Possible Singapores, beyond Lee Kuan Yew
Channel NewsAsia - Tuesday, April 21SINGAPORE: A People’s Action Party (PAP) split by internal schisms. Future leaders bereft of the "huge political legitimacy" that could be gained from endorsement by the man with unmatched moral and historical authority. These are some of the leadership fates that could befall a post—Lee Kuan Yew Singapore, as hotelier Ho Kwon Ping sees it.
And such "imponderable" scenarios could help explain why a "system of elders" is now taking shape in the political landscape.
"Perhaps it is to restrain factionalism, arbitrate disagreements, groom and assess future leaders, that the positions of senior minister and minister mentor have been institutionalised," said Mr Ho, who feels the PAP’s "extraordinary cohesion" over five decades has owed much to "the forceful personality of Lee Kuan Yew".
Mr Ho, who is also MediaCorp chairman, was speaking on Monday alongside Professor Kishore Mahbubani at a seminar organised by Nanyang Technological University’s Asian Journalism Fellowship programme. The topic? "Singapore Beyond Lee Kuan Yew: Institutionalising the Singapore Way".
Of this future, Prof Mahbubani, who Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, would not rule out a "significant reversal" of Mr Lee’s legacy, or the rise of a stronger Opposition usurping the one dominant party system — though he gave each scenario only a "one—sixth probability".
While a "smooth and seamless transition" was a two—thirds likelihood, Prof Mahbubani harked back to the words of former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee, after the PAP’s long monopoly of parliament was broken in 1981. "As (Dr Goh) has wisely told us, failure happens when we fail to consider the possibility of failure."
So, for instance in the unlikely event of a strong opposition arising, would Mr Lee’s legacy be weakened? In fact, the "sharper political debates" arising could make Singaporeans more aware of the "precious political legacy they have enjoyed", said Prof Mahbabuni.
On the other hand, as has happened in South Korea and Taiwan, it could also lead to the old legacies being quickly lost and forgotten by the new generation. "I am frequently shocked when I meet younger Singaporeans who have never heard of Dr Goh," he said.
Both speakers were not alone in expressing uncertainty over how Singapore’s future, sans Mr Lee, would play out. During the Q&A session, which was off—the—record, the audience raised concerns such as how the country would be deprived of its most astute and influential critic — and whether Mr Lee’s legacy, or indeed Singapore, could unravel.
While Mr Lee’s retirement would "create a huge political vacuum", Prof Mahbubani believes Singapore has "done a lot" to protect his legacy, such as instilling a deep culture of meritocracy and incorruptibility.
And Mr Ho had no doubts Singaporeans could "muddle their way through", even if the PAP’s leadership renewal "fails to deliver what it has done for the past 50 years".
Mr Lee’s greatest legacy, he said, "is that the Singapore which he so passionately shaped will outlive not only him, but even his own party, should that ever come to pass".
The reason: In his single most critical imperative — nation building — Mr Lee has largely succeeded, said Mr Ho, who has found young Singaporeans to own a strong sense of involvement and ownership in the country, contrary to stereotype.
"Equally contrary to some people’s wishful thinking, there is not likely to be dramatic, broad—brush social or political liberalisation," said Mr Ho. "This is not a pent up society waiting for the demise of the strongman in order to overturn highly unpopular laws."
Rather, the government has the support of the politically—vital heartland in its pragmatic, incremental approach to change, even as it responds to tomorrow’s generation, he said.