Too much of a good thing?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 October, 2003, 12:00am

Lee Kuan Yew has been running Singapore, in substance if not in title, since his People's Action Party swept the polls in 1959. As Mr Lee passed his 80th birthday on September 16, some people wondered if it was time for a rare and remarkable Asian leader to step down. But the very qualities that have contributed to Mr Lee's achievements prevented him giving any hint of complete retirement.

At the birthday celebrations, the former minister best able to get on with the often irascible Mr Lee, former minister for National Development Lim Kim San, best described his hard-driving approach to politics and government: 'One characteristic that sets him apart from most men is that he is 24 hours on the job ... His job is Singapore, and how to ensure the security and stability it needs ... He thinks, talks and, no doubt dreams about this. He is a workaholic, working sometimes until dawn.'

Mr Lee used the main celebration to deliver a vintage performance. Most leaders tell their people what they think they want to hear, placing the future as much as possible in a rosy or optimistic glow. That has never been Mr Lee's style. He has always preferred to use realism mixed with pessimism as a spur to greater achievement. At his birthday celebrations, he was still doing it. 'No one owes us a living, so we must make a living for ourselves,' he said. 'Difficult changes are necessary to remake Singapore. To cut costs significantly, to downsize and trim operations, to improve training and productivity, to reshape our strategies and reposition ourselves and our businesses, and get our companies world-competitive again - all these changes will not be pain-free. After we have cut costs and made ourselves competitive, we shall rise to greater heights. But if we psyche ourselves into gloom, we deserve to be sidelined.'

The words show the intensity and energy which Mr Lee still brings to the task of governing Singapore, even though he is no longer prime minister, and even though he is 80. Having failed once, in the merger with Malaysia, he could not countenance failing again. So he became a political perfectionist. Hence his inability to suffer fools gladly and the occasional overuse of authoritarian methods.

But there is also that positive quality which is often missing from the way in which most politicians govern - the exacting standards that Mr Lee has set himself and which he expects of others.

For this longtime Lee-watcher, three interlocking qualities epitomise the man. There is the sheer physical dedication and intellectual vigour that he has brought, and still brings, to the task of making Singapore what it has become. There is the patriotism that underpins that dedication, the passionate belief that only the best is good enough for the city-state. Above all, there is the sheer intensity which Mr Lee brings to his life and work.

Now a tough question intrudes. Is Mr Lee's very intensity leading him astray? Some Singaporeans were expecting him to announce gracefully, during his birthday celebrations, that he would step down. He did not do so.

When Goh Chok Tong succeeded Mr Lee as prime minister in 1990, Mr Lee remained in the cabinet as senior minister. Now that Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - Mr Lee's eldest son - is due to succeed Mr Goh as prime minister before the next election, one assumption has been that Mr Goh would remain in the cabinet as senior minister, while Mr Lee retired to the backbenches.

Mr Lee has clearly stated that the example he wants to follow is that of Winston Churchill and Edward Heath rather than that of Deng Xiaoping. Churchill and Heath both sat on the backbenches of the House of Commons when they ceased to be prime minister.

But Mr Lee made it clear, in an interview with The Straits Times, that while he will leave the cabinet and retire to the backbenches one day, that day is not here yet - and that he alone will decide when it has arrived. So the Deng model looks likely to prevail in Singapore, after all.

As with Deng, so with Mr Lee - power will follow the man, not the title. This will probably be true whether Mr Lee remains a senior minister or a backbencher. But as long as he remains a senior minister, it is difficult to see any cabinet going against his preferences, should it wish to do so. On the other hand, he will soon be in a cabinet led by one of his sons. As one Straits Times commentator pertinently put it: 'If the Son is supreme to the Father in the political pecking order, but subordinate in the Confucian family hierarchy, which rank order should prevail come decision time?'

An additional complication is that the senior Mr Lee's second son, and his eldest son's wife, both occupy responsible positions related to the state.

One can only hope that Lee Kuan Yew will summon all his dedication, vigour and patriotism to ask himself whether he is in danger of making the best the enemy of the good. He certainly looks likely to delay indefinitely the day when Singapore finds its own level of intensity.

Harvey Stockwin has covered Asian affairs since 1955, and broadcasts a weekly commentary, Reflections From Asia, over RTHK Radio3