Tuesday, 7 April 2015

What's next for Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew?

Passing of larger-than-life leader will bring inevitable change, but key question is what this entails
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Straits Times, 4 Apr 2015

IT HAS been almost a fortnight since Lee Kuan Yew passed away.

Two unique weeks in the country's independent history in which it has not been under the watchful eye of its founding prime minister.

But the sun still rose in the east and the island hasn't sunk.

The inevitable question, though, remains: What will Singapore be like without Mr Lee?

I think most people today believe the country will survive the man.

What they might disagree over is how it will change without him.

He had such a great influence on almost every aspect of life here, even after he stepped down as prime minister in 1990, his absence will almost invariably lead to change.

But what?

There are three areas in which his demise will have the biggest influence, not dramatically or even visibly at first, but steadily and surely.

The biggest impact will be felt by the leadership - both in the ruling party and the administration of government.

Mr Lee was a strong, larger-than-life leader who led from the front with his intellect and charisma.

But even he knew he couldn't do it alone.

The team he built - Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants - developed their leadership qualities through working with him and observing him at close quarters.

He shaped them through his ideas and the force of his personality and conviction.

In turn, they respected and believed in him and were willing to follow his lead and implement his policies.

Mr Goh Chok Tong in his eulogy at the funeral service on Sunday called Mr Lee his great teacher.

Mr Sim Kee Boon, my first boss when I was a civil servant, and who rose to head the civil service, was another example.

His attention to detail, political sensitivity and the high standards he demanded of his staff were trademark qualities that had rubbed off from Mr Lee. There were many others among his close circle of trusted lieutenants who shaped the many different areas they were in charge of.

With Mr Lee's departure will go the direct one-to-one transmission of his leadership DNA.

This is not to say that the current group is not as good as their predecessors. Indeed, they may be more skilful in areas such as technical and financial expertise.

But the differences are real, and when it is about leadership and the type of leaders being developed, you can expect the changes that ensue to be substantial.

Singapore will change as a result of this change in the leadership DNA.

The second area that Mr Lee has had a tremendous influence and which will change with his departure concerns Singapore's international standing.

He was the country's most famous brand, and the numerous tributes from past and present world leaders say quite a bit about his worldwide reputation.

How much this has benefited the country is hard to quantify but I believe it made a big difference.

When your leader is hugely respected and acknowledged, it adds to the country's reputation economically and politically.

The advantage might be intangible but it is the sort of brand recognition that companies pay hundreds of millions in advertising to secure.

And it isn't only in the diplomatic world that Mr Lee made an impact.

He was, in fact, somewhat of an oddity: A Chinese Singaporean who spoke the Queen's English and could debate the best native speakers when defending his record against detractors.

When he was once asked about this by a foreign journalist, he replied with his usual wit: "Criticism or general debunking even stimulates me because I think it is foolish not to have your people read you being made fun of."

His ability to stand tall among foreigners, whether fellow statesmen or critics, had one other important effect: It gave Singaporeans confidence about their country and its future.

This is especially important for a small nation with limited resources which might otherwise have developed an inferiority complex.

How will his death change this?

The present leaders have achieved much since taking over, but they do not enjoy the same stature nor have they developed the same deep relationships Mr Lee had with his foreign counterparts.

How will his departure, for example, affect Singapore's relationship with China?

He had a unique position among Chinese leaders who valued his personal connections with Western leaders and his understanding of the geopolitical issues of the day.

Graham Allison of Harvard University wrote last week that no one outside the United States has had a greater influence on American policy towards a rising China than Mr Lee.

How much of Singapore's special relationship with China will change as a result of his demise is hard to say, but chances are it will. This is especially given China's growing power which will make Singapore less useful to its interests in the years to come.

The third area of possible change is more obviously in politics.

Mr Lee has been the main architect of the country's political culture and he shaped its institutions accordingly.

The Group Representation Constituency system, the knuckle-duster approach towards his political opponents, ministerial salaries, political renewal and succession all bear the hallmarks of his political thinking.

They made him a highly controversial figure to the end, but the result was a Singapore brand of politics which is different from that in many other countries, even those at the same level of economic and social maturity.

But this political landscape is changing, becoming more competitive and diverse in recent years.

The transition to a more pluralistic polity will take place with or without Mr Lee.

But his departure will hasten the process.

Without his tough-minded and uncompromising approach, Singapore politics will become more normal more quickly.

A new generation of leaders will have to find their own way, in tune with the changing expectations of the electorate.

They cannot replicate his political approach because circumstances have changed.

Indeed, if they tried to do so they might fail spectacularly.

The post-Lee era has begun and these changes will follow in time.

Where does Singapore go from here?
By Carl Skadian, Deputy Editor, TODAY, 5 Apr 2015

This past week, things have been, how shall we say … different in Singapore.

