The Lee dynasty in Singapore

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 May, 2006, 12:00am

A five-minute primer on an issue making headlines

The all-powerful Lee family has been at the helm of Singapore's transformation from a seedy colonial port into one of the world's strongest economies. They sound like an extremely talented bunch?

It would seem so. The elder statesman is 82-year-old Lee Kuan Yew, who served as its first prime minister for 31 years until 1990. He has remained in government ever since, first as senior minister, and for the past two years under the title 'minister mentor'.

The present prime minister is the elder of his two sons, Lee Hsien Loong, whose wife, Ho Ching, runs a powerful government investment arm, Temasek Holdings. Another son, Lee Hsien Yang, is president and chief executive officer of the island state's largest company, SingTel.

Lee Kuan Yew appears to have played an enormous role in Singapore's transformation.

There is no doubt he was the main man. Educated as a lawyer at Cambridge University, he returned home to form the People's Action Party (PAP). He led Singapore into the Malaysian Federation four years later before achieving full independence in 1965. Over the next three decades, Mr Lee oversaw what many regard as an economic miracle.

But hasn't this economic success come at the expense of democratic freedoms?

That's the big criticism. Mr Lee imposed tight controls on everything from chewing gum to freedom of speech and the press.

The consequences for government critics have been grave. The Lees and ruling party politicians often silence political opponents by suing them for libel and seeking large amounts in damages.

The state-controlled media acts as a mouthpiece for government policy. In 2005, the World Press Freedom Index ranked Singapore 140th of 167 countries.

So there was no danger of the Lees losing the election yesterday?

They were always going to win in a landslide. But this election was the first in two decades when opposition parties fielded enough candidates to ensure the ruling PAP had not officially won the election before voting got under way. While older voters still strongly support Mr Lee, younger Singaporeans are less keen on their government's authoritarian style.

Lee Kuan Yew is getting on - when will he quit public life?

That would appear to be a matter for him, and him alone. Mr Lee says that there are things he can do as a minister that no one else can. He will retire when he feels he can no longer contribute to government. And there are no signs of that happening any time in the near future.