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Political renewal, a life and death matter

While the obsession of many political leaders — especially those of new nation-states — was with holding on to power for as long as possible, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s, from the very beginning, was the search for his successors.

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While the obsession of many political leaders — especially those of new nation-states — was with holding on to power for as long as possible, Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s, from the very beginning, was the search for his successors.

In fact, it was barely over a year into his task of governing a newly-independent Singapore — when almost the entire Old Guard leadership were relatively young — that he expressed his worries in 1966 about the Republic’s “very thin crust of leadership”, for it was a “life-and-death” matter, in Mr Lee’s words, that developing countries such as Singapore had good political leadership.

And by the 1968 elections, his efforts to assemble a group of successors had begun — bright PhD holders such as Chiang Hai Ding and Wong Lin Ken were fielded, but he quickly learnt that political leadership required “other qualities besides a disciplined mind able to marshal facts and figures”.

“There is a heavy price to pay if mediocrities and opportunists ever take control of the government of Singapore,” he once said, because this tiny, resource-less island had nothing except “its strategic location and the people who can maximise this location by organisation, management, skills and, most important of all, brains”.

“Five years of such a government, probably a coalition and Singapore will be down on her knees ... Once in disarray, it will not be possible to put it together again.”


When then-Finance Minister Hon Sui Sen asked in 1976 to retire after one more election, what Mr Hon said had a “profound influence” on Mr Lee’s conviction that “my most important job was to get a team that could carry on the work, otherwise we would fail”.

“He said, ‘You know, when these chairmen and CEOs come to see me, they are not just looking at me, they are looking for who will be taking my place. Because their investments are going to go on a long time — 10, 15, 20 years — and I won’t be here’,” Mr Lee recounted.

Helped by his closest collaborators, Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S Rajaratnam, Mr Lee endeavoured tirelessly to work out a system that would uncover, from a tiny catchment area, potential successors who could excel in an environment with a small margin for error.

These efforts ranged from systematically scouring the country’s top executives, academics and civil servants; to starting the Singapore Armed Forces Overseas Scholarship in 1971 to groom the best brains at a young age (by 1995, four former SAF scholars had entered politics and later became Cabinet Ministers — Lee Hsien Loong, George Yeo, Lim Hng Kiang and Teo Chee Hean).

Mr Lee even studied the headhunting processes of top multi-national corporations — he eventually adopted in 1983 Shell’s system of assessing a candidate’s “helicopter qualities” — and included evaluations by psychologists and psychiatrists in the People’s Action Party’s famous “tea sessions” with potential political recruits.

The attempts to inject new blood into the leadership were “not without stress”. “Several old-guard ministers were concerned about the pace at which they were being replaced,” he wrote in his memoirs.


Although the means of identifying able men and women were eventually settled, Mr Lee faced the challenge of convincing them to serve in politics.

The controversial solution he pushed through in 1985 of paying office-holders reasonable salaries — also aimed at deterring corruption — saw him lock horns with Opposition MPs for three hours in Parliament. The issue was revisited several times over the years, especially following Mr Lee’s radical proposal in 1995 to peg ministerial salaries, based on a formula, to the six highest-paid individuals in the private sector — and it remains contentious today for many Singaporeans.

Nonetheless, his response to the debate over the latest review of ministers’ pay in 2011 left no doubts as to Mr Lee’s continued conviction that this was how to get good people to step forward.

“To find able and committed men and women of integrity, willing to spend the prime of their lives, and going through the risky process of elections, we cannot underpay our ministers and argue that their sole reward should be their contribution to the public good,” he said in January 2012.

“We did not take Singapore from the Third to the First World by headhunting ministers willing to sacrifice their children’s future when undertaking a public service duty. We took a pragmatic course that did not require people of calibre to give up too much for the public good. We must not reduce Singapore to another ordinary country in the Third World by dodging the issue of competitive ministerial remuneration.”

This was a “clean” wage, however — there were none of the frills of office, such as houses or a State plane, that other countries’ ministers enjoyed. Permanent Secretary of the Public Service Division Yong Ying-I noted: “We are possibly the only country in the world where ministers are not driven around in chauffeured limousines, but drive themselves in their own cars to work and to many public engagements.”

