PM Lee Hsien Loong: A Dichotomous Leader

Aug 08, 2014 at 10:07 am | Hits: 3957

By Devadas Krishnadas

2014 marks the 10th year of Lee Hsien Loong’s tenure as Prime Minister (PM).

This is a man who has had to cope with living under the shadow of the political and intellectual giant that is his father, Lee Kuan Yew.

He has had early and long preparation for the office. Entering politics at the age of only 32, he held the key portfolios of Defence and Finance, amongst others, before assuming the premiership.

As PM, he has had the challenges of facing serious economic crisis and the need to cope with the implications of a social media generation.

It is therefore not surprising that he has had his successes and disappointments. What is remarkable is where these have been distributed.

PM Lee could be said to be a dichotomous leader — his successes have been largely in extrospective fronts while his disappointments have largely been in introspective areas.

In evaluating the Prime Minister’s performance, it is important to understand that leading Singapore is a function of succeeding on three separate “democratic” planes.

First is the plane of politics. Simply put, this is the democracy of the electoral vote. The contest is in the form of elections.

Second is the plane of the economy. This is the “democracy of the dollar”. The contest is in the form of how much of the world’s investable dollars we can attract and keep in our economy to make it grow and create better conditions for our people.

Third is the plane of security. This is the “democracy of the gun”. The contest is in the form of gaining and managing strategic alliances that undergird the sovereignty of our small island.

A Prime Minister must form and lead a team to play and do well on all three planes concurrently if Singapore is to remain successful.

PM Lee has had his share of successes.

The first is foreign policy. Under Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore has continued to strengthen ties with traditional allies such as the United States and our partner nations in ASEAN, while at the same time building strong links with the rising powers of China and India and to an extent, Russia. We have also widened our diplomatic and trade fronts to envelope significant Latin American economies such as Brazil and Mexico.

The second is in crisis management. He acted swiftly and successfully to lead the country to a rapid recovery from the shock of the 2008 global financial crisis. Singapore recovered so strongly that we were able to make an offer of substantial financial backing to the International Monetary Fund if needed.

The third is political. He has made a valiant and on-going attempt to reinvent the People’s Action Party (PAP) and himself in the wake of the 2011 general and presidential elections. His interventions in this vein are not trivial although the results will only be known with the next general elections.

What should be obvious is that his successes have been in extrospective areas — in other words, where he has dealt with outside actors or forces. But he has not internally generated compelling visions for our future, at least not in a way that has been carried across to the people.

So while he has succeeded in the democracies of the dollar and the gun, the story is less sanguine when it comes to the primal challenge of leadership — the democracy of the electoral vote. It is only on that plane that the legitimacy of national leadership can be derived.

PM Lee had the benefit of being trained for most of his adult life for political leadership. Yet it is in political leadership that he has proved weakest.

First, as the leader of government he did not adequately ensure that government policies were coordinated and in pace with changes in population size.

Second, as the leader of the nation he was unable to appreciate the growing resentment on the ground against the dramatic jump in population numbers.

Third, as the leader of his party he did not update the PAP to keep up with changing sentiments on the ground.

These shortcomings are failures of introspection. How well was he in touch with the ground? How much questioning of long-held assumptions did he initiate? Up to recent time, it is difficult to avoid the answer of “not much”. The results of these inadequacies have been major.

First, in strict political competition terms, it led to a poor showing in the 2011 general election, a near rejection of the establishment’s candidate in the presidential election in the same year and subsequent defeats in two by-elections, i.e., Hougang and Punggol.

Second, in terms of the political relationship between the PAP government and the people, there has been a significant erosion of trust. A palpable and pervasive sense of cynicism has also taken firm root in the public perception of government’s intentions.

The government’s White Paper on Population was eventually endorsed by Parliament but any reasonable commentator would observe that the same cannot be said for the man on the street.

The introduction of control measures in the Internet space and recent saga with the National Library Board’s initial decision to pulp certain books also indicate a political tone-deafness which has further diminished confidence that the PAP, while justifiable in the claim of having been the party of choice in our past, can actually credibly make such a claim with regard to our future.

The loss of a cabinet minister-led Group Representative Constituency in the general election and the by-electoral result at Punggol were rejections of the PAP policy of political talent selection. Yet, to date, it is not clear if PM Lee has understood the full implications on this phenomenon on the composition and nature of his political first rank.

There is still time for PM Lee to find answers to address these issues but can he find it in himself to find a new philosophy and a new vision, perhaps even a new team after such a long incubation for leadership under the prevailing orthodoxy? Therein lie his challenges to come.

He has first the responsibility to find an able successor suited to the times to come. He has a technically capable collection of candidates in his first and second ranks but are they made of the political right stuff? This is a hard question but the long-term fate of his party undoubtedly depends on the answer.

He then has to work with the successor to put in place a first-rate team to take Singapore successfully into the future. Leadership is not a solitary exercise but collective one. Again, his building blocks are many but the choice of composition to build the new “political house” will depend on his political sensitivity.

Third, he has to develop an updated and coherent political philosophy for the New PAP. The various and wide-ranging policy shifts that his government have introduced since the last election represent fundamental shifts in the nature and principles of the PAP. Yet, these have not been adequately spelt out or made coherent as a whole.

This has left the impression of an increasingly populist model of politics — the politics of necessity rather than the politics of vision. To be convincing as a party for the future there must be a new narrative and a new belief system that the people can understand and accept.

PM Lee has been dealt a difficult hand by fate. He is dedicated to Singapore and the well-being of its people; of that, few have any doubt. But it is a hard truth of politics that such earnestness is a necessary but insufficient qualification for electoral victory.

The people do want a smart leader, but more so a wise one. In the final analysis, we are not choosing just a brain, a heart or a spine but a complete leader.

Singapore’s survival is predicated on being an exceptional country, not just some of the time, but all the time. Many Singaporeans have made the easy assumption that doing so is the responsibility of the government. But another hard truth is that to be an exceptional country we require not just exceptional leaders but also an exceptional people.

Natural as it may be to evaluate our leaders, it is equally important but more difficult to evaluate ourselves as a people. In the calculus of what it will take for Singapore to continue to succeed, we all — each and every citizen — need to do an honest self-appraisal and find ways to play our individual roles, as citizens, as fathers, mothers, siblings, workers and employers — not just better but for the best.

Devadas Krishnadas is the Chief Executive Officer of Future-Moves Group, an international strategic consultancy and executive education provider based in Singapore. This essay was first published on his Facebook page.

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Category: Politics & Governance

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