What is there to consider? Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong should have accepted the proffered resignations of Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong with alacrity. Instead he dithers.
Prime Minister Lee did not confirm that he would accept their resignations from Government. “It’s a major matter so I’d like to think it over to decide how how I should decide and I’ll think about it for a couple of days begore I give my response,” he said last night.
— Sunday Times, 15 May 2011, Lee Kuan Yew steps down
All it takes is just a few seconds, which I am sure he had before being confronted by reporters, to know that there is no way he can NOT accept their resignations. If he says, “Please come back to the cabinet,” three hurricanes will hit:
1. People will laugh away as insincere the apologies he made at the election rally at Boat Quay. “What change was he talking about?” people will ask. “He never really wanted any change at all.”
2. The proffered resignations would be seen as a charade, a cynical attempt to win some public sympathy for unwanted old men, at least one of whom more than a million Singaporeans would consider to have long overstayed his welcome.
3. Lee Hsien Loong himself would be seen as a less than confident leader — which he is, but some people don’t see it — who still needs to hold Daddy’s hand.
The above being so obvious, Lee Hsien Loong should instead have focussed his mind on when he should accept the resignations, in which case everything argues for: Immediately. It would at least present the image of a decisive leader, sure about the need to change the People’s Action Party (PAP) and the government’s direction. It would have added substance to his promises of change made at Boat Quay. And this follow-on decision too would also take all of two seconds to make.
But no, he dithers. He wants to think about it when there is nothing to think about. And he lets an opportunity pass.
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I have argued for some time, and I hear more and more people agreeing with me, that Lee Hsien Loong is a lousy leader. He is indecisive and over cautious. He relies too much on numbers, and has no feel for the crowd.
Worst of all, he has never demonstrated any vision. He really does not know where Singapore should go. He can’t visualise a different Singapore. Needless to say, he can’t visualise a different PAP either.
When a politician has the right instincts, he can sense the moment and seize it. He can say what the crowd wants to hear even before the crowd knows what it wants. When a politician has a vision, decisions are easier to make. He simply asks himself, does this event take me nearer to my goal or further from it? And most of the time, the answer is fairly obvious.
The abject failure of Lee Hsien Loong to make capital of the opportunity just shows how second-rate he is. He failed to see the moment and thus fluffed it. He has no vision to measure events by, and is thus flummoxed by the resignations, wondering whether it’s for the better or worse. Perhaps he’s asking for a spreadsheet showing the pros and cons of this and that.
In any real democracy, with a fearless media, robust civil society and empowered opposition parties, he would long ago have been chased out of politics and relegated to a technocrat’s job in the basement.
In fact, he seems never to have asked his father not to contest the recent election (or the one before that). Either the thought never occurred to him or if it did, he must have ruled it out as un-doable. Either possibility tells you a lot.
Now when his father wants to resign, he has to think about it. How pathetic can things get?
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On the right edge of the front page of the Sunday Times were a few blurbs about additional articles within the paper. The very first one was EXPERTS REACT — “Now PM Lee is clearly in charge”. Lee Hsien Loong has been prime minister for seven years, since 2004. You mean all this while he was never fully in charge?
In the 1990s, articulating such a belief would have earned one a stern rebuke for speaking untruth — in political Singapore, truth is what is desired (like “Singapore is a conservative society and we don’t like homosexuals”) rather than what is fact — as writer Catherine Lim , who suffered one such rebuke, can attest. But rebukes never meant that inconvenient insights ever went away.
Once it a while though, it becomes convenient again to air these insights, and today is one of those times. Thus, none other than the Straits Times has chosen to print what lots of people have been saying for years — that Lee Hsien Loong was never quite in control.
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Interestingly enough, I was discussing Lee Kuan Yew’s electoral chances with a couple of friends just the other day. They are about my age and have seen many elections come and go.
As a thought experiment, I asked them what they thought the result might be if an opposition “A-team” like the Workers’ Party slate that recently won Aljunied constituency chose to contest Tanjong Pagar, Lee Kuan Yew’s group representation constituency. As readers might know, Tanjong Pagar was the only uncontested constituency in the recent general election, so Lee Kuan Yew and his running mates were returned unopposed.
Would voters choose to vote for Lee Kuan Yew, given his legacy and given the high regard (some) voters have of him? I asked my friends.
“He will lose,” one of them said with no hesitation.
“You seem very sure that that would be the outcome,” I replied.
My friend then explained his thinking. “Look at Aljunied,” he said. “George Yeo was much loved, but voters thought about the bigger picture and decided to give victory to the Workers’ Party. Except for the older generation, do the people of Tanjong Pagar like Lee Kuan Yew as much as the people of Aljunied liked George Yeo?”
I found his logic hard to fault.