Architect of modern Singapore steps down
By Kevin Brown in Singapore
Published: May 15 2011 12:34 | Last updated: May 15 2011 12:34
|Lee Kuan Yew, former Singapore prime minister, has resigned his cabinet seat after 52 years
Singaporeans woke up on Sunday to the prospect of a government without the country’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew – a dominating political figure who unexpectedly resigned from the cabinet after more than half a century in service.
Mr Lee, 87, quit along with Goh Chok Tong, prime minister from 1990 to 2004, exactly a week after the ruling People’s Action party suffered its worst election result since independence in 1965.
In a joint statement, the two former prime ministers said they wanted to provide “a fresh clean slate” for Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, who has promised to respond positively to voters’ concerns.
Mr Lee, who has been prime minister or a senior cabinet minister since the beginning of colonial self government in 1959, told state media his resignation was “the right thing to do, to give PM (sic) and his team the room to break from the past.”
He added: “We want to make it clear that the PAP has never been averse to change.”
As a founder member of the PAP in 1954, Mr Lee is regarded as the architect of modern Singapore, setting it on a free market course designed to attract foreign investment that has given the tiny island state the second highest living standards in Asia, after Japan.
He successfully fought far left opponents in the 1960s, locking up many without trial for years, and became associated with a tough approach to dissent that many dismissed as authoritarian. However, the PAP was repeatedly re-elected in general elections, usually winning between two-thirds and three quarters of the popular vote.
In a joint statement, the two former prime ministers said they wanted to provide “a fresh clean slate” for Lee Hsien Loong, the current prime minister, who has promised to respond positively to voters¨concerns.
The PAP won 81 of 87 elected parliamentary seats with 60.1 per cent of the popular vote in the last election on May 7, but was clearly shaken by an increase in the total opposition vote to 39.9 per cent from a third in 2006.
The retirement of the two former prime ministers has few implications for policy, since the government has already undertaken to address election issues such as high immigration, income disparity and the price of government-subsidised housing.
However, political analysts said it was not purely symbolic, and speculated that the prime minister, who is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, might take the opportunity to replace a number of other senior ministers with younger faces.
Eugene Tan, a politics specialist at Singapore Management University, said the changing of the guard suggested the PAP was serious about promises to reconnect with younger voters, many of whom dislike the governing party’s authoritarian style.
“Government policy is seen as bearing the imprint of [Lee Kuan Yew], and the fact is that the announcement comes a week after the general election and that voters did not take kindly to what some might say was negative campaigning by [the elder Mr Lee],” he said.
“We are transitioning towards a post-Lee Kuan Yew era, and many did not expect it to come so soon. But it is not a revolution. That is not the way government is conducted in Singapore.”
The elder Mr Lee will remain a powerful figure in Singapore, as a leading member of the governing party with the ear of the prime minister, untrammelled access to the state supervised media and significant moral authority, especially over older Singaporeans.
However, his standing has been tarnished in recent years by controversial statements such as a claim that the country’s Malay muslim minority had failed to integrate, and an appearance of being out of step with Singaporeans born after independence, who now make up a majority of voters.
Mr Lee caused controversy during the election by appearing to threaten that the government would discriminate against constituencies that elected opposition MPs. His comments were in sharp contrast to the emollient tone adopted by the prime minister, who offered an unprecedented apology for any mistake the PAP might have made.
He became the first prime minister of independent Singapore in 1965, after the union broke up amid acrimony over Malay political rights. He stepped down in 1990, and has since served as a cabinet minister without portfolio, latterly with the title Minister Mentor.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.