Former PM, who led country from independence in 1959 to 1990, says it is time to make way for a younger
team of ministers, Kate Hodal reports…
Surprises do not come often in the city-state of Singapore, a place so staid that locals and foreigners alike call
But after a groundbreaking election in which the ruling party had its first major shake up after 50 years in power,
Singapore’s “founding father”, Lee Kuan Yew, has announced his full retirement from cabinet.
The 87-year-old former prime minister cited this year’s “watershed” election as his inspiration, in which the
People’s Action party (PAP), which he helped create at independence from Great Britain in 1959, won its lowest
ratings yet with just 60% of the popular vote. A decade ago it won 75%.
Calling for “a fresh clean slate”, Lee noted that his age distanced him from younger voters and that a “younger
team of ministers [should] connect to and engage with this younger generation in shaping the future of
Lee is largely credited with turning the small colonial outpost into the financial dynamo it is today.
While older generations revere the man for his hard-talking comments and no-nonsense policies, the younger
generation – most of whom cannot and do not care to remember Singapore as a hodge-podge community of
ramshackle neighbourhoods – has proven less impressed.
Critics, many of them voters in their 20s, largely used social media during this election to speak out against
Singapore’s high living costs, low wages and lax immigration laws that pit locals against foreigners, who
comprise about 40% of the island’s population, for jobs.
For them, Lee’s stepping down heralds a breath of fresh air and “is a pretty big deal”, says Nansi Panjar, 27, who
voted for the opposition Reform party in the 7 May election.
“This shows that the PAP is listening to its voters and that change could finally be in the air.”
Once the raison d’etre for the PAP, Lee has more recently alienated voters by urging Singaporean Muslims to “be
less strict” and hinting at the “consequences” of voting for the opposition. A much younger cabinet, with an
average age of 52, was unveiled on Wednesday.
Lee was Singapore’s first prime minister, leading the country from 1959 to 1990. He is the longest-serving prime
minister in the Commonwealth and the longest-serving head of government in Asia.
He has remained in the cabinet since stepping down as prime minister, first serving as senior minister from 1990
to 2004 and later, from 2004 to 2011, as minister mentor, a post made for him by his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the
current prime minister.
He has also stepped down as the chairman of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC), which
he has ceded to his son.
He will stay on as senior adviser to the state investment firm, among the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds at
$300bn (£149bn). He will also remain MP of Tanjong Pagar ward, a constituency that he won uncontested in
this year’s election.
Just how far removed from politics he will really become, however, is anyone’s guess. In 1988 he was quoted as
saying: “Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going
wrong, I will get up. Those who believe that after I have left the government as prime minister, I will go into a
permanent retirement, really should have their heads examined.”
Perhaps that is why many voters are saying that, while his stepping down is somewhat of a coup, the real change
is still to come.
“To be honest, we’ll only see true freedom when Lee dies,” said Panjar.
“That’s when Singapore will finally be able to take a long look at itself and question where it really wants to go.”
[published by The Guardian, 18 May 2011: http://tinyurl.com/3ec52mc]