Fri, Mar 27, 2015 - Page 8 News List

What comes after Lee Kuan Yew?

By Bill Emmott

All political leaders worry about their legacies. Former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀) — who presided over Singapore either directly or indirectly for more than a half-century, remaining influential right up to his death at 91 — had more time in power than most to do so.

Several volumes of memoirs attest to Lee’s concern about his legacy, although Singapore’s extraordinary success under his leadership speaks for itself. Like him or not — and many did not — there is no denying the city-state’s remarkable and enduring prosperity and stability.

Yet the effort put into those memoirs by the man who called himself “Minister Mentor” during his later years offers a clue about Lee’s ultimate concern. His legacy in terms of Singapore’s past success may be clear, but what about the future?

That, of course, is one of the few things he could not control, beyond offering his teachings to future generations. Yet in one crucial respect — determining Singapore’s new generation of leaders — the tight control that Lee exercised in the past might now make that future more difficult. The issue is certainly solvable, especially given an excellent education system and high-quality institutions of all kinds. However, Lee’s own actions suggest that he harbored doubts.

The succession to Lee was clear: After handing over the premiership in 1990 (at the surprisingly young age of 66) to a trusted associate, Goh Chok Tong (吳作棟), he groomed his eldest son, Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍), for the job. After serving as Singapore’s trade minister, finance minister and deputy prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong took over the top post in 2004. What is unresolved is where power goes next — and how.

NEPOTISM

Perhaps the answer will simply be that Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party will choose a successor in the conventional way. Certainly, Singapore’s cadre of talented and experienced officials and ministers is deep. Still, the question is an open one, owing to Lee Kuan Yew’s somewhat paradoxical sensitivity to the prominence of his family members in some of the nation’s most senior posts.

Lee fought many battles with the international media over their coverage of Singapore, especially from the mid-1980s onward, by which point the country’s success had become abundantly clear. As a Cambridge-trained lawyer, he was especially keen on using the law to browbeat his media (and political) critics, knowing full well that he had no serious chance of losing in Singapore’s own courts.

During my time as the editor-in-chief of The Economist from 1993 to 2006, I received such browbeatings on many occasions. What eventually became clear was that under no circumstances could Lee Kuan Yew countenance one particular word or concept: nepotism. After all, he had set up Singapore as an intensely meritocratic society, in which competition — under clear and accepted rules — was king. So when his own son became prime minister, and his daughter-in-law, Ho Ching (何晶), took the helm at Temasek Holdings Pte, one of the state’s huge investment companies, any insinuation that they had done so on anything other than their own merit was unacceptable.

Lee Kuan Yew established a high-minded committee to establish that nepotism was not the reason, and then set about suing anyone who dared to suggest otherwise. Yet this abhorrence of nepotism was illogical — and Lee was generally nothing if not logical, even ruthlessly so — because in this case a perfectly good justification for it followed smoothly from his own analysis of Singapore.

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