Twenty-four of Singapore’s 82 ruling party lawmakers (the opposition has only three) will be stepping down to make way for new faces in the coming elections. But not the man who became Singapore’s prime minister in 1959, led the country to independence in 1965, gave up the office after 31 long years in 1990 but still continues to hold a unique position — as Minister Mentor. "I’ve too much to offer to retire, says MM Lee", said the headline in The Straits Times yesterday. Mr Lee Kuan Yew, now 82 yeas old, will be standing again for election. But isn’t it time he stepped down, asked a bunch of twentysomethings in a televised chat session with him. The question couldn’t have come out of the blue for these things in Singapore are usually carefully coordinated. It certainly gave Mr Lee a chance to explain his decision.
"I’m not being immodest," he said with a laugh (reported The Straits Times). "But the store of knowledge I have, the experiences I’ve been through — the Japanese Occupation (during World War II), my learning experience in Britain (he read law in Cambridge) four years immediately after the war, the problems we faced here — there’s a databank here that I think a younger minister will take some time to equal."
He was talking to twentysomethings about things that happened before they were born. And experience doesn’t count for as much as it used to when it comes to jobs. Mr Lee himself stressed the need for "renewal of leadership" in his People’s Action Party when he stepped down as prime minister, passing the mantle to Mr Goh Chok Tong. But he still wants a say in the affairs of the nation. Naturally, for Singapore is very much his baby. The clean housing estates where the majority live, the prosperous economy where less than 3.5 per cent are unemployed, were all created by him and his able lieutenants. He is entitled to feel protective of his achievements.
Indeed, the question whether he should retire from politics is naive. His presence will still be felt even if he retired. His elder son, Mr Lee Hsieng Loong, is the current prime minister and finance minister, his son’s wife, Ms Ho Ching, heads the powerful government-linked Temasek Holdings group of companies. Mr Goh, now Senior Minister, and other ministers respect him. And they form a very able team which has helped Singapore prosper and avoid the unrest and corruption that are often the bane of Asian economies.
Yes, Mr Lee’s libel suits against opposition figures and electoral reforms which have converted several constituencies into muti-member wards where political parties have to field four, five or even six candidates have made things harder for the opposition. Ruling party candidates have been elected unopposed from several constituencies in the past because the opposition could not field enough candidates. People in those constituencies therefore did not even get a chance to vote.
But as Mr Lee said during the televised chat, it’s not the government’s duty to help the opposition. And just being able to vote doesn’t mean a better life. I am sure people in neighbouring countries know that from their own experience. Personally, I do believe in democracy and freedom of expression. But I also believe that a country as small and well-organised as Singapore is likely to be more tightly controlled than its larger neighbours. Singaporeans should be grateful for the law and order and general prosperity. But we take what we have for granted.
PS: Mr Lee has spent 46 years in government from the time he was elected prime minister — before independence — in June 1959. During this time, there have been five prime ministers in Malaysia:
Tunku Abdul Rahman, 1957-70 (UMNO)
Tun Abdul Razak 1970-1976 (UMNO)
Tun Hussein Onn, 1976-1981 (UMNO)
Datuk Mahathir Mohamad 1981-2003 (UMNO)
Datuk Abdullah Badawi 2003- (UMNO)
14 prime ministers in India:
Jawaharlal Nehru 1947-1964 (Congress)
Gulzarilal Nanda 1964 interim PM (Congress)
Lal Bahadur Shastri 1964- 1966 (Congress)
Gulzarilal Nanda 1966 interim PM (Congress)
Indira Gandhi 1966- 1977 (Congress)
Morarji Desai 1977 -1979 (Janata Party )
Choudhary Charan Singh 1979 -1980 (Janata Party)
Indira Gandhi 1980-1984 (Congress)
Rajiv Gandhi 1984- 1989 (Congress I)
Vishwanath Pratap Singh 1989-1990 (Janata Dal)
Chandra Shekhar 1990-1991 (Janata Dal)
P. V. Narasimha Rao 1991- 1996 (Congress I)
Atal Behari Vajpayee 1996- 1996 (Bharatiya Janata Party)
H. D. Deve Gowda 1996- 1997 (Janata Dal)
Inder Kumar Gujral 1997-1998 (Janata Dal)
Atal Behari Vajpayee 1998- 2004 (Bharatiya Janata Party)
Dr. Manmohan Singh 2004- (Congress)
Eight prime ministers in Britain:
Harold Macmillan 1957-1963 (Conservative)
Sir Alec Douglas-Home 1963-64 (Conservative)
Harold Wilson 1964-1970 (Labour)
Edward Heath 1970-1974 (Conservative)
Harold Wilson 1974-1976(Labour)
James Callaghan 1976-1979 (Labour)
Margaret Thatcher 1979-1990 (Conservative)
John Major 1990-1997 (Conservative)
Tony Blair 1997- (Labour)
10 US presidents:
Dwight David Eisenhower 1953-1961 (Republican)
John Fitzgerald Kennedy 1961-1963 (Democratic)
Lyndon Baines Johnson 1963-1969 (Democratic)
Richard Milhous Nixon 1969-1974 (Republican)
Gerald Rudolph Ford, 1973–1974 (Republican)
Gerald Rudolph Ford 1974-1977 (Republican)
Jimmy Carter 1977-1981 (Democratic)
Ronald Wilson Reagan 1981-1989 (Republican)
George Herbert Walker Bush 1989-1993 (Republican)
Bill Clinton 1993-2001 (Democratic 1993–2001)
George Walker Bush 2001- (Republican)
These lists are compiled from Answers.com and the picture is from Wikipedia.