Little change in Singapore transition

A major political transition is set to take place in Singapore on Thursday, as a new leader takes over the tiny country.

Goh (L) makes way for Lee after 14 years at the helm
Goh (L) makes way for Lee after 14 years at the helm

But hopes of a move towards more liberal policies are tempered by what appears to be a commitment to stick to the old even as the new is ushered in.

In a thumping convention centre-turned-disco awash with skinny go-go boys wearing net singlets, one might mistakenly believe the notoriously uptight city has embraced its hedonistic past.

After all, the mere fact that Asia’s largest gay pride party was allowed to proceed last weekend on the eve of National Day celebrations in a country where homosexual activity is still illegal, suggests some thawing of social controls.

Much more reflective, however, of the bustling city-state’s likely future direction are events on the dour and predictable political front, where a successful conservative regime change will be formalised on Thursday morning with the installation of Lee Hsien Loong, 52, as Singapore’s new prime minister.

Few surprises

The son of founding prime minister Lee Kwan Yew and just the third leader since Singapore became independent in 1965, the incoming premier’s cabinet announced on Wednesday held few surprises.

Lee (L) accepted the president’s
call to form a new government 

Elder statesmen were elevated and a few cabinet seats were swapped between familiar faces in moves more suggestive of policy continuity than groundbreaking change.

Outgoing prime minister Goh Chok Tong, who handed in his resignation to President SR Nathan on Tuesday, has been given the influential position of senior minister and will take over the chairmanship of the central bank from Hsien Loong.

And in what is likely to be the final chapter in a political career spanning almost four decades, Lee’s father, a month shy of 81, was installed as the Orwellian-sounding minister mentor.

Singaporean ideals

It is these ties to business and family, reverence for the wisdom of clan elders and confidence in a centralised and powerful national bureaucracy that some commentators have identified as distinctly Singaporean neo-Confucian ideals.

These values leave little wriggle room for the types of broad societal changes envisioned by some, despite incremental attempts at liberalisation that have caused the affable Goh to be described as “a reformer”.

These include allowing for bar-top dancing, government attempts to “sex-up” Singapore in an effort to bolster flagging birth rates and the recent relaxation of the state’s notorious ban on chewing gum.

Little change

“Singapore still will have too many rules… But as long as business is good, no one is going to complain”

Sulaiman Sa’amsuddin,
shop owner

“Like father, like son, there’s not going to be any real changes here,” said electronics shop owner Sulaiman Sa’amsuddin, 51, one of the roughly 22% of Singaporeans who are not ethnically Chinese.

“Singapore still will have too many rules, too much treating people like they are children who have to be punished when they misbehave. But as long as business is good, no one is going to complain,” he said.

Under the elder Lee’s stewardship, Singapore emerged from its beginnings as a freewheeling malarial shipping centre with impeccable British colonial pedigree to become in three short decades one of Asia’s most reliable economic tigers – a city of broad, tree-lined boulevards and Internet Wifi-ed coffee shops and shopping centres.

Although the elder Lee has dismissed suggestions he is building a dynasty, saying that if Hsien Loong were not his son he would have become prime minister far earlier on his own merit, he is widely believed to have played a role in shaping his son’s career path.

Rising son

The younger Lee followed a stellar run at his father’s alma mater Cambridge with a meteoric rise through the ranks of the Singapore military, retiring to a life of politics at 32 as the nation’s youngest brigadier-general.

Within a few weeks he had won a parliamentary seat with his father’s political vehicle, the People’s Action party.

The PAP has controlled all facets of politics since Singapore declared its independence from the Malaysian Federation on 9 August 1965 and today holds all but two of the seats in parliament, where policies may be debated but dissent is extremely rare.

The elder Lee (R), who still wieldsinfluence, denies nepotism charges

The elder Lee (R), who still wields
influence, denies nepotism charges

The younger Lee graduated from junior trade minister to control many of the levers of financial power in business-obsessed Singapore, including becoming finance minister and chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, the de facto central bank.

In his role as finance chief, the incoming premier is credited with seeing Singapore through tough economic times brought on by the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and the downturn in global demand for electronics in which Singapore is a leading producer.

After several years of lacklustre performance, Singapore has just upped growth projections for 2004 from 6% to 8%.

Out of bounds

As Singapore has thrived, so too has its leaders. The Lee clan exercises enormous business clout in Singapore. Hsien Loong’s wife is chairman of Temasek, the state investment company that effectively controls or heavily influences almost $40 billion worth of businesses such as the publicly-listed Singapore Airlines and telecommunications giant SingTel.

But only rarely do Singaporeans read about their leaders’ business interests in a press that is careful not to overstep ill-defined “out-of-bounds markers”.

“It’s amazing how good we are at censoring ourselves so that you never see any news that criticises the government or challenges the sacred cows like race relations and religion,” says one veteran journalist who wished to remain anonymous.

“We journalists usually know exactly where the lines are drawn. If we don’t, the editors will vet our work through the government first. Let’s face it, it’s a very Chinese philosophy … about respecting our ‘betters’. We’re a symptom of the larger social compact that has emerged between the people and its government.”

“[Singapore] government leaders continued to utilise court proceedings and defamation suits against political opponents and critics”

US State Department’s 2003 Human Rights country report

But the Lees have been careful to avoid some of the pitfalls that so many country heads, vested with so much power, succumb to. 

Declaring business interests, going through due party process to endorse Hsien Loong’s premiership, eschewing pomp and ceremony in the handover – to the extent of calling for well-wishers to avoid taking out congratulatory newspaper messages – are designed to head off criticism of nepotism and abuse of power.

Social controls

But as business has grown and the city has morphed into a manufacturing and transportation hub, the government has faced growing calls for a loosening of social controls.

Civil liberties that are taken for granted in Western democracies are doled out in small measures after long consideration and what little true opposition there is, is ruthlessly subverted and quashed by the authorities, using a mix of social pressure and legal sanctions.

“The government continued to restrict significantly freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as to limit other civil and political rights,” said the US State Department’s 2003 Human Rights country report about Singapore.

“Government leaders continued to utilise court proceedings and defamation suits against political opponents and critics. These suits, which have consistently been decided in favour of government plaintiffs, chilled political speech and action and created a perception that the ruling party used the judicial system for political purposes.”

None of which seems to matter all that much to most Singaporeans as long at Lee carries on the gradual liberalisation process begun by Goh, and, more importantly, continues to encourage economic growth and investment.

“Someone’s gotta pay for this partying,” says hotel marketing manager Ade Leow, 26, who joined the three-day gay pride party with her husband of two years. “I heard it’s going to bring in S$40 million ($23 million) to the city. It doesn’t matter if the law says gays should be caned, I really don’t think the government is going to say ‘No’ when the organisers ask for permits again next year, do you?”

Source : Al Jazeera

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