Singapore: A Changing of the Guard?


Chua Beng Huat

The 12 August 2004 saw the swearing-in of the third Prime Minister of Singapore in its 39 years of political independence. Lee Hsien Loong has been the Prime Minister designate ever since his 'appointment' several years ago by the exiting Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. Indeed, many would say that he had been PM-in-waiting ever since his father, Lee Kuan Yew, stepped aside as PM in 1991. However, his assumption of the office was somewhat of a non-event for many Singaporeans.

Further, the line up of the 'new' cabinet was a little disappointing. Every member of Goh's cabinet was retained, save one. Goh has been appointed Senior Minister and ex-Senior Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is now the Minister Mentor. This is a rather unfortunate choice of title because it has unwittingly (even if just symbolically) 'infantalized' the rest of the cabinet as grown men who still need to be guided-pushing the limit of the idea of a 'patriarchal' or 'patrimonial' state with a 'father knows best', top-down government.

This line-up was consistent with the conservatism of the PAP government in emphasizing stability and continuity. It is not given to fanfare and dislikes shocks to the social body and the market. There was, and continues to be, rhetoric aplenty concerning the 'changing' generation, not only of politicians but more significantly of the citizenry; of changing aspirations and demands from the ground; and, also of changing global and regional economic conditions. These changes are to be managed quietly with tried and tested, old hands at the helm. However, this may be an 'interim' cabinet until the next election when Lee Hsien Loong will gain his own mandate.

Changes in the names of a couple of ministries signalled emerging areas requiring explicit representation and attention: the Ministry of Environment is now the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources; and, the Ministry of Community Development and Sports is now the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports-the latter is headed by a new Acting Minister, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan.

Goh chose the 'right' time to hand over at mid term between elections and after 14 years as PM. The economy has recovered with an expected growth rate of 9 per cent for 2004. There is a sense of national 'solidarity' after having overcome the SARS epidemic in 2003. His people-friendly personality, that became the 'style' of his government, has hopefully created a lasting change in citizens' expectations of government and in the government's attitude towards consultation and its responsiveness to the ground. This is the best guarantee to counter fears of the younger PM Lee returning to the austere and authoritarian ways of his father.

WATCHPOINT: How many new faces will there be in the Cabinet after the next elections (due in 2007) and will a clear successor-in-waiting to PM Lee Hsien Loong emerge?


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