Deputy PM faces even longer wait for top job

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 August, 2003, 12:00am

Singapore's weak economy may delay Lee Hsien Loong's rise to premiership

He's already been waiting in the wings for a very long time, but Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, may have to wait a while more before he finally takes the city state's reins of power.

Though Mr Lee is assured of succeeding Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, the poor economic outlook, compounded by the impact from the Sars outbreak, has probably delayed the passing of the baton, analysts say.

Mr Lee has been deputy premier since 1990 and was officially designated by Mr Goh as his favoured successor in 2001 even though he had been informally lined up for the top job as early as 1989.

The eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, he quickly rose through the ranks of the army as a young man before entering politics with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) in 1984. Since then, he has held several portfolios and in recent years has played a pivotal role, spearheading all the city state's major economic restructuring efforts.

'It's very clear that the successor is Lee,' said Bilveer Singh, of the National University of Singapore.

'He has been prepared for the job for 20 years and in my view he's the best man, the most experienced person to take the mantle of power and leadership in this country, all the more in the times of great uncertainties, he's tried and tested.

'Today, he is probably one of the most powerful political figures in terms of actual political control of ministries: Monetary Authority of Singapore, Ministry of Finance, deputy prime minister and various critical decisions involving national unity and security as well as foreign policy. He is a very powerful political figure and he is also considered to be very bright, sharp, decisive and focused.'

Garry Rodan, professor of politics and international studies at Murdoch University, said: 'There are seemingly no alternatives to Lee now that he has been identified as the imminent successor. The credibility of the PAP is linked to that process being carried through, especially in view of Prime Minister Goh endorsing Lee.'

Mr Goh has always said this would be his last term in cabinet as prime minister, and he has already indicated his intention to step down before the next general election scheduled for 2007.

Earlier this year, when asked if his succession would go as planned with Sars prolonging the downturn, Mr Goh replied: 'I'm going to plan on the basis that I'll step down sometime before 2007.'

But 'sometime' has never been defined, and now some political observers believe it might be later rather than sooner.

'The succession might take place closer to 2007 than 2003 because of the uncertainties in the economy. Goh will not be inclined to leave until he's confident the economy is in a relatively strong position. Given the current nature of the international economy, this means it's unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future,' said Professor Rodan.

'It's not impossible that he would even wait until after the next election, which doesn't have to be in 2007 but they could be called a lot earlier. In the history of Singapore under the PAP it's very rare for the government to go full term.'

Mr Goh may also have his eye on how he will be viewed by later generations.

Professor Singh said: 'As long as uncertainties remain, it is not in the interest of Goh to step down leaving unsettled problems and going into history like that, and it is not in the interest of the next man to take the reins when things are still unsettled.'

Mr Goh, who for years had to endure jibes about being a seat-warmer for Mr Lee, has grown into the job to become a very popular and well-liked leader. He has been carefully planning not only his succession but also the renewal of the 'third generation' of local politicians.

He began working towards his cabinet for 2007 almost immediately after the general election of 2001, when he appointed seven new MPs to government positions. One unknown factor is how the political chips will fall among the more senior political strata once Mr Lee takes over. Will Lee Kuan Yew, now serving as senior minister, move aside or stay on?

Will Mr Goh, who has expressed a desire to be a statesman, become senior minister or run for the presidency? Whatever happens, political observers are certain that the senior Mr Lee's influence on the country will remain.

'[Senior Minister] Lee is an institution unto himself. He is the founding father of modern Singapore and will remain an influential figure whether in office or not,' Professor Singh said.

'But I have the sense that he would like to see his son grow into office, and the best way is for him to step sideways.'