Singapore Charts New Path After Decades of Lee Family Rule

For most of Singapore’s history as an independent nation, there has been a Lee at the helm. That’s now coming to an end. 

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Lee Hsien Loong announced on Monday that he will step aside next month after 20 years as prime minister, completing a telegraphed political succession that’s been in the works in some form since before the Covid-19 outbreak. 

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Taking his place will be Lawrence Wong, a 51-year-old fellow Harvard University graduate who rose to prominence, in part, due to his leadership during the pandemic.

When Wong assumes his new role, it will turn the page on a combined half-century of Lee family rule. Lee Kuan Yew became the Southeast Asian nation’s first prime minister in 1959, kicking off Singapore’s rapid transformation from a colonial trading center at the tip of the Malaysian Peninsula to a global financial hub. 

The Lees are credited with helping turn Singapore into Asia’s wealthiest country, but the question looming large now is for how long the ruling People’s Action Party can carry the torch amid enduring anxieties over the city-state’s high cost of living and growing geopolitical tensions.

Analysts say Wong, who is also finance minister, will offer continuity in a country with a reputation for political stability. And a key test for his new government could be right around the corner as Wong weighs whether to hold early elections that must take place by late next year.

‘First Moves’

“All eyes will be on his first moves upon assuming the premiership,” said Nydia Ngiow, managing director at strategic business consultancy BowerGroupAsia in Singapore. “It will be critical that his responses clearly reflect and address sentiments on the ground or the ruling party could risk losing even more ground to the opposition when polls open.”

Since becoming prime minister in 2004, Lee guided Singapore through the global financial crisis and the pandemic, during which the city-state’s economy slumped the most since independence. The government unleashed unprecedented fiscal support in response. 

But Lee also utilized his party’s grip on power to shield Singapore from polarizing social issues and the misinformation dividing western nations. At a time when much of the region has struggled to navigate tensions between the US and China, he’s maintained friendly ties with both, while continuing his father’s reputation as an independent-minded observer of complex geopolitical trends.

“You are quite rightly esteemed as a leader of the highest order for the world,” New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon said during a joint press conference ahead of Lee’s resignation announcement on Monday.

Then there’s the economy. Total asset management in Singapore climbed more-than-eight-fold to S$4.9 trillion in Lee’s years in office. While the total population grew 42% to 5.92 million, the non-resident population leaped 135%, filling key roles in industries contributing to growth.

According to a poll earlier this year by Blackbox Research, 77% of Singaporeans and residents said the city-state is heading in the right direction. Yet while the government received high marks in defense, education, crime and race relations, at the very bottom was its handling of the cost of living, taxes and the income gap. 

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“It could also be said that dissatisfaction over such issues were consequences of Lee’s pro-investment policies, which favored multinational corporations, sometimes at the expense of locals, leading to a widening wealth gap and thus income inequality,” said Ngiow.

The handover also comes on the back of a series of scandals that have rattled the ruling party’s reputation for clean governance, including the recent resignation of a minister charged with corruption. 

Next in Line

Since being announced as heir apparent about two years ago, Wong has adopted a more consultative approach to governing as he seeks to secure support across Singapore’s multiracial society. By handing the reins to Wong ahead of elections, the ruling party is hoping to achieve an unassailable mandate behind its new leader. The 2020 elections were the People’s Action Party’s worst, despite winning 89% of parliamentary seats. 

“There is no doubt that the leadership today has to be consultative but the question is really whether the consultation will be qualitatively different from their predecessors,” said Eugene Tan, a law professor at Singapore Management University. 

Nevertheless, “If you can move out of the shadow of the Lee family, most people will see it as being beneficial for Singapore,” he said.

Lee’s Next Steps

The 72-year-old Lee isn’t likely to stray far from politics, having said previously that he will remain at the “new PM’s disposal” after the handover. He will stay on as a senior minister after the handover, the Straits Times reported on Tuesday, citing Wong.

Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong served 14 years after Lee Kuan Yew stepped down in 1990, but many analysts long forecast that Lee Hsien Loong — who served as one of Goh’s deputy prime ministers — would eventually rise to power. 

This time there’s been little indication whether any of Lee’s four children are interested in running for office, with Lee saying during an interview with Bloomberg in 2018 that “none of them have shown any interest in coming into politics.” 

“They’re entitled to but I don’t think it is likely that they will feel the same compulsion which I did, that it was something which you had a duty to do,” he said at the time. “It would be unkind for me to add more burden on them. It’s difficult enough for them carrying my name.”

With assistance from Ishika Mookerjee and Kevin Varley.

This article was generated from an automated news agency feed without modifications to text.

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