These were the Quiet Hours. After a frenzied week, when Singapore careened from grief to the need to say thanks, and then back to mourning and grief again, life has settled back into more familiar rhythms.

The national colours have fluttered proudly atop flagpoles again, black ribbons have been taken down from Facebook profiles, Parliament House and the Padang have fallen quiet.

And yet …

When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong appeared on national television at 8am on Monday, March 23, to announce that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had died a few hours earlier, he said: “I am grieved beyond words at the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I know that we all feel the same way.”

I think the Prime Minister expected many Singaporeans to mourn the loss, but even he must have been surprised by just how many did.

As of the last telling, close to two million people headed to Parliament House and the various tribute centres set up around the island to pay their respects and to remember the founding Prime Minister of Singapore in their own ways. How many more did so at temples, mosques, churches or at home, with friends and family or alone, we’ll never know.

The seemingly-endless queues gave rise to their own ecosystem of Good Samaritans who spontaneously turned up to give out water, food, umbrellas and other creature comforts to make the wait, which ran into as long as 10 hours for some, more bearable. Servicemen and other volunteers went about their duties quietly, efficiently, even as officials worked to revise plans that had to be adjusted after their first contact with a grieving nation.

Last Sunday, about 100,000 people lined the streets to bid Mr Lee goodbye as he embarked on his final journey, despite the buckets that rained down. Many more were glued to TV screens, wherever they could find them, to watch the funeral procession and service. It seemed as if an entire nation came to a halt when the Singapore Civil Defence Force sounded the alert for a minute of silence to be observed.

Now, the official mourning period is over, and there is that enemy of the grieving to contend with: Time. After the frenzy of activity, Singapore now has time to catch its breath and ponder the week that was. As anyone who has been through the hell that is the funeral of a loved one can tell you, the hardest part comes next, when the frenzy of activity that has kept the mind busy is over.

Alone, without the necessary and fortifying distractions of a period of mourning in the company of others, we now have to collect our thoughts, make sense of what exactly it is that we have lost, and figure out how to move on from here.

So, what now?

If we can learn anything from the reams of newspaper copy put out over the seven-day period of national mourning, from the blanket coverage on television and radio, the endless chatter in the digital ether, it is this: Mr Lee was an exceptional man, and he built an exceptional country.

But — and there is always a but — this fact presents its own set of challenges.

For someone like me, who grew up in early Singapore, the startling changes that have taken place have not seemed as phenomenal as they ought to be. It has been more of a process of osmosis — a skyscraper comes up here, a new rail station there, ungainly Hawker Hunters blossom into sleek F15SG Eagles soaring over National Day Parades, one generation of able leaders morphs into the next, policies debated in one term are brought to fruition in the next, even if the debate has become sharper, more cantankerous.

This is the natural order of things, is it not?

Growing up in a Catholic school, I had hantam bola buddies of every conceivable stripe. Folks of my generation have an easy familiarity with “Selamat Hari Raya”, “Happy Deepavali”; Muslims say a cheery “Merry Christmas” to Christians, who reciprocate with gifts of fare, carefully prepared to ensure non-halal ingredients are avoided. We gather on weekends, a veritable GRC of buddies, similar despite our differences, engaging in the raucous banter that only the sharing of a single tongue would allow.

Girlfriends and boyfriends, husbands and wives, children, more and more, families and lovers look different from the way they did in the past. But there are no second looks, no raised eyebrows when a newspaper columnist describes his children as “Chindians”.

This is the natural order of things, is it not?

At school, in army camps, at work, no one bothers if you grew up in a two-room flat in Tanglin Halt, as I did, or a six-room bungalow in Namly Drive, as a primary school classmate did. There are so many scholars whose parents are hawkers and taxi drivers that these stories have become boring, routine, not worth a mention in the news. Whether you drive a Ford or a Ferrari, you will be ticketed if you break the law; and you can’t jump queue simply by telling me who your father or mother is, because all you will get is a smirk. Nothing is going to be different for you, just because.

Again: This is the natural order of things, is it not?

It was former foreign minister George Yeo, perhaps, who summed up most succinctly Mr Lee’s contributions to Singapore. Quoting from the monument to Sir Christopher Wren in London, he said when asked about the founding Prime Minister’s most important contribution to Singapore: We should just look all around us.

Look around you. And I mean, really look, not just at the towering achievements on these shores, but beyond as well.

Look at the newspapers and at the reports of the howls of protest after a report about the leader of a neighbouring country who had the gall to turn up at a Thaipusam celebration in the garb of another ethnic group.

Find out about the lawmakers in a faraway land who invited the leader of another country to speak in direct opposition to a plan by their own president to strike a nuclear deal with Iran. Debate how it came to be that a nominee for the post of national police chief, outed as a suspect in a bribery case, was later cleared of charges by a court, while the leader who nominated him faces questions about why the candidacy was dropped.

