Lee’s Shadow Fades From Singapore

Two events on Oct. 1 signify that the era of Lee Kuan Yew and the Lee family itself are beginning to fade from Singapore, six months after he died on March 23. The two events are leadership transitions in the city-state’s government and its sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings.

Although the elder Lee stepped down as the Southeast Asian country’s first Prime Minister in 1990, he continued to exert influence in the corridors of power for many years, according to sources close to the Singapore government. His influence is also indirectly felt through his son Lee Hsien Loong, the current premier who frequently invokes the memory of his late father. Lee Hsien Loong’s wife Ho Ching is the chief executive officer of Temasek Holdings, which owns more than S$250 billion of assets including ports, telecommunications, power, property, railway and banks.

It is undeniable that the Lee family includes two prime ministers and a chief executive officer running a large chunk of the nation’s assets. But Lee Kuan Yew is gone, while his son and daughter-in-law are beginning to show signs of fading from the scene.

In April, shortly after Lee Kuan Yew passed away in March, Ho Ching went on a six month sabbatical leave. On Oct.1, she took a senior but backseat position as chair of Temasek International, the wholly-owned subsidiary of Temasek Holdings, which has most of Temasek Holdings’ employees, while Lee Theng Kiat – no relation to the Lee family – was appointed Temasek International’s chief executive officer, according to the Temasek Holdings website.

The website said Lee Theng Kiat will play a hands-on role while Ho Ching will be more hands-off: “Mr Lee will be responsible for Temasek’s role as an active investor and shareholder. (Ho Ching) continues to oversee our stewardship role.”

It is often the case that when a company’s chief executive officer gets moved upstairs to a lesser executive role of chairman, a successor will take over in due course. Thus it is likely that this move marks the changing of the leadership of Temasek Holdings.

Also on Oct.1, a new cabinet, which includes the next generation of Singapore’s leaders, was sworn in. On Sept.28, the 63-year old prime minister announced that new leadership would take over from him by the end of his term, around 2020. This new cabinet includes three “coordinating ministers” who oversee multiple ministries: Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (in charge of national security), Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam (in charge of economic and social policies) and Khaw Boon Wan (in charge of infrastructure). The three ministers will also mentor junior ministers, a pattern the elder Lee set up himself when he stepped away from power to become what was termed “minister mentor,” a role in which he continued to make his considerable presence felt for the better part of two decades.

The formation of the new cabinet is a more important event for Singaporeans than the landslide victory of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in the Sep. 11 elections, because the next generation of the nation’s leaders will come from this cabinet. The presence of three coordinating ministers indicates Prime Minister Lee is not alone in picking and grooming his successor, but is sharing that task with other ministers.

Moreover, former Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, who served as premier from 1990 to 2004 in an interregnum between the two Lees, is playing a role in the succession process. On August 14, the 74-year old Goh announced that “after a long chat” with Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister wanted Goh to “help in the leadership transition to the fourth-generation team, as an elder.”

As a sign of Goh’s rising influence, he sat next to Hsien Loong when the latter gave a speech at an election rally in Singapore’s financial district on September 8.

Thus the dominance of Singapore’s political landscape by one prime minister, whether the late Lee Kuan Yew or his son Lee Hsien Loong, is giving way to a collective leadership. One member of this collective leadership, Tharman, has expressed views at variance with Lee’s.

Tharman has espoused more socialist policies to help lower-income Singaporeans. In contrast, Lee said in 2010: 'Supposing the world's richest man, Carlos Slim, comes to live in Singapore. The Gini coefficient will get worse. But I think Singapore will be better off. Even for the lower income Singaporeans, it will be better."

Tharman said in 2011 that a strong opposition was good for the country, and in September, shortly after his party won the elections, he expressed the hope that the opposition would continue to contribute to Singapore. In contrast, Prime Minister Lee seemed less enthusiastic about the opposition, judging by his comments in December 2014 that too many opposition members checking the government would result in "checkmate" for Singapore.

The new leadership thus may take Singapore in directions that might differ from those of Lee Kuan Yew and his son. Opposition parties remain fragmented. Their impotence was demonstrated in the Sept. 11 election, in which the PAP contested all seats and won 82 of the 89 – the party’s best result since 2001.

Singapore appears to have signed on for the long term with the party co-founded by Lee Kuan Yew. History will record if the PAP, technocratic and authoritarian, will move in new directions. The voters have said they like it the way things are – although there is no Lee heir waiting in the wings.

Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer based in Hong Kong.