Has PM Lee been pushing all the right buttons?

Elena Torrijos

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gestures as he speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum On East Asia In Jakarta, Indonesia, Sunday, June 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

By Seah Chiang Nee

In the past 40 days, politics in Singapore has moved from one surprise to another, not all of them were coming from voters or a resurgent opposition.

The biggest shock wave has emerged from the People's Action Party (PAP) as it reappraises itself and its relationship with Singaporeans in a way that few had thought possible.

And much of it came from the least expected source — 59-year-old party leader Lee Hsien Loong.

Ever since he became Prime Minister seven years ago, Lee — a one-time cancer patient — had rarely shown active or high-profile leadership.

Most of the time, he was overshadowed by former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew.

But since the shocking election setback and his father's exit, Lee seemed like a man transformed.

Although it is too early to pronounce judgment, a re-energised Lee has surprised many Singaporeans by moving this far, this quickly, with change.

Some believe that he has no choice but to do so if he wants to avoid a worse drubbing in the next polls.

"So far, he has been pushing all the right buttons in addressing public concerns," said a retired executive who recently switched to voting against the PAP for the first time.

"I think it's fair to say that he has had a good start," he added.

Still some wariness

While observers are giving him good marks, a portion of young Singaporeans are still suspicious about the PAP's intention or ability to deliver.

A history of authoritarian rule has left behind a lingering sense of doubt and cynicism that this opening-up is just a phase rather than genuine reform.

But since the May 7 election, Lee — minus his father in the cabinet — has introduced a sense of urgency into the government with the following measures:

  • Bringing in a new, younger cabinet after accepting resignations from Kuan Yew (MM), senior minister Goh Chok Tong, a Deputy Prime Minister and six ministers, some in apparent response to public demands;
  • Setting up a committee to bring down the widely unpopular high salaries for cabinet ministers and top bureaucrats;
  • Promising to reduce foreign workers, hastening the public housing programme, as well as increasing the capacity of public transport (the PM had apologised to the nation for these mistakes caused by over-crowdedness); and,
  • Instructing PAP ministers and MPs to declare to him their business interests and important personal and financial information.

Opposition groups have mixed feelings about his ultimate intentions to be a people's leader or his chances of success given the party's long top-down history.

At any rate, Lee today has a historical opportunity to be a white knight not only for the PAP but for Singapore as well.

"It needed a political crisis to bring out the real Lee Hsien Loong," a housewife remarked.

Not like dad

Whether he can pull it off or not, what he has done has shown that he can be — and is — different from his father.

Insiders said when he said sorry to his citizens, he gained no accolade from his father who apparently felt a leader should not have done it.

Once asked in an interview by CNN how his style differed from his father's, Lee said:

"I'm myself, I'm different from my father, I'm a different personality in a different period with a different population.

"(This population) has grown during a time of stability, prosperity and progress, who want to improve their lives, and who want to participate in making Singapore better.

"And I think I'm working with them!"

Recently, Lee had twice mildly told off his father when he felt he was excessive in his statements.

"You know MM's style. He tells it like it is. No ifs, no buts, solid hard talk.

"We understand what we need to do, but we don't try to do it MM's style. We do it our way.

"We spend some time to talk, explain, persuade, understand the difficulties and hesitations, and to overcome some of these working problems so that we can go in the right strategic direction.

"And it's a difference in generation, between MM's team and my team, between your parents and you."

What may come next

As Singaporeans continue to debate whether the changes are for real, another surprise may be emerging.

The Prime Minister's wife, Ho Ching, plans to step down as chief executive officer of Temasek Holdings in August, Bloomberg reported. It has not been denied.

As head of one of the world's biggest national wealth funds, Ho Ching has been ranked by Fortune as one of the world's most powerful women.

But her being the PM's spouse after substantial losses during the global financial crises, had posed some embarrassment to the PM.

Her departure, if true, would spell another major change in Singapore.

"Since his swearing-in speech, all his actions so far have been very encouraging," said blogger Lawrence.

But like others, he feared it may be harder for some of Lee's colleagues to drop their "arrogant" behaviour.

Writer Hak Tauri commented: "I think Lee now realises (our feelings) and is trying to reach out to us, the younger generation. It may be a little too late, but thanks for the effort, Prime Minster."

One youth said: "This is what happens when a party runs a country for too long and becomes too slow to adapt to a new world."

Others like Tulang commented: "We should give PM Lee a chance to shine.

"He generates the sparkles now!"

A former Reuters correspondent and newspaper editor, the writer is now a freelance columnist writing on general trends in Singapore. This post first appeared on his blog www.littlespeck.com on 18 June 2011.

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