In 2006, when the saga involving Hotel Properties came to light, Mr Lee wanted the issue of unsolicited discounts for purchases of new condominium units made by him and then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained in Parliament.

There had been market talk that the two leaders had been offered units in all of HPL’s property projects. Following a parliamentary debate, no impropriety was found in the sales. Nevertheless, the saga led to new rules for ministers, such as having to clear all property purchases with the Prime Minister, whether for occupation or investment.

At the conclusion of the debate, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said he had not taken the decision to investigate the matter lightly, noting that much was at stake in terms of the reputation of the Government and the political cost, among other things.

But, referring to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, he said: “Integrity is the cornerstone of the PAP government. Senior Minister laid this cornerstone. It will survive the Senior Minister.”

The decision to give this a full and public hearing raised eyebrows internationally. “Almost anywhere in Asia, few would have cared. But this was Singapore, which takes pride in its image of incorruptibility,” noted an Asiaweek article. (The discounts, incidentally, were treated as unsolicited gifts and given to the Government.)

To Mr Lee, there was no room in government for self-aggrandisement or personality cults. Until his bronze bust was unveiled at the Singapore University of Technology and Design in August 2013, in all of six decades there were no public statues or buildings, and only two schools of learning, named after him.


What set Mr Lee apart from many leaders was the visible, planned manner in which he orchestrated handing over the reins in November 1990. He had originally aimed to step down in 1988, “believing the sooner I give up, the younger I will be and the more active I can be to make sure that the team succeeds … The later I give up, the older and slower I will be, the more risky its success”.

As far back as 1980, he had announced a nucleus of seven names — including Mr Goh Chok Tong, Dr Tony Tan, Mr S Dhanabalan and Mr Ong Teng Cheong — from whom Singapore’s next leader would be chosen. He gave a landmark speech in the rain for an hour, urging Singaporeans to help him test out the second-generation leadership for the sake of Singapore’s leadership “self-renewal”.

Mr Lee let the younger ministers pick their own leader — after the 1984 election, they unanimously chose Mr Goh — and it was years later that he revealed that his first choice had been Dr Tan as he found Mr Goh “wooden”.

Weeks before he passed the baton to Mr Goh, Mr Lee told foreign magazine Worldlink: “I think my mission will not be complete until the system has been handed over and works without me. Whether my colleagues and I have succeeded or failed depends upon whether Singapore works without us.”


Mr Lee remained in the Cabinet until 2011, first as Senior Minister, then as Minister Mentor. His staying on attracted criticisms periodically about whether he had truly relinquished power, particularly after it emerged that his son would be the third Prime Minister.

But Mr Lee himself, as well as Prime Ministers Goh and Lee Hsien Loong, asserted that his role had evolved to become a resource person, or a guardian to the younger team. Indeed, Mr Lee had begun the process of ceding the reins well before he officially handed over in 1990.

As he told a rally crowd in the 1988 General Election: “This time you are casting your vote not in judgment over my performance because I did not make the decisions … For four years, (Goh Chok Tong and his younger colleagues) have made all the major decisions. Yes, I presided over the Cabinet meetings, but even when I disagreed with them, I have not over-ruled them.”

This had included, for instance, modifying his position to take in the younger ministers’ views on the shape of the Elected President scheme, which was enacted in 1991, and not objecting to the plans to have casinos here even though he was once dead set against the idea..

Speaking to a team of journalists interviewing him for a book in 2009, Mr Lee said: “As long as I’m of value, my value is to try and consolidate what we’ve achieved in Singapore. I’m not interested in consolidating any leader or any system. Having seen this place rise, I do not want to see it fall — it’s as simple as that.”

This ethos of “honest stewardship”, observed Ms Yong, has permeated beyond the political sphere with key ramifications. Singapore’s bureaucracy, unlike others, having delivered professionally-run companies such as Singapore Technologies, Keppel and Singapore Airlines, devolved power and deliberately withdrew from control. “To use power for the right purpose, and to be able to give it up and withdraw at the right time, is a critically important ethos we have imbibed from him,” she said.

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