Asia's Elder Statesmen


Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei and Juan Ponce Enrile of the Philippines – all have something in commons: they belong to Southeast Asia’s prominent club of senior citizen statesmen.

Politicians may be getting younger, but it doesn’t mean the old guard is completely excluded from politics. Indeed, it continues to be politically relevant despite the rise of a new generation of voters who are skeptical of old-style politics.

Lee Kuan Yew became Singapore’s first prime minister in 1959, and ruled the country for three decades. When he stepped down from power in 1990, he was appointed senior minister. His son, who became prime minister in 2004, designated him minister mentor. He’s the country’s longest serving minister, the world’s longest serving prime minister, and still holds a parliamentary seat. The only global icon who rivals Lee Kuan Yew’s feat of longevity is Fidel Castro, who became Cuba’s leader in 1959.

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Mahathir served as Malaysia’s prime minister for 22 years. His political party remained undefeated in the polls, and when he retired from politics, he was offered an emeritus role in the new government, but rejected the offer. But despite no longer holding a position in government, he’s still a feared political figure in Malaysia and has the luxury of being able to criticize the prime minister, a foreign leader, or other countries from time to time. He has consistently attacked the West, for example, for supposedly undermining the economies and sovereignty of developing nations.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand and Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei are highly respected and well-loved political icons in their respective countries. King Bhumibol, the longest reigning sitting monarch, is the only political figure who can unite Thailand’s warring political forces. Thai politicians show their devotion to the King by strictly implementing a law that forbids anyone insulting the royal family. Meanwhile, Sultan Bolkiah has continued to exercise a direct role in the governmental affairs of his country since his coronation in 1968.

In addition, although Juan Ponce Enrile was never president of the Philippines, he has been influential politically since the 1960s. He was the oldest senator of the republic to be reelected last year, despite an overwhelmingly young electorate. He’s also the senate president, which makes him the third most important lawmaker in the country.

After serving their country for decades, these politicians were expected to retire from politics, but it seems they are incapable of taking a less active role in public affairs. Despite their age and frail health, they still hold powerful positions in government, political parties respect their views and voters continue to re-elect them.

Schooled in the tradition that a country’s leaders are infallible, they continue to expect everybody to agree with their views, even if their beliefs seem to most to be obsolete. Yet despite them being out of touch, no one in government seems to have the stature to antagonize them.

It’s a strange situation indeed when elderly statesmen are still calling the shots despite the future of their countries lying with a much younger future.

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