foremost being the demands placed by the younger generation Singaporeans as a result of rapid economic rise and exposure to the outside world.

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