Singapore patriarch Lee`s departure signals reform

The Prime Minister is expected to form his new cabinet within days.

Last Updated: May 15, 2011, 15:26 PM IST

Singapore: Singapore independence leader Lee Kuan Yew`s decision to step down after half a century in government could pave the way for reforms after the ruling party`s worst election showing, analysts said on Sunday.

The 87-year-old politician popularly known as "LKY" and his successor Goh Chok Tong, who turns 70 next week, announced Saturday that they would quit the cabinet of Lee`s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 59.

The catalyst was the May 7 parliamentary election, which revealed deep anger against the People`s Action Party (PAP) and confirmed the desire of young Singaporeans for a more open political system with checks and balances.

"This decision reflects the first major steps toward serious reform of the PAP, a generational transformation," Bridget Welsh, a political science professor at the Singapore Management University, said.

"The retirement of LKY was long overdue, as he has been seen as disconnecting from contemporary Singaporeans," Welsh said.

The PAP`s share of all votes cast fell to 60 percent, its lowest ever, and only a controversial system that elects MPs in groups capped the opposition at six out of 87 seats in the incoming parliament, still better than its previous best of four seats.

The elder Lee served as prime minister from 1959, when colonial ruler Britain granted self-rule to Singapore, until 1990, when he stepped aside for his deputy Goh, who in turn handed power in 2004 to Lee`s son.

In a joint statement, the two former premiers said their departure from the cabinet would enable the prime minister to "break from the past" and allow a younger generation to "carry Singapore forward."

The PAP has often described the unusual presence of two former leaders in the cabinet as part of an orderly succession process designed to tap the experience and international connections of Lee and Goh.

But during the campaign, the two veterans attracted scorn from younger Singaporeans on social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
The prime minister said after the vote that the PAP would take a hard look at how it governs, calling it a "watershed" poll that marked a shift in the political landscape of the affluent island of five million people.

He and other PAP leaders admitted they needed to address voters` gripes over the cost of living, the presence of over a million foreigners, overcrowding in public housing and transport, and a lack of support for the poor and elderly.

"The feedback was that the people are really very angry with the PAP," said Seah Chiang Nee, who operates the independent socio-political website www.littlespeck.com.

"There will be change. For one, people won`t have to fear about having someone always looking over their shoulders or about being sued," he said, referring to libel suits that typically followed past elections.

The PAP has always been associated with the elder Lee`s commanding presence and authoritarian style of government.

Days before the polls, Lee warned voters in a hotly contested district that they would "repent" if they voted for the opposition -- but it triggered an outcry instead and failed to stop the loss of five seats to the Workers` Party.

That setback cost Foreign Minister George Yeo, one of the most respected cabinet members, his job because he led the losing PAP ticket.

The prime minister is expected to form his new cabinet within days.
"What kind of transformation are they talking about?" political commentator Seah asked.

"I would like to see it not only in words but in deeds. What will Prime Minister Lee do with the newfound power that he has?"

Kenneth Jeyaretnam, the head of the opposition Reform Party and son of the late pro-democracy campaigner J.B. Jeyaretnam, was cynical about the departure of the two former prime ministers, who will both remain in parliament.

"It`s a public relations exercise to show renewal but it`s up to the voters to say what they think of the move," said Jeyaretnam.

Bureau Report