Aloof PM striving for the common touch
He has loosened many of the nanny state's regulations, but can Lee Hsien Loong fufil his desire to change Singapore's mindset? Peter Kammerer reports
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is in an unenviable position - the son of Singapore's founding father and first premier Lee Kuan Yew, and the successor to 'people's prime minister' Goh Chok Tong, he has to live up to popular expectations while trying to cut his own political swathe.
For someone of Lee Hsien Loong's intellect - he went to Cambridge and Harvard universities, gaining top honours in mathematics, computer science and public administration - the task should be easy. Similarly, as Lee Kuan Yew's son, he has a privileged position in society. Lastly, there is his apparent brilliance as a technocrat, a role he has performed effortlessly for the more than two decades he has been in public office.
So far, though, since taking the prime minister's job 21 months ago, he has seemingly been walking a tightrope, sometimes at ease, at others wobbling precariously, occasionally bolt upright, appearing stiff and uncomfortable.
Last Saturday's general election, his first political test since becoming prime minister, would seem to sum up his predicament - although his People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence from Malaysia in 1965, again won all but two of the 84 elected seats in parliament, its share of the vote slipped from 75 per cent at the 2001 poll to 66.6 per cent.
Lee Hsien Loong had been seeking 80 per cent of the vote in his constituency of Ang Mo Kio, but ended up taking just 66.3 per cent.
Politicians elsewhere in the world would be more than happy with such figures, but this is Singapore, where the ruling party has ensured that elections go its way. With the voices of political opponents stifled by strict campaigning rules, a state-controlled media, legal action and intimidation, gerrymandering and voting practices such as first-past-the-post, pre-election expectations are rarely unfulfilled.
The government does not take kindly to suggestions that Singapore is undemocratic and is quick to sue for defamation when it considers it has been portrayed unfairly. In a rare reversal, Lee Hsien Loong was forced to apologise during campaigning for suggesting that Singapore was undemocratic.
At a rally on May 3, he told supporters: 'Suppose you had 10, 15, 20 opposition members in Parliament. Instead of spending my time thinking what is the right policy for Singapore, I'm going to spend all my time thinking what's the right way to fix them, to buy my supporters votes, how can I solve this week's problem and forget about next year's challenges?'
Amid the outcry from political opponents, his press secretary quickly issued a clarification.
'What the PM meant by his remark was that if there were many more opposition MPs in Parliament, the government and opposition would spend all their time and energies countering each other, and Singapore would be worse off for it,' said Chen Hwai Liang. 'He used direct language to get this important point across to a mass rally crowd. If the exact words he used offended, he is sorry.'
Critics have long accused Lee Hsien Loong of being aloof and arrogant, and the incident would seem to back their assertions.
Some might say that he has had difficulty taking up a suggestion of Mr Goh frankly delivered at a National Day rally in August 2003 at which the succession was announced. The outgoing leader said Singaporeans would like Lee Hsien Loong to be more approachable because his public persona was 'that of a no-nonsense, uncompromising and tough minister'.
'Loong is aware of the people's perception of him,' he said. 'We have discussed it frankly among the ministers. I have told Loong that he has to let his softer side show.'
That 'softer side' has undeniably been increasingly apparent with visits to homes, markets and drains considered potential mosquito-breeding areas. Nonetheless, perceptions of him are still far removed from those of Mr Goh, who in his 14 years as prime minister gained a popular following.
Australian academic Ross Worthington, quoting unidentified sources, recounted in his 2002 book Governance in Singapore how Lee Hsien Loong caused political outrage in 1990.
'Lee Hsien Loong had gone to the office of Richard Hu, the minister of finance, and removed a number of files without Hu's permission,' Dr Worthington wrote.
'At the pre-cabinet meeting, Hu took Lee to task for doing this and was supported by [then education minister] Tony Tan. Lee's response was aggressive and insulting, he directly insulted Tan and Hu, a man of his father's age. This was a double insult to Hu, who was Lee's superior in cabinet and a person of an age who should ... deserve respect in Chinese society.
