I just saw Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong being interviewed on CNN. Razor-sharp, with a Cambridge first class honours in mathematics, he had no trouble parrying the usual questions about his family’s role in Singapore politics and economy and the lack of government criticism in the local media. The interviewer, Anjali Rao, came off second best when she raised the media issue. "What do you want to say that you dare not say?" he asked her. "Absolutely nothing," she replied. "There you are," he replied with a laugh. "So how are you stifled?" Cool.
Still, the usual question about Mr Lee following in his father’s footsteps to become prime minister brought to mind an unusual feature of the Singapore cabinet. Mr Lee is not only following in his father’s footsteps; they are members of the same cabinet. That is unusual. Mr Lee’s father, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, is still in office, as Minister Mentor.
I have been trying to find parallels elsewhere in the world. Robert Kennedy was attorney general in his brother John F Kennedy’s administration. Austen Chamberlain became Britain’s postmaster general while his father, Joseph Chamberlain, was Colonial Secretary in 1902. "Old Joe" never became prime minister but his younger son, Neville Chamberlain, did in 1937 — only to resign three years later when Churchill succeeded him after the failure of his appeasement policy towards Hitler. Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, became her closest adviser while she was India’s prime minister. And when Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash, his elder brother, Rajiv Gandhi, took his place. When Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, he included friends and relatives in his cabinet.
But I can’t think of another instance identical to the Lees, where the father is a member of his son’s cabinet.
The closest parallel to be found today among non-communist parliamentary democracies, I think, must be in Poland. President Lech Kaczynski’s identical twin, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is the prime minister. But they are brothers, not father and son.
Such instances of members of the same family sharing power are more common in the Middle East. There is the Saudi royal family and the al-Maktoums, the rulers of Dubai. But these are monarchies and sheikdoms with royal families. Singapore is different, with elected leaders.
Mr Lee is not only the prime minister; he is also the finance minister while his wife heads Singapore’s biggest conglomerate of government-linked companies. But the concentration of power has not been bad for Singapore, which with a per capita GDP of more than $28,000 is Asia’s second richest country, surpassed only by Japan. Political dynasties are not necessarily bad; they can be popular too. The Gandhis in India, the Bushes in America, enjoy considerable support, or they wouldn’t have come to power. The Lees have already proved their mettle. Singapore has prospered under them just like Dubai under the al-Maktoums.