SDP SECRETARY-GENERAL DR CHEE SOON JUAN: So the Cabinet is in the throes of choosing a new leader. But who becomes the next prime minister should not be as important as whether he (or she) has the gumption to lead this country in a new direction for the current one that we’re on is taking us nowhere – and fast.
The winding up of Mr Lee Hsien Loong’s prime ministership will, if everything goes according to how he has planned it, end in an unremarkable manner. This contrasts with the fanfare that greeted him in 2004 when the reins of the government were handed over to him.
As the son of the late Lee Kuan Yew, and therefore a member of what one analyst obsequiously described as an “exceptional and talented family”, much of the country held high hopes for the newly minted PM.
But nearly a decade-and-a-half later, it’s hard to point to any achievement of import under Mr Lee’s reign.
Rather, what has stood out are blights on the political landscape that will define his dispiriting legacy. The PM’s tenure, dogged by debacle after outrageous debacle most of which were of his own contrivance, has been mired in controversy, rancour and distrust. Its end cannot come sooner.
The most significant scandal, by far, is the family meltdown he had with his brother and sister who, among other things, had accused him of abusing his official powers to thwart the deceased Lee’s final wishes of demolishing the family house at Oxley Road. Both Hsien Yang and Wei Ling went so far as to declare that they had “no confidence” in their elder brother’s leadership.
Embroiled in the dust-up was the PM’s wife, Ho Ching, who was accused of stepping over her boundaries and injecting herself in matters of the Prime Minister’s Office. The couple also stands accused of setting up the chips for their son Hongyi’s entry into Singapore’s dynastic politics.
And to ensure that the saga remains in the public’s consciousness, the Attorney-General – who, it was revealed, was PM Lee’s personal counsel prior to his appointment as the country’s top law enforcement officer – is prosecuting Mr Lee Shengwu, Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s son, for scandalising the judiciary over an obscure Facebook post which the junior Lee made.
Writers of Korean soap would be accused of over-dramatisation if they had come up with such a script. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
So what was Mr Lee’s response to the allegations of abuse of power? He summoned all the courage of a rabbit by convening Parliament of which his party more than dominates. He cried and invoked his late dad in an unseemly display of self-pity, and he predictably declared the allegations as “baseless” when the tears dried. The lawsuit-happy Mr Lee in this instance refused to take his siblings to court or to convene an independent hearing to let his accusers have a fair say.
A few months later, the PM bested himself in an act that would leave an appalling stain on his record. He ruled that the post of president be reserved for a Malay person and proceeded to amend the constitution to effectively allow one, and only one, person to run for the office – his party mate, Ms Halimah Yacob.
Rarely are Singaporeans perturbed by PAP’s machinations. But the tawdriness of the move had elevated authoritarian politics – even by Singapore’s standards – to a whole new level and it rubbed raw the people’s sensibilities. Public feedback was harsh which prompted Mr Lee to acknowledge that the measure was, indeed, unpopular. Nevertheless, he insisted, it was the right thing to do.
It never rains, so the saying goes, but it pours. And pour it did on 7 October 2017 which caused the MRT tunnel at the Bishan station to flood and disrupt train services for 20 hours. The incident capped a most unedifying history of malfunctions and breakdowns that had plagued the MRT system in recent years.
And just when you thought the situation could not get any sorrier, two trains collided at the Joo Koon station the following month that caused injury to 38 passengers. But to the authorities, the trains had merely “come into contact” with each other. Again, in response to public outrage, Mr Lee admitted that the incident had “hurt public confidence a lot”.
Just a year earlier, however, Mr Lee was on a political high when he was wined and dined at the White House at the invitation of then US President Barack Obama.
The PM had, presumably, bet that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would be the next president and figured that a Clinton presidency would continue with Mr Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’.
Based on that calculation, he made a series of moves that left a hostage to fortune in the months that followed. Mr Lee openly sided with the Americans over the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement and controversy in South China Sea while dissing China at the same time. He even made ghastly wisecracks about the Chinese to an American audience while on a visit to the US.
All this – who would’ve guessed? – infuriated the Chinese leaders who, in retaliation, confiscated a shipment of military vehicles en route from Taiwan to Singapore. More seriously, Mr Lee was excluded in a summit that Beijing held in May 2017 to announce plans to build the One Belt One Road system.
Mr Lee’s China missteps even stirred dissension within the soporific establishment. Mr Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, had penned a critique of Singapore’s geopolitical strategy in the Straits Times which he later denied was directed at the PM.
(This prompted a counterattack by ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan, supported by Law Minister K Shanmugam, who charged that Mr Mahbubani’s ideas were “muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous”. Mahbubani is no longer the LKYSPP’s dean.)
And we’re only talking about 2017. The family fracas, presidential fiasco, MRT mess, and the China dispute all happened within the last 12 months.
Going further back in time, there was the explosion of the Zika virus and the re-appearance of TB infections in 2016, the Hepatitis-C virus outbreak at the Singapore General Hospital in 2015 which caused the deaths of eight patients, the riot in Little India in 2013 which exposed the unpreparedness of the security forces to handle emergencies, the introduction of the reviled Population White Paper in 2012 which called for an even greater influx of foreigners into Singapore, and the jaw-dropping Mas Selamat escape in 2008.
Of course, not all these foul-ups are Mr Lee’s fault but being the Prime Minister, he chooses his personnel in the conduct of matters public and he has the final say in major decisions. He cannot run to power when it suits him and away from responsibility when it doesn’t. The buck, good and bad, stops with him.
Compared to his two predecessors, Mr Lee’s term has been particularly rife with messes and muddles.
Happening in the background to all this is an economy that is as pumped up as a sloth on Benadryl. GDP growth has been limping along for several years with no meaningful pick-up in sight and, worse, the government has given little indication on how to move the economy forward.
But let it not be said that I have been promiscuous in my criticisms of this prime minister. I wrote in this piece in 2015 urging Mr Lee to be the transformative leader our nation needed. I said at that time:
“The Prime Minister is in a unique position rarely accorded to people. He stands at a political crossroads. He can open up the system in Singapore and seal his legacy as an enlightened statesman, or he can continue the ugly spectacle of winning elections through undemocratic means.”
Given the juncture of our nation’s development, we desperately need a PM with the profundity and courage of a true statesman, one who will tear the political straightjacket that decades of mind-numbing, spirit-draining authoritarian control has strapped on us. We must go bold, or else we will go bust.
PM Lee occupies a privileged perch to effect change – change that would have facilitated the development of a viable future for this country. Change that would have afforded him historic acclaim and preeminence. But, alas, change that he has rejected.
He could not see that circumstances, both within the country and around the world, have altered and altered radically and irrevocably. Carrying on with his father’s approach and policies was to hope for the impossible and indulge in the unfeasible.
It has been a wasted prime ministership.
The system inexorably grinds on as it churns out another dyed in the wool PAP politician as the next prime minister. A timorous society can only look on and hope that the new leader will do what the old one didn’t.
But fair warning: Holding your breath is hazardous to your health.