Southeast Asia’s Last Strongman

Singapore’s founding father, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, has resigned. What does his decision say?

Mong Palatino

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father and architect of modern Singapore, resigned from the Cabinet a week after the ruling People’s Action Party suffered its worst performance in the polls since 1965. Lee was Prime Minister for 31 years from 1959 to 1990, and continued to lead Singapore as Senior Minister for 14 years and then as Minister Mentor since 2004.

But don’t expect him to retreat from public view since he still has a seat in parliament. He gave up his Cabinet rank, but not necessarily his power to dictate the governmental affairs of Singapore. How could his voice become irrelevant when his son is the prime minister? Remember also the threat he made in 1988 that he would rise from the grave if the next generation of leaders led Singapore in the wrong direction.

While Lee’s resignation won’t necessarily mean an actual diminution of his stature and role inside the PAP, it marks the first time in five decades that he has no official Cabinet position. Lee resigned despite the re-election of PAP because he was blamed by many for the reduced popularity of the ruling party. His strong leadership style may have worked before, but it’s now increasingly being rejected by younger voters and it seems he felt compelled to resign to reverse the declining reputation of the party he founded.

But, as expected, he didn’t step down without making some pointed statements about his enemies. He even chastised the young generation for failing to remember the humble beginnings of Singapore and its transformation into a prosperous global city under his leadership.

Nobody is questioning Lee’s economic stewardship. In fact, even his critics admit that it’s his greatest legacy. But Singapore’s young and educated citizens aren’t happy anymore with the built-in authoritarian features of the political system established by Mr Lee. They want a free press, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly – in short they prefer a real and working democracy. Indeed, some of these democratic rights are absent or lacking in Mr Lee’s political philosophy.

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That PAP was ready to sacrifice Lee could be an indication of its recognition of the growing discontent in Singapore, and the PAP might be preparing an overhaul of its image to restore public confidence. Maybe it realized that a different PAP has to emerge soon if it wants to maintain its political dominance. Unfortunately for Lee, he would have had to call the shots from behind the scenes.

But despite his reduced role in Singapore government, he’s still considered a legendary figure in modern Southeast Asia politics. Indeed, he is the last strongman standing among post-war leaders of democratic societies in the region, with his contemporaries either dead or retired. Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines was ousted in 1986, Suharto of Indonesia was forced to resign in 1998, while Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia retired in 2003. Lee, meanwhile, still holds a seat in parliament.

Lee may be 87 years old, but don’t count him out yet. The old man could still reinvent himself – especially if he thinks he will outlive everybody.