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Singapore's Younger Lee Shows Business Sense


With his sweeping election victory Saturday, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has completed a long apprenticeship as the son of his country's founding father, Lee Kwan Yew. He has extensive economic experience, and has indicated that he might give Singaporeans some respite from the iron-fisted control his father exercised.

After the victory of his People's Action Party, or PAP, was confirmed with 66.6 percent of the vote, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong held out the possibility of freer public expression in this tightly controlled society.

"Our unity and cohesion has been one of Singapore's key strengths, and we must continue to encourage honest, open, serious debate on issues, because neither the PAP nor the government - nor, may I say, the opposition - has all the solutions and answers to all the questions and problems," he said.

Mr. Lee has been prime minister since 2004, when he was appointed to the office. Since then, he has taken very small steps toward a more liberal society.

While strict limits remain on freedom of the press and assembly, his government now allows gatherings, in hotels, of more than five people. He has liberalized somewhat the ability of people born abroad to acquire Singaporean citizenship.

These are not the sweeping changes the government's critics would like to see. But Sinapan Samydorai, president of the Think Centre, which promotes greater political openness in the country, speaks favorably of Mr. Lee.

"So, I think, under him, he does want to open up a little bit more, and, I think, he wants to relate with the younger generation," said Sinapan Samydorai.

The eldest son of Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, was groomed from an early age to follow in his father's footsteps.

Lee Hsien Loong was educated at Cambridge and Harvard. He returned home in 1980 to serve in Singapore's armed forces, and retired as a brigadier general in 1984, when he was elected to parliament at the age of 32.

Like everything else in Singapore politics, his rise through the ranks of the ruling People's Action Party was carefully orchestrated by the elder Mr. Lee, who did not want to be seen pushing a dynastic succession.

Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as prime minister in 1990, after 31 years in power, to be replaced by Goh Chok Tong. Lee Hsien Loong became Mr. Goh's deputy prime minister, and - it was widely assumed - prime minister-in-waiting.

During his apprenticeship years, Mr. Lee gained experience in the workings of the economy, which he will need to continue his father's success in making Singapore an economic power.

He was acting minister for trade and industry in 1986. He was appointed chairman of the Monetary Authority of Singapore in 1998, and Minister for Finance in 2001.

Now 54-years-old, he speaks of the importance of fiscal responsibility.

"Our budget is important. We manage to balance our budget most years on average. We don't just spend, if we don't have money. We don't spend, if we don't need to spend. You spend only if you need to, and we make sure that we can afford it," he summarized.

Singaporeans have complained in the past that Mr. Lee comes across as stiff. But, perhaps, his troubled personal life - he overcame cancer, his first wife died, and their son is autistic - has softened his image. He also had a daughter with his first wife, and three children with his second.

Since becoming prime minister, he has shown a warmer and more human side than his father in speeches and campaign appearances.

Judging by the size of Mr. Lee's election victory, it would seem that, for now, at least, he has the confidence of the Singapore public.