Look all around you.

Look at the pictures in the following pages that show kings, a former American President and the sitting leader of a nation of over a billion people in attendance for the funeral of a man who once — in an almost distant time — led a tiny nation of just five million. Look around you the next time you are in the immigration queue at an airport in Australia or the United States, and ask yourself what right you have to be in the line for automated clearance.

That is the great Myth of Singapore Exceptionalism, that this is the natural order of things.

It is the vision of one man, and the hard work of those he led, that has given rise to this. It is too easy to be complacent, to think that things have always been this way, and that they will remain so no matter what we do. Too easy to think the world owes us living. That we’re small but tough, that those ads which advertise our muscular prowess at half-time of the football game are enough to keep Singapore where it is, and that it’s perhaps time we took our collective foot off the gas pedal, because, well, look how far we’ve come!

In the Quiet Hours, let your thoughts drift to where complacency will lead us, because if it was one thing Mr Lee kept reminding us about, it is that we have no right to be here. We’ve crashed the party. Now, we have to keep proving that we belong.

Look around you.

There is one other thing our minds should drift to in the Quiet Hours, before the memory of the days after March 23, 2015 fade into grey, before we once again get caught up in the consuming endeavour that is life, before consigning events to an archive we will revisit every once in a while — times too few and far between to serve any useful purpose beyond nostalgia:

There is a common thread that ties together the speeches made by the Prime Minister in the week that was — a word to the wise, if you will. That they came from a man so obviously wracked by grief at times should give us further pause and engender some thoughtfulness of what is expected of us in the days, months and years ahead. These are the years we will have to navigate “without the light that has guided us” since the earliest days of the Republic.

The first, delivered at 8 am on March 23, said: “Let us dedicate ourselves as one people to build on his foundations, strive for his ideals, and keep Singapore exceptional and successful for many years to come.”

The refrain, at the funeral service at the University Cultural Centre on March 29: “We come together not only to mourn. We come together also to rejoice in Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s long and full life, and what he has achieved with us, his people, in Singapore. We come together to pledge ourselves to continue building this exceptional country.

For Mr Lee, many of the Old Guard leaders, and some members of the Pioneer Generation, the words of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, in his eulogy at the cremation service at Mandai, are appropriate: “Your work is done and your rest is richly deserved.”

For those of my generation, who have gone from two-roomers in Tanglin Halt to better things, from kopi-o kosong in recycled condensed milk tins to Kopi Luwak, and, yes, from Third World to First, Mr Lee will have our enduring gratitude. We are champion grumblers, and we have moaned about the muzzling of some Opposition voices, about the endless chiding and cajoling from on high, and about the policies that gave some quarters in the West cause to accuse us — in not so kind terms — of being little more than sheep forever following a shepherd in search of greener grazing grounds, never mind the routes he took us on.

But deep down, we know life has gotten better year by year. In the vernacular of today’s generation, we have moaned about First World problems. Champion grumblers, indeed.

But for those for whom the events of the week of national mourning were their first personal brush with the history that Mr Lee created, the words of the Prime Minister should resonate more. A gauntlet has been thrown down. Will it be picked up?

For many who were in the queues, at tribute centres, lining the streets as the gun carriage trundled by, SG50 will be but a waystation on a longer journey. For most of those who are in school now, or just being enlisted, or just starting work, for the couples who will put last week behind them and experience joy as they exchange wedding vows this weekend and the next, and the one after that — because yes, life must go on — SG100 will be an even more meaningful milestone.

The rest of us will turn the future over to you soon. How will you follow the prescription dispensed by the Prime Minister for moving on from the grief? How to build on Mr Lee’s foundations, strive for his ideals, and keep Singapore successful for many years to come?

Perhaps for you, in these Quiet Hours, the proper tonic is a good, exhortative dose of Mr Lee Kuan Yew himself, taken from a speech made to the Singapore Press Club on June 7, 1996, but just as relevant today, almost 20 years hence:

“The sky has turned brighter. There’s a glorious rainbow that beckons those with a spirit of adventure, and there are rich findings at the end of that rainbow.

“To the young and not so old, I say, look at the horizon, follow that rainbow, go ride it!”

Singapore after LKY? That question's 25 years late
Many of his Big Ideas have been taken apart, and put together in totally new ways
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor, The Sunday Times, 12 Apr 2015

Whither Singapore, post-Lee Kuan Yew?

Many commentators here and abroad have pondered this after Mr Lee died on March 23 at the age of 91, leaving three children and seven grandchildren, and the thriving, successful city-state of Singapore as his physical, tangible legacy.