'[Then national development minister] Suppiah Dhanabalan intervened and chastised Lee for his behaviour, demanding that he apologise to Hu, withdraw his remarks and not interfere in other ministers' portfolios. A heated exchange occurred into which a number of other issues intruded, and eventually Lee lost his temper and reportedly reached across the table and slapped Dhanabalan across the face.'
Singaporean officials are not averse to taking legal action over such claims, but Dr Worthington was never sued - although his book was quietly withdrawn from shops and the shelves of libraries. Mr Goh even jokingly referred to it in his speech but denied it happened, saying: 'I must be suffering from amnesia. I just cannot remember this incident. Now you know how creative Singaporeans are.'
Whether true or not, there is a growing list of controversies surrounding Lee Hsien Loong, 54.
As his father's eldest son, claims of nepotism have always shadowed him. At the age of 32, he became Singapore's youngest-ever brigadier-general, and when he entered politics after a 13-year military career, his rise through the political ranks was equally rapid.
Shortly after being elected to Parliament in 1984, his father appointed him minister of state in the trade and industry, and defence ministries. In 1986, he was made trade and industry minister, and second minister for defence.
From an early age, it was always assumed he would succeed his father as prime minister, but proponents of the theory were proved wrong when Lee Kuan Yew stepped aside in 1990 to become senior minister, and Mr Goh was appointed his successor with the junior Lee as his deputy. In his memoirs, the senior Lee explained: 'It was better that someone else succeed me as prime minister. Then, were Loong to make the grade later, it would be clear that he made it on his own.'
Lee Hsien Loong concurrently held the positions of deputy prime minister, and trade and industry minister until 1992, when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. When the cancer went into remission, he continued his ambitious rise, taking on the chairmanship of the central bank in 1998, and three years later, the job of finance minister - a role he still holds in addition to the prime ministership.
The appointment of his wife, Ho Ching, as the executive director of state investment agency Temasek has also raised eyebrows, but the Lee family has fought such claims with defamation suits that have won out-of-court settlements.
Ms Ho, a career civil servant, is his second wife. He married her in 1985, three years after his first wife died. He has four children - a son and daughter with each woman.
Just months before becoming prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong outraged Beijing by visiting Taiwan, causing the cancellation of a flurry of diplomatic visits. Singapore initially described the trip as 'private and unofficial', saying that he would be meeting 'friends'. But as Chinese anger became louder, the Singaporean government defended his visit with a four-page statement, saying as a future prime minister, he needed to understand 'a potential flash point' in Asia.
Another diplomatic gaffe came last December during a visit to Germany. Accorded military honours by Chancellor Angela Merkel, he forgot international protocol and instead of bowing to the German flag, walked past - leaving his host behind bent in a bow.
To be fair, Lee Hsien Loong is aware of his imperfections and those of his party. During last week's election, he noted that his teenage son preferred attending opposition rallies than those of the People's Action Party, which were deemed boring. Last year he told an American television journalist during a trip to Washington that he wished he had worked in the private sector because he lacked a full understanding of business.
'In this world you have to understand economics, you have to understand business, you have to understand how deals are done, how contracts are made, businesses grow, prosperity is created,' he said, acknowledging that to 'have been on the other side, to have done something and made it grow' would have added 'something extra' to his experience.
Garry Rodan, Singapore expert at Australia's Murdoch University, agreed that the city state's politicians lacked the common touch.
'The People's Action Party has put in place an elitist system which means that, at an early age, people of academic talent get stratified and streamed off and taken out of mass circulation,' he said. 'They tend to be in very close contact with other members of the political and social elite, and when they get into office, they have to confront the challenge of trying to represent the interests and respond to the views of people whose life experiences are very different from their own.'
Lee Hsien Loong is doing his best. He has claimed he does not care if Singapore's youth dye their hair blue, and has loosened many of the so-called nanny state's tight regulations on entertainment in a bid to attract tourists. Last August, in a speech marking the 40th National Day, he said Singapore had to adapt urgently or it would die.
'It must be a totally different Singapore, because if it's the same Singapore today, we're dead,' he said. 'We have to remake Singapore - our economy, our education, our mindsets, our city.'
He clearly believes that he is just the person to do that.