Will Singapore's success survive Mr Lee? Will the so-called Singapore Model of soft authoritarianism built on a bedrock of respect for the law, a clean and efficient public administration, and a social habit of putting the community above individual interests, be able to withstand the test of time?

Mr Lee himself, it should be noted, always said Singapore was too small and unique to be a model for any other society.

I must confess to some impatience reading such musings on whether Singapore will survive Mr Lee.

The evidence is all around us today. To me, the question is a quarter of a century late.

Mr Lee handed over the prime ministership to Mr Goh Chok Tong in November 1990. He remained in Cabinet, but as he was wont to tell anyone who asked, he was a mere "data bank", and later a "mascot".

One might contend that while in the Cabinet, he would have held sway over many decisions. At the very least, he might have had veto powers accorded to his years of experience and moral authority.

Even if that were the case, the question of what next after Mr Lee is still four years late because he left the Cabinet after the 2011 election.

In truth, the post-Lee Kuan Yew years for my generation began after 1990. Those born after Independence and who came of age in the 1990s and later have always known a Singapore not led by Mr Lee.

We see the 1990s as Mr Goh Chok Tong's decade, not Mr Lee's.

In like vein, the period after 2004 is defined by the political values of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his team; PM Lee took over from Mr Goh in August 2004.

The post-LKY years for Singapore thus began after November 1990. The 25 years since have seen an intense reinvention of values of the founding generation led by the senior Mr Lee. Many of the Big Ideas of Mr Lee have been quietly taken apart, and put together in totally new ways.

Let me just cite three.

The first is the move from an "every man for himself" society to an inclusive society.

The first PM Lee, bred in the crucible of the Japanese Occupation and the bitter struggle against communalists, communists and colonialists, was very much an advocate of rugged individualism. Each man - and his family - must stand on his own two feet. Welfare is a bad word. Only the indigent get state assistance.

PM Goh's mantra was for a kinder, gentler Singapore. As he pledged in his swearing-in speech, he would aim "to build a nation of character and grace where people live lives of dignity and fulfilment, and care for one another".

The current PM Lee, a pivotal member of Mr Goh's team through the 1990s, carried on in that trajectory. He made "an inclusive society" the hallmark of his regime.

At first, some thought it was about opening up avenues for the disabled and those with special needs. By now, it has been extended to the elderly (helping them stay employable); to single parents (who can now buy subsidised Housing Board flats); and even to political opponents (no more back-of- the queue treatment for opposition constituencies when it comes to estate upgrading).

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's rugged individual has become a caring citizen looking out for those less rugged than himself.

The second big change post-LKY has been in tempering the relentlessly competitive meritocratic system into one that Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam termed "compassionate meritocracy".

Meritocracy will remain a key lodestar in Singapore. But compassionate meritocracy means not slotting people into rigid academic and socio-economic classes based on their exam results.

Mr Lee had a tendency to ask people their grades; and he famously compared two candidates' O-level exam results (the one who did worse - Mr Chiam See Tong - won the election). He also had an unabashedly Darwinian view of life, believing some people are born smarter than others and if you were a dud, well, only God could help you, he couldn't.

Singapore has moved beyond those values, with an education system that provides many pathways to success, including for the less academically inclined.

The third big shift post-LKY is in the state as provider of last resort, to the state as co-provider when times are bad.

Mr Lee ran a government that intruded into the bathroom (Flush the toilets!), and the bedroom (Stop at two! And later, Have two or more if you can afford it!), but when it came to state handouts or welfare assistance, he favoured a decidedly minimalist government.

The modest Public Assistance allowance was virtually the only form of welfare right into the 1990s, reserved for those too sick or too old to work (often both) and without family support.

Today's Singapore has a thick social safety net to catch those who fall. From ComCare to Workfare, to the Pioneer Generation Package, to ever increasing subsidies for healthcare, childcare, eldercare and home-based care, the Government has been rolling out programme after programme. These days, the middle income and even those with incomes up to the top one-third qualify for various subsidies.

What's remarkable is that the broadening of the welfare state happened while Mr Lee was very much alive; indeed some of it while he was still in the Cabinet. Workfare, for example, began as a pilot project in 2006.

The shift is from viewing government assistance as "handouts" (long a dirty word in Singapore) to viewing it as giving people a "hand up" when they are down.

To be sure, some of Mr Lee's old ideas look more outdated than others, such as his way of tackling political opponents. But even here, his successors have adapted his methods - from using a bulldozer to using a microscope to scrutinise arguments, as PM Lee once said.

As long as Singapore's leaders and people continue to review guiding principles and policies, discarding those that don't work and updating those that do, the country should retain its solid footing.

Those who speak as if Singapore's success was built by one man do not do the country and its people justice.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a key torchbearer, but he was not the only one. Today's citizens and leaders all helped bring Singapore to where it is today. And we are the ones who will carry the torches forward.

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